1. Keep a note book and record new words and phrases, unusual inscriptions on gravestones, court reports, anything which may come in useful. You may think that you’ll never forget the name of the eccentric restaurateur in Trinidad (was it Phylistine or Celestine?) or the exact wording on that peculiar sign in the bar in Port Said but you will.
2. Don’t just keep a dull, factual record. Journals which read ‘Got up, went to work, fish for lunch…’ don’t make best sellers. Scurrilous, gossipy, ignoble thoughts enliven a memoir – think Alan Clarke! Impressionistic, evocative notes set the scene – think Paul Theroux.
3. Use The Five Senses: Sight, Sound, Touch, Taste and, most important, Smell which taps into our primitive instincts, giving a sense of déjà vu. The scent of lavender takes us straight back to our grandmother’s parlour. Smells can conjure up our best moments or our worst – ‘disinfectant and vomit’ says hospitals, dentists, possibly pub toilets!
4. Don’t forget colour and concrete details. If you write a descriptive scene without these something is lacking. Look at things with fresh eyes, don’t use second hand images, clichés. Think about whether ‘sky blue’ is really what you mean – is it a grey blue November sky or a bright blue July sky? Here’s an example of specificity: F. Scott Fitzgerald describes one item in heiress Nicole Driver’s Parisian spending spree as ‘three yards of some new cloth the colour of prawns.’ (Tender is the Night [1932). And remember when you describe characters use the same technique: Don’t let your burly builder just drink a drink –give him a pint of Guinness or a glass of Puligny Montrachet 1995 or a snowball with a little umbrella. It will say a lot about him!
5. What should you write about? Answer: what interests and excites you. Hilary Mantel, of Wolf Hall fame, says “Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anyone else?” Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book is ready.” PD James says, ‘Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.’ Let agents worry about commercial considerations because if you do and your book doesn’t sell you will be left with something worthless; at least if you write something you believe in you will get some satisfaction. Enjoy the process!