I first started to write a novel at the age of thirty-five, which wasn’t clever timing, as I was spending long hours teaching violin and piano, and bringing up my two young daughters on my own. At first, I would put the girls to bed early and write through the evenings. It was good for them, I told myself, a regular routine, a calming-down period before going to sleep. But children soon get wise to these things. Early bedtimes became harder to justify.
Eventually, a friend offered me the use of a room in her house, and I would sneak off for a couple of hours on a Wednesday and the occasional Saturday afternoon when the children went to their father’s. There was no time for procrastination. I had to sit down, turn on the laptop and start writing immediately. This was my only chance and I wasn’t going to waste it. Occasionally I would go to sleep, it’s true – there was a lot going on and I was usually exhausted – but mostly I got on with it.
I would always write something, anything, even when I didn’t feel like it. I made myself continue typing, whatever the results, because I knew that my thoughts would eventually start to flow and sometimes, sometimes, inspiration would take over. I still write like this, forcing myself to produce something in the available time, then going back and rewriting, shaping, moulding like a sculptor.
I’ve been asked to give tips on how to produce a consistent voice. When I wrote After the Bombing, I was very conscious of the need for authenticity, so I spent a great deal of time online, reading first-hand accounts of the bombing in Exeter, absorbing the feel of the language, the phrasing, the expressions, until I had to stop myself and start writing. The future world of When the Floods Came presented another difficulty, how to portray language that was familiar, but also evolving. I decided to invent expressions – catchphrases, new cliches – especially for the younger characters, allowing the words to grow out of existing jargon. But my main advice for convincing dialogue would be to listen. Absorb the voices around you, let a hint of the waffle remain for believability, then cut everything down to the bare bones. Fictional dialogue reflects real conversation, but doesn’t reproduce it exactly. It’s not a good idea to crush your readers with meticulous accuracy. You don’t want them to die of boredom.
My daughters have moved on, both married, so I can write at home again, no longer having to lose the travelling time. Writing a novel is hard work, a formidably long process. But it’s what I do. I write for the satisfaction of creating, for love, not because it will make me rich. In the end, if people want to write, they’ll write anyway and nothing will stop them. Advice is probably unnecessary.