Articles

Like many young writers, Lizzie Nunnery resisted the idea that literary inspiration needed to be subjected to editing and revision. But then she came to see these as an organic, and essential, part of the writing process.
The gift of a poem from Seamus Heaney to the author’s mother unlocked childhood memories for Bernie McGill of the ‘settle bed’ which is the subject of the poem, and of the elderly woman to whom it belonged.
When researching his historical novels, Andrew Martin always starts with a map drawn around the time in which his story is set, in order to explore at first-hand the world he is trying to envisage. This has led him to some surprising revelations — and occasional near-mishaps.
As the author of four books of memoir, Rosemary Bailey found herself engaging with the lives of a diverse range of people: from the inhabitants of her late brother’s Yorkshire parish to those of the Pyrenean village where she and her family lived. From these encounters came friendships, but also occasional fallings-out, all of which was wonderful material for her writing.
In researching her biography of the artist Gwen John, Sue Roe sifted through hundreds of letters and notebooks, in archives held in Aberystwyth, Paris and New York. From these, she came to know a very different woman from the fragile recluse of popular myth.
Catherine O’Flynn explores the relationship between cleaning and writing. How what starts as a simple displacement activity for writers stuck at home leads to contemplation of exactly the kinds of big themes they might have hoped to escape: concealment, artifice, futility, death.
Miranda France describes the benefits of translation work for a writer: the chance to study the workings of a novel in detail, the wheels and cogs of composition, how characters drive the action, how the narrative is shaped, and then the awareness of the way different languages work
Emylia Hall recounts her diary retreats in a Cornish cottage, a Tuscan island, a wooded valley, seeking the solitude and peace from which her writing can spring.
Morgen Witzel compares history and historical fiction. Good history tells us what probably happened. Good historical fiction tells us what might have happened, and makes us believe it is real.
Chris Arthur struggles with writing his own bio blurb, and criticises the literary bragging that seems to be required, wondering whether he could be more original than the usual claims of ‘award-winning’, ‘critically acclaimed’ and 'internationally recognised.'
Tania Hershman appreciates the stimulus of unusual residencies. She began in a biochemistry lab, and then became a living writer-in-residence in Manchester's Southern cemetery, the second largest in Europe.
After many years of scriptwriting, Kevin Clarke gave it up for history studies. The Tudor and Stuart courts, their murderous rivalries, lies, thefts and ruthless betrayals, were familiar territory to anyone who has carved a career path through the British television drama departments.
The writer gradually learns to believe that even his very dull Midlands upbringing, and the profoundly ‘meh’ life it has spawned, might just contain something worth mining.
Writer’s block can be a dark tunnel where ideas, characters, plotlines and creative invention fade in the blackness. There are strategies to help break or lessen this curse which could be usefully applied to any form of writing.
Duncan Forbes describes the challenges and consolations of translating poetry and how it can help us to gain an insight into earlier times, distant cultures and other minds.
Charles Jennings mourns unused research from Utah: a concatenation of vice, gambling, Mormonism, hideous landscapes, a dead sea, padlocked beer — and the atomic bomb.
‘Having a message’ or ‘wanting to say something’ is seen as preachy, cheesy, old-fashioned and generally a detriment to the development of great art. Not so, says Zoë Marriott, we all have a message to express.
How far does the art of turning ‘true life’ into biography, film or television lead to a dilution of the facts, or a manipulation of the truth, asks Deborah Chancellor. Sometimes the more entertaining the story, the less truthful it may become.
A change of place, finding a new muse, pausing on a London bridge, all can stimulate the writer's imagination again, says John Greening. From a sexual potency operation for W.B.Yeats, to Clive James’ terminal illness, there are many ways to trigger inspiration.
Could artificial intelligence and big data predict the bestsellers of the future, asks Brian Clegg. Or would these algorithmic dark arts lead only to cookie-cutter bland titles, instead of original fiction.
Regional dialects used in writing can offer a richness and vitality not to be found in works written in standard English, argues Ray French. Then why are publishers wary of committing to this kind of writing?
Stephanie Norgate reflects on why are there so many films with a writer as the central character and why the writer in question is so often a man.
Arriving in Amsterdam to research a novel set during the Occupation, Christina Koning found herself in the middle of the city’s annual street party. At first this carnival atmosphere seemed a distraction from the themes of her book, but then she began to see that it might prove relevant after all.
Plot is often the hardest thing to get right when starting a novel, argues Beatrice Colin, but surely (as F. Scott Fitzgerald is said to have remarked) plot and character are inseparable? She outlines some of her own strategies for getting to grips with the story.
How writing poetry became a free imaginative space for Gerry Cambridge after the strictures of popular journalism.
In the course of his writing career, Brian McCabe has discerned the influence of a number of other writers on his own work — influences which may or may not have proved enduring. Here he considers some of the more important.
From the early years of her writing career, Sally Cline has lived near water: by a river or by the sea. She considers how this has influenced her writing.
As a writer of historical fiction, Morgen Witzel has become adept at conveying a feeling of what the past was like through its sensual qualities, of which smell is the most powerfully visceral. As he argues here, there’s nothing like it for creating a psychological mood — or for summoning up unconscious memories.
In search of inspiration for her first novel, Karen Wallace went back to her former home in Canada, and found herself reliving a hair-raising childhood adventure.
As a dramatist, Fraser Grace has become used to working with other writers, in order to turn their original work into plays. Here he describes some of his more unusual – and rewarding – collaborations.
No two writing residencies are the same, says Katherine Stansfield, but they can offer rewards far beyond the pleasures of having one’s work read, or listened to, by a diverse audience. She describes two very different experiences of working in the public domain.
When asked to write a play about pioneering and adventurous women, Anna Reynolds found herself spoilt for choice. With so many inspiring figures – from Boudicca to the WWII ‘attagirls’ – the question was not whom to include, but whom she could bear to leave out.
According to Miranda Miller, Patrick Hamilton is ‘one of the great London writers’, whose novels offer a dark and troubling picture of the postwar years, reflecting, she suggests, the turbulent events of his own life. 

