Murder on a Summer’s Day (Kate Shackleton #5) is with my editor. Because I’m not ready to start #6, I’m clearing the study, which is practical and therapeutic but also a touch ritualistic. Years ago, while working in a chilly attic, I wore a big sweater, washed so many times that it had matted. Wearing this magic woolly became essential to my writing.
I asked friends from the Romantic Novelists’ Association Northern Chapter, otherwise known as the Flying Ducks, for their ‘musts’ before starting work. Shirley Wells has a large fisherman’s smock in every colour of the rainbow that she often needs to wear before beginning to write. She says, ‘I have to take it off if anyone comes to the door but I love it.’ Sylvia Broady owns up to once buying writing gear. ‘Anyone remember those velvet leisure suits? I had two – one in emerald green and the other in rose pink!’ Former model Jan Warburton plumps for black velvet leisure trousers and matching top. Leah Fleming remembers reading that as part of her writing ritual Kate Atkinson buys a new set of casual writing clothes before starting a new book – a sort of writing uniform? It takes much pottering about and procrastination before Val Wood is ready to start work, but when she does, wearing her woolly scarf, she is there for the day.
My extreme, and inefficient, tidying of the study takes a long time. I envy Helen Brandom because she knows when to stop. Helen says, ‘I would LOVE to be tidy: tidy study, tidy mind and all that. What I do do – and I suppose it’s a sort of ritual – is to set a kitchen timer and do thirty minutes tidying at a time. That way I work very fast, wanting to get as much done in the allotted time as possible – and longing to stop!’
Linda Acaster never puts anything away until she has finished the novel. Her three modest needs are a cup of tea or coffee, a closed door, and peace.
Walking features high on the list of activities that help spur the writing process. The right kind of dog helps. April Taylor tells me that she used to walk when she got stuck, but that was with her old retriever, who could be relied on to potter about and not run off. Now she tends either to do something physical, that doesn’t need a lot of brain work, or she draws a big bath and soaks in it.
Switching off the writing brain and doing something physical can have its downside. I was once so stuck that painting the skirting board, hall and stairs, seemed a really good idea. Being a perfectionist (or idiot), I took up the carpet. Halfway up the stairs, I was ready to start writing again. Have you ever tried re-laying a stair carpet in a hurry, single-handed? Don’t.
Leah Fleming and I both rely on scents. I put water and a few drops of essential oil, usually rosemary, into one of those sprays used when ironing and squirt it around the room. Leah lights a steam diffuser, with a candle underneath, and chooses aromatic oils: clary sage, rosemary, bit of vetiver, ‘So every time I leave the room, I come back to the aroma.’ She always starts a writing session with this ritual, and then writes three pages in her journal, chucking away negatives and worries, allowing her to funnel down to the work in progress.
Arthur Miller takes posthumous prize for sheer ambition. I remember reading in Timebends that first he built a cabin in the grounds of his property, and then he wrote The Crucible.
The award for multi-tasking goes to Elizabeth Gill: ‘I work in the evening, light candles, cook, drink wine and listen to Radio 3, all at the same time. (Mind you, I do often burn the dinner!)’
Now where’s my Fluorite Creative Energy stone, and the Lucky Bingo Pen …?