Like Cleopatra, my writing days are of infinite variety. A basic idea can be blown into my mind by a chance conversation with a stranger, a short holiday, a creative writing class, reading a biography or even an overheard remark. Sometimes I am hardly aware of mulling over the wisp of dandelion until its spark becomes the source of a trail of exploration and then design. And a novel is conceived.
A sense of place is crucial, so every story begins its construction with field research. I need to know its territory like the back of my hand. For Larkswood I stomped around the National Trust grounds surrounding Grayshott Hall in Surrey until I could have taken you to the actual spot where Harriet buries the baby in its tiny coffin. For The Choice I asked to be shown around Somerville College, Oxford. I walked the beaches and narrow cobbled streets in St Ives, Cornwall. And I checked every nook and cranny of the Woodstock house where Eleanor was born.
Authentic detail gives me a backdrop from which my characters can spring with confidence. My new teenage novel, Where Peacocks Scream, is set in The Trout in Wolvercote – a pub made famous by many episodes of Morse and the peacocks who used to preen and strut in its gardens. There lives my Daniel with his passion for the river and messing about in boats. The staff and students from The Dragon School in Oxford taught me a lot about the crafts of sculling and rowing, and took me out onto the calm river one marvellous autumn morning. Field research doesn’t get much more enjoyable than that.
My historical novels for the adult market also involve desk research at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where I negotiate the impossibly small typefaces of old, fragile and well-thumbed copies of The Times. Because the newspapers need to be ordered in advance, I plan these trips with military precision, trundling into town by bus with a trolley filled with files, notebooks, thermos flasks and bundles of felt pens. After being used to working in solitary splendour, sitting for hours on end in a room crowded with students can be a challenge. I have carefully cultivated a ferociously aggressive glare to aim at other readers who whisper, giggle, fidget and disturb the peace. When this fails to achieve the desired result, I push a note across the shared table. It reads: QUIET PLEASE! GENIUS AT WORK.
There are many stages to my writing once the full-blown process actually begins. I write first in long-hand, then put the text on screen. The episode is printed out and taken downstairs to read. I edit it, and back it goes onto the computer. I may repeat this ritual many times before I am satisfied. Some pages fall out of my pen fully formed and as near perfect as they are ever going to be. Others I rewrite as many as thirty times, transmuting their nuance, tone and detail until they shine like stars.
I hate working once daylight and my energies have faded. But sleep is a great invigorator. Many problems I might have with a character or plot-line are resolved after a good night spent in the land of nod. And many great ideas and resolutions begin on the same pillow.