From the days of Dr Johnson onwards, coffee has played a significant part in writers’ lives —and in those of film-makers and songwriters, too. Donny O’Rourke looks at some of the most celebrated examples, and considers how coffee has enhanced his own experience over the years.
With television drama currently enjoying a ‘golden age’, and an increasing number of writers emerging from creative writing courses, Mark Illis argues that the literary novel may have had its day — and that writing for TV will be the way forward for many young writers.
Most writers need to support themselves financially, one reason why the RLF has proved a lifeline to many. Sue Fletcher pays tribute to the organisation which has enabled her to ‘write without worrying’, and reflects on the wide variety of other jobs she has taken over the years in order to support her writing career.
When Lucinda Hawksley came to revise her biography of Kate Perugini, daughter of Charles Dickens, and an accomplished artist in her own right, she found herself once more fascinated by the life of this talented and unconventional woman, whose work had been neglected for so long.
Like most writers, Linda Buckley-Archer has experienced the horror of a looming deadline. But is it better to rush to finish a piece of work, no matter what, or hold off until it is the way you want it to be? As she explains here, there is no easy answer…
How a chance discovery in Compendium Bookshop of a xeroxed pamphlet of poems by an unknown author affected the young Rob Chapman’s decision to become a writer.
As writer in residence in a palliative care unit, Diana Hendry had to put into words the thoughts and feelings of the dying. Twenty years on, she reflects on what she learned from this experience, and wonders if attitudes to death have really changed all that much in the intervening time.
As a former member of a rock band who has also been a music journalist, Doug Johnstone has always felt that music was essential to his writing. Here he considers other writers who have also made a career out of music — and vice versa.
As an avid reader of poetry, Roy Bainton had always felt it was beyond his capabilities to write it. Then a fortuitous encounter with another RLF writer – and a provocative study of poetry by Stephen Fry – made him think again.
Arriving in Britain from her native Australia Cherise Saywell wondered if she would ever find the confidence to write. More recently, she has found that being an outsider may be no bad thing for a writer.
As a writer of novels set in the past, Katharine McMahon has come to realise that the preoccupations she addresses in her fiction are also those of the present day, and that the distinction between ‘historical’ and ‘contemporary’ fiction may have outlived its usefulness.
Kona Macphee considers two contrasting states of mind—in one of which the mind is wholly engaged, in the other, when it is distracted and unable to concentrate fully. Social media has exacerbated the latter of these tendencies, she argues, making it harder to focus on creative activity.
Catherine Czerkawska considers the pleasures and drawbacks of writing a series of novels, looking at various celebrated examples, from Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, and wondering if she too has the stamina to sustain a lengthy series.
As a published author, Martyn Bedford has learned to cope with the demands of deadlines and the need to maintain standards in his writing. But, he wonders, does being a professional writer mean losing some of the free-wheeling freshness of one’s early work?
As a novelist who has also written non-fiction columns on nature, Jonathan Tulloch speculates on how far one should be ‘creative’ with facts, in order to get across important messages about the damage human beings are doing to the environment.
Every writer has experienced the horror of the blank page. But what about all the other things one has to get right, before one even picks up the pen or switches on the laptop? Charles Jennings offers his list of these, beginning with the writer’s desk… 

Having grown up with a chronic illness, Ann Morgan became fascinated by the number of other writers who have suffered from poor health and by the way some have explored this in their writing.
Science Fiction is still occasionally dismissed as a ‘popular’ genre, without literary merit. Brian Clegg considers why this is and suggests it is time for a change of attitude.
As a young teenager in rural Ayrshire, Gerry Cambridge became interested in birdwatching — a fascination which has helped define his life, and a powerful influence on his poetry.
Revisiting a beautiful spot on the Greek mainland after an absence of many years, Elanor Dymott reflects on why she was drawn to write about it — and wonders whether her memories of the place were as accurate as she’d thought.
A lifelong fascination with history has shaped John Pilkington’s career as a novelist — as well as offering insights into vanished eras, he argues, writing about the past can be a way of understanding the present.
Revisiting his past work, Hugh Stoddart reflects on the way writing can change with each new readership or audience, making it freshly relevant, and far from ‘old hat’.
As a writer of historical fiction, Morgen Witzel wasn’t content to merely imagine what the battle of Crécy was like, he wanted to experience its realities, too. Taking up archery – with an authentic English longbow – was the obvious consequence of this.
Throughout her writing life, Deborah Chancellor has found herself shifting between different roles – as parent, grandparent, colleague, friend – adapting her work and writing schedule accordingly. But can this need to move from one world into another actually be a source of inspiration?
Childhood memories of watching his mother cook inspired Donny O’Rourke’s lifelong interest in cooking — as did his voracious reading of writers, ranging from Dickens to Simenon, whose novels celebrate good food.
Twenty years after first publishing Scarlet Ribbons about her late brother, the Rev. Simon Bailey, Rosemary Bailey reflects on changing attitudes towards people with HIV, and hopes that the book will find a new readership.
Can coincidence, that seemingly magical conjunction of events, play a part in poetry? John Greening considers some famous and more personal examples of its power.
Long before Pirates of the Caribbean made it onto the screen, Roy Bainton was working on a feature-film screenplay of the life of the notorious pirate Captain William Kidd — only for the project to founder.
Dismayed to find that most of the books on her shelves were originally written in English, Ann Morgan decided to spend a year reading works from around the world. In doing so she gained some fascinating insights into other cultures, which helped to enrich her own writing.
Writing for television made David Lloyd adept at working to very specific storylines and tight deadlines. So how would he cope with the more unstructured demands of writing fiction?
From an early age, Zoë Marriott got used to being regarded as someone easily distracted and hopelessly impractical — as ‘away with the fairies’, in fact. But was this tendency to get lost in other worlds merely an indication that she would one day become a writer?
For Katherine Stansfield, travelling by train and reading have always been intertwined, and writing on trains comes naturally. She reflect on whether it’s the rhythm of the train itself – or the overheard conversations – which are so inspiring.
Visiting Dublin for the first time inspired Christina Koning to look again at James Joyce’s Ulysses, and to see how far it was possible to experience the city from the point of view of its most famous son.
