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'Cold concentrates the mind'

11 June 2018

‘"I'm writing a book." The very phrase seems self-indulgent and strange, more so at a time when we count the words and minutes, even the characters and the seconds. In popular myth, the writer is a mercurial figure, and when I started writing I assumed that the process would consist of long periods of staring at a flashing cursor interrupted by flashes of inspiration which would keep me at the keyboard for 50,000 words. Having heard about all those writers' retreats for novelists, I also assumed that it would help to have a beautiful view to look at. All wrong. In any case, historians don't get retreats, though we do get a muse, Clio. Writing needs routine. I carve out blocks of at least three to five days.

The best writing happens between nine and noon, after plenty of sleep. In the days before starting I often find myself writing in my head, and I am as sure as I can be that similar preparatory work occurs while I am unconscious. My daily target is 2,500 words. I always try to stop in mid flow, knowing what I should start with the following day. But I don't have the discipline. I run on well past my daily target, only to spend most of the next morning staring at the cursor flashing. Surroundings don't matter, although I often seem to write in a room (or, at the moment, a shed) which is so cold I wear a ski jacket and wrap a rug round my legs. Cold concentrates the mind.'

Jonathan Conlin, author of Tales of Two Cities, Evolution and the Victorians and four other books, in agent Andrew Lownie's excellent archive