This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
With her new 'marriage thriller' Before We Met on the shelves, novelist Lucie Whitehouse stops by to talk best thinking places, running to your writing like a lover and stocking your mental larder.
My first two novels and the one I’m writing now all started with a place. I’m very partial to an atmosphere. Nothing gets my imagination going like walking at twilight when the streets are going quiet or being out alone in the countryside at nightfall. I like shadows and trees, lit windows on cold evenings, libraries and bookshops. I recommend the café at Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road and the train line between London Paddington and Honeybourne in Worcestershire as two of the best thinking places. I live in New York now and my best thinking place here is the café at McNally Jackson books in Nolita. I was there when I had the idea for the biggest twist in Before We Met.
Can you tell us a little about your average writing day?
I’m in the process of working that out at the moment! I had a daughter in April and so the days where I used to get up, make a cup of coffee and go straight to my desk are gone. I used to answer my email first, write between 10am and 2pm then spend the mid-afternoon, when I’m not particularly creative, doing errands or the laundry or, if I needed to work out a plot issue, going for a long walk along the Thames towards Hammersmith. Walking and writing go hand in hand for me; the rhythm of the steps helps me think. I’d get back to my desk at about 4.30 and then write again until it was time for a late supper somewhere around 9.30. I also used to love the late-night session from 10pm onwards – and still do, given half a chance. There’s something about those hours when the rest of the world is asleep that really frees you up to be imaginative.Since having my daughter, I fit writing in wherever I can. I remember reading the brilliant crime writer Denise Mina saying that once you have children, you run to your writing like a lover whenever there’s an opportunity. My husband is also a writer and he’s extremely supportive. Without him, I would never have finished Before We Met.
When you are writing, do you use any famous people or people you know as inspiration?
I’ve never used a famous person as inspiration, no, and I’ve never used a whole ‘real’ person, either. I’d be very nervous about using anyone I know. First, I’d be afraid of people recognizing themselves and second, imagining is one of the best things about writing fiction. Like every writer I know, I think, I collect bits of people – gestures, a way of speaking or dressing, an interesting quirk of character – and then imagine my characters from those seeds. That said, I make completely free with the psyche, quirks and hang-ups of the person I know best and can trust not to sue: myself.
What is your favourite Women’s Fiction book of all time and why?
I have so many favourites, it’s nearly impossible to choose one. The book that I find myself going back to again and again, though, is Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott. The story is told by Lydia, a woman who, against her better judgment, returns to Cambridge to attend the funeral of her former lover’s mother, Elisabeth Vogelsang, a brilliant historian. Again against her better judgment, she is then persuaded by her former lover, Cameron, to take the job of finishing the book Elisabeth was working on at the time of her death, an account of Isaac Newton’s experiments with alchemy. It isn’t long before Lydia has moved into Elisabeth’s house, Cameron is back in Lydia’s bed and a series of inexplicable events that seem to link Newton’s time and ours begins, events that include murder. This is a book that has it all: love, sex, the history of glassmaking and Newton’s experiments with light, ghosts and a medium, even the Black Death. I love the relationship between Lydia and Cameron. It’s incredibly passionate but complicated: Cameron is married. The writing is wonderful, too.
Other favourites are Persuasion by Jane Austen – I love stories about second chances – and for pure comfort reading, it’s always Jilly Cooper. I’m a great fan of the romances she wrote before Riders and her other big blockbusters: they’re very well written, both poignant and hilariously funny. Octavia and Harriet are my favourites.
What is your writing process? Do you plan first or dive in? How many drafts do you do?
With my first two books, The House at Midnight and The Bed I Made, I dived straight in. I had a place, a mood and a main character and discovered the story as I went along then revised the manuscript again and again until it was right. With my new book, Before We Met, I decided to do things differently. I wanted this book to be especially tightly constructed with several big twists that would take careful writing to set up so I knew working with a plan would be the best method. Learning how to plot beforehand was a really interesting process and I don’t think I’ll just dive into a book again.
I dread to think how many drafts I do. I should think for The House at Midnight, it was ten or twelve of the full length and then countless more of individual scenes and sequences. The finished book was 120,000 words but there are at least another 250,000 in my drafts folder. I am also a great one for refining my sentences as I go and will work and work at them until they are just right. I can’t do really rough first drafts – they make me feel uncomfortable.
What was your journey to being a published author?
I’ve always wanted to write and I started The House at Midnight when I was 24 and working for Isis Publishing, an audio publisher based in Oxford. That was a wonderful job because almost every new book was sent for us to consider for recording. I fell in love with the publishing industry and moved from there to the Darley Anderson Agency where I worked for five years and eventually finished the book. I got on well with one of the German agents who used to sell the German rights to the agency’s books and he offered to read my first three chapters. He liked them and asked to read the rest, then offered to take me on as a client. He sold the book in Germany first and then recommended me to a UK agent who sold the English-language rights to Bloomsbury.
What do you think is the biggest myth about being a novelist?
That it’s glamorous. There are glamorous occasions – launch parties, for example – but most of the job involves applying the seat of your jeans to your writing chair and getting eye strain.
What advice can you give to our readers who want to write a novel of their own?
First of all, read. Read writers in your genre and everything else you can lay hands on – everything is grist for the mill and no knowledge is ever wasted. See films, go to museums and galleries, walk, eavesdrop on the bus: think of it as stocking your mental larder.
Second, get started. Don’t be put off by how imperfect your opening scenes seem and don’t be tempted to go back and revise them until you have a chunk large enough to represent a real investment of time and effort, say 25,000 words: you’ll be less likely to abandon the project once it feels substantial.
Third, enjoy it. Write a book that you’d love to read and the chances are that other people will feel the same.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on my fourth novel, which has the working title Exhibition. It’s set in Oxford and is a psychological thriller with themes of family, sexual entanglement and art. I’m really enjoying it.