The Saturday jobs of our youth played an important role in the development of imaginative thinking and resilience — so Isabel Ashdown believes. Here, she talks to writers about their early work experiences and asks: ‘Has it made you a better writer?’
As a young poet, Gerry Cambridge was inspired and encouraged by the handwritten letters he received from other poets. As letters become increasingly a rarity in an age of email, he reflects on the ways in which these ‘joys of earth’ could once, and can still, nourish a writing life.
Stanley Donen’s 1967 film Two for the Road enchanted the fourteen year-old Marcy Kahan with its sophisticated humour and daring confrontation of social taboos. But would it seem as good the second time around?
A quest for the perfect writing space prompted Fraser Grace to build his own: a hut in the garden, inspired by the one built by George Bernard Shaw, and the prototype for which was the treehouse he’d built for his children.
Chance encounters and fortuitous discoveries have led Rick Stroud down some interesting paths in his research — a phenomenon he calls ‘finding the letters’…
Research for a novel led Beatrice Colin to Argyllshire’s Benmore Gardens, and sparked a fascination with all things horticultural and with the Victorian plant hunters who first brought non-native species to Scotland.
For many years, Sally Cline has lived a ‘secret life’, spending summers away from her Cambridge home in Austin, Texas. But are her two lives so very different after all?
As the child of immigrants, Ray French knows what it’s like to have to shift between identities — and argues that this is no bad thing for a writer. He considers parallels between the Irish experience and that of other ethnic groups in Europe and America, and shows how this sense of difference has shaped his writing.
Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, captivated Cherise Saywell when she first read it at the age of twenty, offering insights into the postcolonial world which reflected her own experience as a young Australian writer.
When Lucinda Hawksley began researching her biography of Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise, she didn’t expect to meet opposition from, amongst others, the Royal Archive. But requests for information here and elsewhere went unanswered — which only increased the author’s resolve to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding her subject.
Re-reading the diaries she wrote during the early nineteen-nineties, when she taught English in Buenos Aires, Ruth Thomas found that – as well as details of day-today life – she’d recorded more about Argentina’s political upheavals than she remembered doing at the time.
Letters, photographs, newspaper cuttings… writers have always found inspiration in ephemera. Some have carried hoarding to excess, as Nicolette Jones explains.
The peripatetic history of the Golden Gospel – an eighth century illuminated manuscript – is pieced together by ‘historical detective’ Max Adams, following a trail of clues that lead from the Canterbury scriptorium where it was first created, to its present-day home in Stockholm.
Why do some writers choose to use a name other than the one they were born with for their writing? John Pilkington looks at some of the reasons why authors throughout history have adopted pseudonyms, and wonders if it has something to do with the need to reinvent oneself.
Generally associated with fortune-telling rather than story-telling, the Tarot can be a valuable asset to a writer, argues Diane Samuel, offering a range of archetypes and narrative possibilities which can help unlock the creative impulse.
Although primarily a visual medium, the cinema has always relied on the novel as a source of inspiration. Linda Buckley-Archer looks at the changing relationship between film and literature, and considers how each had affected the other.
Brian McCabe’s fascination with mathematics began with a poem, which led him to delve deeper into mathematical theory — discovering in the process some of the discipline’s more colourful practitioners.
Working with a group of young carers, on a play about their experiences, Anna Reynolds discovered that working in collaboration with others – especially those with such decided views about how their lives should be portrayed – presented challenges, but also led to triumphs.
As a writer of historical fiction, Miranda Miller has long been accustomed to seeing the world in duplicate, both as it exists in the present and as it once existed in the past. For her, walking around London or Rome involves a kind of ‘double vision’, allowing her to see each place in its current and former incarnations.
An avid reader from childhood, Katharine McMahon found herself increasingly drawn into the world of that precociously literary family the Brontës, finding in their life histories, as much as in their novels, echoes of her own preoccupations and experience.
Faced with the perennial question for writers of ‘how do you come up with your plots?’ David Davies considers his own and others’ practice, and finds that it depends very much on the kind of writer you are, as to whether you spend months on research and planning before putting pen to paper, or rely on that moment of inspiration to set your story in motion.
The suburbs have often been dismissed as dull, but for Charles Jennings, they are a source of inspiration, offering a calm and neutral space in which his imagination can run wild.
When Brian McAvera came to write his sequence of plays on ‘Picasso’s women’, he realised that his approach to each play would have to be very different, in order to take account of the varying influences each of the women had on the painter’s life and work —a nd to redress the balance of ‘male-centric’ art history, which had tended to diminish this.
To the uninitiated, there may not seem very much connection between rap music and poetry, but Jonny Wright argues that the two are intimately connected — and offers an insight into how rap poetry has come about.
All writers are familiar with the horrors of the blank page, but just what is the process that leads to filling it with words? Neil Rollinson has some thoughts on this, and on what happens after words are committed to paper.
Sue Purkiss wonders whether research trips are really essential, or whether one shouldn't rely on imagination when writing about a place one has never been, comparing examples of those who ‘go’, and those whose prefer ‘not to go’.
Ever since he first fell in love with all things insular, during childhood holidays on Arran, Doug Johnstone has found islands an inspiration — not least in writing his thrillers, where such a setting is great for ‘increasing the sense of claustrophobia’.
Any writer who has ever been distracted by the ringing of the telephone, or the sound of an ice-cream van, will share Andrew Sant’s exasperation at the ‘ubiquity of noise pollution’ in the modern world. So how to cope with it, and get down to writing? He considers some options…
After an accident left him with a broken arm, Roy Bainton had to learn to manage without the use of one hand, discovering how difficult ordinary tasks, such as driving – and typing – had become. His experience left him chastened, and with a new insight into the lives of other writers whose disabilities were more permanent.
A visit to the Hebridean island of North Uist was the start of Linda Cracknell’s investigation into the nature of time and memory. Using pebbles found on a local beach, painted with waterproof inks, she set out to explore the artistic traditions and archaeology of the place.
On her first visit to Berlin, Christina Koning packed a suitcase full of novels, and found they offered a surprising amount of insight into the city’s troubled past, as well as causing her to reflect on its inspiring present.
