Best-selling author Freya North recently joined us for a lunchtime masterclass where she answered Stylist readers' questions (below) on all aspects of writing, from researching plots and characters to dealing with writer's block. With 11 bestsellers to her name over the last 16 years, Freya is acclaimed for her ability to paint colourful characters who give resonance to contemporary themes as well as a modern take on traditional tales of love, family and friendship. Her works have been translated into many languages and her UK sales stand at over two million. Freya North's twelfth novel, Rumours, is out now.
Research, plotting and planning
How much research do you do before writing a novel? Liz
I like to think research is a true perk of my career - I indulge myself with topics I'm personally interested in and I make sure I read everything there is and meet the people involved. That was lots of fun on the Tour de France for Cat - all those glistening thighs and lashings of Lycra!
Where do you get your plot ideas for your books? Katie
I don't tend to plan them - in Pillow Talk I read a tiny snippet about a sleepwalker and that was it, I was off. I tend to find my characters first - and they seem to come complete with their own adventures to share.
Book number 13 is being researched... it's pretty bohemian too! Lots of fun and possibly back to a Derbyshire setting which just might mean a cameo for the McCabes.
I love your books and wonder, do you plot and plan your books from beginning to end? Carrie
My English teacher would despair of me... I NEVER plot or plan a book. I start with a tiny nugget, and my main characters, and then I write "Chapter One" and I put my fingers on the keyboard and I say "Okydoke, here we go!" I like the books to unfold organically... I like to see where my characters take me!
I always love that you set your books in interesting places in Britain - especially the North East!! How do you decide where to set books and where is your favourite? Harriet
I LOVE the UK... for a tiny landmass, it's so varied. I'm really at home writing in locations I love - and the North East is very special to me. Rumours is set in the countryside and villages of Hertfordshire where I now live.
When you first started writing (or being published anyway!), your books always centred around a specific character e.g. Sally, Chloe, Polly and of course, our wonderful McCabe girls! Do you think you'll ever go back and see what they are all up to? I know you kinda did this with Home Truths, which tied up a lot of loose ends for the girls and although I'd love to see them again, I think I might end up shedding a tear or two, knowing how poorly Django is. But what about the earlier girls? I'd love to know what Polly and Sally are getting up to these days. Emma
I like it when past characters pop up - and there's a what happened next section on my website. But it's fun for me to meet new characters... that's not to say Vita, Stella and Tess won't reappear... watch this space!
Do you ever base your characters on people you know? Kelly
I have a little sign in my office which says 'Careful! or you might end up in my novel!' As a rule, I like to make people up... but of course a writer will draw upon experience and the people - good and bad - who we know. There's an expression 'the pen is mightier than the sword'... I love that!
Do you choose names for your characters that you like personally? I love their names, in fact Thea and Arlo were on the lists when I was pregnant :) Vicki
Yes, Vicki, I have loads of fun with names - Arlo means manly. Cadwallader is just so great to say. Tess and Petra - well, they just really conjured up the characters. And Xander in Rumours - I think it's a really sexy name.
Out of all your novels, which is your favourite character and why? Lynn
Favourite character?! That would be like having a favourite child! I do love Django - the eccentric uncle from the McCabe books Cat, Fen, Pip and Home Truths.
The writing process
When did you start writing your first novel and why did you start? Did you always want to write a book? Fiona
I started because I simply had the story to tell - about a woman my age who's always been homey and good and wants to try to reinvent herself as a femme fatale. It also seemed a much more interesting and lively option than the PhD in art history I was meant to be writing. So I ditched the scholarship, went on the dole and wrote that novel which went on to be Sally and was first published in 1996.
Are you disciplined about writing i.e. write a set amount of words a day or write at a particular time? Also did you ever battle your inner critic. I am just starting on my first novel and am at 5,000 words and is this any good. Any tips? Ros
I'm very disciplined - I'm a single mum and basically write between the school run. If I don't feel like writing, I FORCE myself to. It's my job. My publishers have a deadline - and my readers want a novel to read! I'm methodical about making sure I'm in 'the zone' when I'm writing, whether this results in 500 words or 5000.
In an interview, George R R Martin suggested there were two types of writer: architects and gardeners, he said he was a gardener which is why he takes so long to write a book. What kind are you? Sally
Great question - great quote. I'm fairly swift once I get going.
When you force yourself to write - when you have writer's block - do you work on what you're currently working on or is it a stream of consciousness like a journal? Thea
Bizarre - I have a Thea and a Sally asking me questions! You guys were of course characters in Sally and Love Rules! No, no stream of consciousness for me - I'm little more than my characters' PA and I have to tell their tale for them.
You've written so many books now, do you think your writing has changed over time? Kelly
I think - I HOPE - my turn-of-phrase has become more and more accomplished. I also feel more adept at tackling a larger cast of characters. I also try not to use the adjective 'verdant' as much as I used to!
I've heard some writers say that they can't read other books while they're writing - do you? Katie
Yup - that's the same for me. I tend to read mags whilst I'm writing a book as it's lovely switch off time for me but still keeps me up to date with 'zeitgeist'. And though I don't live in the city, I always make sure I beg, borrow or steal a copy of Stylist each week. How FAB is this mag and it's flipping' FREE.
