How I Write…
…or rather, how I wrote The It Girl
One of the questions I get asked most at events and talks is how I write – how I plot, how I come up with ideas, what an average writing day looks like.
The truth is that it varies from book to book. Not so much the writing day – mine are very samey, as I try to treat it like a job. I go to the desk when my kids have left for school, and largely stay there, barring coffee and lunch breaks, until they come home.
But the plotting and the way the books come to me… that feels like it changes every single time. So when I decided to write a piece about how I write, I knew straight away that it would have to be book-specific, because every book is different. Hence the title of this post.
The It Girl was maybe more idiosyncratic than most, because it was a book that came out of lockdown. I’ve written a book a year ever since my first thriller, In a Dark, Dark Wood came out in 2015. But like so many others, my working life was rudely interrupted by covid, and in 2020 I found myself suddenly not writing, but homeschooling, stressing out, and doomscrolling through endless graphs of exponential spread. My house was suddenly full of people – my husband (who is a virologist) was on endless zoom calls, my kids were struggling with virtual school, powerpoints and MS Teams. Everyone needed feeding and comforting and cheering up – and my time to write went out of the window, along with the headspace to think about plots. For the first time in more than five years, twelve months came and went, and I didn’t write a book.
But when my kids returned to school and my husband got used to his new routine of home working, I found myself back at my desk… and it turned out that an idea had been simmering there all along. And it was one that chilled me to the bone.
Most of my books come out of some kind of fear or phobia of my own – one of those what ifs that wakes you up in the middle of the night, wondering what you’d do if it happened to you. What if you saw something terrible and no-one believed you? (The Woman in Cabin 10.) What if a child in your care came to harm? (The Turn of the Key.) What if poverty and desperation drove you to commit a crime? (The Death of Mrs Westaway.)
The It Girl rests on a what if that leaves me cold with relief that I’ve never been in Hannah’s shoes. What if you made a terrible mistake that resulted in an innocent person going to jail? The It Girl certainly isn’t based on any specific court case, but miscarriage of justice cases crop up every few years and, understandably, the focus tends to be on the person mistakenly convicted of a crime and their suffering and relief when they’re finally exonerated – usually at the end of a long, bitter process of appeal and campaigning. The news coverage, rightly, centres the innocent victim of the wrongful conviction. But I couldn’t help wondering, how must it feel to be the person who gave the crucial evidence? Not someone who lied deliberately to get an innocent person locked up – I couldn’t imagine ever doing that myself, and I wouldn’t have much sympathy for a character who did. But someone who said what they thought they saw, only to realise that perhaps they were mistaken. That person, I realised, was Hannah. Someone who’s been through a terrible experience when her best friend is killed, only to find herself in a very different kind of nightmare when she starts to doubt her own judgement.
I don’t typically plot much – by which I mean I don’t sit down and plan out scenes, or write out a synopsis. I have done it, occasionally, usually when my publishers have asked me for a bit more information about what I’m planning to write. But generally I keep things fluid, in my head, allowing me to play with elements more easily, shuffle them around, reorder, reassign. That doesn’t mean, though, that I’m not planning ahead. I think about the characters and their back story. I think about the scenes that I want to write, the ones I’m looking forward to, and how I need to get the characters into position for them. And I almost always know how did it – certainly I did with this book. The antagonist was right there from day one. I knew who, and I knew how – which (if you’ve read The It Girl) you’ll know is an important part of the plot – both those elements were in place long before I started writing, and that enabled me to drop the breadcrumb clues that might enable a sharp-eyed reader to solve the mystery (though I hope not everyone!)
Maybe it was because of the months spent not thinking about it, and definitely not writing, but when I did eventually sit down, The It Girl was a fast book to write. It was interrupted by two more lockdowns, but each time I parked the characters in the back of my head and trusted that I would pick up their threads eventually. In some ways it felt the closest to my experience of writing In a Dark, Dark Wood when I was fitting writing in around a day job and small children.
I couldn’t do much location research, because most of the colleges were still closed for covid, and barring a few technical legal details, there wasn’t much procedural stuff to find out either. It was almost like the book was there, in the back of my mind, and I just had to get it down.
So maybe, the real title of this post should be not, how I wrote The It Girl, but how I didn’t write The It Girl. Because the truth is that most of that book wasn’t written at my desk, but dreamed up while I was preparing lunches, baking banana bread, or wrestling with MyMaths. And that’s how I write.