For a more detailed account of the story behind The Best of Our Spies, plus a fuller biography, please visit my website:
"How long did it take you to write?" It's the most common question I'm asked when people find out that my novel has been published. I have two answers to the question, neither of which tells quite the whole story.
One answer is "since 1994", which is when the seeds of the story were sown. The other answer is "six weeks", which is the amount of time it took me to complete the first draft (just over 140,000 words) between December 2008 and January 2009.
So, here is the story of the story. June 1994 was the 50th anniversary of D-Day and I produced the live coverage from Normandy for BBC Breakfast. The more I researched D-Day, the more I realised that it was a highly complex story and the dividing line between Allied victory and what would have been truly disastrous defeat was extremely narrow. I maintained my interest in D-Day and especially Operation Fortitude, the Allied deception operation was that so critical in the successful outcome of the Battle of Normandy. The plot began to emerge in my mind a couple of years later. At the same time, the main character, Owen Quinn began to establish himself in my imagination. I got to know him very well; I spent many car journeys on my way to and from work imagining how Owen would behave at different parts of the plot. Actually, Owen only became Owen about five years ago. Until then he had various names, none of which felt quite right. I came across' Owen Quinn' on the bow of a ship in Marseilles harbour and somehow it felt right.
In 2008 I decided that I had probably thought about the story for long enough and it would be an idea to actually start writing it. I took six weeks leave from the BBC and began writing. As a journalist, I only really operate effectively with a deadline and I had set myself a very ambitious one. It seemed to work. I would say that I only had about 60% of the plot worked out in my mind when I began writing, although I had prepared all the research, background and characters much more thoroughly.
Every author will write differently. I prefer to let the plot and the characters develop as the story goes along. Sometimes, I get stuck. The best solution for me is to go swimming. I tend to swim three times a week, usually for forty five minutes at a time. About ten minutes in, my mind begins to free up and the plot comes alive. I cannot tell you how many people I have killed while swimming.
Nor do I have a routine for writing, other than that I'm more of a late person than an early one, which is very much the preferred rhythm of our house anyway. Quite often I will struggle with just a couple of hundred words during the day, then start again in the evening and write a couple of thousand words in the four or five hours either side of midnight. Sometimes, if I'm on a real roll, I will keep writing because I want to know what is going to happen next. There is one section of the book where I wrote two chapters totalling around nine thousand words in one session. I don't like too many distractions while I'm writing. I don't listen to music and cats walking across the keyboard are really annoying. I do not even attempt to write when Grimsby Town are playing, it is impossible to concentrate, not least because I can't write well when I am in a bad mood.
I did not approach an agent until I had finished the first draft. I was very fortunate to be taken on by Gordon Wise at Curtis Brown: Gordon is an outstanding agent (he was runner up in Agent of the Year in 2012) and among his clients is the Literary Estate of Winston Churchill.
The Best of Our Spies went through two more versions, so the current version, the one that has been published, is version number three - just under 170,000 words. The core plot is the same but the first quarter of the book is substantially changed and one of the key characters (not Owen) quite different.
I left the BBC in 2011 to concentrate on other projects, including writing. I spent some time working on different ideas for a second novel and am now deep into my second one. I am probably about halfway through in terms of the number of words, but about a third of the way through in terms of the amount of work. Put it like this, I'm going to have to do a lot more swimming before I've sorted out the plot.
I do hope that you enjoy The Best of Our Spies and please do have a look at my website, which will have news of any talks I am giving (there are one or two planned) plus news of my next book.
(photo: Ealing Gazette)