By BRUCE DENNILL
In Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton, the unthinkable happens in a rural English village in the middle of a snowstorm: the school is under siege. From the wounded headmaster barricaded in the library, to teenage Hannah in love for the first time, to the police psychologist who must identify the gunmen, to the terrified eight-year-old Syrian refugee, to the kids sheltering in the school theatre still rehearsing Macbeth, all must find the courage to stand up to evil and try to save the people they love.
Lupton is the author of Sister, a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime, a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller, winner of the Strand Magazine critics’ award and the Richard and Judy Book Club Readers’ Choice Award. Her next two books, Afterwards and The Quality of Silence, were Sunday Times bestsellers. Her books have been published in over 30 languages.
How do you know when an idea is worthy of developing into a book? With songs or other shorter formats, you can get to a point of knowing if something will work relatively soon, but getting several thousand words into a manuscript and then deciding it’s a waste of time is far more frustrating.
I had written about 80,000 words of Three Hours and still wasn’t sure I had a book at all. It was nerve-wracking. Instead of a book, I had written the stories of ten different characters during a school lockdown – for example, the headmaster who lies wounded in the library; a teenage boy frantically searching for his little brother; a mother desperately waiting to hear from her missing son; a class of children held hostage and the police officer tasked with getting them all out alive. I had to hope that I could put these various stories together, threading them around each other, to form a novel. It took many attempts and a huge amount of rewriting, but eventually I achieved what I had hoped for.
When you do decide that a theme or story is worth exploring, how do you go about unpacking that?
I have to feel invested in the story and really care about it. I’m going to spend two years writing it, so it has to matter enough to me personally. In this novel, I wanted to explore hatred, prejudice and violence – which I saw all around me in the real world. But I also wanted to portray the strength of community and love in the face of it. I unpack the themes through showing characters and their relationship to one another, for example heroism and selflessness is motivated by love in the book. The school as a tightly woven community is a microcosm for society as a whole. I also use theatre to help me explore the story I’ve chosen. During the three-hour siege, a group of teenagers and their teacher, who are relatively safe in the school theatre , continue with their rehearsal of Macbeth. The themes in the play mirror what is happening in the school. From the beginning, I had Macbeth as a reference point, though the reader doesn’t need to know the play to read the book.
Research: how much do you do, and how detailed is it? And how much of it is internet-based, given that fact-checking may not be a priority on many websites?
I do a great deal of detailed research and use reputable organisations for help. I don’t ever use website facts, without checking the sources. I have a senior police adviser who makes sure the police procedural side of things is accurate. In my novel, a character goes onto the dark web and I did that too, and found how easy it is. I also use real-life tweets and newspaper articles in the book, to make it as authentic as I can.
How much planning do you do before beginning in earnest? Do you have to know where you’re going to end up before you start?
I start with characters and an idea and start with writing from a character’s point of view to hear his or her voice. I’ll do that with each of the main characters. And when I’ve ‘caught’ them, then I plan the book and how it’s going to work. Plotting it is Iike a chess game for me, planning several moves ahead and all the permutations. I was a TV and film writer for many years, so I’m used to doing scene breakdowns. For Three Hours, I had a minute-by-minute breakdown of what was happening with each character in the story. I went over the three hours by about six minutes.
If the hundreds of memes about writing are to be believed, sitting down and actually putting words on a page is perhaps the toughest part of the job. What are the distractions you battle with the most when trying to work?
I am like a duckling, If the first thing I see in the morning is my novel I will write it. But if I see emails from friends, interesting tweets, then I’ll be distracted by that. So I try to make sure I don’t get distracted! I also have a large cat that tends to sit on my keyboard if he can to interrupt.
What’s the weirdest or craziest way you’ve found to avoid meeting a deadline?
I was on my way to a meeting when our train hit the bridge it was meant to be going under. It’s called a ‘bridge bash’ which I didn’t know then, but I do now. No-one was hurt but I’m not sure my ‘bridge bash’ excuse was believed.
Daily goals: what, for you, is an acceptable daily target, in terms of word-count or the quality of what you complete, be it a sentence, a paragraph or a chapter?
It depends what stage I am in the novel. When I start out, good ideas about characters, plot, location or themes are all that matters. Just one really good idea scribbled in a notebook makes a day worth it because you are putting down the deepest foundations of the novel. Then I spend time on structure. For me, good structure is mainly about knowing when something doesn’t work, and starting afresh. I often feel I’m going backwards rather than forwards, but it’s all part of the process. Writing the actual novel is the joy, and I hope to write about 1000 words a day. But I’d rather write 100 words I’m happy with, than 1000 I’m not, just so I could tick the word count. I don’t like author twitter feeds saying how many words they’ve written that day – because I feel hopeless in comparison!
What have you found are the best ways to get this done?
I write what I feel in the mood for. So it might be a plotting day, or a writing of the landscape day, or when I hear the characters voices really clearly and I write down what they say. If I’m in the mood for plotting there’s no point writing a description of a storm, and vice versa.
Marketing new books – print or digital: what fresh ideas do you think could be introduced to the process to make new work more accessible and appealing to both new and established readers?
I’ve been interested during the Covid-19 lockdown to see on-line literary festivals opening up. I think it’s fantastic for readers who can’t travel to be able to virtually attend, and for writers, especially those with caring commitments, to be able to talk from their home. I hope this continues but also that we also get to meet readers face to face again.