Writing

Reflecting on five novels in five years

To write five novels in five years has been – for me – a remarkable journey of discovery. I’ve found a new and deeply rewarding profession that complements my other ongoing activities (diplomacy, the environment and the preservation of buildings in King’s Lynn of historical and architectural merit) and provides a new and refreshing means of expression after years of writing dry policy papers and briefs.

Moreover, my storytelling since 2013 has provided the opportunity to draw afresh on my memories and experiences of a deeply satisfying and varied career with the Foreign Office (pictured) and to recall observations of human nature – at its best and at its worst. In addition, each book not only has strands of history, drama and music intertwined with my love of art in all of its forms but also – just as important – strong central female characters.

And the five books have spanned three genres – historical chronicle (the Herzberg trilogy) spread over 153 years of European history ending in 1918; a modern story of betrayal in war-torn Berlin in 1946/7 against a backdrop of British and Soviet intelligence rivalry (little has changed since then); and now – in The Lute Player – fantasy and obsession.

What to write next? There’ll be a decision about that before too long…

My writing method

People often ask me about my writing method. Of course, each writer has his or her own but here is mine (please remember I’m relatively new at the game).

First, I set myself a completion deadline and stick to it. This approach probably reflects my diplomatic career in which every task – writing a brief, a policy paper or a speech – had a firm deadline which had to be met.

Second, I decide a working title for the book. It may not remain the title at the end but during the writing it provides a valuable focus – the end point. I’ve only changed a title once at the end, but on the advice of my copy editor reverted to the one I had chosen at the start. She was right.

Third, I then decide how many parts the book should have and once that is done I list the provisional chapter headings in each part. These headings (and the part headings) sometimes get changed as I go along. Nonetheless the list acts a road map.

Fourth, I don’t write every day as I have other things to do but I will certainly do so when I am free, whether it be during the day or evening. I have a notebook with me all the time so that on train journeys, bus rides or when I’m just having a coffee in London I can write down quickly any thoughts about the storyline that suddenly occur to me – as a consequence of what I might observe, overhear or read. I am fascinated by human nature and it’s all around us when we are out and about.

Fifth, towards the end of writing a book I try not to become obsessed with tying up too many loose ends. Some I do but others I leave, knowing that they will always be there if I want to follow up with a new book later.

Last, how do I know if I’ve got to the end of the story I am telling? The answer is I know I have when I get there. I just get a feeling that it’s time to stop.

If I didn’t I might miss it.