Saturday, 16 May 2009


There are no rules on how to prepare for writing a novel and I steer clear of books advising the sure-fire way of writing a best seller, because, sadly, there isn't a sure-fire way. In fact, there are so many how-to books and magazines about writing that you can spend all your time reading them and not actually writing a thing.

I subscribe to only two magazines: Mslexia, which I can't praise highly enough. It comes out quarterly so I can usually manage to read it all before the next issue; and Writing Magazine, which comes out monthly. I personally don't think it's as good as Mslexia but it's a good standby until I receive my next Mslexia copy.

Now that I'm not teaching (hurrah!), I have time to structure my day as I wish. I tend to write in the morning and evening, so I'm free during the afternoon to harness Archie up into the back of the car, drive to River Park Leisure Centre for a swim, have a snack lunch as I'm changing (home-made fruit smoothies are my favourite), put a fair amount of slap on, chat to every-one and any-one, take the short drive to one of my favourite pubs for a coffee and fag (usually The Black Boy which has a sun-trap of an enclosed garden) and then walk the dog along the Water Meadows. And it's whilst I'm having my coffee etc, that I read my writing magazines.

It's a great way to spend a day and I'm so thankful that I can do it. I don't think I've yet recovered from the stress and strain of teaching but I'm getting there.

For my first novel - Cyprus Blues - I did detailed character studies for my four main characters - Kate, Ellie, Tony and Jack - but didn't bother with the rest.

However, inspired by the television American dramas 'The Wire', 'Homicide' and 'The Corner', where all characters, even if they play only a minor role, are wonderfully rounded and life-like, I am now doing mini- character studies of all my minor characters, as well as the more detailed ones of the main players in Winchester Blues.

And in the process of doing this, I'm getting so many ideas for how I write the novel that I think that it's time well spent, particularly as I plan to to write more detective novels set in Winchester with many of the characters introduced in this first of the (hopefully) series.

In fact, by really thinking about all characters, how they look, their personalities, their strengths and weaknesses, their personal situations and so on, I feel that the book will more or less write itself, based on these character studies.

The temptation, of course, is to try and put too much detail in so these studies are mainly for my benefit in understanding my characters and what they will do and how they will react.

What works for me, is basing my characters on combinations of people I know, being careful not to make the character too closely like the person. It's more of a rough guide for me, really.

The general advice is not to try to totally recreate someone you know because it can limit your writing and I normally agree with this.

However, the one exception in Winchester Blues is Frances Charlton, one of the deputy-heads, and I do this unashamedly because she was a real person - my mum, Frances Charlton, who was a real deputy-head and the best there was. When thinking of creating this deputy-head character, I just couldn't get round my mum, who was better than any-one I could actually make up. Her personality and teaching style were so perfect for what I wanted that it seemed ridiculous not to use her.

I guess, in a way, it's a tribute to her and because she really was exceptional at her job, I decided to use her real name.

She's not around to object but I think she'd be pleased with her portrayal. And anyway, the delicious thing about 'rules' is that you don't always have to stick to them.

I was having difficulty with three of my characters, though:

I just couldn't picture Diane and Christine, two of the three secretaries, until I realised that I was seeing them as being very similiar. So when I envisaged them looking very different and with different personalities, ages and backgrounds, then they became real to me and I could see that they could have an ongoing story within the novel, even though it will only be a small part.


The second deputy-head, Tom Patterson, was also giving me problems. I just couldn't picture him in my mind although I knew what his personality and role in the novel was going to be. And then, a week ago, whilst walking Archie, I saw this guy with two kids on bikes and he looked so distinctive that I slowed down to take a better look, hopefully not looking too obvious.

He was tanned, with short hair and that authoritative way of walking that soldiers often have and immediately I could envisage Tom. He will look slightly different but I'm making him ex-army and that will make even more sense of his personality. This guy was really quite dishy in an understated way (as opposed, for example, to the obvious good looks of some-one like Brad Pitt) and that's just how I want Tom to be like.

And finally, in this brief insight into Maggie Knutson's approach to writing, I want to mention another piece of general advice given to writers, which is that there should be nothing in your novel that does not move the plot forward or is not actually relevant to the plot. However, inspired by David Simon, ( the creator of 'The Wire', 'The Corner' and 'Homicide'), I'm more inclined now to introduce small story-lines that aren't crucial the plot but crucial to character development.

Several episodes, for example, in the first season of 'Homicide' are almost exclusively building up character and nothing much happens but because of these episodes, when something important happens, you understand where they're coming from in terms of their actions and reactions. And it means that you see them firstly as individual people and then as detectives. Thus, less chance of creating stereotypes.

If I can achieve just a fraction of what David Simon achieves, then I shall be well pleased. To me, he is an absolute genius and would-be writers would do well to watch his work and absorb his meticulous methods of creating and presenting a story.

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