Today I have Dawn Harris in the First Draft hot seat.
Dawn was born in Gosport, Hampshire and spent part of her childhood in Angmering-on-Sea, West Sussex, before returning to Gosport. Dawn met her husband at a tennis club, and a few years later his work took the family to North Yorkshire, where they live today. Dawn and her husband have three grown up children and two grandchildren. Their elder daughter, Anne Cameron, is also a writer, for 9-12 year olds.
Dawn is the author of ‘Letter from a Dead Man’, ‘The Fat Badger Society’ and ‘Dinosaur Island’.
When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?
I often start by walking around the garden thinking, then I sit and think – sometimes with my eyes shut, which helps me to picture things. Do I fall asleep? W-e-ll…. not often! The first thing I think about is the plot, what the story is going to be about, how it starts and always how it will end. I can’t start writing until I know how it will end. Which is the same approach I used for writing short stories.
Do you have a set routine approaching it?
I like to sit somewhere quiet, with a pad of paper and a pen. But I often get competition from the cat who likes to sit on my lap no matter what I am doing. Still, smoothing a cat is relaxing and helps the thinking processes. I think! I make notes as things come into my mind, and doodle a lot while I’m thinking.
Pen and paper or straight to the keyboard?
Pen and paper always. I love the physical process of writing words on a page – I use a rollerball pen which flows easily. Mostly I write a chapter, then edit it, and when it’s covered in scrawled additions, crossings out and alterations, I put it on the computer.
How important is research to you?
It’s vital. As my murder mysteries are historical, I need to get a feel for the era in which they are set, and what life was really like, for the rich and the poor. I research what was going on in the country at that time, and try to get the facts, the atmosphere, and the way people lived and spoke, as right as I possibly can. My Drusilla Davanish mysteries are set in the 1790s, which is a favourite historical period of mine – there was so much happening then. The French Revolution, the war with France, the fear of revolution in Britain, the demands for all working men to be given the vote, and it was also a time when smuggling was rife – great background stuff. Life changing events like these really give you something to get your teeth into. Like all writers, I imagine, I find the hardest part of research is seeking out the tiny, relatively insignificant details. Such as, what time did the post-boy deliver letters on the Isle of Wight? (where my first two books are set) At the moment I’m on the point of finishing a murder mystery set in 1936 – the period in the run up to world war two is mesmerizing.
How do you go about researching?
I use books and the internet. And always try to verify facts from two different sources. Personal diaries of the time are great too, they bring alive what life was like in troubled times, and during wars and revolution. They are also useful for learning what the weather was like.
How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye?
I save everything in separate folders on the computer and memory sticks, and print out copies too. Cautious by nature!
Tell us how that first draft takes shape?
I write a chapter, edit and once I’m happy, move on. Sometimes if the book is flowing really well and I can’t wait to get things down, then I’ll do two or three chapters in one go – to the end of a particular incident – and then edit. During the editing I often add depth too, which leads to other ideas that I might not have thought of if I simply wrote the whole book without any editing along the way. It works for me, anyhow.
Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft?
I like to get the household chores done first. Then I settle for a comfortable armchair in the winter, or the garden in summer. I like to have a glass of water handy and possibly the odd chocolate or two. Solely to aid the thinking process, of course.
Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?
That’s a difficult one. I do lose myself in the story, but when the phone rings I do hear it, and answer it.
If I’m using pen and paper I often sit in my south-facing sitting room, which is reasonably tidy. When working on the computer I use my office, which used to be our son’s bedroom. It’s part of an extension we had built years ago and we deliberately made the bedroom very small as he was – then – excessively untidy. (He isn’t now he has his own house!) So the room is crammed with a desk my husband made to hold the computer and two printers, then there’s a filing cabinet, a comfortable chair and a bookcase. Getting in and out the room with a vacuum cleaner is not easy!
Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?
I edit as I go along. I find it hard to just carry on when I am not happy with a chapter. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but I like it to be pretty reasonable.
I see many writers counting words in a day. Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?
No, I don’t count words. I just get on and do what I can in the time that I have. I might look on the screen to see how many words I’ve done, and I’m pleased if it’s a lot, but I don’t start with a set number in mind.
So, that first draft is down. Roughly how long did it take? And what shape is it in?
It varies, but around 9 months, and it definitely needs work! But it’s always good to have that first draft to work on.
In what format do you like to read it through, ereader, paper or the computer screen?
On paper preferably, but I do sometimes read it on the computer.
What happens now that first draft is done?
I edit, improve, check for things like clarity, depth, characterisation, tension. And then my author daughter reads it. She’s Anne Cameron, who writes for 8-12 year olds, and is nearing the end of a 4 book deal with Greenwillow (part of HarperCollins USA) for her Lightning Catcher series. She is really good at spotting plot defects! After that I make any necessary changes, and when I’m happy with the finished manuscript I send it to my agent.
Thanks for digging into the depths of the first draft. It’s been a pleasure having you.
The Fat Badger Society
Lady Drusilla Davanish, summoned to 10 Downing Street by William Pitt, is warned that John Hamerton, soon to be her guest on the Isle of Wight, may be a top French spy. Hamerton’s brother-in-law is close to Robespierre, the most feared man in France. But is Hamerton a traitor? Is this bluff, typically English gentleman really plotting to shoot the King and start a French style revolution in Britain? Drusilla, given the task of uncovering the truth, risks her life to save the King, and discovers the man she loves is hiding the biggest secret of all.
As usual, if you want to take part in the First Draft series, just let me know! You can find a list of the previous Q&A’s Here.