Being a writer is a strange thing. You live the majority of your day inside your own head, talking to yourself. Any person, not a writer, who behaves in such a bizarre way would be sent for clinical evaluation and provided with therapy immediately. Such things are not healthy- unless you are a writer, in which case, they are perfectly normal. Necessary in fact. I say this not because I want anyone’s sympathy, or because I feel that I am misunderstood, but because I never quite know how to respond to people when they ask the sort of sociable questions that we ask each other on a daily basis.
What have you been up to? How was your day? What are you doing tomorrow? My answer is always the same. Oh, nothing much. Just writing. I instantly see the disappointment on their faces and feel very boring saying it, yet I know if I told them the truth they simply wouldn’t understand. If somebody had described it to me, two years ago, I wouldn’t have understood either. But just this once I shall try to explain.
My day is broken into two distinct phases: the thinking and the doing. Thinking takes up a great deal of my time, although you would never know it to look at me. Usually. I have learned to multi-task and combine it with my mum/wife duties. I get up every weekday morning at around 6.30am when my wonderful husband brings me tea. He does this for two reasons. Firstly, I cannot drive him to the station without a good dose of caffeine in my system and secondly, it makes him feel better about waking me up at 6.30am. I should state here and now that he is not a selfish man and I am not some downtrodden woman who lives to serve her husband. He would happily leave me in bed and walk. But I love those quiet mornings after he has gone because I get so much done. Especially thinking. Once he has gone, I wake my son repeatedly and chivvy him to get himself to college. What can I say? He is a teenager, and anyone in possession of a teenager will know exactly what I am talking about. Although my daughter is at university, I still have to wake her from time to time. There will be a 4am text on my phone, evidence of a hard night of study no doubt, begging me to ring her because she has to be up for a lecture. Then I clean my house, shower and have breakfast. During all of this, I am off in my own world, plotting. It may look as if I am staring off in to space wistfully, but I can assure you that there is a lot going on inside my head and I am actually working.
Morning think over, I head up to my office. Well, it is the spare room really because there is a lovely corner sofa bed in there that I got from Ikea, but it also has a proper desk and a chair and shelves filled with books. It overlooks my beloved garden, which is great for procrastination, and is a calm oasis in which I lose myself. I am creature of habit and have a routine before I start to write. First, I light a Yankee candle. It doesn’t create a mood or make me feel calmer. I’m not that new-age. I just like the smell. Then I will check my e-mails (mostly spam), scroll through Facebook (mostly pointless) and check Twitter (mostly advertising). Occasionally, because I feel that I am supposed to, I tweet something and then usually delete it thirty seconds later because I have regretted it. I allow myself twenty minutes of this procrastination and no more. Procrastination is addictive and I am already battling serious addictions to cake, tea and Candy Crush Saga.
Scones: a particular favourite accompaniment to Twinings tea
Only then can the serious ‘doing’ begin. I will open up my word document and read the last sentence that I have written. I find that I work much better if I do not neatly tie up all of the loose ends the day before. I never stop at the end of a chapter. I will always write the next paragraph so that I know where I am going. Usually, I stop right in the middle of something important, but I have to finish my sentence first. I once read an article about a famous crime writer, who said that she always stops in the middle of a sentence because she found it easier to pick up her thread the next day. I tried that. But the former teacher in me could not cope with the poor grammar. The lack of a full stop created insomnia and I found myself wandering back to my computer at two in the morning, bleary-eyed, so that I could finish the sentence. So I always stop with a full stop. Or a question mark. Or an exclamation mark, although I am trying to wean myself off of those unless absolutely necessary.
The first paragraph is usually painfully slow while I get into the zone, but once I am in it there is no stopping me. The story runs like a film in my head. Peculiarly, I channel the characters, which means that I am alternating between a male and a female with two distinctly different personalities.