Antony Mason’s first encounter with the Aboriginal art of Australia was at the Royal Academy’s seminal exhibition in 2013. Inspired by this, he travelled to Australia, to explore this extraordinary work in more detail. But can a European ever hope to understand what these paintings mean?
Since she was a child, devouring stories about ponies, Katherine Roberts has loved reading about horses. Nor was she alone in this passion for the equestrian, which is to be found in classical as well as popular literature.
The discovery of a previously unpublished document about the eccentric Victorian photographer, Eadweard Muybridge, was an exciting ‘scoop’ for biographer Brian Clegg — but would it prove a distraction? Fortunately, his editor was on hand to restrain his scholarly enthusiasm.
Rob Chapman’s hometown of Sandy, Bedfordshire, is celebrated as the place once visited by the poet John Clare, on a gruelling ninety-mile walk that took him four days and nights. But did he ever actually reach Sandy?
Watching a televised report in his Kowloon bedsit of a now-notorious clash between police and striking miners was the spark which, thirty years on, inspired Martyn Bedford to write a story about his upbringing in a coal-mining community.
A passion for collecting vintage textiles – christening gowns, embroidered samplers, and lacework – has always run parallel with Catherine Czerkawska’s interest in writing historical fiction. Here she talks about a lifelong interest in these rare and beautiful items, and the ways in which they have been woven into her writing.
Shaun McCarthy’s research for a nineteen-sixties resetting of Strindberg’s Miss Julie incorporated an iconic hairstyle, a nightclub run by gangsters, the 1963 dress of the year and the Beatles’ first number one album — and helped him give the play a mid-twentieth century twist.
It isn't every ‘newly hatched’ reporter who gets to interview some of the most eminent figures in the cultural life of her times — but Diana Hendry did just that, compiling an impressive cuttings file that included interviews with Bertrand Russell, Sir Basil Spence, Stevie Smith, Brigid Brophy, L. S. Lowry, and Marlene Dietrich.
Whether in graphic novel form, or onscreen, superheroes have become ubiquitous, over the past few decades. Mark Illis considers the reasons for this continuing fascination.
Jonathan Tulloch considers ways in which train travel can stimulate a writer’s creative flow, with reference to famous practitioners for whom this method of transport proved inspiring, such as Edward Thomas, Thomas Hardy, and Philip Larkin.
‘Lost objects and unreliable memories… are everywhere in my writing,’ says James McConnachie – wondering if perhaps this preoccupation with missing and destroyed documents, contended versions of history, and rescuing facts from obscurity might have its origin in something that happened in his childhood – the loss of a beloved toy car.
Should poetry be about something — other than itself? asks John Greening, considering some famous examples of works that have defied this question, as well as others which have dared to be topical, even at the risk of becoming irrelevant over time.
Every writer knows the terror of Blank Page Syndrome, and writing poetry offers the ‘bleachiest’ pages of all, according to Kona MacPhee. However, the creative constraints of writing to commission, far from limiting the poet’s imagination, can be one way of setting it free.
‘A screenplay is a description of a film that hasn’t been made yet,’ says screenwriter Hugh Stoddart, before unravelling some of the mysteries of this often-overlooked branch of writing — including how to convey information without necessarily using dialogue, and how to structure a scene.
The connections between writing and digging – as explored in Seamus Heaney’s eponymous poem – weren’t obvious to Susan Fletcher, until she found herself working on an archeological dig in Northumberland, and discovered for herself that writing can be a kind of excavation.
Confronted with the task of writing a series of children’s picture books on themes such as Democracy and Civic Pride, Deborah Chancellor was unsure how to make these attractive to a five-year-old readership. But then a walk with the dog and a hamster named Nigel came to the rescue.
Once every newspaper’s chilliest corner, the obituaries section is now the home of some of the best story-telling in journalism. The journalist and obituarist Nick Caistor looks back at how obituaries changed during the late 1980s and 90s, in the UK, and examines why obits are still so important, and so beloved.
Can a British or Irish playwright ever escape the influence of Samuel Beckett? Brian McAvera reveals why he put Beckett on stage as a vampire and ventriloquist’s dummy, and explains how it all stems from those troubled questions of British and Irish identity – questions that Beckett, like so many writers, tried to escape by becoming a European.
The great novels of the northern, working-class male experience were written in one decade-long span that ended with Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave in 1968. Paul Sayer wonders if that was really that. Could such novels still be written today? By a northern man from the succeeding, relatively comfortable generation?
ded for publication but that does not lessen their potential influence. In this miniature memoir – and fierce defence of the epistolary form – the novelist Cynthia Rogerson considers the many ways that letters she has written have affected her life and the lives of those close to her.
Speech radio is ‘bad at abstraction’, Frances Byrnes believes. But with imagination, verve and the example of the finest dance writers to draw on, a radio broadcast could capture even that least verbal of performing arts, ballet. Couldn’t it? That was the task Byrnes set herself when she set out to dramatise Stravinksy and Balanchine’s 1928 ballet Apollo.
The telephone is not always an instrument of connection. Poet Donny O’Rourke remembers the ‘instrument’ that stood in the long-ago hall of his childhood. He traces a line from it into loss and into memory, and considers how the phone can shape and define human isolation as much as togetherness.
A series of uncanny coincidences leads novelist and ghost-story writer Helen Grant on the trail of M.R. James and the lost stained-glass windows that inspired his eerie story ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’. Her quest takes her to Germany and then back to Britain; it also leads her to the heart of the question of what motivates her as a writer.
Does writing a diary contribute to a writer’s creative capital or squander it? Simon Rae, a diarist himself, considers the long and sometimes uneasy relationship between public writing and diary-writing — from Samuel Pepys to Karl Ove Knausgård.
Gerry Cambridge recalls the beautiful austerity of his early days, when he lived in a caravan in rural Ayrshire and wrote poetry — alongside articles for Reader’s Digest. His monkish inclinations, he discovered, had limits.
When she began dramatising the stories of present-day refugees seeking to enter Europe, Clare Bayley discovered the truth about her own mother’s experiences as a refugee fleeing war in Europe.
