Pam Rhodes on Songs of Praise and other inspirations for fiction
For someone who first started writing novels almost by accident, I now have quite a few tucked under my belt! The three books in my current trilogy, Hope Hall, make a total of 12 novels written now, with as many books in other genres doubling my total.
It all began back in 1985, when I'd been presenting BBC Television's Songs of Praise series for more than a decade. I was approached by a publisher asking if I'd write a book giving a behind-the-scenes look at the popular television series, which mixes well-known hymns and Christian music with the moving stories of people whose faith had been severely challenged by the experiences they've been through. I knew the subject matter would make an emotive and compelling book, but I felt those stories shared during our television interviews were not mine to re-tell. The people's lives would have moved on, and it would be unfair or possibly even harmful to re-visit painful times from their past just because they'd once appeared on Songs of Praise. So, I decided to try writing a fictional account of the making of a typical Songs of Praise programme, in which I could include elements of several real-life stories, but change the geography, characters and situations so much that they were unrecognisable.
"I am really fortunate to have been in a position in which people have generously shared their life issues and challenges with me"
I've always been a journalist, and had no idea if I could write fiction in a believable and entertaining way. My main worry was whether I could write dialogue that sounded natural. I got my answer to that when, once my first book With Hearts and Hymns and Voices was published, people would come up to me during our television recordings and talk about those fictional characters as if they were real. I'd enjoyed the experience of writing a novel so much that their encouragement spurred me on to write more.
I am really fortunate to have been in a position, through Songs of Praise and other programmes, in which people have generously shared their life issues and challenges with me. The humanity and honesty of what I've heard over the years have provided me with a rich tapestry of human life and its dilemmas that has informed and inspired my writing ever since.
From that first book, I've recognised that I enjoy writing just as much as I enjoy reading - and I write in much the same way, bashing out stories so quickly that it's almost as if I'm watching the action unfold in front of me. I think this is because, as a journalist, I always had to hit deadlines and could never allow myself the luxury of a screen that remained empty while I waited for inspiration. I think of a first line, and just get started.
One reassuring insight I was given very early in my writing came from an experienced author, who said: "Sometimes a door will open and someone new will walk in." Many of my favourite characters have appeared just like that. I would probably fail every test in a Writers' Course on How To Create a Novel. I never have a detailed plan in mind. I hate having to write a synopsis in advance, because I'm never completely sure at the start how the tale will end, or what twists and turns might come along before I get there! It's not that I don't think through ideas. For months before I start writing, I mull over potential storylines in my mind - and in my dreams. Do any of you find that you get your best ideas in your dreams and then can't wait to get up in the morning to put them down on paper before you forget them?
Then, I like to take myself away somewhere quiet for about four weeks (usually February, at my sister's little apartment in Spain, away from the distractions of family life and normal work at home), and come back with the novel completely written. My stories are usually community-based, with many different characters, and it can feel like a 10-dimensional crossword puzzle remembering all the details about each one of them. That makes writing very difficult if I am able to type only a few thousand words at a time, then not come back to it for days on end. Writing consistently from dawn to dusk for a concentrated period means that I keep all those details in my head - and those characters become very familiar as their lives evolve on the laptop screen in front of me.
I simply love writing. I'd enjoy writing stories even if no one ever had chance to read my books. The fact that they do is the best bonus of all!
Springtime at Hope Hall by Pam Rhodes (Lion Fiction, £8.99) is out in paperback on 21 February.