Category Archives: writing

The joy of lists for writers (and for normal people too)

The to-do list

lists of listsThis weekend, with the revisions for my second crime novel on my editor’s desk rather than on mine, I spent the weekend working through lists: essentially my “to do list”, catching up on housework, the ironing and reading a “treat” book.

They were on my mental list of things to do and, mentally, I ticked them off.

One of the things I did, once the heavy lifting was done, was sit down with a cup of tea. The radio was on – I love the radio – and Weekend Woman’s Hour was playing.

shopping list

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Lucy Ireland Gray was talking about the 200 discarded shopping lists that she’d collected from shopping trolleys (we’ve all seen those) and picked up from the ground. They went on display at the Museum of London Brands, in Notting Hill. 

One of her friends was horrified that one of the lists might be hers. Not so much worried that her shopping list would betray her inner secrets, but that it would out her as a litter lout. 

Why do we make lists?

lists for writersObviously as an aide memoire. This is a list of a colleague who is a lot of more organised than me.

My lists are messy, jotted down on the nearest piece of paper or notepad and maybe, later, transferred to this notebook.

I do, weirdly, have a book of lists.

This is from when I started using Instagram and was making a note of useful hashtags. I have lists for romance readers, for gardens, for cyber crime (they’re for my son’s books) and for food photographs.

I need a new one for crime fiction…

Looking through it, I discovered all sorts of lists I’d forgotten. Hero Names, a list of the events at the Tasting Rooms in East Grinstead, sadly now closed, a victim of the pandemic. Motives for murder. Poisons…

murder listsThis recent list, jotted down during a brain-storming zoom call with colleagues, needs to be transferred before it gets lost. (I could tell you what it’s for but then I’d have to shoot you. Writing crime…)

Do Lists Set You Up for Failure?

I didn't do the thing today by Madeleine DoreMadeleine Dore, author of I didn’t do the thing today: On letting go of productivity guilt, was on the radio programme exploring the tyranny of lists.

The ones we make at the New Year, for instance. She believes they set us up for failure. I am never going to start a list with Run Marathon so I’m safe there.

lists of New Year resolutionsI don’t actually make that kind of list. Mine tend to be more prosaic. But it did make me think about the lists I make.

The shopping lists that I always forget – although writing things down does seem to fix them in the memory. If all  else fails, I stand in the middle of the aisle, getting in everyone’s way, while I attempt to visualize my notepad lying on my desk.

Clearly, I need to get up to the minute and make my shopping list on my phone, which I’d have with me. One day…maybe.

But list-making isn’t all about remembering to buy cous cous, sadly forgotten this week. I had to use brown rice, which takes forever to cook. Never mind. It was good for me. Probably.

Writer’s lists

lists for revising a bookAs the contents of my notebook can testify, a writer’s to do list is often weird. Okay, there’s a list of goals… Write 1000 words a day, write 3 books a year (I can fantasize!), make the Sunday Times Bestseller List. (This list is thirty years old, okay, and mostly in my head!)

This is last week’s list as I worked through my revisions and renumbered the chapters…


These days my list-making is mostly  focused on the basics. Character names for instance. Romance is very focused on the two main characters, with walk-on parts as required, but when I started writing crime, I quickly discovered that I was going to need a much larger cast. Here’s the list…

A sleuth and her buddies – maybe a romance interest
A body or two
People who know stuff
People who don’t know stuff but like to gossip
A red herring or two

Lists of names

lists of namesAll of those people require names.

Names that fit the character’s age, background, social status, bearing in mind that mothers will often give their child a name for a future they hope they’ll achieve.

Alexander Bonaparte Cust, anyone?

This is the book when I first started writing. It helps, but isn’t the entire answer and is no help when you’re not paying attention.

lists on a spreadsheetWhen, doing a global search to check up on what a minor character had said earlier in Murder Among the Roses, I discovered that I had three minor characters called Steve and, later, my editor pointed out that I had a Molly, Polly and Olly… Clearly snatching names out of the air when in full flow was not the way to do it.

I had created a spreadsheet of all my major characters, their ages, anything significant and their basic role. It was the bit players that caught me out.

graphic of murder listWhen writing my second Maybridge Mystery, Murder Under the Mistletoe, to be published on 7 November (and this little list will give you a hint of what it’s all about) I had a group of characters that were using their bus pass.

