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In conversation with: She Rises author, Kate Worsley

Did you write a book during lockdown? Nope, us neither. But the global pandemic-shaped pause has created a new generation of novelists who want to. So what's it really like to pen a best-seller, and are there any hot hacks? We asked an Essex pro to share her story…

Writing a novel

She Rises, Kate Worsley’s debut seafaring stonker of a novel, couldn’t have been more aptly titled. Set in 1740 – the maritime golden age of Harwich’s bustling naval port – it’s an astoundingly rich ode to the haunting estuarial beauty of the north Essex coast; a story that ebbs and flows between celebrating the power of the elements and highlighting the fragility of the human condition. It took Worsley a ‘stomach-churning’ number of years to write, but was immediately propelled into the best-sellers’ list when it landed in 2013. So far, so fiction-writing fairy tale. 

Yet, as Worsley – who lives on the tidal fringes of Mistley – tells Muddy Stilettos, it wasn’t exactly all plain sailing. Now writing her second instalment of the elements-championing trilogy, while teaching a series of creative writing courses with Wivenhoe-based The Writers’ Company, Worsley shares her secrets to unlocking that ‘inner novel’ – and explores why lockdown might just spark a whole new generation of Essex storytellers…

She Rise Kate Worsley
Author and creative writing tutor Kate Worsley (above left) crafted her debut novel, She Rises, after finding inspiration in 18th century prose

She Rises was your debut novel – and a stellar success. How did your journey to best-selling author begin?

‘I was incredibly lucky to have my first novel published. Apart from a couple of short stories, I really hadn’t written any fiction up to that point and although I had spent decades working as a feature journalist for national newspapers in London, I found writing fiction to be a completely different discipline. I knew I couldn’t do both simultaneously, but writing a novel had begun to feel like something I couldn’t put off any longer. So, when I was made redundant unexpectedly, it was the push I needed to make that leap and I really put the work in.

‘I dedicated an entire year just to research, and spent hours pouring over sailor’s accounts of seafaring adventures or listening to ancient shanties. I was writing 500 words a day, but it wasn’t until I enrolled on an MA in creative writing at City University – which required you to finish the novel in order to complete the course – that I finally had my first draft. From there, I spent another six months knocking the manuscript into shape for publishers. Now, I actually teach creative writing at City University and I understand the value of having mentors to push you and share your work with. Writing can feel incredibly private – you are literally creating your own world – so having that support, and the right people in place to guide you and boost your confidence along the way is so important. Like any other skill, writing needs to be broken down properly in order to truly grasp – I often liken it to hand-building a chair: you might not know how to construct it in the beginning, but if you learn to build each individual piece, you can slowly bring the whole thing together. 

Harwich Shanty International Festival
Signature songs of the sea at Harwich’s International Shanty Festival

The county’s coastal history plays a huge role in She Rises. Did living and writing in north Essex help to shape your narrative?

‘Mistley completely inspired the novel. I’ve lived in the area for 20 years and it’s a very landlocked life, but somehow the landscape just speaks to me here. It’s that liminal feeling of sitting on the edge; of blurring the boundaries between the land and the sea and the sky. I found that pull of the elements naturally weaving itself into the themes of the book, too, which include the lure of adventure and that notion of peeling back the layers of your identity.

‘During the process of writing, I would visit the Quay in Mistley every day, watching scenes from the working port unfold before me, containers laden with who knows what heading out to the Baltic Sea. I also took great inspiration from wandering the streets of Harwich, itself once one of Britain’s greatest ports. Although quieter now, it’s still amazingly atmospheric – you can still imagine all those masts bristling on the horizon and brawling sailors flooding the streets.

The Harwich International Shanty Festival was particularly inspiring for me – to see so many shanties being sung en masse, and to hear the wind carrying their melodic sounds across the waves was just magical. This year, of course, it has had to go online [8-11 October], but normally the festival helps to recreate the old maritime atmosphere of crowded cobbled-lane pubs, their bars propped up by salty sea dogs.

