When I have an idea for a story, I write it down. What seems blindingly obvious as a plot line one day is sometimes nowhere to be found in my brain the next day. My office is filled with piles of newspaper clippings and scrawled notes which – when I return to them – often fall far short of the description ‘inspiration’.
My research for The Pool of Unease consisted of long conversations with a Chinese private detective, and with street children. I walked endlessly around Anjialou, and around the perimeter fences of steel plants in Beijing and in Britain. I Googled constantly.
I have three children, so I write during the school day in term time. In theory a school day means eight clear hours, but it takes me forever just to turn my brain around from getting the children out the door to writing. This means that I’m just getting into my stride when the children come home from school…
I used to be a journalist, but writing fiction is very different – you have no facts to form the framework of your story. Everything that exists on the page comes from your head, and it doesn’t work if your head is cluttered. I can write in anonymous places – on trains, at airports, in hotel rooms – but it’s most difficult in my own home, where there are so many other things I ought to be doing.
In desperation I hired an office. The landlord has kitted it out with a tv, but I never turn it on. There was a phone, but I unplugged it – I have my mobile for emergencies. I didn’t want internet access, but my neighbour’s wifi connection seeps in and saps my willpower. Sometimes I bribe myself with BBC radio channeled through the computer to get myself to sit down at my desk, but I have to turn it off once I start writing. I listen to music sometimes, but nothing too dramatic or too verbal, or it distracts me. When I get stuck, I go for a walk, three circuits around Side park, or along the smelly river.
I don’t plan far ahead in my plot – I tried, but I get bored. It’s much more interesting not to know quite what comes next. I have a broad idea of the shape of the book, and where it starts and where it’s going. For all the struggle to find time and space, the magic of it is in sitting in front of the computer and letting my fingers loose on the keyboard, and looking up some time later to find three hours have passed.