If you haven't read a Hester Browne novel, then I totally recommend that you do. She writes like a dream, and her stories are consistently original and entertaining.
1 - What is your average writing day like?
Every day starts with a bowl of porridge and two cups of coffee. No coffee, no work. My brain starts functioning with the first cup, and the second cup makes me feel positive about the day ahead. I read the papers online, and deal with emails until about eleven, and then I take my two dogs out for an hour’s walk – I find walking really seems to get ideas buzzing around, and it’s a good way of rehearsing dialogue aloud where no one can hear me. When I get in, the dogs sleep under my desk and I write until six. I try to do about 2000 words a day to keep on target, so if I haven’t done that by six, I might work in the evening. A key part of my writing day is 45 minutes of yoga several times a week to unbuckle my shoulders!
2 - The Finishing Touches is told around the setting of an English Finishing School. How did you research this?
I love etiquette books, especially old ones: they conjure up such great mental pictures of the sort of social life you’d need, in order to be worrying about dessert forks and how you’d make party chit-chat with third wives of Dukes. I found out, in conversation, that one of my best friend’s mothers actually went to a finishing school in the 60s, and she told me some really funny stories about what they got up to when they were supposed to be behaving like young ladies. That, coupled with a long held fascination with those very discreet townhouses behind Green Park station, started the ‘old’ side of the story off.
The ‘modern’ part, in which Betsy reinvents the school for 2010 was a lot of fun to write too! I asked everyone I knew, what do you wish someone had told you when you were eighteen? Most people said, how to park in London, and how to dump/be dumped with dignity. I think everyone longs to be polished – knowing what to do in awkward situations is actually about putting everyone else at ease, rather than making yourself look good. I’d love to have that old-fashioned graciousness.
3 – Can you tell us about your writing process - are you a planner or do you dive into the story and hope for the best? Do you do many drafts and revisions, or just one?
I usually know what the main ideas are before I start, but I have to plan a bit; my brain won’t work until it knows what direction to go in. At the beginning of every novel, I buy an A4 sketchpad and a new pen; at the back I draw a flow chart with chapter squares for the story board, and make a page for the character names, so I don’t end up with too many starting with the same letter. There’s a lot of rubbing out and rewriting, but I find it reassuring to have that visual anchor, especially when there are several plot strands to develop.
I’ve usually got the main premise, and the main character, but I find the best ideas come to me as I’m actually writing so I don’t panic too much if I don’t have all the answers at the planning stage. Strong stories nearly always have helpful plot points hidden in them already; you just have to allow them enough time to bubble through your subconscious. Sometimes that’s in the first draft; sometimes it takes until the final edit to see what’s been there all along.
4 – When you’re writing, do you use any celebrities or people you know as visual inspiration for the characters? If so, have you got any examples?!
I never, never, never use people I know as inspiration. That’s my top writing tip: no matter how tempting it is, do not use real people. The character will only ever do what that person will do, and that’s not even taking into account the fallout you’ll have to deal with when they read the book. I’m speaking from bitter experience here; I met someone who was so ‘character’y that I put him straight into a book, and then spent six months trying to make him interesting. In the end his flatness poisoned the whole thing, and I had to start again from scratch.
Actors are a much safer bet. They don’t have such specific traits and they’re a useful way of fixing a character’s ‘look’ in your mind, until they assume a life of their own. Plus, if you’re trying to sell the book as a screenplay you can pretend you wrote it for them to begin with.
5 - Just how many Red Lipsticks do you own?? And which is your favourite brand?
I own looooaaaadddds. Every handbag seems to have at least three, and they’re all virtually identical: a ‘warm’ matte crimson. I blame etiquette books, actually – I once read that you can look unbearably chic if you can pull off the terribly French ‘red lipstick and nothing else’ make-up look. I’m still trying. I can thoroughly recommend Chantecaille Pomegranate, No 7 Cherry, and MAC Dame.
6 - What do you think of the chick lit label? Are you happy for your books to be grouped into that category?
It’s a label that’s stuck around because it rhymes, and it’s an easy umbrella to stick over a lot of very different writers, but it does undersell some quality writing, I think. It’s interesting that the label was coined ten years ago to describe writers like Marian Keyes and Lisa Jewell – and they’re still very much around now, having kept the warmth that made their novels so popular, evolved their style and taken their readership with them. That’s pretty good going for ‘disposable’ fiction!
The trademark of ‘chicklit’ is a sexy sort of wit underpinned with some tough themes, and it takes skill to pull off. The readership reads very broadly, and demands emotional honesty at the heart of every novel; cynical attempts to shortchange with shopping lists of handbags and cocktail lists aren’t tolerated. (Incidentally, when was the last novel you can remember that featured the gaybestfriend/Chardonnay/shoes cliché that’s always wheeled out to dismiss women’s fiction? Don’t these critics realise that Bridget Jones was a satire?! On Pride and Prejudice?!)
Some of my favourite writers fall under the chicklit label, as well as some ‘proper’ authors who, were they writing now, would almost certainly be packaged in covers with feet on – Nancy Mitford, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Stella Gibbons – so I’m quite happy to be lumped in with them, ta.
7 - What is your favourite Women’s fiction book?
I love Rachel’s Holiday, by Marian Keyes. It has it all – sympathetic but flawed heroine who grows in front of your eyes, a shocking secret that’s skilfully revealed, a sizzlingly hot man, and an embarrassment of laughs. It makes me laugh, and cry still and I’ve read it a lot.
8 - Can you tell us a bit about what’s next for Hester?
I’ve just finished a very romantic novel set in a dilapidated Scottish castle that plays host to an annual ball. The heroine is a daydreaming antiques dealer who can’t resist snapping up little mementos of other people’s past, and the hero is a storage magnate who can’t stand clutter. When they realise, to their mutual shock, that they’re falling in love, dust flies, as well as sparks!
You can buy The Finishing Touches by clicking here