Magpie Lane recommended on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book

4 Jan 2021

Listen here

Windmill Hill is out in the world!

31 May 2023

Windmill Hill is now out in the world after a series of pre-publication events, reviews, a launch party, and an ongoing book tour.

It’s been wild to go from the solitude of the writing shed, into Festivals, bookshops & parties. It’s been so long since I did this. Magpie Lane was published in the very first week of lockdown, so that book tour, and two launch parties*, were cancelled. This is, essentially, the first time I’ve been on tour since 2017 with The Night Visitor.

So, thank you to everyone who has made this so uplifting. It really is heart-warming to be out meeting readers again. It’s a pleasure to share Astrid, Mrs Baker and their unhinged world with all of you.

*unlike some, YES we did cancel our parties….!!!

Publication eve event with memoir-writer Clover Stroud at Mostly Books, Abingdon
Party time!
Spot the Oxford writers (Mick Herron, Simon Mason) behind me
In Waterstones, Oxford

Windmill Hill Book Tour – an exciting life on the road ahead

13 Apr 2023

My fifth novel, Windmill Hill, will be published in the UK on 25th May 2023, and there’s an incredible variety of events planned (click links for tickets), from the dynamic Postcards from Midlife Live in London, to The Bath Festival , one of my favourite UK book festivals, and some truly lovely local bookshops, including Abingdon’s Mostly Books, Oxford Waterstones, and Cookham’s The Little Bookshop. I’ll also be popping into Suffolk Libraries & Commemoration Hall, Huntingdon, in June, with a signing in Waterstones Durham in July, rounding off with Newark Book Festival.

More events and signing will be added, but for now, that’s quite enough to keep me very busy

Talking about writing: Claire Fuller Part II

17 Jun 2022

Claire Fuller is the author of the Women’s Prize shortlisted Unsettled Ground.

Building characters

LA: Here’s a question: I feel I have a very inefficient way of building my central character and ‘finding their voice’ (essentially, endless rewriting of the first few chapters). Can you give me a sense of how you do this?

CF: I’m not sure I’m any more efficient. I don’t do any planning on character before I start writing them on the page. It’s how they react to events and places and interact with places and other characters that makes them grow on the page until I have a clearer picture of them. I’m currently starting something new (telling myself it isn’t a novel so I won’t be scared off), and I’ve just written my main character, Ursula, going into a small office for her three month review. Her boss isn’t expecting her and it’s 1987 and computers have just arrived. I don’t know what Ursula is thinking about her three month review, or the fact that her boss isn’t expecting or the new computer until I write it, but as I write all those things help me to know Ursula more by the end of the scene. It seems to work – except that it often takes me a while to know what my characters are thinking, so often I’ll have to go back in and edit that in. All that interaction also helps me know what the boss is like too, of course. But I do sometimes get completely stuck with what a character is thinking about something or someone else. Then, I’ll open a new document and type, as though I’m talking to my character: ‘We need to talk about xxx’, for example, ‘Ursula, we need to talk about your boss.’ And then Ursula and I will have a written conversation about what she thinks about her boss. This can be very scrappy and free-flowing and all sorts of things are revealed which then go back into the novel. How their voice comes is part of that too. I’m not sure you can plan a character’s voice though? Doesn’t that just come? 

Claire Fuller

I know you teach creative writing. Are there ways that you teach character development and voice, that I should be doing? I’ve tried those lists (where did they go to school etc) but they don’t work for me. And in your endless rewriting, how do you know when you’ve got it right? 

Bored or Interested?

LA This idea of conversation with the character is inspired – I can see that would make them real. Perhaps this could save me all that time re-writing?  The only thing I do that’s similar is to open my notebook, when things are feeling grim or stuck, and start a fresh page and title it: ‘What I’m Interested in’ – I’ll then write a list of the things in the novel that interest me. Then I do a new page: ‘What I’m Bored By’ and same thing. This led to me ditching 30k of work with the novel I’m just finishing now, but it was absolutely the right thing to do because I wasn’t truly interested in that character’s voice.

 I also find that trying to write down what they have for breakfast, and what their favourite TV show is etc, is pointless and does nothing for character development. The only thing I’ve found that works for me, other than re-writing a lot, is pretending that the section I’m writing won’t make it into the book. Somehow, this sometimes liberates the character to do and say things that are more authentic and perhaps more interesting.  

There’s certainly no planning I can think of that would lead to a well-rounded ‘voice’. My teaching is focussed on finding or building an intuitive sense of connection with the character – a feeling that they start to exist off the page – I think when that starts to happen, you’re onto something. But usually that’s just a lot of writing and rewriting, rather than planning or exercises. 

I had an interesting discussion with a well-known writer recently about character names, and how they can inform or dictate a whole character’s backstory/development. How do your character’s names come to you? Where did Ursula come from? Do you feel their names are important? 