Shanty-singing, bustle-wearing, wreath-laying, street parties, a campaign for lifeboats — her book about the Victorian reformer Samuel Plimsoll led the writer and journalist Nicolette Jones to embark on activities she never expected.
Bird-lovers note the arrivals of the cuckoo and swallow, in summer, with joy. But for connoisseurs, encounters with Britain’s winter visitors can be still more wonderful. Jonathan Tulloch listens in to an avian world that plays in a minor key.
Since Shakespeare delighted Elizabeth I by giving Sir John Falstaff his own play, characters from stories have often had afterlives — existences outside the works that gave birth to them. John Pilkington argues that appropriating a character, and turning him or her into someone new, is very different from writing a mere sequel.
For her latest novel, Karin Altenberg set out to experience the Missouri River as Lewis and Clark would have known it, on their epic mission to cross the US continent in 1804. Her journey took her somewhere unexpected — to an old fort and an electric chair.
Thomson and Martinet’s classic manual of English grammar is ‘dull without shame or compromise’. Yet it changed Harry Ritchie’s life — and he believes it can change the lives of other native English-speakers and writers, too.
Lucy Jago’s passion for a long-dead Norwegian physics professor led her to the top of a mountain in the Arctic Circle, watching the play of the Northern Lights at minus 30 degrees Celsius. And this from a woman who never liked science, and never meant to be a writer.
Audiobooks are for non-readers, thought Katharine Grant — before she tried them and fell under their spell. Now, reading Joyce, she has become ‘one of those laughing walkers you instinctively avoid’; reading Edmund de Waal, she is a woman who cries at the supermarket checkout.
When he first saw the ruined cottage, as an eleven-year-old, Cynan Jones vowed to buy it one day. He finally did so; and now, restoring it, he finds himself making oddly writerly decisions about what to leave and what to strip away.
Where do books go to die? Writer and bibliophile Nick Holdstock once worked in a bookshop, undertaking what you might call secondhand book triage. Here he questions the necessity of destruction, and the value of survival.
As a travel writer, Horatio Clare’s professional scepticism has been challenged by glimpses of what he calls ‘inexplicable truths’. A man in Mozambique who saw a mermaid, a Congolese witch who vouchsafed him protection from Ebola, a nightjar churring on a hillside in Wales — these, Clare argues, are ‘signs, wonders and mysteries’.
As a dramatist, Tina Pepler might be expected to ventriloquise. But when it came to telling the stories of Syrians’ suffering in the war – stories of torture, bombed bread queues and lost children – she felt she became a channel. Her job was to make the connection.
Novelist Catherine O’Flynn recalls the smell of ‘old books, damp anoraks, wax polish and sunlight’ – and explores the formative role of her childhood library, in inner-city Birmingham, in shaping her career as a writer.
For four years, the poet Pascale Petit watched a black jaguar in a Parisian zoo. He became her heart of Amazonia darkness, her shaman, her father, her obsessional love. Then he was introduced to a potential mate.
Writers have after-lives, lived out in what happens to their unfinished manuscripts. From Weir of Hermiston and Edwin Drood to Nabokov’s The Original of Laura, Keith Tutt wonders what might have been.
Stridency, polemicism, ineffectiveness — political poetry is often criticised. Nicholas Murray, defending it, traces the grand tradition of political poetry in the British Isles, and asks if poets who are not political risk being trivial.
Harry Flashman is a fictional character borrowed from a novel who purports to be telling the truth about real, historical events – an illusion supported by George MacDonald Fraser’s well-researched footnotes. Michael Jecks locates the realism at the heart of a series of historical novels masquerading as thrillers.
Poets have always looked inward. They have always been fascinated by transformation. Few, however, have considered how the act of writing poetry itself might change them. The poet John Greening looks within, and behind, and finds himself changed.
Lucinda Hawksley is not the first writer to feel the siren call of the whale. The whales she seeks are not white, though, but blue and grey and humpbacked — and the hunt culminates not in a killing but a kind of epiphany: an unlocking of writer’s block and a release of grief.
The murderous hotel that Michelle Lovric dreamed up for her last novel had, she discovered, a gruesome historical shadow in the Chicago hotel run – to murderous ends – by Herman Webster Mudgett in the 1890s. But what else in her fantastical scenario might have a real-world counterpart? Surely not her hotel’s eyelids?
istorical novelists always risk accusations of pastiche, and never no more so than when they try to reproduce the language of the past. But James Wilson believes that only by voicing the past, by incarnating it within ourselves, can we begin to understand it.
Her fear of hypnosis did not stop Wendy Moore from undergoing it, as part of the research for her novel. Its subject was the Okey sisters, who amazed 1830s London by performing feats while apparently under hypnosis. Would Moore enter a trance? Could she, like the Okey sisters, shrug off electric shocks?
Few people in Europe even know how to pronounce her name. But on the other side of the Atlantic Ayn Rand is more than a cult novelist, she is a cult figure — a totem for ultra-conservative free-marketeers. Anita Mason explores how Rand’s lurid popular novels helped establish a powerful economic and political movement.
The artist and goose-breeder Monica Rawlins had all but vanished from history. Only a cardboard box of papers remained, in the archive of the National Library of Wales. Out of this dust, Bethan Roberts had to resurrect a whole person and a living voice.
Poets seek readers, above all, but they wouldn’t mind a bit of money too. Duncan Forbes, whose work has been back-handedly described as ‘commercial’, wonders where the real value lies in verse — and who sets the prices.
After discovering poems from the Haida tradition, Kathleen Jones travelled to the Haida Gwaii, islands at the remote northwestern fringe of Canada. There she discovered a dark story of colonial abuse – and discovered the limits of what she could write, as a European author.
Poets love associations, says Gerry Cambridge. And the poetic connections he has made through his collection of vintage fountain pens have inspired and expressed a life of poetry.
The 1549 ‘Prayer Book Rebellion’ was a revolt against the imposition of language as well as that of religion. To capture the earthy, rebellious spirit of the era, historian and novelist Tobias Jones tried to resurrect its language.
The artist Richard Dadd was incarcerated for decades in Bethlem hospital – the original ‘Bedlam’. Researching her trilogy of novels led Miranda Miller to the hospital archives, where her long-incarcerated and long-silenced protagonist finally found a living voice.
