Today’s first draft hot seat guest is Sara Sheridan.
Sara Sheridan is an Edinburgh-based historical novelist who writes two different kinds of books. One is a series of cosy crime noir mysteries set in Brighton in the 1950s – Brighton Belle, London Calling and England Expects – and the other is a set of novels based on the real-life stories of late Georgian and early Victorian explorers and adventurers (1820 – 1845) – The Secret Mandarin and Secret of the Sands. She has also written for children – her picture book I’m Me has appeared on CBeebies three times.
Tipped in Company and GQ magazines, she has been nominated for a Young Achiever Award. She received a Scottish Library Award for Truth or Dare, her first novel, and was shortlisted for the Saltire Book Prize. She co-wrote two short films one of which was nominated for a SkyMoviesMax Award. An occasional journalist and blogger, Sara has reported from both Tallin and Sharjah for BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent and has appeared as an historical expert on ‘being a lady’ on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour. She is a regular guest on a variety of BBC Radio Scotland shows. She occasionally blogs for the Guardian, the London Review of Books and the Scottish Book Trust and is an accredited blogger for the Huffington Post. She has written articles for a variety of newspapers from the Scotsman to the Daily Record as well as BBC History magazine. She is a twitter evangelist and a self-confessed swot.
Sara spent three years sitting on the Committee of the Society of Authors in Scotland (2010-2013) where she was responsible for negotiating a pioneering service level agreement between Scottish writers and publishers, in tandem with Publishing Scotland. She is now on the board of the UK-wide writers’ collective ’26’ and took part in the acclaimed 26 Treasures project in 2010 at the V&A, in 2011 at the National Museum of Scotland and in 2012 at the Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green. A 26 Treasures book was published in 2012 by pioneering crowdsourced publisher Unbound and was launched at the V&A as part of the London Design Festival 2012. It won the UK Publishing Industry’s Best Design Award 2013. During 2013 Sara took part in a writing project at new UNESCO City of Literature, Norwich to celebrate the city’s great history of writing talent. She also managed 26’s online charity advent calendar 2013, 26 Stories for Christmas.
She is a member of the Historical Writers Association, the Historical Novel Association, the Crime Writers Association and BAFTA. Sara occasionally mentors fledgling writers for the Scottish Book Trust and appears regularly as an after-dinner speaker at a variety of corporate events. In October 2012 Brighton Belle went to No 1 in the Amazon Kindle chart UK and in July 2013 it went to No 1 on the UK Apple store. Sara is also patron of registered charity Its Good 2 Give, which provides support for critically ill children and their families.
When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?
Name it! Then I open a folder on my dropbox for it to live in. That’s it officially up and running. I might not get back to it for ages but it somehow exists once it has a name..
Do you have a set routine approaching it?
Every book is slightly different. I write 5000 words a week and it doesn’t matter if that’s 1000 words a day or the whole 5000 all at once. Some weeks are so busy with events or admin or just life, that I end up writing those words on a train or in the middle of the night, but I’ve got to get them done.
Pen and paper or straight to the keyboard?
I type like the wind. Keyboard.
How important is research to you?
I’m a swot. A big one. And for any historical writer research is addictive. There’s that moment in the archive when you pick up a letter or a journal – often a piece of paper no-one has touched for 100 years – and it’s as if that person is standing right next to you, telling you their story. And I am obsessive. I have an exhaustive knowledge of the way windows were made in different time periods, what kind of silverware was available, what the fashion was for women’s shoes. Bizarre bits of information. Best not get me started.
It depends on the book. For my earlier historical series based from 1820 – 1845 it’s all about archive material, artefacts (often museum artefacts), art and music of the period and going to see buildings that are contemporaneous. For the Mirabelle Bevan Mysteries, which are set in the 1950s I add photograph archives, video footage and chatting to the elderly!
How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye?
Notebooks. Notebooks everywhere. And not a drop to drink.
Tell us how that first draft takes shape?
For the murder mysteries I write by the seat of my pants so I’m never sure what’s about to happen or how it will end – not till I’m very close. That’s how Agatha Christie did it and I don’t think it can be improved on. The mainstream historical novels are longer and they’re slightly more structured. I love the beginning – that always goes in a whizz but about 70% of the way through I usually hit a wall. I forget it’s about to happen too so it comes as a shock. My husband reminds me. He’s an extremely patient man.
Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft?
No. I’m just lucky to find time to get the story onto the page. There’s no lassitude for any palava.
Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?
That is the best feeling in the world and it happens sometimes. But if you’re a professional writer you’ve got to deliver. That’s where your writing craft skills come in. Though I must admit, occasionally reading through a ms that comes back for editing I forget I’ve written it and I begin to wonder what’s going to happen. That is also one of my favourite feelings! Stories are word heroin. Like many writers I’m addicted.
What does your work space look like?
Here’s a pic.
Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?
I like the momentum of moving forward but I do read it through now and then. Clean as you go.
I see many writers counting words in a day. Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?
Yes, I count! I keep offcuts too – though they don’t count towards the day’s tally.
The Mirabelle Bevan Mysteries take 16 weeks or so. I write quite clean copy but I do have blind spots on certain words. I have a deal with my editor that she won’t tease me too much.
In what format do you like to read it through, ereader, paper or the computer screen?
I vary it. The mind is very tricky and I have a magical superpower – I remember the shape of the words on the page. That sounds weird. Actually, it is quite weird. It makes it difficult to spot mistakes. So I print the ms out in different formats so the shape of the words on the page is different. I also double space to read through by computer. You pick up a lot that way.
What happens now that first draft is done?
Mirabelle books go straight to my agent, Jenny. She doesn’t do detailed notes for me but she’ll pick up anything glaring and I always take her suggestions. Then it’s off to the publisher and after a week or two to clear my desk, it’s on with the next one. Often I write two books a year.
Thanks for digging into the depths of the first draft. It’s been a pleasure having you.
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