How long does it take you to write a book?
This very much depends on how much research I need to do beforehand and what else is going on in my life. On one occasion, spurred on by a request from an agent, I completed the first draft of a prequel to an existing novel in two months, though another month at least was spent in re-writing and editing. My ‘slowest’ novel took about two years.
Where do you get your ideas for your books?
My ideas and inspirations come from various sources, often from my reading of social history, where an event or a person strikes me as particularly interesting. For example I came across the story of Thomas Aikenhead, a 19 year old Edinburgh student, who was hanged for blasphemy in 1696. This shocking event inspired the writing of ‘The Bookbinder’s Daughter’. Sometimes a visit to an interesting location, with a history that is new to me, inspires me to read about it and start developing human stories, real and fictitious in that setting. Thus visiting Malta produced ‘The Dust of Melita’. Sometimes, ideas come from a ‘challenge’ set by a friend or acquaintance. For example, a local historian told me that no one had ever written a novel about the infamous English Civil War siege of Colchester, near where I live. This was enough for me to dive into the research and produce ‘Lament for a Siege Town.’ Then a friend suggested that it would be impossible for an accountant to feature as a romantic hero in a novel, which was enough to inspire the writing of ‘Mr Underwood’s Poem’.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?
I have observed that, sadly, societies, leaders and governments learn little from the tragedies, mistakes, injustices and atrocities of the past and that these continue today, albeit in different forms.
What is your writing weak spot and what have you done to improve it?
I wish I had only one weak spot! One aspect which I try to correct is my tendency to create ‘flat’, clichéd characters who are sometimes stereotypes rather than fully fleshed out believable people. My heroes are too good and my villains too bad! To correct this, I try to think in more detail about their background, their flaws, their motivations, their frame of mind, attitudes and responses to the situations they find themselves in.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
I applied twice for a place on an ‘Apprenticeship in Fiction’ course run by ‘Adventures in Fiction’ and was accepted the second time. This was an excellent year long programme which included working on the draft of a novel with an experienced mentor published in the same genre. My mentor provided detailed and rigorous critiques of all aspects of the draft: characterisation, plotting, overall structure, style in order to produce a manuscript of publishable quality.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
I have seven unpublished novels and two half-finished ones.
What kind of research do you do and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
This depends on how complicated or unfamiliar the period or events are to me. I generally start with broad reading to gain a feel for the historical and social context. During this phase, I’m always on the lookout for interesting people who could become characters (major or minor ones, if I haven’t already decided on this). Once a plot starts emerging, I do more detailed research on specific important aspects. Sometimes the research spreads over several months, with visits to museums, libraries, even actual geographical locations. For my novel set in Sheffield in the 1930s, ‘Red Steel’, I visited the industrial museum in the city, to get a sense of the conditions in cutlery workshops and factories of the period, then the local studies collection in the central library to consult old maps and industrial records. As Communism (British and German) and cycling both featured in the novel, I read quite extensively: accounts of Communist Party members’ lives and the diaries of a cyclist who toured Germany in 1935. I also had to read about the system of Elementary school education in England at that period, as one of the main characters was a young teacher. This took some time before I felt ready to start, though I was ‘roughing out’ a plot and building up a sense of my characters as I did the research.
If you could go back and do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?
I would pursue writing more seriously and make much more effort to learn the craft. I would also read more widely.
What does literary success look like to you?
To me, literary success would be to build a readership who enjoy my stories and want more. Getting a few good reviews from ‘authoritative’ sources would also indicate a measure of success. I would also consider it a success to be considered a ‘professional’ writer.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
I think writers can ‘dry up’ and have periods where their efforts to become motivated or inspired seem to fail. This can cause distress and loss of confidence. However, inspiration and motivation sometimes have to be worked at, rather than arriving suddenly as a flash of light!
Clare’s next novel, The Dust of Melita, will be released on 7th July 2023 and will be available in ebook and paperback.
In the meantime, you can find out more about Clare and connect with her over on her website.