Jan Marsh came to believe she had discovered the real-life inspiration for the character of Lily Briscoe, from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. But in the absence of documentary proof how could she persuade readers of her case? How, as a careful biographer, could she justify even trying to make it?
As humans, we see ourselves reflected in the animals we put into our stories, argues Christie Dickason. When we sever connections with the animal world, however, that profound and potent reflection is imperilled.
‘Sharp comments in everyday settings’ is how Chris Simms defines graffiti. Now that social media seems to be killing off an entire genre of public writing, he recalls some of the great graffiti he has seen, and reflects on what graffiti means to its readers, in general, and what it might mean to authors in particular.
Every writer has a file, a drawer or a cupboard of unfinished or unpublished books. After going through his own dusty box file, Rupert Christiansen considers the classic novels that once lived as ‘zombies’ — and finds new hope that his own may yet come to life.
Ian Thomson’s mother and her best friend both left Soviet Estonia as children in the 1940s. One found refuge in England, the other was deported to a Russian prison camp. At the very end of the Soviet era, the writer travelled to Tallinn to seek out his mother’s childhood friend.
The strange, diminutive ‘dwarf’s apartment’ in Mantua’s Ducal Palace inspired Clare Colvin to write a historical novel. She later discovered the truth about those dwarfs — and discovered, too, that many novels have been born inside mysterious or hidden chambers.
Prison changes you, it is said. It certainly changed Jane Corry. When life changes drove her to work in prison, as a writer-in-residence, early apprehensions gave way to inspiration and, eventually, to a connection that felt almost like addiction. Feeling at risk of becoming institutionalised, Corry realised she had to get out.
Robert Burns is better known for his love affairs with women than for his marriage. But his wife, Jean Armour, was not the homely ‘heifer’ some historians have tried to make her out to be. She was a fine singer and a collector of ballads, argues Catherine Czerkawksa, and an important influence on her poet husband.
Britain transported some 3 million slaves but vanishingly few of them left a written record of their experiences. In her novels and works non-fiction, Sanjida O’Connell draws on the few fragments and memoirs that survive and on the rich but painful heritage of her native city, Bristol.
Her grandfather was Poet Laureate, but that isn’t why Imogen Lycett Green now curates the Betjeman Poetry Prize. Here she speaks passionately for the value of poetry to children — and the value of children to the future of poetry.
New thinking on public awareness of climate change suggests that the doom-laden messages sent out by activists may provoke not action but denial. Emily Diamand argues that novelists writing about future worlds have been similarly seduced by the allure of the dystopia – and that this needs to change.
Adaptations are everywhere. Less common is for writers themselves to work across different genres and different media. Linda Buckley-Archer explores what might happen when stories become ‘portable’. What, for writers, are the benefits and risks?
Travelling for biographical research can lead to all kinds of dead ends. But in her latest visit to South Africa, for a book on Doyle and Kipling’s role in the Anglo-Boer war, Sarah LeFanu found fresh inspiration – and a fresh connection with the long-departed dead – in a small, half-forgotten graveyard.
Travel guidebooks burst with listings and practical advice, these days, and the armchair reader is relatively neglected. John Keay looks back to the earliest days of the format, when John Murray and Baedeker competed in the early nineteenth century, and wonders when the object of reading a guidebook for pleasure began to be forgotten.
Campaigners are calling for more fiction – particularly children’s and young-adult fiction – to feature disabled characters. Yet in one genre, the detective novel, disabled protagonists have a long and distinguished history. Christina Koning connects that curious commonplace to another cliché, that of the emotionally damaged detective — and considers what drove her to make her own detective hero blind.
In Scotland the seannachie is a bard who preserves the heritage of his tribe. Donny O’Rourke recalls his father’s long musical silence and reflects on the origins of his poetic vocation.
The distinctive culture created by African-Americans in the shadow of slavery and segregation has deep influence right across the world. Playwright and hip hop artist Jonny Wright, who grew up in Yorkshire, claims that culture – and its politics – as his own.
The dark, haunting music of the Italian princely composer Don Carlo Gesualdo, and his equally dark life, has disturbed and inspired many writers. How then could Shaun McCarthy approach his subject anew? And how could he avoid ‘men and women moving around glum candlelit interiors in sixteenth-century costume’ and create something fresh?
A walk across the Golden Gate Bridge was Tom Bryan’s introduction to the work and abruptly foreshortened life of poet Weldon Kees. Thus began Bryan’s obsession with writers who disappeared — both those who are presumed to have taken their own lives and those whose lives were probably taken from them.
Tribal hostilities, polygamous jealousies and farming disasters are not the stuff of Annie Caulfield’s usual radio dramas. But working on a South Sudanese soap opera, in the tense aftermath of war, she finds a new affirmation of professional purpose.
Writers often like to respond to or even conjure the spirit of place, but few attempt Peter Guttridge’s kind of summoning. His ambulant story, The Dead House, is set and situated in a pair of Scarborough cemeteries – and delivered via Greta Scacchi’s voice on audio headset.
Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Doris Lessing, John Fowles, A.S. Byatt — all have written novels with novelist protagonists. Charles Jennings finds none of them comes close to capturing the ‘neurotic headbanging inwardness’ of the real writer’s life.
Early in his career, Jonathan Tulloch vowed never to write about his father. But after watching him die he wondered what had stopped him mining what, for many other writers, has proved one of the richest seams: the father/son relationship. By describing their shared passion for rare birds, he finds a way to write about that relationship for the very first time.
Researching a children’s book set in the time of King Alfred takes Sue Purkiss to Athelney, in Somerset — and, ultimately, leads her to a character she did not expect to use in her story: Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed. She finds that historical research can offer a writer the raw materials she needs, but it can also give her the confidence to leave historical realism behind.
As a young man, Jonathan Falla worked in a gloriously antiquated Javanese print shop. The stories he heard about Indonesia’s war of independence inspired a novel about a Dutch colonial printer in Java. Falla’s experiences in the print shop, meanwhile, inspired his decision to privately print his novel in a specially designed limited edition.
