Writers on Writing

It’s always interesting to read other writers’ accounts of their approach to writing. Is it different from, or similar to, one’s own?  Is any change noticeable over time in the way writers tackle particular genres or aspects of writing?

Baroness Orczy, creator of the Scarlet Pimpernel, wrote her memoirs  during the late 1930s and 1940s, having had her first success as a published writer in the first decade of the twentieth century. baronesso

Writing of her novels set in France, she said

‘There is not a country lane the configuration of which I have in any way distorted. To me, had I changed the names or the positions of any actual place I would, I feel sure, have lost something of their reality, and been unable to infuse that reality into my narrative.’

She continued,

‘Now with English places you would have to be almost superhumanly careful. Place but an oak tree twenty yards further than it is standing today and you would bring the wrath of a score of local readers on your head. Speak of some tiny footbridge over a rivulet one hundred and fifty years ago and of a certainty  you would be told more in sorrow than in anger and with the addition of documentary evidence that that footbridge had only been in its present place one hundred and ten years.’

Some authors would benefit from paying as much attention to details as Baroness Orczy; such as the writer of Regency mysteries who had one character living at the corner of Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue in London.

But I  wonder how many people today would notice the kind of minute detail Baroness Orczy mentions. When so many changes have taken place within a relatively short period of time, and fewer people are accustomed to travelling at walking pace, taking note of their surroundings, many might not be aware of such things as oak trees and footbridges.

I do invent places myself, not so much because I’m afraid of making a mistake, but so I can arrange the geography to suit my plot. I hope that doesn’t make the narrative seem less real.


In 1921 Dorothy L. Sayers was living in London, taking temporary teaching jobs while trying to sell her first Lord Peter Wimsey novel.

She wrote to her parents,

‘It takes all one’s time and energy to invent even bad sensational stories.’

Most writers don’t have a choice about taking a day job as well as producing fiction, bad or otherwise; few novelists earn enough from writing alone.

Miss Sayers went on to say of the Lord Peter novel:

‘Every time I look at him he seems more feeble.’

Few writers will not have had a crisis of confidence about the book they have just finished. It is reassuring to know that even authors who were to be among the most highly regarded in their genre were subject to the same doubts.


Naming Names

In spare moments, I’ve been trying to decide on a name for a character I want to write about in the future.  Some authors need to get the title right before they can start writing. I need to get the central characters’ names right; for me, it’s an essential part of the process of establishing and developing their personalities.

Choosing names is harder when writing fiction set in the past. Names must suit the character, but also be appropriate for the period. One cannot have a historical heroine called Kayleigh, Scarlett or Paige – or not if one wants to be convincing.

There was a much more limited set of Christian names in use in England in the past.  One might want to get away from Ann, Mary and Elizabeth, and John, Thomas and William, but what to use instead? Biblical names will usually be authentic, but Absolom, Ezekiel or Hosea might not be suitable names for romantic or action heroes.

Surnames need to be appropriate, too. People did move about in the past, but one would probably not give a name such as Ackroyd or Entwistle to a character living in rural Kent or Sussex, or Trelawney to a character in the north-east of England, unless there was a good plot related reason for it.

Place names can make good surnames. There are websites which have large scale maps, showing villages, hamlets and farmsteads, which might suggest suitable surnames.

Historic tax records are also available, offering lists of names of people in the past. One might not choose to name a character Shatwater or Hogsflesh, but some real people had names equal to anything Dickens might have invented. What kind of character is suggested by the name Prosper Gidney? Or Whittingham Fogg, or Ottawell Shrubsole?


London’s Burning, continued

Evelyn was wrong, of course.

Within days, everyone from the King down to the poorest tradesmen were keen to get the city up and running again. The King needed the customs revenue generated by the Port of London. The merchants, financiers and shipowners whose capital was tied up in trade wanted to get the Port operating again. Ordinary tradesmen and shopkeepers needed to be working again too. As soon as possible, people were out on the streets, clearing debris and rubble, trying to identify the boundaries of their tenements in order to begin the process of rebuilding.

