I write all of my books in the little room directly above my kitchen. To get to it, I have to climb a set of steep, blue-painted stairs which still have a child gate at the top, useful for keeping out itinerant grannies and other distracting visitors. The room itself is light and airy, even though it’s crammed under the roof, and, like most of the rooms in my house, it’s stuffed full of books. Mostly, they have a reason to be there. On the left of the desk are my current research books, dictionaries, notebooks, and writing-related tomes. On the other walls are shelves of myths, fairy stories, and more research and reference, including lots of Latin and Greek translations of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Aeschylus and more. There are also my own books – 37 of them to date, in various editions and translations, (which take up a good few shelves), as well as a tatty dog sofa (I have three writing dogs), my grandma’s rocking horse, a fabulous alabaster sculpture by my friend Aly and, on the door, the only existing ‘real world’ piece of my own art – a shamanic banner from the 90s, painted on an old pillowcase.
My desk looks out over green fields full of sheep, and a tiny stream, which floods the lawn in the winter. It’s surrounded by pictures of my latest characters (of which more later), quotes, inspirational postcards, a Brilliant Reading Rest stand, pens (mostly purple and green), piles of paper and general writing junk. On the windowsill there’s also a large Moomin and one of Meg Rosoff’s Ecks (from There Is No Dog) nesting in my lucky Glastonbury hat. Behind me is probably the most important piece of technical-writing–inspiration–paraphernalia I have, my sturdy ninja flipchart on wheels.
This room is my sanctuary (except when it’s not). Every morning I go up there and lock myself away. If the door and the gate are shut, (and the Red Rope of Doom hung on the gate), then everyone is supposed to know not to come in on pain of snarly shouting and growling. (Naturally, my 90 year-old mum refuses to obey this rule.) This is the engine-room of my writing, the place where the fire is lit after the initial ignition of an idea spark. Of course, that’s the question I get asked most – ‘Where do your ideas come from?’. Everywhere and anywhere is the answer – I’m never short of them. The difficulty can be choosing which one to fly with. Sometimes I think I have The One – and then it fizzles out into nothing. Usually it’s the one which has been niggling at my brain for a while that works out best.
My process can take a very long time from that initial spark to finished book – it depends on what kind of book it is, because I write for all ages from two to teen. A novel definitely takes longest – though I’ve had picture books which only come to fruition years later. In theory, once I’ve done the thinking and composting bit and decided to write a new novel, I’ll do a brief synopsis of plot and characters, and then write a few thousand words to check out voice. With a YA novel or a series I have to know that I like the characters, because I’m going to be living with them for a while. With CLEO, I wrote in third person to start with, and didn’t like it after 10,000 words, so switched to first. I was really surprised (and a bit worried) when this snarky and modern-sounding girl came into my head, but she stuck, and I could really hear her speaking, which is always a good sign. It clearly worked, because my agent loved it, and sold both CLEO (and its sequel, CHOSEN, which comes in March 2016) to Orchard Books on just 13,000 words and a synopsis.
That’s when the hard work really began. I will admit now that I used to be a ‘pantser’, writing the book with just a few plot wayposts to go on and working it out as I went. I soon found that with a double helping of historical/paranormal, a long book and a large cast of characters, I couldn’t do that any more. That’s when I turned into a proper ‘plotter’ – and where my ninja flip chart comes in. I’m a great believer in the ™‘ for ironing out plot and story arc – so I do that, and then, while my mind is still in that whirly space somewhere to the left of my brain, I mind map it all on the flip chart, then type it all out in detail so I know exactly where I’m going. I use that technique whenever I have a plot problem to work out. Of course there are still places where the character will make a detour and say, ‘No! I’m not doing THAT, I’m doing THIS,’ but that’s fine as long as I get back to the main road afterwards.
The other thing I do at this stage is to find photos of what I think my characters look like, and download them onto my InspirePro painting app on the iPad. I’ll fiddle about with them, painting in new hair colour or features or whatever, making them ‘mine’, and then I’ll transfer them to FXPhoto Studio and fiddle around some more (you can see what I did with Cleo, Charm and Khai on my ). I need to physically see them – hence the printouts stuck up by my desk.
The actual writing itself I do straight onto my Mac – and for each book I use the Scrivener app, about which I am evangelical. Every piece of useful research I discover on the internet, relevant notes transferred from my ‘book notebook’, timelines, all my detailed character lists, all my lists of settings, a link to my Pinterest board for the book – as well as the chapters themselves (with word targets) go on Scrivener. I wouldn’t be without it for anything. Mostly I do that in my writing room – day in day out – editing as I go, with occasional trips out to the library (or British Museum) for research. I couldn’t live without libraries – though some of the university ones (like the Perseus archive at Tufts) are now digital, which is useful for a writer who lives in the depths of the countryside. Libraries are important for everyone, and I’m passionate about preserving the ones we still have left.
However, there comes a point (usually about halfway through the book) when the walls close in – and when I need to escape for some concentrated writing peace and quiet. Because I have a busy life and a family, there are always annoying interruptions to my writing day (despite that closed door and Red Rope of Doom). With my first novel, I escaped to a cottage in Donegal, lent to me by a kind friend. With CLEO I was lucky enough to borrow a flat in Venice, and with CHOSEN, I escaped to Devon, to a writing retreat where I managed to write 30,000 words in 11 days.
Back in the writing room, and on the final stretch, I’ll turn on AntiSocial to stop me faffing about on Facebook, Twitter or my new obsession, Instagram. I always cry when I write ‘The End’. It’s a kind of cathartic and blessed release from the joy-pain of writing the damn thing – and then, of course, it starts all over again with the next book.