Sandstone Press

On the Blog: Peter Cunningham on Writing

Happy publication day to Peter Cunningham! The new paperback edition of Acts of Allegiance is out now, which means it's available online and from all good bookshops. We're delighted to have him on the blog today to discuss his writing process.

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When I set out to write a novel – the beginning of a process that will take me at least three years – I’m looking for a way in to the story. What is the story at this stage? It’s just a hazy outline of beginning, middle and end. The origins of this shape are never clear to me. One day there was nothing; the next…Mmm, that’s an interesting idea.

My novels are often historical, so when the story outline gels a little, I begin to read relevant stuff from the period. Newspapers, academic articles, statistics. I find I can quite easily imagine myself in my parents’ time, and in my grandparents’ time. I knew and loved these people, so I think I know the kind of world and circumstances in which they grew up and lived.

I start every morning around 6.30. I write directly on to my laptop. Two hours before breakfast, maybe two after. I’m aiming for five hundred original words a day, six days a week – or seven.

It takes me ages to get the structure right, to find out what the story is really about. I can go down lots of blind alleys. I fall in love with characters who end up hindering the story rather than advancing it. They have to go. I put them in a file, hoping I can use them in the future. They’re like orphans, locked away in a turret. I feel for them.

I can’t even begin to make the book until the story hangs together in a way that intrigues me. If it doesn’t intrigue me, what chance is there it will intrigue a reader? But when I’m happy that this point has been reached, I then start to actually write the book, confident that the underlying story now works.

I rarely read fiction when I’m writing a novel, which is my loss, but I fear being subliminally influenced by a fiction writer who is probably much better than I am. So I read history, mainly. A lot of my father’s books are in my library, histories, often of England, written in the 1950s. They are mostly very well written, setting a high standard. I also borrow extensively from our wonderful Irish library system.

My novels evolve over many, many drafts. I’m often thinking of what the title will be. When I’ve reached a point where I think the book is approaching ready, I print it out and work with the hard copy. I also read the book aloud. Hearing the words reveal infelicities in the writing which on the page lie hidden.

Only after this long process is complete do I send the book to my fantastic editor at Sandstone Press, Moira Forsyth. And then I await her reaction.