‘While I was writing, I would often station myself in The Alma in Harwich, which is a fantastic nautical pub full of characters, or The Red Lion’s beer garden in Manningtree – which is where we used to hold some of our Writers’ Company writing courses, pre-COVID. I think a change of scene can really help to unlock your voice sometimes.’

Debut authors often struggle to find their ‘voice’ in the beginning. Is that something you resonate with?

‘I spent years sketching out the outline of ideas for short stories or novels or scripts, etc, but I never really did anything with them until I started reading an 18th century novel called The Adventures of Roderick Random, which seemed to trigger something in me. I loved the rambunctious nature of the language used in that era, and it felt a little bit like finding oil in the desert – it really did help to unlock me. One morning, quite suddenly, I work up and just had to write down my idea for She Rises. I felt utterly compelled.

‘For me, writing the ending is often the most challenging part, because I have to feel my way there through the writing – I never know where I’m heading from the outset! Having said that, as I finished She Rises, the next instalment of the trilogy came to me and now I’m working on the second book, which focuses on the land, before I start sketching out the third, which will focus on the element of air. Writing is a very personal process and life has certainly gotten in the way a little bit with book two – but I’m excited to be on this next leg of the journey.’

Mistley’s blur of land, sky and seascapes continue to inspire Worsley’s work

As an author and creative writing tutor, how do you think the pandemic will affect the future of fiction?

‘Lockdown has been a fascinatingly personal and universally dislocating experience. But I think this disruption will ultimately encourage more people to start writing. If nothing else, writing can help people to fill their days, record their individual experiences, and try to make sense of the world. We’ve definitely seen an uptake in online writing courses at The Writers’ Company and, as time goes on and more people process how the dynamics of life have been reshaped by COVID, those feelings may stir something in them that writing can help to channel. This global pause has created an opportunity for would-be-novelists who want to write, but haven’t quite found the time or the courage or the support to do so until now. In fact, ‘I Want To Write, But…’ has proved one of our most popular courses since coronavirus hit, so that speaks for itself.’

Kate Worsley’s top 5 tips for budding novelists

  1. Just write!
    It sounds incredibly simple but writing a little bit each day really does make a difference and, over time, you’ll begin to see your story emerging. Ideally, try to write at least 500 words eery day. I didn’t always achieve that when I set out, but I did commit to writing at least 500 words three days a week. If you don’t stop, you can’t fail.
  2. Work out what’s stopping you
    Is it confidence? Time? Lack of encouragement? Everyone encounters road blocks at first, but if you can identify exactly what your hurdles are, you can overcome them and we run various courses at The Writers’ Company that can help you, too.
  3. Start breaking the process down
    Writing an entire novel is a bit like climbing a mountain – achieving the ultimate goal can suddenly seem incredibly overwhelming. That’s why it’s important to set up a disciplined way of working and to stay focused.
  4. Write for yourself
    Don’t worry about showing your work to other people in the beginning – that comes later. For now, you just want to enter that zone where even thinking about writing a scene fills you with excitement. Always write for the love of it before you start opening yourself up to constructive criticism.
  5. Find a mentor
    I can’t state how important it is to have a trusted group of people to read your work and offer support. And no, that doesn’t necessarily mean your family and friends – asking them to read your novel comes with its own pressure, so try to keep your creative writing life separate. Having a mentor/support group will help you to create a safe space for pushing your ideas further and stay on track: when I’m writing, I like to have an ‘accountability’ friend who helps me to agree on word-count targets each week. The truth is, it can take a long time to write a novel, but if you put your head down each day and take it one step at a time, you’ll look up at the end and realise you’ve made it.

EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES: The Writers’ Company in Wivenhoe, Colchester, is currently offering discounted places for disadvantaged writers who feel excluded from the arts as a result of their social or financial status, and will be splitting 10 percent of all profits to Carers UK and Refuge. Please contact The Writers’ Company for further details or to book.

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