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.

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

Talking about writing: Mick Herron

17 Apr 2020

Planning a novel: A conversation with Mick Herron.

Mick Herron is the award-winning author of the bestselling Slough House series of witty spy novels, which has been made into an Apple TV+ series, Slow Horses, starring Gary Oldman and Kristen Scott-Thomas. Herron is widely considered the John Le Carré of his generation. We talked about how we plan, or don’t plan, our books.

Mick Herron

How much should you plan a novel before you start?

LA: I always thought you had to have an idea that included a beginning, middle and end before you started writing a novel. It took me years to work out that this isn’t the case. All four of my novels have evolved from the vaguest of nuggets – a place, a character, something I’m just weirdly interested in (eg. killer whales or beetles or priest’s holes). The end result has been almost unrecognisable from the first idea. Is this something you find too? I have a feeling you might set out with a bit more of a road map than I do?

MH: More like a sat nav: I ask for a destination, and it takes me on a route of its own devising. I was remembering a line from the movie Sunset Boulevard the other day – it’s a long time since I’ve seen it, but the line’s delivered by the screenwriter character, played by William Holden, and goes something like “The most beautiful script I ever wrote was all about Okies in the Dust Bowl. By the time it reached the screen, it was set in a lifeboat.” He was complaining about the iniquities faced by the writer in Hollywood, but it strikes me that it’s not such a bad image of the creative process, and the way the original idea behind a novel – say – can become transformed or even discarded in the course of the book’s being written. I’m thinking of some of the talks we had when you were first planning Magpie Lane. A lot of those original ideas never made it to the final page, but they remain part of that novel inasmuch as they were necessary to its creation.

LA: Yes, I’m trying to figure out how it all does develop without a plan. I think I tend to get interested in a setting, and then find the character’s voices (with Magpie Lane I spent 5-6 months rewriting the first five chapters till I got Dee’s voice). Then I’ll start researching a few bizarre things that fascinate me – in this case, I remember getting very into wallpaper restoration and Oxford’s secret graveyards. I don’t write chronologically. I think I generally stay one small step ahead of myself, but often something will become really interesting to me, and then I’ll find it turning into a whole section, or even a bigger theme, and the whole novel shifts and goes in a different direction.  This means I expand the book from within. For a long time the opening line of Magpie Lane was: ’That was the day I found her in the priest’s hole eating dead bees.’ Now that’s at the start of Chapter 18. 

MH: And a very striking line it is too – I remember thinking it should be slapped on the front cover to pull readers in . . . I’m with you on character being key to a novel’s development, but I’ve also found, over and above that, that every novel has its own voice, even when it’s being written as part of a series. The mood, the tone, the colouring, has to be distinct from what’s gone before. Writing standalone books, as you do, requires even more of a tonal shift, and these ‘bizarre’ interests you follow help you achieve that, both in Magpie Lane and The Night Visitor. I love it when authors invest their books with unexpected enthusiasms, whether that’s old wallpaper or exotic beetles or whatever, and when such interests are seamlessly integrated into the storytelling, the results can dazzle. I assume that the development of such ideas in itself helps shape the novel, pointing out directions that didn’t seem available at the outset?

LA: Yes, it definitely does. I think it really leads the way. So, what about you? You don’t think of a plot in advance, but you know the destination. How does that actually work when you sit at your computer each day? Do you have a sense of a scene you want to write next?  How do you actually progress? I’m also interested in how different it must be when you’re deeply familiar with characters from the outset.  Do you feel they have a life of their own? 

MH: Not a life of their own, exactly – I find I still have to do all the work – but their paper-bound existences do at least have defined parameters: I know what sort of things they might do, what things they might say. So that helps. As for plotting, I do as much as I can before starting to write, but that falls far short of being an actual detailed outline. It’s more a series of disconnected events, like an overlong trailer for a movie. In doing the writing, I find the connections (I hope). The daily work often feels like looking for the solution to a problem I had no idea existed before then, which is sometimes trivial (where is this character’s car parked?) and sometimes not (how does this character know this other character is lying?) It’s not that I prefer to work this way; it’s more that this is the only way I seem able to (with this series, anyway). Is it like that for you? Or do you feel you have choices?

LA: I generally feel like things are wide open. The strange thing is that as I try to answer these questions, I realise how little of my writing happens in the conscious brain. It’s all a bit hazy. A lot of it is about sitting down, day after day – getting past my self-doubt, and the intimidating fact of this blank page – and playing around, watching scenes take shape. This doesn’t seem to happen in my conscious mind. This is going to sound totally pretentious, but when it’s really working well it’s a bit like what I imagine lucid dreaming would be like  – I’m kind of steering, but not in control. The serious, conscious work happens later in the process when I have to tighten it all up, and think hard about plot, and what information is revealed, and when, and the logistics of it all  – those parked cars. 

MH: And there’s the elephant in the room . . .the degree to which we don’t actually know what we’re doing; or, more accurately, how we’re doing what we’re doing. A lot of the problem-solving, I find, goes on in the back of the brain – if the plot mechanics are seizing up, I don’t sit at my desk and force myself to focus, I go out for a walk. By the time I get back, I’ve generally found how to get things going again. This sounds oddly passive, but I’m sure it’s common to many writers. All the really hard work has long since been done by the time we pick up our pens. We were doing it without knowing it: it started when we picked up our first story books, without a parent or teacher there to put it in our hands.

Or it started when we put those books down, and let the story continue in our heads. . .