Magpie Lane

Character names – do they matter?

CF At the risk of this conversation becoming us just slapping each other on the back, I think your lists of What I’m interested in, and What I’m bored by, are techniques I’m going to immediately adopt. It’s so easy to ignore that little voice which sighs or moans each time you work on a particular element or character of a WIP, and this might help me listen to it harder. 

And yes, I absolutely agree that when characters exist off the page, then they’re working. It’s when I’m having a cup of tea and I think, what would Ursula drink? When I’m reading, what would Ursula read, that I know things are starting to work. (Or alternatively when my kids say I’ve got that glazed look in my eyes and I’m thinking about my novel.)

Sometimes – in fact, most often, character’s names just come to me and they end up sticking because it feels too late to change. But I am sometimes aware that I should probably think about them more deeply, but it’s hard to do that if you’re discovering the character on the page because I have to give them a name from the very beginning. Sometimes the names make me laugh and so they stick. I called a character in Unsettled Ground, Julius Seeder, without realising what I’d done, so I let it stay. Ursula is the perfect name for what seems to be happening in what I’m writing now, but the thing I’m grappling with is that Ursula is my mum’s name – but it’s definitely not her. I haven’t told her yet and I’m not sure what she’ll think. 

Since neither of us do those lists of character histories, I’m interested to know how much more you know about your character that doesn’t make it into the novel.

LA I have the same approach to names as you do, they sort of pop into my head, and stick. Dee in Magpie Lane was going to be a doula not a nanny, and I’d called her D in notes, and then somehow, she was Dee and it felt entirely right. And the 82-year-old ’star’ of the novel I’ve just finished (Windmill Hill) is Astrid and somehow that name was there for her, even before she existed – I have absolutely no idea why. I think much of writing happens in the unconscious mind, don’t you?

To answer your question, most of Astrid has made it onto the page, but I also have her whole childhood in my head even though I’ve never written notes on it. And of course, I cut 30K words of one character’s voice entirely.

Do you ever do radical cuts? Can you describe how you edit yourself? 


CF Much of my writing definitely happens in my subconscious. I often write something that I have no explanation for, a character says something mysterious or does something odd, and although I have no idea what it means, my subconscious gets to work and often weeks or months later the resolution or the meaning will appear as I’m writing. This is often how the central mysteries in my novels appear. Someone locks a door for example, and it’s not until a year later that I know why.

I’ve only done one radical cut and that was in my second novel, Swimming Lessons which originally had 20,000 words from the point of view of a character called Gil. I didn’t like him and so I cut his voice, but weirdly he remained very central to the novel – he just wouldn’t go away. 

I’m one of those writers who loves editing. I get the impression from my editor that it’s quite rare, but I’m not sure. I edit a little bit as a go along – I think the ‘technical term’ is rolling reviser. But because I love to edit I only allow myself to edit the work from the previous writing session and then I have to write forward.

I will also write notes for other sections or rework an earlier section if the change is massive; I can’t seem to move forward easily unless what I’ve written already is nearly sorted, in terms of plot and character, if not language. That means that by the time I get to the end of what might be called the first draft it’s taken maybe two years and is actually the 100th draft. And then there are several more months of editing.

LA: I love this – I think I’m a rolling reviser on STEROIDS.

Behind Closed Doors: Event with Arifa Akbar at Daunt Books Summertown

11 Apr 2022

Book tickets here

Arifa Akbar, chief theatre critic at the Guardian and author of Consumed, and Lucy Atkins, journalist, book critic & author of several novels including Magpie Lane, will discuss their books, difficult families, and how to write about them. Both books – one memoir, one novel – consider ideas of family, the secrets and mysteries they often keep, and the resulting tensions.

When Arifa Akbar discovered her sister had fallen seriously ill, she expected a short hospital stay and then home. It wasn’t until the day before Fauzia died that the family discovered she was suffering from tuberculosis. Consumed is a beautifully written and moving memoir exploring sisterhood, grief, art and the myths surrounding TB.

Magpie Lane, a chilling Gothic thriller set in Oxford, begins in the aftermath of a young girl going missing. The police have turned to Dee, her nanny, for answers. As Dee recalls her time with this dysfunctional family – Nick, the powerful father, his glamourous, pregnant wife Mariah – and Felicity, daughter of Nick’s previous marriage, who is almost mute and grieving her mother. As time goes on, and there’s no sign of Felicity, suspicion turns to Dee.

Tickets are £5 including a glass of wine and a soft drink.

