Yes, I suppose I have, from as far back as I can remember. I always seemed to be writing something when I was younger and it’s continued like that. I also had a lovely teacher at primary school called Miss Jones, a tweedy sort of lady who was very kind and encouraging.
Definitely from people (past and present) and life going on around me. I’m not really interested in fantasy writing and creating alternative worlds. It’s more about what life does to people – the interaction of personalities and circumstances. And with writing about the past, there’s a curiosity about how it would feel to have lived then, to have endured certain things
Usually some historical detail catches my interest, or a more emotional theme. I became interested in the people who lived and worked on the canals and that led to my writing The Narrowboat Girl and Water Gypsies. With a more recent book, Where Earth Meets Sky the story grew out of my interest in early cars and the mechanics who accompanied cars to countries like India. My grandfather was such a one – he first went to India for Daimler in 1905. But Lily, the main character arose out of my thinking about someone who has been abandoned and who does not know who she is in terms of her class or where she really belongs.
I’m not sure. Doris Lessing said recently that she assumes the reason she has to write is that there’s something terribly wrong with her! Many writers seem to have a compulsive streak – there is something in us that makes us do it. It’s one way of relating to the world, of giving shape to experience and sheer fascination with all the stuff that makes up life.
For years now I have treated much of my writing as a job, around our four children. These days I write the first draft of a book between September and March, which sometimes feels like hibernating for the winter. I begin at about 9.30am by reading what I have written the day before. I continue from there, writing straight on to the computer or going back to pen and paper if I get stuck. I set myself a rough average of the number of words I need to write in a week to get the book finished. Now and then a day comes when I just know I can’t do it, and I find it’s better just to stop and do something else, like go for a walk.
But then there’s ‘play’ writing, which is definitely done with a pen and paper and anywhere but at a desk!
I always like to begin work with a nice big mug of tea on the desk – it helps smooth the way, as starting is the hardest part. I write a diary most days – just a page or so – before turning to fiction.
Sometimes, when I’m stuck I feel sleepy and now there’s a bit more time I let myself nap for 15 minutes or so. It can do wonders in terms of thinking things through. Lately I am also living with a large Bassett hound who always positions himself just where I need to be, so doing battle with Bruno for floor space is a daily ritual as well!
I tend to start with the wider picture, the general historical scene and work inwards towards the more particular detail. I draw on everything I can: books, listening to people, maps, photographs, which are a great help, and occasionally now the internet. During the research the characters begin to develop as well, almost like a cast emerging from behind the curtains and asking me to get to know them.
I certainly have done and would like to do more, time permitting. I have a lot of ideas for other stories, both for adults and children and I hope to get some of them down on paper before too long.
Good stories about people. I love Helen Forrester’s autobiographical books about Liverpool, especially Twopence to Cross the Mersey. The best book I’ve read recently is Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, about India; haunting and wonderful. Some of the best literature around now is also for children, like Louis Sachar’s Holes and Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful.
It was where I was living, and where all our children were born. My mother is from the Midlands as well and was working in Coventry all through the Blitz. I felt a great sense of belonging in Birmingham as soon as I went there and it’s a very interesting and varied city, teeming with stories… In the early '90s, though there were a number of autobiographical books about Birmingham, like those of Kathleen Dayus, no one was writing fictional stories of this kind, so I felt that it was time someone did…
Well, children do sleep sometimes, and then they go to school. Our first two children were twins and I used to write stories while they were asleep. After a year they went to a nursery for a couple of mornings a week and I had another baby on the way by then. And so it went on… I think I need to write, and the extreme time pressures made me simply get on and do it. I can’t pretend I wasn’t fairly demented some of the time though…
The gift of an idea that I’m excited about, followed by other thoughts which add to it pouring in. This often happens as soon as I’ve finished a long writing project – it feels like opening a trapdoor that someone has been sitting on for a long time and ideas come rushing out. During the writing of a book it’s a very good feeling when you write a scene you can be pleased with, and when begin to see that the whole thing can work and come together.
Yes, I have written two books set around Cadburys - Chocolate Girls and The Bells of Bournville Green. I hope these will help to preserve some memories of the company before it was sold down the river. I’m not making it up when I say that Cadburys is my favourite chocolate. It’s the chocolate most of us grew up on, and there’s nothing like a bar of Fruit and Nut!
It’s very nice to hear from and meet readers of my books – especially if they have enjoyed them! A very good place to meet people is talking to groups in libraries or community centres, which I do quite a lot. I usually end up hearing a lot of interesting stories as well as talking myself and so many people are kind and encouraging.