Men such as Evelyn and Wren devised plans to do away with the old narrow streets and alleys and lay out an entirely new street plan based on wide, straight boulevards. The plans were admired but not carried out; it would have taken too long and cost too much.


Steps were taken to try to prevent a repeat of the fire. Under the 1667 and 1670 London Building Acts, streets were to be widened. The narrowest lanes were to be at least sixteen feet wide. Buildings were to be of brick and overhanging jetties and bow windows were banned. Many of the houses built under these new regulations survive around the outskirts of the City today.


Disputes arose between landlords and leaseholders as to who was to meet the cost of rebuilding. Most leases contained clauses requiring the tenant to keep the property in good repair, but of course no-one had anticipated such catastrophic destruction. In January 1667 Parliament passed an act to set up a Fire Court to arbitrate and adjudicate on disputes between landlords and tenants. Landlords were encouraged to extend leases and/or reduce rents, to give tenants an incentive to rebuild. Tenants who would not, or could not, rebuild were required to surrender their leases.

The Fire Court dealt with all types of property, from mansions to sheds,  including wharves, warehouses, inns, rows of shops and cottages.

Richard Hickman, citizen and draper, who occupied a messuage in Abchurch Lane, argued that the property would lose a foot and half at the front due to road widening, and would be deprived of further floorspace because of the ban on jetties.

Two men, Richard Hackett and Richard Hawkins, seem to have been what would now be regarded as unscrupulous property developers. They appear to have been trying to force out tenants of two very small messuages, Richard Blaney and Ann Wilmore, so they could throw the two plots together and build a bigger property. Mr Jenner, the lawyer representing the tenants, told the court the two men ‘had used much industry to gaine the possession of the ground to promote their said designes’. The court found in favour of the tenants.

There was obviously a great deal of work for the lawyers; Mr Jenner appeared frequetly, as did a Mr Sturges.

While the affairs of private landlords and tenants were  dealt with, the rebuilding of public and official buildings also proceeded; the Guildhall, the halls of the City Livery Companies, and the churches. It was recognised that there had been too many churches in the city, so 51 new churches were to replace the 86 that had been destroyed.  Christopher Wren was put in overall charge of the rebuilding; some individual designs may have been carried out by men working under him.


Some of Wren’s City churches were demolished in the nineteenth century, as they became redundant and the land was needed for other purposes.  Others were destroyed during the Second World War. Of those that survive, most had to be extensively rebuilt after the War. About half of Wren’s churches survive today.

And above all, of course, there is St Paul’s.









London’s Burning


This weekend is the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Various authors have used the fire for plot purposes, but for descriptive accounts it’s impossible to improve on the eyewitness reports of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn. Pepys spent some time walking about the City on 3rd September, then he and his wife and some friends took a boat on the river.

All over the Thames, with one’s face in the wind, you were almost burned with a shower of firedrops…. Houses were burned by these drops and flakes of fire, three or four, nay, five or six houses, one from another. When we could endure no more upon the water,  we to a little ale-house on the Bankside… and there staid till it was dark almost, and saw the fire grow; and, as it grew darker, appeared more and more, and in corners and upon steeples, and between churches and houses, as far as we could see up the hill of the City, in a most horrid malicious bloody flame. We staid till, it being darkish, we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side of the bridge, and in a bow up the hill  for an arch of above a mile long; it made me weep to see it. The churches, houses,  and all on fire and flaming at once, and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruins.

John Evelyn was also out and about in the City. On 7th September, after the fire had burned itself out, he wrote,

I went on foot from Whitehall as far as London Bridge, through the late Fleet-street, Ludgate-hill, by St Paul’s, Cheapside, Exchange, Bishopsgate, Aldersgate and out to Moorfields, thence back to Cornhill, with extraordinary difficulty, clambering over heaps of yet smoking rubbish, and frequently  mistaking where I was; the ground under my feet so hot, that it even burnt the soles of my shoes.

St Paul’s now a sad ruin, flakes of vast stone split asunder. It was astonishing to see what immense stones the heat had in a manner calcined… even to the very roof, where a sheet of lead covering  a great space  (no less than six acres by measure) was totally melted.