Event Details

Friday 13th May 2022Event starts at 7:00pm

How Magpie Lane started

10 Apr 2022

I’d never intended to write an Oxford novel. It always seemed to me that to put a hat in the ring with the greats of English literature – Iris Murdoch or Philip Pullman or any of the hundreds of brilliant authors who have written novels set in Oxford – would be foolish. But one day, a few years ago, I was in my old Oxford College when I got chatting to a tall and friendly man, casually dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and trainers.  When he introduced himself as ‘Steve, the new College President’, and said it was his first day in the job, I assumed he was joking. In my mind, college Presidents were dour, hunched, silvery figures – Classicists, probably – and certainly never to be seen in a pair of Nikes.

He offered to show me his new home, the President’s Lodging. It was 27 years since I’d last set foot in that ancient pink house and I had a vague, traumatised memory of ticking clocks and squeaking shoes, fusty rooms crammed with polished furniture and grim oil paintings of men in ermine. But the house I toured that day had been transformed: the walls were soft white, the Jacobean floors polished, a beautiful abstract dominated the fireplace and the light streamed in, as if the windows had somehow been enlarged. When he showed me a tiny cupboard, and explained that it was a priest’s hole, where priests from the ruthless Elizabethan priest hunters, I was hooked. I didn’t see Steve again but I was to spend the next three years in his house.

The Master’s Lodging…

Whilst there, I made some alterations of my own: I added a clever nanny, a mute child, a pregnant Danish wife, an eccentric house historian and some odd noises in the night; I moved the priest’s hole up to fictional attic, then moved the whole house to an imaginary alley, and created an entire fictional College for it. And then – perhaps biting the hand that had fed me – I turned the friendly, welcoming Steve into a Machiavellian monster, and Magpie Lane was born.

The real Magpie Lane

Writing Masterclass with Lucy Atkins & Mick Herron at Chipping Norton Literary Festival 2022

10 Apr 2022

Friday 22 April 10:30 – 15:30

Ticket price includes lunch and refreshments

Tickets now on sale



£50.00 each BUY TICKETS

A comprehensive, invaluable creative writing masterclass. Explore the value of planning and plotting basics. Understand why settings matter and how to choose one that suits you. Create believable characters and develop dialogue to build that characterisation. And learn techniques to keep your readers reading.

Mick Herron

10:30 – 12:30
1. To plan or not to plan? (& how to do both). Beginnings and endings. Plotting basics.
2. Settings: why they matter, how to choose one, the difference a setting makes.

12:30 – 13:30

13:30 – 15:30
3. Creating believable characters: how to develop both main characters and extras. Using detail, interactions, backstory & dialogue to build characterisation.
4. Page turning techniques: how to keep the reader reading. How to create intrigue, and raise the stakes.

Lucy Atkins 2021

Talking about writing: Claire Fuller

10 Apr 2022

Claire Fuller is the author Unsettled Ground (winner of the Costa Novel Award 2021, shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction), and three other acclaimed novels Bitter Orange, Swimming Lessons and Our Endless Numbered Days. Claire and I had a conversation about how our novels begin to take shape:

Lucy:  You and I both seem to start our novels with an idea of a place we find interesting or fertile –  and possibly also a hazy idea of a person too – but no plan or plot. I find it hard to pinpoint how, exactly, it goes from that to a novel (though I do know it can be painful and slow). Do you have a sense of how your novels unfold from that starting point – can you try to explain how it works for you? 

Claire:  It is really hard to pinpoint when that hazy idea starts to become a novel. I find that if I look at any of it too directly, it stops or becomes even harder. I have to come at it from an angle, maybe telling myself that I’m only messing around with a few words, seeing what might work or what might not. If I tell myself, ‘I’m starting my new novel now’, then it shies away from me. But I think there comes a point, probably only two or three thousand words in, when I begin to daydream about the story and all the things that could happen further down the line. These tiny ideas often come not when I’m writing but when I’m doing something else – usually reading someone else’s book, and they’re gone so quickly that it’s easy for me to lose them or forget them, so I’ve got into the habit of speaking into my phone and sending myself an email. This morning I sent one which just was, ‘the skin remembers’. My email inbox is full of these little snippets, and they come back to me when I next sit down to write, and some of them help me move forward and so the thing begins to coalesce into a novel. Actually coalesce is a good for what happens – a kind of slow spinning which ideas and thoughts start to stick to. 

I’m really curious how a novel starts to appear for you too. Can you identify with any of what I’m trying to explain? 

Lucy: I know what you mean about it all somehow coalescing and also about not looking directly at it for fear it will evaporate.  Magpie Lane started with the idea that a sinister doula (childbirth companion) would be interesting. I started reading about doulas, and somehow this morphed into a clever, mathematical nanny. The early part of a novel, for me seems to emerge out of this research phase where I do a lot of apparently pointless googling and reading. I have learned to go with anything that I either find myself unreasonably fascinated by, or that sparks a kind of excitement. My worst habit is that I seem to spend a year or more re-writing the first 5 chapters until I can really find the character. It’s horrible. Do you try to set yourself a target of how many words to write a day or anything like that to get yourself to move forwards? How do you cope with the empty page? 

