Siân O'Gorman - 'Why I Write'

Some authors have everything mapped and planned. Post-its on walls, detailed biographies of their characters. They know where they are going, they know the point of their novel and they may even know their very last line. This to me sounds like heaven. These are the people who always make sure their cars are filled up with petrol, who have maps in the car and rugs and supplies of Yorkie bars in case of snow drifts. And I wish I was one of them.

I heard the great Hilary Mantel giving an interview once and someone commented on how wonderful, believable and atmospheric one of her scenes was. ‘That wrote itself,’ she said, matter-of-factly, as though she was just a cipher, a conduit between the ghost Thomas Cromwell, her hero, and the modern world.

This impressed me greatly, as everything she usually says does. She made her great novels seem not like the huge, meticulous, painstaking task, as surely they must be, but as something far more simple. The truth, I imagine, is somewhere in between. Her huge, detailed, often historical novels must need months – years! – of research to set it all in her subconscious. And then she must have some idea of the story she wants to write, the characters...  and then off she goes, not knowing quite where she will end up.

Obviously I am nothing like Hilary Mantel either, no medium for another world but, in my own much  humbler way, I do sit down and sew where I end up. An idea can soon lose pace and urgency as another pops up or sometimes a character will just walk onto a page.

I once read that if you are stuck and don’t know where you are going, then introduce a new character. This person (character is far too removed from this living, breathing entity in your new world) can do anything, say anything and they don’t have to stick around, they don’t have to make it to the final edit but might act as a catalyst for your character to find out why they are there, inhabiting your novel.

My last book, Always and Forever, began as a book with my main character all formed - job and home life all set up but she was ditched as soon as her friend began speaking and this new character’s world formed like a game of Minecraft, streets and houses, infrastructure, pasts, histories, thoughts, opinions and futures, all locking into place as quickly as you can type..

It’s those moments that make writing so deeply rewarding, you never know what is going to happen, or who is going to appear. Up popped another character, my romantic hero, and he was nice and everything but then I discovered he had a brother, who was far wilder and far more exciting. Not quite right for my heroine, however, but fun to write. And you have to take care of them, giving them as much of a rounded life as you can. Not just for the satisfaction of your readers but so that they themselves are fulfilled, their own (novel’s end) journeys complete and make sure they are on a path to somewhere, hopefully somewhere better, ready for their next adventure that exists in their future. It’s about respect for this world that now exists – if only in your imagination or between you and your laptop.

Before technology afforded us to delete at will, to cut and paste paragraphs, endless white screens ready to be filled, how on earth did our great writers do it? Jane Austen wrote on a small, portable writing desk. She could only write for short periods at a time and couldn’t edit in the (often brutal) way we can. She had to be very sure what she was doing before she took her place at her desk. And what about the Brontë’s and their tiny handwriting so as not to waste paper and using their novels to tell stories that had never been told before and would never be told in the same way ever again.

These women writers couldn’t afford to make mistakes and make them they did not. But to Jane, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, when I think of them in candle-light and having to be so sure what they were doing – their genius – I can only be filled with even more admiration and wonder. For lesser mortals, thank god for technology. It allows me to feel my way waiting for interesting people to pop up and let the story find its way.

Siân O'Gorman