Cath Staincliffe

A day in the life

Cath Staincliffe

Like my literary creation, Sal Kilkenny, the day begins with getting the children off to school. Once that's accomplished the first part of the morning is spent checking and replying to e-mails and making phone calls, preparing for workshops or readings and generally clearing the decks. Then it's down to work.

If I'm writing a book I retire to the rocking chair with pen and lined paper (has to be narrow feint and margin - we all have our magic rituals) and emerge hours later when my stomach has started eating itself. It's almost impossible to sum up the creative process and I don't know that I want to try. It involves a lot of energy, intense concentration but also a sense of letting go like hang-gliding into an imaginative space, which is probably why it feels so scary if you haven't done it for a while. There's a playful, child-like quality in the experience which leaves me feeling excited and tired. A school boy asked me at a talk recently if I ever got bored. No way! Once I'm in there it's immensely engaging. After a snatched lunch and essential housework (washing and shopping are the only ones that get a look in) it's back to it until four o' clock when the kids get back. Then I tear myself away from the characters I've spent the day with, compose myself (after all I may have been in the midst of a devastating case, fighting for my life or sharing someone's grief) and start thinking about tea and homework and the rest of life.

My novel writers’ group read the book while it's work in progress so I type up chunks of it every month for them to see. The feedback I get is really helpful, lets me know if I'm on the right track or not. If I'm at the editing stage then I'm glued to the computer instead of the rocking chair and the place becomes a labyrinth of papers scribbled with lists and points I need to research. (I always research last if I can - I hate it. Though I must admit that the ease and speed of finding information on the internet has been a boon for me.)

Once the book's finished I check through for repetition, for references to weather and food, and to make sure the domestic detail is logical (no school runs on a Sunday). Then it's title time. Really tricky. This comes when the book is done because then I finally know what it's about. Quite often themes will have emerged which were never conscious when I began the story. I generally browse the Thesaurus and Dictionary of Phrase and Fable while I cruise the TV channels in an evening. I start with long lists and gradually whittle them down. Any unresolved facts and holes in my research have to be sorted out now. That often involves a trip to Manchester Central Library. While I'm in the city centre, I visit the Town Hall, Electoral Records Office with my list of character names - the clerks oblige by letting me know if anyone in the city has the same name and we try alternatives until I can be relatively safe from libel charges. At this stage I'm also likely to seek out friends of friends who might know about dog breeding, yachting, medicine or common names in different cultures.

Once the book is printed and in the post to my agent, if I can I take some time out: devote myself to something where I can get my hands dirty; DIY or gardening, and let my head clear. Within a few weeks the urge to write returns. A phrase or an image pops into my mind and sends me scrabbling for a piece of paper. Time to start writing again.

These days I’m often switching between writing a novel and writing for television. Scriptwriting requires a very different approach. The first step is coming up with the initial idea. This might just be a few paragraphs outlining a story. If the producer or script editor is interested in it, then I will develop the outline, fleshing out the story and the characters. And if I’m lucky that will be commissioned as a treatment – in effect a short story that covers every twist and turn in the plot and gives a flavour of the milieu of the story, its themes and a picture of the characters. It’s much less organic than my novel writing and sees me scrabbling around the floor with flip chart papers, highlighters and post-it notes drawing mind-maps and storyboards and trying not to panic. These ideas are typed up and refined and then I work with input from a producer and script-editor on several drafts of this until people are happy. If a script is commissioned, that’s when the fun starts. The voices that have been clamouring inside my head are finally given rein. Re-writing is a big part of the process and it is very collaborative. The script-writing is nearly all straight onto the computer though I read and revise on paper. After several drafts the script will go into production, all being well, and my job is over. Then it’s up to the producer, director, cast and crew to make the story their own. So far, I’ve been delighted with the results.

After a stint writing either a novels or a script, or both, it’s a joy to work on a short story. It doesn’t take very long, for a start, but more importantly it’s a space where I can really experiment, try out new styles and explore themes or characters that interest me. It’s very liberating. I’ve produced a variety of stories ranging from the noirish stories Trainers about a scary girl gang (City Life & Penguin) and Rock-A-Bye-Baby about a disturbed young mother in the Murder Squad anthology (Flambard) to pieces like Riviera (Bitch Lit, Crocus) a wry tale about a put-upon Northern housewife and her murderous husband, and the ultra-short fiction I’ve written for the-phone-book Ltd which distils an idea into 150 characters see Now that is short.

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