Claire:  Something that sparks a kind of excitement is a really useful tool for me too. At the start of a novel or story I sometimes write a long list of things I’m interested in and often they make it into whatever I’m writing. I remember with Swimming Lessons, writing a list and ‘raining fish’ was on it, and a fish rainstorm made it into the book. I used to set myself a word target each day of a thousand words, but I found that I was writing rubbish in order to achieve it, and then deleting most of it the next day. So now I have a rule that I can edit what I did in the previous writing session, but that I must write some new words. It could be ten new words or a thousand, but I must write forward. If I didn’t set this rule I would just edit and edit and edit what I’ve already got. And I keep a writing diary where for each writing session I record the word count and just one or two sentences about how it went (usually badly!). It’s helpful though to see the word count going up. And I don’t really have a problem with the empty page. Editing the previous session will usually give me enough momentum to keep writing forward. Like going downhill on a bike fast enough to take me up the next rise. 

Talking about writing: Sarah Hilary about writing

23 Jun 2021

Sarah Hilary

Award winning crime author Sarah Hilary has been compared to Ruth Rendell and P.D. James. Her most recent novel Fragile, a psychological thriller with a gothic twist, is beautifully written. Sarah shares her writing tips here.

Lucy: How do you begin a new book – do you start with an idea/ a plan and how does that turn into a novel? 

SH: Nothing so concrete as a plan. Often something as flimsy as a feeling, or an image. Usually, I’ll avoid looking at it too closely, let it play at the corner of my eye, see how it takes shape. When it becomes a character’s voice, that’s when I’ll start writing. I write fast for the first draft to get a backbone (plot) in place. The editing comes later, and is nearly always torturous.

Lucy: So, what do you find the most challenging thing about writing fiction, and how do you overcome it?

SH: Telling the deepest possible story in the shortest number of pages. I love words but have always aspired to brevity, with mixed success. I’m getting better at it. I think each book we write helps us to make fewer of the same mistakes. 

Lucy: What tips would you give to a writer struggling with self-confidence? 

SH: Embrace your mistakes. Be patient with yourself. If you’re really struggling, seek out the support of a writing group

Instagram Creative Writing Class: Character – basics

29 May 2020

Good characters matter more than you might care to know. 

Think about your favourite novels –ones you read years ago. Can you remember the details of the plot? Maybe. But it’s likely to be the characters you really think of. Often writers focus on getting the plot right: we obsess on making it all hang together, on coming up with something surprising and ‘new’, perfecting the twists and timings. But no amount of clever plotting or elegant sentence structures can compensate for weak, dull or clichéd characters. 

– Usually you’ll have 1-2 main characters, some secondary ones, maybe a background cast
– You can find lots of advice online about creating character ‘templates’/ fleshing out what colour your character’s favourite knickers are, or what they have for breakfast. Many people find this useful. I don’t.

I can’t think in the abstract about my characters, certainly not before I’ve created them. Sometimes I just have to write and rewrite and redraft, questioning and exploring a character until I begin to get under their skin and find their voice – think like they think. It took me 5 months of frustration, re-writing endlessly the first 4 chapters of Magpie Lane until I had Dee’s voice. Then one day I got her – I knew who she was, and we were off.

You know it’s working when: they do and think stuff of their own, and lead you in directions you might not have thought of.

Do they have to be likable?

Publishers do sometimes say they want your character to be likeable but I think there are WAY more interesting things for a character to be. And what people want is interesting characters they feel are real, and in whose psyches they feel invested.

Characters need to change – they need AN ARC: they start in one place, go through things, and come out changed.


-Work on dialogue, how they speak

-Find the details: Edna O’Brien once said that the telling details, like the way someone opens a handbag, can tell a reader more than pages of writing.

-Work on what they think of OTHER CHARACTERS – how they react to them, how they feel about what others do.

Four Things to Avoid:

1/ Stereotypes and cliches

2/ Blandness – watch out for the tyranny of ‘likable’ characters

3/ Inconsistency (unless it’s deliberate on your part)

4/ Stasis (they need to change…)


1/ Research. What do they do for a living? Where do they live? What do they know? Find out everything you can about their world so you can inhabit it. In Magpie Lane, Mariah is a wallpaper restorer so I spent hours looking at wallpaper, talking to experts, engaging in the detail. Only a tiny amount made it into the book, but it helped me to know Mariah’s daily life and her inner world.

2/ Find the voice – write, write, write – try things in different ways until they start to take form, until you can hear them in your head and they aren’t you any more.

3/ Stick them in an odd setting – see how they react.

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