Thus lay in ashes that most venerable church, besides near 100 more. The lead, ironwork, bells, plate, &c, melted…. The Companies’ Halls, splendid buildings, arches, entries, all in dust, the fountains dried up and ruined, whilst the very waters remained boiling….

The bye-lanes and narrower streets, were quite filled up with rubbish, nor could one have possibly known where he was, but by the ruins of some Church, or Hall, that had some remarkable tower, or pinnacle, remaining.

fire destruction

The fire destroyed 13,200 houses in the City, 87 parish churches, six chapels, the Guildhall, the Custom House,  52 livery company halls, £2m of printed paper and books, plus unknown quantities of wine tobacco, sugar, and other commodities stored in warehouses along the river.

‘London was, but is no more’, Evelyn wrote.


How to procrastinate

Procrastination is an essential part of the process of writing a novel. Most writers will admit that they spend nearly as much time looking for ways to avoid writing as they do actually writing.

There are some obvious techniques which can be practised without leaving the computer:
Check e-mail
Look at Facebook or Twitter
Check the BBC News website
Check your sales on Amazon
Do a bit more research for the work in progress
Play a game of Mah Jong
Read a blog
Re-organise all your computer files.

Without leaving home:
Tackle that mountain of ironing
Clean the bathroom
Hoover the whole house
Weed the garden
Turn out old clothes, books etcetera for the charity shop.
No writing achieved, but you’ll have a clean and tidy house.

If you feel like a bit of fresh air:
Take back the overdue library books
Take donations to charity shop
Have a cup of tea in the garden of the local historic house. If you have a notebook and pen with you, it counts as writing, and historic houses and gardens are inspirational, aren’t they?


Back home:
Read the new library books. It’s important for writers to read.
Write letters to friends or relatives who don’t have e-mail. Letter writing is said to be a dying literary form, so it’s obviously a good thing for a writer to do.
Catch up with some of the back numbers of the magazine you subscribe to but never get around to reading. It’s about writing, so it’s almost as good as actually doing some writing, isn’t it?

If all else fails, update your blog.

Work in progress

There are more ‘How To’ books and blogs on writing than anyone could possibly read and assimilate – and still have time for writing. Much of the advice is not helpful. Not because it is bad advice in itself, but because it often conflicts wit other, equally  valid, advice. It may not be suited to a particular writer’s natural way of working, and in that case is a hindrance rather than a help.

Guides to writing a novel often talk about completing the first draft and then sitting down to rewrite. This is not something I do, and for quite a long time I thought I must therefore be Doing It Wrong.  But when I tried it once, I found I was doing no more than endlessly tinkering, often putting things back the way they had been, and never getting beyond Chapter Three in my rewrite.

As I wrote more novels, and learned more about my own methods of working, I realised that the reason I don’t need to do a major rewrite after finishing the first draft is that I do it as I go along.

I always do my first (very rough) draft on paper. Even before I type up those pages, there will be crossing out, rewriting, arrows showing where the order of paragraphs needs to be changed, asterisks to  indicate that a section on a different page needs to be inserted.

As I type, I’ll make more changes.

I might write a big scene two or three times, once to establish the sequence of events, again to focus on character development and interaction, and once more to increase drama and tension.

My current work in progress is a mix of contemporary action, scenes set in the past, and (invented) historical documents. I’ve spent a lot of time experimenting with the order of these various elements, looking to see what works best for plot development and pacing. I expect I’ll switch things around again before I’ve finished.

I will have done all this before I can say I’ve actually finished a first draft, because my last chapters are not yet completely written. (Although, barring last minute surprises, I do know what is going to happen.)

When I have finished the first draft, I usually do a read through for typos and punctuation, because it’s distracting to keep getting pulled up by missing quotation marks when trying to read for writing and  plot and character development.

My editing process will then mostly consist of tweaks to make the writing flow better, remove repetition, clarify where a character’s thought processes might seem unclear, maybe remove excess introspection and add a bit more drama if appropriate.

This is the method that I’ve learned is what works for me. It may not work for anyone else. Every writer has to discover what suits him or her best. The moral is that one should not worry too much about following the advice in the ‘How To’ books, but just get on with writing the novel.