I looked up names that were popular when they were born and added those to my spreadsheet, so that when I introduced a new character, I didn’t have to waste time hunting for something suitable. They might have been changed later, but the creative flow wasn’t interrupted.

By the time I was on my third book, and knew that I’d need an extensive cast list, I started a spreadsheet of characters as they appear on the page. And I now realise that I need an index-card system with cross-referencing for the regulars, and so that I don’t repeat names. They do tend to stick in the head and insert themselves.

Pause to add the  cards and box file to my shopping list…

retreat listMy next list is going to be a shopping list for my annual writing retreat, bearing in mind fellow retreaters’ dietary needs when it’s my turn to produce the evening meal. I’ve made a start…

Fortunately, I’ll be forwarding that list to someone a lot more organised than me who will be picking up the groceries. Remembering it will be their problem!

So, what do you do with your shopping lists? What other lists do you make? And what did you go home without the day you forgot your shopping list?


Liz Fielding

That Unfinished Book

e-reader stop micro-editingI’ve always imagined that most writers have that unfinished book in their files somewhere.

Often, I imagine, it would be one that came to a halt because of external circumstances. The day job gets frantic for three months and when you go back to the book you read the first chapter and think: who are these people? Yes, that happened to me.

Or you get ill. Or there is a sudden family crisis.

woman in grey blouse, long sleeves, hands on laptop keyboard

Image by Bartek Zakrzewski from Pixabay

Sometimes it is to do with the book itself — a publisher changes their mind, for instance. And yes, I have one or two of those. (One I was very glad to stop, to be honest. I’d really gone off the hero.)

I still have a 40K word file of a book I really liked. It was a sequel that the publisher decided, mid-creation, they didn’t want after all. Please could they have a romance  based on a (then) popular reality television show instead?

My reply was 1) ouch and 2) no.

Just Came to a Stop…

Dark walls with woman sitting on her heels and a single small lamp thinking the unfinished bookBut that unfinished book arose just as often because I came to a place in the story that I couldn’t get past. Sometimes several times and over many months. Even years.

Sadly, I have a whole cellar full of those.

Some were misconceived from the start. Mostly these are books I was trying to write to please an editor.

Nobody’s fault. In people-pleasing mode I would think, oh yes, that sounds fun. Then, when it was just me, the characters and the laptop, I couldn’t do it. The life had been breathed into them by the editor alone.

I’m really glad to leave those in the vault.

…but It Won’t Leave Me Alone

round dial showing the pressure in a section of machinery

Image by InspiredImages from Pixabay

And then there is that unfinished book that just won’t let go.

You can ignore its multiple files on your computer. You can bury the dog-eared, well-thumbed notebooks. and the box files of research. All that will do is increase the pressure on you to get it out and look at it again.

As many of my friends know, I’m editing one of those at the moment. I’m really glad to be doing it. Every treasured but unnecessary scene that I send to the cutting room floor, I cheer. I SO want the book off my desk and onto somebody else’s.

young woman in open necked shirt, with plait over right shoulder and crossed arms, looking annoyed

Image by Robin Higgins from Pixabay

But even so, my constant companion the evil Perfection Prefect keeps pulling me back. The closer I get to the end, the more I a) slow down and b) panic.

Fortunately I have friends urging me on. Constantly. Some of them have even threatened reprisals if I don’t damn well get it done this time. Bless their pointed little heads. I really believe they’re going to get me through it, this time

Is it Just Me?

Unfinished book, Jane Austen's portraitI’ve beaten myself up about this a lot. Even though I knew I wasn’t alone. Jane Austen had at least two books waiting to be finished when she died. But I did think my failure to finish set me pretty much out on my own.

Only then I read this piece by Jennifer Crusie, one of my all time favourite writers. She’s sharp, thoughtful, funny and warm – and she writes like a dream. Her Welcome To Temptation has stayed in my top 5 ever since I first read it, umpty-um years ago.

And yet here was Jenny Crusie owning up to exactly the same thing. And she has a brilliant solution. She’s co-written novels with Bob Mayer in the past. They do His and Hers chapters, turn and turnabout, and it works like a dream. So ‘in 2022 she turned to Bob Mayer and said, “For the love of God, get me to the end of a book.”’

