For two days I’ve been in the company of writers, at the first Borderlines Book Festival in Carlisle, and my mind is almost too busy to cope. I arrived here by car, plane and train from the Outer Hebrides on Friday night, made my own small contribution to the event running a workshop on ‘Writing Local Fiction’ on Saturday morning, and then, relieved of any responsibility, settled down to enjoy learning from others. What I have learned since then is enough to keep this blog going for weeks, but for now I’ll choose just one element that especially interested me yesterday.

It was a panel discussion presented as a ‘Clash of the Genres’ with two historical novelists, William Ryan and Ben Kane, versus two crime/thriller writers Matt Hilton and Sheila Quigley. The ‘debate’ that developed was less a clash of genres than a clash of approaches to the task of writing. Each of the four very successful writers organised their writing in completely different ways. Matt Hilton turned a childhood addiction to American thrillers into a career emulating that genre from a distance, producing American style thrillers of his own for several years before he ever visited the USA. When he visits there now I wonder how some of his readers receive his broad Cumbrian accent. Hilton has absorbed the details of his specific genre so well that his reproduction of it is perfect. He was never ‘taught’ to write, he just learned it through reading. He draws his inspiration and ideas from visual images, a juxtaposition of landscape and objects and people that sparks the kernel of the story. ‘Who is that man?’ he asks himself. ‘Where has he come from? Why is wearing that, and what’s happening over that hill?’

Sheila Quigley also learned to write through reading, but finds her material not in photographic images from another country but all around her home in the north-east of England, in the street, the pub, the post office; intensely local personal landscapes that she peoples with characters that come into her head fully formed and write their stories through her. One of her readers described her talent as ‘channeling’, as a medium between the spirits of her characters and the words that pour into her laptop. She has never planned any of her work more than four pages ahead, writing down what she sees and hears in her head. She began writing little pieces about the area and ‘sending them off’ – to whom and where I wondered – until one day an agent rang from London and asked if she could write crime fiction set in the north-east. ‘Of course,’ she replied, not knowing the first thing about crime fiction, and many books later she is still going strong. Could that still happen now, or has publishing become too risk-averse?

Historical novelist Ben Kane was a vet in a former life who grew tired of the long hours and broken weekends on call and looked for another way to earn a living. Boyhood in Ireland – with no television – had brought a passion for books and history that led him inexorably towards  as he put it, ‘men with swords’ and that’s what he writes about, mostly the Roman Army and Empire. Not content with sedentary research, and as a way of keeping fit, he decided to do his research experientially, dressing as a Roman legionary to walk Hadrian’s Wall for example, to get the full sensation of such a life. Whatever he does, it works, and he obviously loves every minute of it.

Finally, chairing the panel with charm and grace, was William Ryan, also Irish, also a unstoppable reader as a child who ended up barrister before he too tired of the long hours and heavy demands and turned his hand to something else. This time the passion was Soviet Russia in the 1930s, with an underlying theme befitting a barrister, the search for truth and justice. His hero, Captain Korolev, shares that passion, in the unpromising and dangerous context of Stalin’s dictatorship. Research for Ryan is both digital and personal, and the planning meticulous, such a contrast to the unplanned narratives from Quigley. Of the four, only Ryan had subjected himself to a ‘Creative Writing’ course, and though he ‘learned a great deal from it’ – he is a very polite man – he was offered during a two year course no guidance whatsoever about the structure of full-length fiction.

There’ll be more in future posts about the usefulness or otherwise of ‘Creative Writing’ as an academic discipline with qualifications. For now, I need to reflect on the diversity of how writers approach their work, and how I do so myself. In my morning workshop yesterday I tried to share the approach I can see developing for me with the three books now done and a fourth beginning to take shape. Research? Yes, early on to get a feel for the period and then again later to answer specific questions that the emerging narrative throws up. Planning ahead? Essential for me, but still allowing that in the end the characters themselves may react in unpredicted ways, bending the story to fit their demands. And what of the characters themselves? The most important lesson I have learned and acted upon has been to start to write not about the plot but about the life stories of my characters, their childhoods, their parents, schooling, likes and dislikes, how they speak, dress, walk. Only a fraction of all this might find its way into the story, but the story is enriched by it. It is that deeper understanding of who your people are, filtered through the imagination and onto the page, that allows those same people to take your little plot and make it something worthwhile and interesting. I don’t think Dan Brown ever understood that, or maybe he didn’t need to as his books sold in the millions with some of the weakest characters and the most clunky dialogue that ever appeared between book covers. I’m trying not to think about the implications of that.