Do you ever feel you have to write what people want you to write, rather than what you want to write? Lynn
I only ever write the kind of book I want to read... I'm just so happy that ultimately, it turns out loads of you want to read just that too! No - my lovely editor pretty much leaves it to me... tho' she might have something to say if I were to pitch a space alien love story with a murder...!
How much input do you get into the look of your books - Rumours is beautiful! Becky
Isn't the cover glorious?! Now THAT'S what I call a lovely 'shade of grey'! I worked as a picture researcher when I was unpublished - and became very opinionated about covers I truly think all readers SHOULD judge a book by its cover because it says a lot about the author's and publisher's commitment to the book. Thank you so much!
How do you approach editing and is there a big difference in length between your first and last draft? Laura
Editing is ok for me as I'm very pedantic - my publisher only ever sees the third draft and thereafter there are no big changes, just a bit of tightening, or what she calls 'signposting' - where I might add a few lines to help the readers. We DID have to edit the sex scenes in Fen - I was pregnant at the time and my hormones were haywire and that book was VERY VERY RUDE... never mind Shades of blimmin' Grey - it was a riot of technicolour... Perhaps I should publish the unedited version...!
If there is one piece of advice you'd give someone writing their first novel, what would it be? Emma
The one piece of advice I'd give is to write because you simply HAVE TO WRITE... not because you fancy 'being a writer' - it can be an isolating career. I have loads of tips in the Advice section on my website freyanorth.com REMEMBER - if it could happen to me it CAN happen for you. Hang on in there.
Writer's block and other issues
Have you ever experienced writer's block and if so, how do you overcome it? Laura
Writer's block can have many forms - I've never been stuck for what to write though, with Chances I found it tough because I was so tired - my mum was ill, I'd split with my partner and I'd moved from town to country. It was the first time I truly appreciated how much emotional energy is required to write.
I want to know where do you do your writing? How do you stop yourself getting distracted? Katie
I used to write from my local library - I'd write the sex scenes very quickly in case anyone was reading over my shoulder. Now I write from a stable in my back garden. To ward off distraction, I have no internet in there, no fridge, no phone. Just a desk and loads of pictures connected to what I'm researching.
When are you at your most creative? Is your creativity blocked by looming deadlines? Liz
I can't indulge myself with 'creative moments' - I can't afford to wait for the 'muse' to alight. I basically have to write in the time I have - and, in that, deadlines help. I don't procrastinate. I simply have to get on and write the blimmin' book, even on days I really don't feel like it!
How did you keep your confidence up in the face of four years of rejections? Penny
It was tough, those four years - but actually the writing itself sustained me. I wrote Sally and half of Chloe before I landed a deal. I made ends meet by temping which meant I had time to write too. I'd write my novels whilst working on the switchboard of a variety of bizarre offices in London!
Inside Freya's world
Could you describe your typical writing day? Liz
Liz my typical day is MANIC! Feed the kids, race them to school, walk the dog. Write. Ride the horse. Write. Collect the kids. Feed the kids and animals. See to my Facebook page. Feed myself. Go crazy trying to find the corkscrew....!
Who are your favourite authors? Did they inspire you to become a writer? Kerry
Love John Irving - such a brilliant storyteller and always marries sensitivity with quite debauched elements! Love Maggie O'Farrell. And love LAURIE GRAHAM - she's ACE.
Who do you think is the best hero in literature? Also, who do you prefer Brontë or Austen? Kelly
I'm a Brontë girl. Similarly, I like the Stones more than the Beatles...if you know what I mean! My favourite literary hero would be Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. He's such a loveable rogue, such a cad.... but if he came swaggering into my front room, I'd be helpless not to give in... ;-)
What book are you reading at the moment, Freya? Lynn
At the mo', I'm reading A Humble Companion by Laurie Graham. It's brill - set in the court of George III and seen through the eyes of a 'companion' to one of the princesses. Nellie is such a feisty character and Laurie Graham is a genius at blending fact and fiction. 5 *****
Are there any plans to make any of your books into films and are you doing any book signings? Naomi
So far, only one of my novels has been optioned - and that was Polly many years ago. It would certainly tickle me if my books were made into a film - who doesn't want their red-carpet moment!
I know you don't like the term chick lit (nor do I - I think it makes both the reader and author sound like unintelligent bimbos!) but a lot of these kind of books started cropping up around the time Sally was published - do you feel almost like the 'creator' of this kind of genre? Emma
No not really - I think in the mid 90s there was a huge appetite for contemporary fiction written by younger authors in the language that was theirs.
Would you ever like to write in a very different genre and would you use a pen name? @fivegoglamping
I'd love to write children's adventure stories... and those I'd publish under a different name!
What's the best thing about being a writer? Lynn
When I was at school I was constantly told off for daydreaming - essentially, that is now what I'm paid to do. I love the freedom to write what I want to write about - and to have that lovely long word count to do so.