A few years ago, while I was on holiday in Dorset, I drove past a beautiful mansion built of honey-coloured stone. It was obviously very old, and it was also empty. I wondered who had lived there – if one family had owned it for generations, and what had happened to that family?
I didn’t want to find out who had really owned it. But I did want to write about it, and to have an imaginary family of my own living there. Rose Courtenay, the heroine of The Silver Locket, made her first appearance in my head a few days later, and the rest of the characters soon followed.
The Silver Locket is set during the First World War, a time when lots of teenage and twenty-something girls, who had been brought up to believe all they’d ever have to do was get married, have babies and sit around looking pretty, suddenly realised there were lots of opportunities for adventures in the big world out there.
Many of them became volunteer nurses, and were sent to work in the most appalling and demanding conditions in France and Flanders. Of course, they met plenty of wounded soldiers, so they often fell in love, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Once in a while, amidst all that carnage, they found a love for life. I wanted to know if my Rose Courtenay would find that kind of love.
I hear many authors say they come up with their characters first and build the plot around them. Did you come up with the plot or the characters first for this particular novel?
In my case, the characters always come first, but I soon start wondering what to do with them. I ask myself what they want, how they’re going to get it, who is going to try to stop them getting it, and how it will all work out in the end.
So, after I had dreamed up Rose Courtenay, I dreamed up a man who wanted to marry her for all the wrong reasons, and another man who loved her but didn’t think he had a chance. Michael Easton became my bad guy, and Alex Denham became my gorgeous hero.
What is your personal way of writing? Do you plan, make character profiles, write an overall plot idea and then expand or do you simply write and see where the story takes you?
I wouldn’t dare start writing a novel without having some kind of outline or plan. The plan is never very elaborate. It’s usually just a page or two of notes. But, once I’ve made this plan, I know how the story starts, how it develops, and I’m almost sure about how it ends. Of course, once my characters are up and running, they start suggesting what might happen, and I do listen to them!
I don’t write character profiles running into thousands of words, but I do make notes about my characters – when they were born, what they look like, their social backgrounds, their likes and dislikes, but nothing very detailed. I find that as I get into the story, the characters take over and gradually reveal themselves to me. They sometimes surprise me, too.
For any beginner writers who will read this, do you have any tips or advice that you feel is invaluable to a writer?
First of all, try to work out if you’re a planner or a non-planner. I started writing fiction when my children were very little, and for several years I just messed around. I wrote short stories that nobody wanted to publish, and I started novels that sort of faded away after the first three chapters.
It took me a while to realise I needed to plan my stories. But, once I’d understood I was the sort of novelist who did need to make a plan, I wrote my first novel A Touch of Earth quite quickly, in about three months.
Some novelists say they hate planning, because planning makes the whole process of writing too mechanical. So – if you want to plan your work, go ahead. But if you don’t want to plan, don’t feel you must.
I think it’s important to read recently-published examples of the kind of novel you are trying to write. This is because publishers can’t sell a novel to a non-existent readership, and it’s helpful to a publisher if he can see where your novel will fit into the genre for which you are writing.
You have to be persistent and determined to succeed, because at the beginning of your writing career the only person pushing and encouraging you is likely to be – you. A writer spends a lot of time alone, but most writers are very sociable people, so we think modern technology is wonderful. We can use email, Facebook and Twitter to keep in constant touch with each other, and lots of us have blogs and websites, too.
If you’re new to writing, maybe try to find a couple of writing buddies who are at the same stage as you, then you can encourage each other, read each other’s work, commiserate when you get a rejection, and celebrate with virtual champagne when you have a success. I couldn’t do without my own writing buddies, several of whom I have known for twenty years.
You also run an editorial service called StorytrackS where you and other authors will offer guidance, manuscript appraisals, ghost-writing and many more services. Doing all these things in your everyday life, do you find it difficult to simply ‘read’ a book without analysing everything in it?
It’s quite hard to get my inner editor to take a break and leave me alone to enjoy a novel. I expect it’s the same for dentists – I bet they can’t help noticing people’s teeth, and I don’t suppose builders can help noticing if a house needs its brickwork repointing!
Have you ever read a manuscript and said, ‘actually that’s perfect, don’t change anything!’?
A couple of days ago, I did just that! Well, I’m exaggerating slightly here – the story did need a few minor adjustments. The hero lost his temper once too often, and there were a couple of spelling mistakes. But the plot worked, the characters came to life, and I was sorry when the story ended, which is always a good sign. I hope to see that novel in print some day very soon.
I’ve been a reader for the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme for several years, and it’s great to see authors who have come up through the scheme go on to do really well. One or two novels I’ve read for the NWS have been published after minimal editing.
What are you currently working on?
Right now, I have several projects on the go – a light romantic comedy set in the present day, a new historical novel set in Devon just after the Second World War, and a crime novel which has been hanging around in my subconscious for far too long, but which won’t quite come into focus or go away.
For you, what is it you most enjoy about being a writer?
I love the sense of adventure I feel when I start writing a new story. It’s wonderful when the characters start talking to me and suggesting what they could do, if only I’d let them. Maybe all novelists have a touch of the power-crazed megalomaniac about them?
It’s nice to earn a bit of money, too. But, unless you’re very lucky and your books sell in hundreds of thousands, writing novels is unlikely to make you seriously rich.
What are you reading at the moment and what book is your own personal recommendation for others to read? I understand that this is quite a difficult thing to narrow down so just referring to this moment in time.
At the moment, I’m reading Whatever Love Means by David Baddiel, which is interesting because it’s about that most fascinating and mystifying of subjects – men. I loved One Day by David Nicholls, which ticked all the boxes – great story, great characters, couldn’t put it down. I’m really looking forward to reading Kate Atkinson’s latest Jackson Brodie novel Started Early, Took My Dog.
A huge thank you to Margaret for taking the time to speak to me. You can follow Margaret on her blog, she also has her website and you can purchase The Silver Locket (available now for pre-order) on Amazon.
Margaret is a very talented writer and I enjoy everything I read from her. She was my tutor when I studied at the London School of Journalism and has given me the best start in my writing career that I could’ve asked for. She is very approachable and always happy to talk to people so please do contact her should you have any questions.