Dinah Jefferies: My Writing Day

Dinah Jefferies: My Writing Day

I live in an ordinary Victorian terraced side street in the middle of a town. There’s traffic and dust, but once you pass into the hall and make your way through to the back of the house and out into the garden, a magical world unfolds. You could be in a Cotswold village. It’s peaceful, not overlooked and, most importantly, I always have my early morning cup of tea there. We have a large awning outside the kitchen, so even in winter I pull on an extra jumper over my pyjamas, throw on a very thick dressing gown and slip my feet into some furry boots.

But the best time for me is the tail end of summer when the scent of jasmine drifts across to where I sit on my favourite bench, and the climbing roses are blowsy and fat. Swifts, swallows and martins pluck insects from the air as they pass, and gangs of pigeons wheel and somersault from roof ridge to chimney pot.

I watch every movement in the garden: the shiver of leaves as a breeze intrudes, my terrier making a dash for the birds as he defends his territory. I feel almost feral, watching and listening. It’s the most brilliant way to start my writing day. It transports me into a quieter world – a meditative state where my imagination can take flight.

When I make my way up to my writing room, I lean out of the window to smell the fragrance of rosemary, oregano and lemon balm from the herbs in pots on the patio below, then I close the windows, draw the curtains and turn off the phone. Sometimes, if I’m really itching to get going, I won’t even have a shower and opt instead for a bath before lunch. I don’t read my emails, I don’t do any social media, I just write. I’m not easily distracted and I never avoid writing, even when the going gets tough. That’s when I dig deeper. Writing isn’t always a breeze. It can be tricky, upsetting, demanding. Writing, like any love, can trigger all manner of tensions within you. After all, you’re plumbing your own psyche, your own heart, your own soul. I write about deeply emotional subjects: missing children, lost love, betrayal, guilt, and I explore what it means to love during difficult periods of history, though I aim to infuse my books with the beauty of life too. That’s why I need the garden to inspire me. It’s the contrast between the pain and the joy.

I have to be wrenched from my chair at lunchtime. I’m fortunate that my husband takes care of all the cooking and that, as the morning progresses, cups of tea or coffee will appear at my elbow, all too often left to go cold. I’ve been told by my physiotherapist that I have to get up and move around every half-hour. That’s almost impossible when a scene is unfolding in front of my eyes and I need to get it down before it fades. I write very quickly, albeit with only two fingers, but the images come and go so rapidly I just do it and, in the early stages, I don’t worry about how well it’s written. The first draft is terrifying. Weeks and weeks of it. I fly by the seat of my pants in a state of suspense and I don’t even know what I’ve got until it’s done.

So why do I say writing is so wonderful? Because I love the stage that comes after the first draft. I love the editing. I love the part when my ideas are down in black and white – maybe in places there are just skeleton scenes – and I love it because gradually, during the course of getting that first draft down, my characters have become real people to me. I care about them and hope my readers will too. My writing day is limited only by how many hours my eyes can cope with staring at a screen. After lunch, I may write until about three and then take the dog for a walk, before catching up with any emails, my social media and my husband, whom I’ve ignored all day.

If I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing, and my writing day continues while I sleep too. I’ll wake at three in the morning with an idea, or the final solution to a problem I’ve been struggling with. I dream in dialogue. Dialogue that I actually edit during the dream. Though when I try to remember it the next day, it’s usually gone or was utter nonsense. I’m terribly antisocial and might solve a tricky storyline while in mid-conversation with a friend, and then have to rush off to write it down before I forget.

My writing room isn’t tidy and probably reflects my mental state. There are piles of novels I keep intending to read, dozens of notebooks, a huge assortment of pens with or without ink, scraps of paper, research books and wall charts crammed with detail and possible scenes. It looks chaotic, but I like to be able to see everything. I don’t want to keep my notes on the computer where I can’t spot them as I pass by. And, even as I’m writing my current book, I’ll have an idea brewing at the back of my mind for the next one, so there will be jottings about that Blu-tacked to the wall lest I forget.

The icing on the cake of my day is when an email pops up from a reader who has written to me via my website. There’s nothing nicer than hearing from someone who has taken the time to write and tell you how much they’ve enjoyed your book. And although I write because I love to do it, without readers to enter into my story world it would all be for nothing. A book only really takes off when it lives in another person’s heart and head. Then it stops being my book and becomes yours. So thank you for reading. You’ve made my writing day.

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