Tuesday, March 18, 2014

How I Write

Recently I've had a flurry of requests for information about my writing process from students working on advanced projects. 

There is a FAQS page on my website and also a page devoted to Writing Tips, but because I believe that fiction writing is a craft that can be learned through study and practice – and because I am a teacher at heart – I have decided to to post some of the more recent questions and answers here.

I hope this helps some of you with your advanced projects and creative writing. Remember, writing is a personal process. If you don't like my answers, ignore them! I can only tell you how I write. 

How do you begin planning your books before writing them?

I make a wish list of goodies I want to include: fictional characters, real historical figures, themes, topics, ideas, myths, places, objects, food, plants, animals and sometimes even lines of dialogue. Then I map out a story structure based on a combination of Hollywood screenwriting templates I like: John Truby's Story Structure, The Hero's Journey and Save the Cat!®. This keeps me on track but I am not slavish about sticking to the route. 

Do lots of authors use similar methods of plotting?

Yes, I think many authors find a template useful. Some people can bake a cake by instinct, but I need a recipe to work from.  

Do you ever start writing without planning? 

Sometimes it's good to pour a stream of ideas onto a sheet of paper but at some point I will need a structure. For me, writing is a balance of the logical list-loving Left Brain and the creative, intuitive, Right Brain

Do objects enhance a story? If so, why? 

Yes! Objects and artefacts help bring a world to life. They also please the daydreaming side of our brain; the creative Right Brain likes music, sounds, smells, tastes and textures. Objects also help ground a book historically. 

Do you find weapons are frequently used in your crime novels? If yes, why is it so? 

Yes! I love my Western guns and Roman swords. I get quite nerdy because specificity is good.  

What are the differences, if any, between writing historical fiction and writing fiction which is set in the modern day? 

For me none. I treat my modern day fiction just like my historical fiction, with great attention to detail, artefacts, slang, dress, etc. For me this isn't a chore, but a delight. 

How do you research the factual portion of the story beforehand? 

The internet has a truly amazing range of literature available at the touch of a keyboard. Most of my sources for the P.K. Pinkerton books, set in Nevada Territory 1862, come from newspaper archives and old magazines, like Godey's Lady's Book, which shows up-to-the-date fashion and recipes among many other delights. 

For my Roman Mysteries I use my own collection of classical Loebs in Greek and Latin with translation on the right: Pliny the Elder, Josephus, Strabo, Herodotus, etc. They will soon be available online now, too. 

Do you have any go-to reference works? 

For my P.K. Pinkerton books I use the vast catalogue of letters and photos made available to the public at Berkeley's Mark Twain Project. I also use the massive three volume journal of Alfred Doten. This latter has not yet been digitalised so I invested in my own copy via Amazon.com. 

Do you regularly use any libraries? Which ones? 

My husband Richard is a member of The London Library. I often send him off on a quest for specific titles. Very occasionally I use the Classics Library at UCL. But I am intrinsically lazy and use the internet for 95% of my research. 

Do you use any paid-for information resources?

In writing the P.K. Pinkerton books I used Harper Magazine's online archive. I could access illustrated back issues from the mid 19th century. I also tend to buy books rather than take them out on loan. I found a book called Letters from Nevada Territory (the proceedings of the 1862 Nevada legislature) at the Nevada Legislative Gift Shop in Carson City. It was expensive but invaluable.

How do you record what information sources you use?

I usually just jot down key phrases or sentences on my computer but sometimes I will read a passage onto my iPhone and listen to it while on the go. 

To what extent does the fact you write for children and young people impact your research?

The fact that I write for young people does not affect my research at all. I access anything and everything I can. Any modification or softening of material occurs in the actual writing process. 

Do you find there are any differences between researching for an academic piece and researching for fiction?

Not really. The difference comes in the writing. In fact, I try to make my academic writing as accessible as my fiction. So you might not really call my non-fiction articles and blogs "academic" as much as popular fact. 

When writing historical fiction, how do you balance historical facts with creating an interesting story for the reader?

I try to use all the most interesting and engaging historical facts to flesh out my hero's journey. 

How far do you think you can go with historical references, given that the reading audience may not understand or recognise them?

I don't care if people get them or not. I know they give a sense of authenticity to my stories! So I use the ones that are relevant to my story. 

Which voice is more suited to historical fiction books: first person or third person?

For me, the choice of first or third person is more a feeling of trial and error to see which fits the character and story best. 

When you write, do you generally use 1st or 3rd person?  

My output as of 2014 consists of 30 novels and two collections of short stories. Roughly two thirds of those novels and stories are in the third person voice, but my half dozen most recent books are in first person.  

Do you think that there is a certain tense which is more suited to historical fiction?

Again, it depends more on the character and story being told. Present tense can be very powerful even when writing about two bronze age boys. 

How important do you think it is to visit the location in which the book is set, even if it may have changed considerably since the period that you are writing about?

Being able to visit the location of the book is one of the biggest delights in researching a book. Even though the flora may have changed with the introduction of new plants, temporal aspects like migrating birds and food in season, quality of light, atmosphere, and "three-dimensionality" don't really change. 

How much do you feel you have to stick to the known facts about historical characters and how much do you use your imagination when creating their personalities?

I like to give my characters a certain amount of free rein which is why I try not to let "real" historical characters play too big a part in my books. I failed slightly by making ten-year-old Suetonius and 18 year old Gaius Valerius Flaccus love interests in the Roman Mysteries. But I've been more self-controlled about Mark Twain's cameo's in my P.K. Pinkerton books. 

How far do you modernise the language when writing a historical character’s dialogue?

For my Roman Mysteries I use modern English because Latin would have sounded modern to them. I try to eliminate English and American phrases and cliches, while introducing a few expressions like "Pollux!" or "Great Neptune's Beard" to give the dialogue a period feel. Finally, I sprinkle in real Latin words like palla, triclinium and strigil without italicising them. 

For my P.K. Pinkerton books I am much more careful to use authentic vocabulary, word order and slang. In fact, I've composed a whole dictionary of authentic and non-authentic words for Nevada Territory in 1862. 

Do you have any final tips for would-be writers?

Always read your work out loud at least once in the final editing process. And have fun! 

P.S. When I go into schools, I talk about the Hero, the Seven Plot Beats, the Five Archetypes and other storytelling techniques like Crossing the Threshold, Save the Cat, the Dance and the Rubber Ducky. Here's a Mind Map made by creative speaker Jayne Cormie after watching a talk I did for 11-year-olds in a British prep school. Feel free to print it, use it and share it! To see more about my school events, go HERE.

Find lots more writing tips in How to Write a Great Story!


  1. Anonymous5:43 PM

    I have 2 questions.Have you ever written a short story for fun,and then decided its not enough?Has that ever inspired you to write a book?

  2. I've never written a short story just for fun, but I wrote a whole book which only a few people liked: Brother of Jackals, the first part of my proposed "Flavian trilogy". I might go back to it one day!