Oddly, this feels perfectly normal. When I am the character, I find myself experiencing their moods. If they find something funny, I grin like a loon at my computer. If they are angry, I feel my face tighten. Sometimes, if they are having a particularly fraught day, I give myself a frowning headache. You know the ones? They happened because your eyebrows have been drawn together for so long that it makes your brain hurt with the all the effort of keeping them in that position. Or perhaps it’s just me that has those? If the dialogue is fast and snappy, my fingers bash the keys nosily. If they are sad or thoughtful, I sigh a lot.
Frowning headaches are real
Hours go by like this. Literally. And then something will break my concentration and I realise that it is lunchtime- or as frequently happens, I have missed lunchtime altogether. So I take a break. Eat something. Drink tea. Play candy Crush. Think.
Because the house is normally empty at this time, the only thing that I have to talk to is the cat, Steve, but as he is going senile and has decided that he hates me, I find it much better to talk to myself. I have found the BBC news channel to be a very good listener. It is both intelligent and informative and never looks at me as if I should be locked up in an institution and they speak in such calming tones, even when the whole world has gone mad.
I write all afternoon until five when, like Cinderella, I turn into a pumpkin and become Mum again. My evenings are always pleasant and chilled. As a family we like each other, so we chat and laugh. I am usually everyone’s comedy stooge but I like to think I give as good as I get. I do not do soap operas or trash TV, so we watch films or documentaries or well-written comedies for a few hours. I love the Big Bang Theory, The Great British Bake Off (even though it fuels my cake addiction) and Deadliest catch (how’s that for eclectic?) and I hate films with unhappy endings. Absolutely love all Marvel films though, especially Iron Man. I am hopelessly in love with Tony Stark. And Mr Darcy, Han Solo and Flynn Rider from Tangled.
At bedtime, any normal person would sleep. But I am a writer so I treat it as thinking time. At least once a week I have a crisis of confidence. All I have written today is rubbish. In fact, my whole book so far is rubbish and the moment I submit it to my editor she is going to realise that I am actually a huge fraud who cannot write at all. When this happens, I have to get up, trudge to my computer and read the 3000 words I have written today. More often than not, I am pleasantly surprised to discover that it is not the drivel that I thought it was. Occasionally, I delete huge chunks and then worry all night about where to go next. Fortunately, that only happens one a month, and I manage to drift off to sleep most nights pondering the next part of my story. I never know where it is going, you see. I think up the characters, consider one or two things that they could do, but I leave the rest of it to chance. That works best for my brain and probably says a great deal about me.
So what have you been up to? Well, I’m living in 1816 at the moment. Darting between Regency Mayfair and the notorious London slum of Seven Dials. I’ve been going to radical political meetings, campaigning for ordinary working men to be given the vote and fair pay. I’ve been looking at the stars with this handsome, uptight duke and falling hopelessly in love with him, and when I am inside his head I am learning that the world is not quite how I had always pictured it. I am finding unfairness and inhumanity that I never knew existed and I desperately want to change that, and I am lonely. And there’s this outspoken, wholly unsuitable woman who consumes me to the point that I hardly know myself any more.
How was your day? Grim for the most part today, if you want to know the honest truth. I visited a workhouse and helped out at a soup kitchen. It churned up the past which I have been trying to forget. But it ended on a positive note. I think my hero and heroine are falling in love, I just hope that he can see beyond her lowly station in life and she can learn to trust again.
What are you doing tomorrow? Not entirely sure yet. I know that I am going to his castle (yes! I know- he has a castle!), and I need to throw them together somehow. But I still need to ponder it a bit. I shall probably do that the moment I lay my head down on my pillow and close my eyes. I shall let my characters rehearse a bit, run a few scenarios through my mind, listen to the dialogue and then I will sleep on it. Sometime, during the night, my brain will have let this all marinade so that when I sit back down at my keyboard tomorrow it will all play like a movie, allowing the story to flow through my fingers and to show on my expression.
And then if anybody asks what I did with my day, I shall answer like I usually do.
You know, just writing…
Virginia Heath's debut novel That Despicable Rogue is published in May 2016 and is available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Her second book, Her Enemy at the Alter follows in August.