A 'little hell' was how Patricia Highsmith described her Texan childhood. Seeking inspiration for her novel about the troubled writer, Jill Dawson travels to Fort Worth — and finds answers that go beyond the bounds of writing.
As a transracial adoptee, Katharine Quarmby wondered if her family stories – Yugoslav, English, Iranian – really belonged to her. Looking back, she asks herself which stories were real and which imagined, and concludes that adoption ‘cannot make you a writer, but it can help’.
Writers are not often told ‘the fewer words the better’, nor expected to consider the relative weighting of vowels to consonants in their sentences. Nor are they often given their own theatre, carriage and desktop piano — like Wagner. But writing an opera libretto, as Ron Butlin reveals, can be wildly different from other kinds of writing.
The best way to challenge the anxiety of influence, for Roopa Farooki, was to tackle it head on. She modelled her latest novel on James Joyce’s Dubliners, transforming the setting to a multicultural South London in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings. And where Joyce identified Dublin as ‘the centre of paralysis’, Farooki makes London a centre of hope.
From William Carlos Williams’ prescription pads to George Szirtes’ Twitter-length stanzas, the medium has shaped the message of poetry. John Greening surveys the curious and influential choices made by modern poets.
David Stuart Davies, a world authority on Sherlock Holmes, has loved the great detective since he was a boy. Here he investigates how Conan Doyle first created Holmes — and why he began to plot his own character’s death.
Wrapping herself around cables so as to sleep and brushing her teeth in cattle cars, Cynthia Rogerson rode freight from San Francisco to Salt Lake City. She reflects on how those journeys, and the strategies she developed to endure them, continue to shape her fiction.
Travel writer Helena Drysdale has observed death rites in Tibet, Madagascar and Romania. Undergoing radiotherapy, she experiences the surge of life and the risk-taking excitement that also drives her writing.
Deep in the enchanted forest, tucked between Europe and Asia, people have gathered for centuries: Dionysian revelers, Orphic mystics, fire worshippers, Stalinists, anarchists and animalists. Kapka Kassabova is there to witness a Catholic ritual. But the forest’s pagan ways keep intruding: saints blend with sun gods, and historical time gives ways to the romance of eternal return.
Over too many beers one night in Sweden, watching video footage of pristine wrecks beneath the Baltic Sea, Roy Bainton learned about an eccentric British sea captain, responsible, at the command of his submarine, for sinking many a German ship. Thus began an obsession with Francis Cromie, World War I soldier, sailor and very likely spy, with Bainton determined to honour the forgotten hero.
Dorothy Parker claimed the Bloomsbury set painted in circles, lived in squares and loved in triangles. Our own obsession with Bloomsbury, as Nicholas Murray points out, seems to spiral — in spite of their old school privilege and elitism. Does Bloomsbury merit our continuing regard? Or were they just a bunch of vocal, self-boosting toffs, whose artistry has been seriously overvalued?
A serendipitous find can bring a writer’s research to life, as Deborah Chancellor discovered when she inadvertently rented slave cabins in North Carolina while working on a book about black abolitionist Harriet Tubman. As a riposte to those who believe that Wikipedia is the beginning and end of research, she argues for the benefits of immersing yourself in your subject.
Do reader’s care about seasonal lists? Heavy-duty books for Autumn and fluffy reads for the beach? Not a bit, says Katharine Grant. There was a time when seasonal publishing was dictated by the barges arriving laden with books; but with cheap printing, the re-order, and e-book, publishing seasons have become like fashion seasons: micro-sized and consumer led.
Hollywood’s recipe of the hero’s journey is concentrate of Joseph Campbell diluted via the commercial wisdom of ‘story consultants’. But what if we put a heroine in the frame? Does the schema of desire, jeopardy, prize-wresting, and finally, homecoming still hold? Nicola Baldwin thinks the journey is even more important for women, who invariably forfeit something along the way.
In 1817 Thomas Lovell Beddoes, later poet, physician and depressive, was sent to Charterhouse school in London’s Smithfield, where the slaughterhouses, open sewers and catgut factories fed his morbid and ‘moony’ disposition. In the psycho-geography of Beddoes’s dark metropolitan imagination, Ian Thomson traces the sources of both his poetry and his despair.
Living at the edge of the sea, Dermot Healy tested himself against the limits and boundaries the world threw in front of his life and writing. Fascinated by this brinkmanship, Frances Byrnes went to Sligo to make a radio programme about the poet. But the recording was hijacked by an encounter with a dying lamb. Should they rescue the lamb or leave him be? Tempt fate, or steal it?
Martina Evans kept starting novels only to find that they turned into poems and diagnosed in herself a resistance to narrative extension. She taught fiction and wrote poetry: bored with the padding of novels, she felt only poems tunnelled into the seam where memory meets the unconscious. Here she offers a passionate defence of the shorter form.
Every so often a writer comes along and changes the rules of the game. In travel writing, it was Ryszard Kapuściński: his immersive approach and magical journalism, rich in anecdote and hearsay, married deep knowledge to a lightness of touch. To Rosemary Bailey he was a hero. But what does she make of his travel-writing heirs?
From dressing up to role-play and make-believe to fantasy, the art of play sits at the heart of the dramatist’s world. Diane Samuels says she’s never lost her love of playing, but that while you can be a loner to write a stage work, you need to be a sharer to build it, and that is seldom an easy task. Here she recounts the joys and perils of collaboration.
We write to remember, and to forget, using memoir to fix the past and prevent amnesia leaking memory away. Terry Pratchett said that amnesia steels us from ourselves. But Rahila Gupta found that if you stage memoir the door to the past keeps opening. Each performance of her deeply personal play confronted her with new pain until she came to a new understanding of love and grief.
Victorian writers of sensation novels knew that nothing scared readers more than destabilising the everyday – especially the home. Kate Colquhoun asks why we delight in brutal stories wrapped in familiar settings from Wilkie Collins to Truman Capote. What happens when the brutality is transposed to real life, to the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and the murders committed by Anders Breivik?
Mary Poppins blew into town in 1934, 'plain, vain and incorruptible'. But she is a curiously timeless creature, and Marcelle Bernstein, who discovered her in middle age, found it impossible to read Mary Poppins without also reading through to her creator P.L. Travers. Beneath the magical realism of the Poppins storylines, she discerned a dark fear of abandonment.