The first book of that life-saving collaboration is Lavender’s BlueIt’s out now and on my Kindle.

At three chapters in, it’s a cracker.

And there are at least two more to come.

And my optimism about my own possible recovery has just doubled in strength. If you’ve ever suffered from the same thing, here’s hoping it does the same for you!

Sophie Weston AuthorSophie

Writer’s Loop and needing to break out

exploding ideas instead of writer's blockI’ve called this blog Writer’s Loop because that’s what I’ve been thinking about this week.

It’s a bit like being a mad inventor. You sort of know what you want to do, need to do, are desperate to have done and left behind…

But somehow you can’t stop tinkering. Try one more experiment, one more plot twist or character revelation. And a bit of you has started to believe you will never stop. Continue reading

Deadlines, Distractions and Displacement Activities

There I was, trying to find something to blog about, but my head waswriters staring into space, distractions too full of deadlines and other distractions. It’s difficult finding time to write the darned book, let alone anything else.

Then inspiration struck. I am a published author. I have been writing to a deadline for decades. What on earth is my problem? So I decided to share some of the tricks that have helped me over the years.

Words from the wise?

Well, maybe. These are things that have helped me avoid distractions: some are tips from fellow writers, but they come from other sources, too. It’s a little tongue in cheek, perhaps, and it’s tips that helped me most when I was a working mother. Not all of it will work for you, but it helps to clarify the mind (or at least, it does mine).

Let me start with a quote:

Continue reading

Pen Names

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about pen names. An aspiring writer (friend of a friend) sought my advice on whether she needed one. She knew that most of my books had been published under a pen name. Indeed, I use it on this website. Understandably, she asked why.

I could only answer part of the question. I’m Sophie Weston on this website because, after fiftyish novels and 11 million+ copies sold, mostly by Harlequin Mills & Boon, that is how readers know me.

Dirty Draft 1st bookBut taking a pen name was never my idea. And the only choice I got was to decide on a name.

I went for Sophie Weston mainly at my mother’s suggestion. We’d seen the movie of Tom Jones and she thought that Sophie, played by Susanna York, looked as a romantic novelist ought to look. Still makes me smile when I remember that conversation.

My agent told me that I had to have a pen name. She implied very strongly that the publisher required it.

Was she right? I can’t say, because I didn’t ask. Certainly most Mills and Boon authors about whom I know anything, including many friends, did and do have pen names.

Romance Author pen names

The late great Mary Burchell, President of the Romantic Novelists’ Association from 1966, was Ida Cook in real life. All the RNA’s papers of the time that I have seen use her pen name. When she died (in harness) very suddenly, there was an outpouring of genuine affection for her in the Newsletter. And every single one called her Mary. Continue reading

Popular Fiction of the Past

Edwardian man with stiff collar holding hands across a desk or table with Edwardian lady, leaning towards each other as if about to kiss.

Image by No-longer-here from Pixabay

Popular fiction of the past has fascinated me since I was a child.

This has certainly intensified since I helped put together the 50th Anniversary Memoir of the Romantic Novelists’ Association. And many of those I have read since have, indeed, been romantic.

But the itch to read over the shoulder of my forebears was already there. It covered just about every genre, too.

I had access to three sets of bookshelves when I was a child. My parents, marrying late, also united their reading matter.

Gone With The Wind First Edition coverMy father brought a complete set of Dickens, H G Wells and Wisden to the marriage; my mother a rather wider selection, including Gone With the Wind and golden age mysteries. The extended family offered encyclopaedias, a lot of household tips (which I loved) and gloomily improving childhood literature, like The Water Babies, which I detested. Continue reading

A Brief Encounter with Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott by H Raeburn

Sir Walter Scott by H Raeburn

To quote the Encyclopaedia Britannica:-

“Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet, (born August 15, 1771, Edinburgh, Scotland – died September 21, 1832, Abbotsford, Roxburgh, Scotland), Scottish novelist, poet, historian, and biographer who is often considered both the inventor and the greatest practitioner of the historical novel.”

So why do I know so little about Scott?

I confess I have only read one of his books (Ivanhoe).

