Kirsty Scott is “not one of those authors who gets up at four am then hangs upside down on gravity boots to get the blood flowing to their brain.” With her career as a journalist and a busy family life making demands on her time, her fiction writing is confined to the evenings. She is not one of those authors who maps out every detail of their plot in a colour coded flow chart, either. She did go out and buy a whiteboard once but admits guiltily, “It was a kind of displacement activity. I didn’t use it. Instead my kids scribbled on it.”
So how did she keep track of the many interweaving plot strands in her most recent novel, Fortune House? “It was really tricky. I used large A4 notebooks. By end I had four of them. I’m not very organised; they should all have been dated or labelled but they were even all the same colour.”
Fortune House centres around four generations of the Haldanes who have gathered at their family home for a celebration. The reunion is overshadowed by lingering pain from the death of a son and brother many years ago, which the family have to confront if they are to deal with their problems in the present day.
Like Kirsty’s previous two novels, the Sunday Times bestseller Mother’s Day and Between You and Me, Fortune House is told from the point of view of a number of different characters. The narrators span four generations and are both male and female, which presented a challenge to Kirsty who until then wrote “mostly about women my age. There’s a 12 year old boy and a 63 year old man in Fortune House. I thought, ‘how do I get in their heads?’” She turned to the internet for answers. In the novel, 12 year old Jamie is tormented by malicious text messages from bullies. Kirsty visited online forums and blogs to find out how children in similar circumstances “tried to deal with it or didn’t deal with it.” She spoke to friends to understand the emotions of a parent in that situation.
The problems faced by the other characters in the book are similarly topical. Fortune House is set around New Year 2010 and Kirsty had to stay abreast of political and cultural developments to ensure the references in the novel were current. “When I started writing the credit crunch hadn’t happened yet. Thankfully I was in the final draft and could put hints of that in.”
Having written three novels with a strong family element, Kirsty now feels it is time for a change. “The whole chic-lit sphere is quite oversubscribed. I’d love to write a thriller now. I see myself writing crime.” Working as a news reporter has given Kirsty access to a wealth of material that could form the basis of a crime fiction novel. “Journalism is so privileged,” Kirsty says, pointing out that she can question insiders and experts to gain information. “I can pick up the phone and say ‘what’s going on here?’ I’m constantly amazed at how much people are willing to divulge.” But the licence to be nosy comes with a price. “You’ve got to consciously work at keeping your humanity,” she says, explaining that you can become immune to bad news when you work in journalism. “When there’s a train crash you ask how many are dead. If someone says two there’s a sense of disappointment. You have to remind yourself that this is a big tragedy for somebody.”
It is not uncommon for journalists to embark on careers writing fiction but Kirsty is perhaps one of the few who, despite success as a novelist, has no plans to give up journalism. “I’ve been a news reporter all my life. I love journalism. Fiction is my kind of down time. It’s a fun thing to do.” Kirsty has also developed an interest in scriptwriting and would consider adapting one of her own books for the screen. “I’ve just done bits and pieces. It’s the thing that gets pushed to one side…I would love to write the screenplay for Fortune House.”
Raising a family while being active in several areas of writing is a lot to contend with but Kirsty remains philosophical. “It’s a big juggle for everybody. Some days it works, some it doesn’t. Sometimes it gets to seven thirty and the kids have finished dinner and I think, ‘Now it’s time to write,’ but I just want to collapse on the sofa. If I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn’t get it done. I love writing.”
Kirsty drew on her experience of combining a career with family life in her first novel, Mother’s Day. She wrote the first three chapters and a synopsis while on sabbatical from the Guardian and submitted them to a publisher. They e-mailed back asking to see the rest of the manuscript. Although Kirsty had not yet finished the novel, the publisher advised her to get an agent and recommended a few names. “After thirteen chapters my agent said let’s try again, and that time I got a deal.”
When the book was published in 2006, Kirsty found it hard to let go. “I was quite desolate when I stopped writing about the characters in Mother’s Day. I felt I knew them so well.” Kirsty’s ability to identify with her characters meant that while she was writing “they were guiding the scenes. You know what they would say because they are so real. You know how they would react, the words they would use.”
To write about the children in the novel Kirsty looked to her own offspring for inspiration. “I borrowed heavily from my children in my first book; the silly things that kids do and say. My daughter has read Mothers’ Day now but thankfully she didn’t recognise herself. You’ve got to stop using kids as fodder when they’re teenagers. They need a private life that you don’t use.”
Kirsty feels strongly about protecting the privacy of her friends too and insists that she has never been tempted to include real life dramas in her novels. She has an “inherent sense” of which anecdotes she can use in her writing and which she should leave well alone. “Sometimes I hear something and I think ‘that would make a great story,’ but I don’t write about it. You could lose a friendship over it.”
The only person Kirsty admits to having based a character on is herself. “I think authors betray themselves completely subconsciously in the characters they create. If anyone, I’m holding a magnifying glass up to myself.”