Prehistoric cave paintings have long captivated writers. When Hilary Davies visited caves at Le Bugue, they altered her mental state. She felt stripped down, intellectually and spiritually. But then she entered the world of the hunter-gatherers to learn what they might tell us about our relationship to our planet, and turned the lesson into poetry.
The internet in its great wisdom has decided that the playwright Stephen Wakelam should be know for a bit of script doctoring he did back in the 1980s – a single week's work, not his magnum opus, but never mind. Here he revisits collaborating with Lars von Trier, jazzing up a wooden Dogma script and translating filthy nursery rhymes.
From our heartbeats to our breathing, to the feel of walking or running, we are programmed to respond to rhythm. No wonder we react so viscerally to the rhythm of words. Bill Kirton says rhythm is as important to prose as to poetry, as well as to songs of protest and football chanting. It may not be in our bones, but it’s a basic aspect of how we survive.
'Discoverability' is the new buzzword in publishing. It is apparently what authors want. Livi Michael isn't sure what it means, but she's pretty clear that authors want their books to sell and that they want to feel valued. Here she follows three writers through very different publishing experiences.
Robert Louis Stevenson is the patron saint of psychological dualism. David and Alan in Kidnapped are stark opposites with polar sympathies, and polar ideologies. James Wilson has been enthralled by the novel since boyhood – Stevenson showing him how such opposing forces can exist in dramatic tension. By degrees, Stevenson’s example drew him into writing fiction.
Charlotte Mew ought to be better known. Brittle, self-regarding and a hugely talented poet, she craved renown. Yet unlike her contemporary Virginia Woolf, Mew detested the gushing world of literary sociability: she shunned Woolf’s friendship, tripped up would-be patrons and snapped at offers of preferment. It cost Mew her reputation, says Julia Copus, but also her peace of mind.
Eager for a book project to plunge into, James McConnachie rekindled an earlier passion for Botticelli's Birth of Venus. He pored over images of the work and delved into its history. Like a detective haplessly drawn into a long-buried mystery, he began seeing clues everywhere, pointing towards the true identity of Venus and the hidden eroticism of Renaissance Florence. What was going on?
400 years before Burgess, Philby and Maclean, spies recruited from Cambridge were employed as 'intelligencers' to smoke out Jesuit priests inveigling for a return to Catholicism in Elizabethan England — John Pilkington's fictional hero Marbeck among them. But in delving into this brutal age of faith and torture, Pilkington's admiration for the Jesuits grew, leading him to question the very nature of belief.
Ezra Pound's Cathay is one hundred this year. William Carlos Williams said that if they’d been original poems they'd have made Pound the world's greatest living poet. But the poems were translations from Chinese – a language Pound could neither read not speak. Yet Clare Pollard argues that Pound felt his way through the poems with an integrity that set a new bar in translation.
Roopa Farooki's problem has never been writer's block, but the opposite: too many ideas, too many leads. A new book is started almost as soon as the previous one is completed. But last time she used this trusted method, her unconscious mind upended her: another book was calling out to be written. Blindly, helplessly, she allowed herself to listen.
Cervantes spoke of the ‘strange charm’ in hoping for a good legacy. At 65, Tom Bryan had already donated his body to science, then in the face of several family deaths he decided to approach posterity afresh. He hired a professional archivist to sift, sort and box up his unpublished works and set his mind as well as his manuscripts to rest.
When 'austerity theatre' must cut the cloth to fit tight financial constraints, the result is smaller casts, simpler sets and design. Even worse, says Shaun McCarthy, the playwright is eclipsed: instead of author-driven productions, theatre is awash with devised, collaborative works. These developments, he argues, should concern us.
Jo Mazelis was born in Wales and lives there now, but she resists being pegged as a 'local author' just because she’s published by a Welsh Press. Here she reflects on the pull and push of regionalism. Why, when her novel is set in France with an international cast, does it get shelved next to Day Walks in the Brecon Beacons and Welsh Teatime Recipes?
In Mexico today real-life crime is both stranger and more egregious than fiction. But where does this leave writers who wish to document gang culture, random killings and government corruption? Nick Caistor discovers that the spirit of truth-telling is alive and kicking, and that poems and novels are as much vehicles of protest as demonstrating on the streets.
The novelist Anna Haycraft (Alice Thomas Ellis) died of lung cancer in 2005. Deborah Bosley, who along with Beryl Bainbridge, Shelley Weiner and Caroline Blackwood was one of Anna’s literary protégés, recalls a life rich in letters, love, children and faith. At the centre of it all was Anna’s profound domesticity, heady with books, booze, family and fags. And it revolved round the kitchen table.
Writer's block has become a cliché of Grub Street patois. At best it's lazy terminology, at worst, a poor excuse for failing to put bum on seat. Yet it has pedigree: Woolf, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Larkin all suffered it, and now Rupert Christiansen has the contagion. But the experience is very far from what he expected.
For much of the 20th century, George Orwell's boot stamping on a head was a better metaphor for political repression that Aldous Huxley's smiling dystopia of drug-induced passivity. No longer. Nicholas Murray says the wily ways of 'soft power' threading through Brave New World underpin today's consumer capitalism.
Timothy Leary considered Herman Hesse to be the ‘master guide’ to the hallucinatory experience; at 19, Paul Sayer, obsessed with Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, agreed. It sent him on an acid fuelled odyssey to find his inner self that left him boggle-eyed, clinging to the tower of York Minster.
Literary festivals are sprouting all over the UK, from Dartington to Althorp. But do visitors roll up for the literature, or the seafood wraps? And why is the whole phenomenon run on shoestring economics, with the writers themselves the last to be paid? Mark McCrum reflects on the festival vogue, and says it may be time for a new touring model.
Writing for emotional survival is familiar; writing for physical survival less so. Yet the physical act of writing raised Sara Coleridge from her sickbed, reassures Hilary Mantel, comforts Laura Hillenbrand and, during a recent medical crisis, kept Katharine Grant ‘threaded to the world’. Never mind words, the act of writing is medicine.