Roger Moore who played Scott's Ivanhoe

Allan warren, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

I suspect that was because I’d had a girlish crush on Roger Moore, who played the Eponymous hero in a long-ago TV series.

Scott’s Scottish tales use a lot of old Scots dialect, which can be baffling (nay, impenetrable) to many readers.

But that’s changed and now I know more about Scott

A couple of weeks back, I came pretty close to the man himself. Well, to his tomb. And his books. Continue reading

Daily Word Count

Successful writer, murder your darlingsI began taking a daily word count after I sold my first book and was working on its successor. It was – and is – one of the easiest ways to calculate my progress, especially if I’m writing with Word or Pages. Oh, the joy of hitting my target and then overshooting!

But it is also a bit of a blunt instrument. It’s all too easy to use it to beat yourself up. And there are other risks attached, too.

There is more to writing a novel than volume of wordage, after all. A book needs a beginning, a middle and an end. Above all it needs a point. If you lose sight of that, watching the words pile up gives you an entirely false picture of your progress.

Unexpected Risk of a Daily Word Count

Writing Energy exhaustedConfession time here. This is something I did myself, when I was in my first few years of writing for Harlequin Mills and Boon. I was on my fourth or fifth story and thought I’d got the process sussed. I’d recovered from the illness which set me off writing so hard in the first place and I had a full time job.

I had moved into a flat that was pretty much next door to St  James’s Park Underground Station. On a bad morning-after-the-night-before, it was pillow to desk in 35 minutes.

So there I was, writing my books in a regular early morning slot before I left for work. A standard contemporary Harlequin Mills and Boon was a maximum of 55,000 words. My plotting had improved immensely with editorial guidance, as my then agent had prophesied. I turned in Book No Whatever at 54,500 words on the nose and skipped along to meet my lovely editor, positive that I was on roll.

Um. No. Continue reading

Poisonous plants lurking in the border


When I started writing my Maybridge Mysteries series, the opening scene for the first book had been in my “ideas” file for years. And I already knew that my main character, Abby Finch, was going to be a gardener.

I had a title in my head – A Rose for the Dead. Since I envisaged a series, it seemed like a really good idea to have a plant name in all the titles.

However, since it appears to be the convention for cozy crime is to have either murder, or death in the title, my publisher, Joffe Books, changed it to Murder Among the Roses.

Having spent thirty years having my working titles changed by my publisher, this didn’t come as a huge surprise. I still prefer mine but whatever sells the book. And I had my flower.

Since the use of plants was going to be part of the branding of the series (next up this autumn, Murder With Mistletoe), I fell down the research rabbit hole looking for plant life that can kill. Continue reading

Novelist, Ornithologist and War

This blog is about the unexpected confluence of three crucial strands of my life: a novelist, an ornithologist and War.

It is in one way, pure serendipity. In another it feels as if it has been waiting for me for a long time. It is sobering, yet at the same time it has brought me deep joy. The latter in particular is not at all easy, in this time of terrible news at home and abroad and I am sincerely grateful for it.

And to me it feels like a sign that I am, creatively speaking, in the right place and will find a good path.

See if you agree with me.

An Ornithologist Starts It

The triangle started to come together on 6th June. I was horrified by the wilful destruction of the Nova Kharkova Dam in Ukraine, a short sighted brutality that has caused not only great human suffering but is an ecological atrocity that will run and run.

To divert me, a friend I was visiting pointed out a robin visiting his garden. The bird seemed to have a twig in its beak.

So OK, I couldn’t just sit there for ever, radiating despair over the human condition. I aimed for a sensible question: wasn’t it a bit late for nest building?


We began to talk robins. And pretty soon my host was bringing out a small, slightly worn hardback book. It had a plain parchment coloured cover with a crimson rectangle on the front bearing the title and author’s name: The Life of the Robin by David Lack. It was published in 1943 by H F and G Witherby and cost 7/6.

“It’s wonderful,” he said, patting the little book like an old friend. “Still stands up brilliantly. And it’s very readable, too. Fantastic that the publishers were allowed the paper to print it in wartime.”

I got the message. Civilisation will creep through the cracks, even in wartime. I really did begin to feel a little better. So who was he, this inspiriting author I’d never heard of? Continue reading