Two years ago I made what felt like an Olympian leap from working as a journalist to writing novels.
In the space of just a few weeks I went from knocking on strangers’ doors, chasing exclusive stories, turning copy around at break-neck speed, and trying not to go over the usual 1,200 word count, to suddenly being commissioned by a major publishing house to write 100,000 words of pure fiction to be delivered in six months.
I had never written any kind of fiction. The past two decades had been spent writing factual articles, exposes, and investigations, and retelling ordinary people’s inspirational true life stories. Needless to say I was hugely excited but equally terrified.
It would have been far more daunting, though, had it not been for the skills I had learnt as a news reporter and writing features for the women’s weeklies. Interviewing people day-in day-out over many years meant that writing dialogue had become second nature to me, which was a godsend when bringing characters to life. And meeting such a wide variety of women and men, young and old – from heroin-addicted prostitutes working the streets of Rochdale, to academics talking about the source of the River Nile in a plush apartment in Knightsbridge – I also had plenty of material to draw upon.
It is drummed into all journalists from the start of their careers how imperative it is to engage the reader from the off – not letting them go until the very end – with accuracy coming a close second. The obsessive fact checking that comes as part of journalism made the amount of research required for writing historical fiction not half as overwhelming as it could have been.
But most of all I have my journalism to thank for helping me achieve my lifelong dream of becoming an author in the first place. It was because of some personal articles I had published in the national press that I came to the attention of my agent, who immediately signed me up and introduced me to my publisher.
It is now eighteen months since the publication of my debut novel, The Shipyard Girls, and there is now a new instalment in the series every six months. The most recent title, Shipyard Girls in Love, made it into the Sunday Times bestsellers list, which was thrilling to say the least. But after the euphoria settled down, the journalist in me recalled the wise words of an editor, who, after showing me my first ever front page splash, said: ‘Well done! But remember, you’re only as good as your last story.’
Journalist or novelist, there’s no resting on your laurels.
Shipyard Girls in Love is out now, Arrow Books, £6.99