Katie Fforde, Jill Mansell, Veronica Henry and Fiona Walker at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Monday 23rd April 2012

Hail, sunshine, a myriad of the nation’s top authors and some delicious cakes – the inaugural Chipping Norton Literary Festival had all these things, and much, much more.

Held in one of Oxfordshire’s prettiest towns, this was one of the best literary festivals I’ve been to. Fun, inspiring, friendly, and superbly organised by Emily Carlisle (who only had the idea for the event last August) and her team.

I booked for two events, one on Contemporary Women’s Fiction and the other on Discipline, Displacement and Dipsomania (great title), so I’m going to write about them both this week.

The Contemporary Women’s Fiction panel kicked off bright and early on Saturday morning and featured four of our bestselling novelists – Katie Fforde, Jill Mansell, Veronica Henry and Fiona Walker. They know each other well and for a riveting hour the conversation, chaired by writer Jane Wenham-Jones, flowed. The quartet, who have written more than 70 books between them, covered everything from how many words a day they turn out to where and when they write.

Jane began the discussion by asking the secret of their “phenomenal success.” “I have no idea,” said Jill candidly. “I love spending time with my characters because I love them and I think the readers love them as well. After all, if you’re reading a book and you don’t care about the characters why would you carry on reading the book?” Katie said she wouldn’t want to write about unpleasant characters – “life is quite tough and our books are like time off from real life.” Veronica revealed she writes “from the heart” and about the life “I want to lead,” while Fiona declared that “if I don’t have that desperate urge to get back to my imaginery characters, then why would anyone else?”

Next it was on to the thorny question of how they all write. Katie likes to start writing before anyone else is up and about and before the phone starts ringing. She also pointed out the importance of “thinking time” and said 2,000 words a day is her “absolute maximum.” But conversely, Jill Mansell said she “couldn’t begin to write first thing.” Unlike the others, she writes all her books by hand in fountain pen and her daughter types up her manuscripts for her. She writes in bed or sitting on the sofa with the TV on and does 1,000 words a day.

The whole audience sat up in astonishment when Fiona said she sometimes manages 5,000 words a day. One day she even wrote 10,000 (wow!) The reason is that she works “in binges.” She writes very long books and sets herself three or four months a year to write her first draft. She avoids the radio and TV and doesn’t like any distractions, apart from her two small children, who peer through the glass door of her office and come dashing in to talk to her.

Meanwhile Veronica works in her north Devon dining room, looking out across the sea. She writes 1,000 to 2,000 words a day – “1,000 is satisfactory, 2,000 is fantastic,” she said. “But writers can be working all the time. You can be thinking about your characters as you walk round Sainsbury’s.”

It was fascinating to hear how they all began their writing careers – a question that elicited four very different answers. After working in a hospital for 18 years, Jill Mansell picked up a magazine and read an interview with a woman whose life had been transformed by writing a string of bestselling novels. She tried her hand at writing a Mills & Boon novel – “but they kept saying there wasn’t enough romance and too much humour.” She astutely decided to carry on in that vein and has now written 23 novels.

Katie took eight years to get published (now look at her – she’s written 19 bestsellers and Summer of Love recently won this year’s Contemporary Romantic Novel award). Veronica began her career at The Archers before becoming a scriptwriter for TV series like Heartbeat and Holby City. And Fiona wrote her first novel straight out of university. She moved back home to her parents’ house in Berkshire, worked part-time in a saddlery and, when she’d finished her book, sent it to five agents. The agent who snapped her up sold her novel in three days.

Last of all, Jane Wenham-Jones asked them for their top tips for wannabe novelists.

Veronica Henry – “Get on with it – it’s no good just keeping it in your head.”

Fiona Walker – “Finish it. There are so many half-finished novels languishing in drawers.”

Jill Mansell – “Use a timeline – it works brilliantly for me. And I don’t write in chapters. It’s far easier to write your story and then look for the natural breaks afterwards.”

Katie Fforde – “Read a lot – and persevere. If you want something enough you’ll achieve it.”

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