Liz Nugent: How I Learned to Write

Liz Nugent: How I Learned to Write

Every writer approaches their work differently and I can only say what works for me. I always start with a character and the aftermath of action. A major incident has happened and I examine how that character reacts to it. I distil everything down to one sentence so that in the first line, the reader will be able to capture the essence of the central character, and know exactly who they are dealing with.

In the case of Lying in Wait, we are introduced to Lydia with the line: ‘My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it.’ These are not the words of a remorseful or warm-hearted woman.

Very quickly, on the next page, we learn that, in fact, Lydia dealt the fatal blow to Annie Doyle. So we are not dealing with someone who takes responsibility, is reliable, or truthful.

But by the end of the chapter, we see a contradiction in Lydia. She is callously in control, but she adores her son and wishes to protect him at all costs. So, she’s not all bad, right? She’s a great mother. Or is she?

Everything comes down to character in the end. The more damaged they are, the more interesting they are to me. I prefer not to believe in people being ‘evil’, so while I write fairly sociopathic characters, I try to give them an intriguing back-story that might explain their neuroses. Lydia has so many. Her attachment to her family home, kept like a museum; her agoraphobia; her obsession with her only son; her social anxiety and her relentless need to be in control.

In a character’s course of action, I will often look at the next logical step that person might take, and then I find a reason for that not to be possible. When characters make bad decisions, that’s when you get drama.

I keep dialogue as naturalistic as possible. People tend to speak in short bursts and interrupt each other all the time (well, in my family they do, but then, we have appalling manners), so conversations overlap. In real life, people do not speechify, so I try not to have more than three or four lines of dialogue from a character at a time.

It is said that you should write what you know, and yes, I do draw from my own experiences. I grew up in a large house and attended a private school that our family could not afford. I worked in an Unemployment Benefit Office in London. And I grew up in the 1980s, which was a scary time to be an adolescent. I remember being terrified that nuclear war could break out. John Lennon was shot dead and both the Pope and US President Ronald Reagan survived assassination attempts. On the domestic front, there was a very disturbed man living next door to us, who would steal (women’s) clothes off our washing line, and once held my siblings at knifepoint, so, for me, I spent most of the 1980s wondering when and how I would be murdered. I didn’t actually relax until he died in 1990.

In terms of plot, I am a very impatient writer and I don’t like to waste words so everything must drive the story onwards. Very occasionally, I allow myself a little tangent, and offer an opinion on some matter but only if it coincides with the opinion of the character I am writing. People talk a lot about ‘twists’ in books. I don’t set out to write twists necessarily but I like to defy expectations and surprise the reader, and myself.

Readers have commented that they never saw the end of Lying in Wait coming, that they could never have predicted it. Well, it was a surprise to me too. It came to me as I was writing it. I could have tied everything up in a neat bow and let some characters live as happily ever after as they could, but where’s the fun in that?

To finish, I’d like to hold a little awards ceremony for my characters. You may have your own ideas and I’d love to hear them, but here’s mine:

Character most like me: Laurence is the character I most identify with. He is scared and he’s a coward and he hates confrontation. Me too.

Character I want to be: Karen is beautiful and strong and brave, and capable of enormous love and generosity.

Character I would most like to have a drink with: Helen is outrageous and speaks her mind regardless of the consequences. She is inherently quite selfish, but she would keep me amused over a few gin and tonics.

Most gormless character: Malcolm. Lydia’s psychiatrist boyfriend is so easily manipulated and so bad at his job that he was unable to see quite how deranged Lydia is.

Character I hope got a happy ending: Bridget. There was no space to write it in the book, but I’m guessing Bridget would have become a minor celebrity in her home town. She might have written a book or had her photographs of Laurence published and gone on a chat show circuit to tell the story of their relationship. I hope she married well and had six children.

Character I would want in my corner: Laurence’s granny Eleanor. She wants the best for him and makes him change his ways whether he wants to or not (this is quite like the relationship I have with my editor).

Character I would not like to meet in a dark alley: Lydia. Ever since I finished writing the book, I still find myself wondering what she’s up to. I wish she’d leave me alone.