How I write

My agent, the tirelessly personable Andrew Lownie, asked me (along with lots of his other authors) to do a short piece describing how I write. This is what I had to say …

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I’m a deviant, apparently. I don’t do any of the things that proper writers are supposed to do. I don’t have a dedicated room to write in; neither do I own a special chair, soiled with the arse-wear of a thousand difficult drafts; I have no inspirational talismans and no magic rituals. I just sit on the sofa in my living room with a laptop and my dog curled up beside me – and write. If I’m writing well, I’m absolutely zoned-in, immersed, and the words will flow whether I’m in a silent room or a crowded coffee shop. Conversely, if I’m stalled or blocked, moaning and kicking the furniture is an equally effective coping strategy anywhere (though ideally not in crowded coffee shops).

Neither do I write multiple drafts. When I begin a book – especially if it’s a biography – I usually have its shape worked out in my head; I know the heart and soul of the story, and have figured out how it should be told; I’ve worked out the narrative arc, understand the characters and have a feel for the keynote atmosphere. I polish and adjust individual chapters as I go along, but as soon as the last page is written, the script is ready to go off to the publisher.

The only methody thing I do is compiling soundtracks. My approach to writing is cinematic, visual, so atmosphere is important, and for each book I have a playlist of appropriate music to help me get it right. When I wrote Beyond the Call (a true story about a WW2 American bomber pilot on a secret mission to rescue POWs on the Eastern Front) I had a selection of Forties tunes – Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, the Mills Brothers and so on. When working on the biography of Moura Budberg, a Revolution-era Russian spy, I listened to a lot of Borodin, Prokoviev and other dramatic Russians. Recently I’ve been writing a book set partly in 1930s Paris and New York, and Gershwin has seen some heavy rotation. I rarely listen while I’m writing – the music is mostly important during the thinking times, when I’m adjusting to the book’s place and period. It’s astonishing how effective and inspirational the right music can be.

And that’s how I write. If you want to know more, you’d have to ask my dog, although he wisely sleeps through most of it.

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The other pieces can be read here. And there’s another selection here.


© Jeremy Dronfield 2017