Author Jacqueline Winspear writes an exclusive piece for Female First
Author Jacqueline Winspear writes an exclusive piece for Female First

I was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic in pouring rain. Ahead of me a driver leaned on his car horn in frustration. Red lights blurred into the distance, while my windshield wipers thudded back and forth, back and forth. My mind began to wander. Would my dog be OK in the storm? Had I locked the door? One thought after another ran through my mind. And then a woman I would subsequently write about for the next 18 years, walked into my life. In my mind’s eye, I saw her dressed in the garb of the mid-1920’s. She came up the escalator at Warren Street station – I knew it was Warren Street as I used to work in Fitzroy Square, and took the Tube from Victoria every day – but the escalator was not made of steel; it was a clunky old wooden escalator. The turnstile was made of cast iron – there was no electronic machine. Then she stopped to talk to the newspaper vendor outside, and made her way to a house along the street. She took an envelope containing two keys from her bag, and looked up at the door. Her name was Maisie Dobbs.

Then the honking car horns interrupted this film playing in my mind. Traffic had moved on. “Waiting for any particular shade of green?’ shouted one driver.

I sped off to work with nothing but Maisie Dobbs in my head. By the time I reached the office, I knew her whole story. Or I thought I knew.

I’ve thought a lot about writing the series character over the years, and certainly I didn’t plan a series when I began work on Maisie Dobbs, the first book in what is now a 15-book collection. However, I have come to realise that developing the series character has a certain authenticity about it, because it mirrors how we come to know people in life.

Let’s say we strike up a conversation with someone at a party. There’s that initial curiosity – “What do you do?” we might ask, or “Where do you live?” Then the conversation begins, and perhaps we meet again over coffee. As acquaintances we grow in confidence, so we reveal more of ourselves to each other – where we were born, or went to school, and what we watch on TV. If friendship develops, that exchange of information becomes more personal. We get to know people over time – we don’t learn it all at once at that first meeting. Working with the series character is like that.

I didn't know everything about Maisie Dobbs when I began that first novel, but over the years she has revealed more of herself to me, allowing me to craft stories about her and follow her through time as she grows and changes with age. I’ve also experienced the process of writing a standalone novel – The Care and Management of Lies – and I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a sequel, simply because there’s more I want to know about the characters. I feel as if I’ve short-changed myself, because just when I think I know all there is to know about a character, I’m often taken surprise by what is revealed as I write.

Jacqueline Winspear's 15th book in her bestselling Maisie Dobbs series, The American Agent, is available now.

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