“A novel is like hacking at the rock face, working away to get the characters, the plot. It takes ages,” the wonderful Penelope Lively wrote. I love this – and the end results of her hacking – but recently I’ve felt there’s something missing from the comparison. Sculptors can see what they’ve done and what’s still to do at a glance; the novelist’s accumulating efforts are hidden among a weighty or scroll-marathon number of pages. If you’re not careful, you’ll have a lad on a 1965 pier in a shooting gallery that you converted into an amusement arcade back in 1959. A jolly boat trip on the day that was also that of the 1987 Great Storm. An uncle with a big nose he didn’t have ten years ago. Three women called Joan. How in hell do you keep track of it all? By having simultaneous hackings at supporting files, that’s how. Seat-of-your-pantsers will be horrifed, but I thought I’d share mine in case they help anybody.

(Note: I’m currently writing a multi-generational saga. People dealing with two characters over 24 hours – like I should be doing – may want to skip this).


The Three-Act Plan divvied into chapters – constantly changing, but there. I like to believe I know where I’m going. But as I do each chapter, I summarise it so I know where I’ve been. There’s the family tree, then 3 columns: Chapter number and month/year, Cast list with ages, and What Happens (colour-coded by character viewpoint). It’s a monumental drag, but so is flicking through when you can’t remember exactly when A last saw B. 📆🤔


Those character questionnaires novel-writing books tell you to do before you start – but I keep adding to mine, and think of them like scrap books. I copy-and-paste important dialogue from the novel, adding links to articles about his/her  beloved paddle steamer, moon landing, ladybirds etc.🚢🔭🐞


A spreadsheet of names I’ve used – including those of boats, bands etc. Bit nerdy about an even spreading over the alphabet 🔡🤓


Highlighted calendars of current events, films and pop music to check for each year. Doubles as writing block black hole 🚀 🎥 🎸…🕳


A spreadsheet with a running total, but to keep words down. I measure progress in terms of chapters. Speaking of which, I better get back to hacking one out! 🗻⛏📃

My last period of hacking at the rock face resulted in The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter (Urbane Publications), available from Waterstones and other good bookshops, as well as online e.g. at