To celebrate the publication of her second book, The Last of Us, we asked Harriet to tell us how she kick-started her creative process.

The Last of Us

The Last of Us

I feel like authors are often asked where their ideas come from. For me they begin with questions. In the case of The Last of Us I passed a dilapidated farmhouse while out on a walk one afternoon. I wondered: What sort of person might live there? Why was their home falling into ruin? From here an idea of my protagonist - an 82-year-old woman named Nettie - began to form as I asked myself more and more questions about her life and family.

Gradually the idea expanded into a mystery around why Nettie was estranged from her daughter and the people she loved. Once she had taken shape in my mind, complete with daily habits and opinions, I felt ready to hit the keyboard.

When I first started novel-writing I harboured the romantic notion of creating a world as I went along, without a clue as to where any storyline might lead. This works incredibly well for some authors. Sadly that’s not the case with me - I just wind up feeling frustrated with the blank page and wondering what the heck to write next. I’ve learnt there are various benefits to having a plan, even if it’s only a few bullet points’ worth. First, it avoids that feeling of being perpetually lost, instead sitting down to write knowing you have a sense of direction and confidence in the build up of scenes. Second, it makes me excited to reach the most dramatic part of the novel - the final climax - and this spurs on my writing.

For anyone who worries that planning might ‘kill’ the surprise factor of writing, I’d say there will always be things that change along the way. My characters forever keep me guessing so that I need to make adjustments to my plan. With 80,000+ words to play with, I’m continually facing unknowns and unexpected directions.

The Last of Us has a dual timeline, half of it set in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Although I did some basic research before starting, I mostly left it until I’d finished my first draft. Admittedly this made for some embarrassing moments, like when my mother-in-law informed me that working class people in the ‘60s didn’t necessarily own a telephone but used a shared one in their building or a telephone box in the street. What’s more this meant unpicking various sections of my story to correct the inaccuracy. (My characters could no longer just phone each other but needed to arrange a time to ring or else send letters… This boggled my mind!) Saving the bulk of research did overall pay off though. If I’d stopped writing every time I needed to research a detail I would’ve lost momentum and been unable to really absorb myself in the world of my story. My advice to anyone writing their first historical novel would be to make a note of any questions as you go along, then just carry on until the draft is finished, inaccuracies be damned (and fixed later).

The Last of Us by Harriet Cummings is out now in paperback