Saskia’s Writing Tips



  1. It may sound obvious, but a synopsis is an essential tool. It’s not just a guide or plan; the act of writing it will help you understand your story and how you can structure it. It is worth spending time and effort on a detailed synopsis before you begin to write.
  2. Time-lines are essential. And I like to sketch out the arc of the story and key plot points in landscape form.
  3. I always experiment with writing in first-person and third-person, and in different tenses, to see what seems to fit the story best.
  4. Don’t be afraid to write! Fill the blank screen or paper with what comes naturally. Often I discard what I first write – it can just be a way of getting me into the book.
  5. Write something that you are passionate about. You need to love your story and your characters. There is no point in trying to second-guess what the publishing world wants.
  6. Writing a novel is a long haul. You need to pace yourself. But you also need to find the hours to work. I have a fairly rigid schedule that I stick to – otherwise life’s demands would take over.
  7. Everyone has different methods of editing. I like to re-read and refine as I go, but I don’t keep perfecting, I prefer to get the story down. At first draft stage, I usually cut chunks of text. Then I start again with the edit. Rigorous editing is the key to a polished story.
  8. Step away from the book sometimes – put it away for a week or two so that you can come back to it with a fresh eye.
  9. Find a literary friend or a writing group – someone you trust to read the first draft and get back to you with observations and comments.
  10. Keep reading – not just novels in the same genre as your own book – but read widely and outside your comfort zone.

10 Favourite Books


Every time I’m asked to choose a list of ten favourite books, the lists will vary slightly – there are just too many wonderful novels to choose from. But here are ten that I do love.



The Hours, Michael Cunningham

In this book, we have Virginia Woolf in 1920s London; Laura Brown, a young wife and mother, suffocating inside the domesticity of her life in 1940s L.A; and Clarissa Vaughan, a woman in New York in the 1990s. The story is told across the span of a single day, with Cunningham cleverly making subtle connections between these seemingly unconnected lives, interweaving them across time and memory through literary references, unexpected associations and ideas. The book is full of humanity, love and loss.


The Girls, Lori Lansen

This is a small book that delivers a huge emotional punch. It’s about twin sisters growing up in a small American town, trying to live a ‘normal’ life. But when you discover that the twin sisters are joined at the head and are already, in their late twenties, the oldest surviving craniopagus twins in history, you know that this is going to be anything but normal. Told in first person in alternating chapters, we have thoughtful, literary Rose and outgoing, sunny Ruby giving us their perspectives on their intimate, entwined world.


Accidents in the Home, Tessa Hadley

A favourite read. Hadley writes emotionally intelligent books that are full of insightful observations. Clare is happily married with three small children. Her best friend, Helly, is a glamorous model. Both women seem to want what the other has, and when Clare realises that Helly’s latest boyfriend is someone she once had a teenage fling with, her safe and comfortable life begins to unravel.


Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson

This book seems to me to be perfect. Set in a small, remote town in northwest America, against a landscape that is bleak, wintery and watery, it tells the story of two orphans who are abandoned by various relatives, until their enigmatic and vague aunt Sylvie comes to live with them. The story is subtle, beautiful and heart-breaking.


The Little Friend, Donna Tart

At 555 pages, this is a huge book in so many ways: dark and tense and full of loss, it nevertheless had me laughing so hard at times that I was crying. I fell in love with the voice of twelve-year-old narrator, Harriet. The story follows her search for her brother’s killer over one snake-infested summer in her small, southern town.


Train Dreams, Denis Johnson

My best friend gave me this book for my birthday this year – and I was happy she did. Set in the American West in the depression, it tells one man’s story in spare, concise language. It speaks of loneliness and endurance, and I really felt that it brought me closer to something mysterious and profound.


Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proux

Another short novel set in the vast, open countryside of America, about the lives of the men who survive there. Like Train Dreams, this book is written in spare, elegant prose and resonates with the unspoken. It is scored through with hard truths and it takes an unwavering look at the difficulties of being gay in the macho world of cowboys and rodeo riders.


The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje

A book that made an indelible mark on my psyche, it’s deeply emotional and full of poetry: a huge, sweeping story that covers war and betrayal, death and love. I recommend it whole-heartedly, whether or not you’ve already seen the film.


The Outcast, Sadie Jones

Sadie Jones has a particular gift for writing about horrific and extraordinary moments in life. Her writing goes to the core of a shattering event, slowing time, revealing exact earthbound details and the surreal otherness of it.  This dark and elegant book is set an English village in the 1940s, where a boy called Lewis is haunted by the terrible tragedy that has wrecked his family.


The Road Home, Rose Tremain

I could have chosen almost any of her novels to put in this list. I find her writing to be truthful and tender, and she always tells a great story. This book is about Lev, an Eastern European coming to find work in London. We see the city through his eyes. The novel is funny and heart-breaking, and it captures what it is to be home-sick.


Wild Childhood


In the tradition of many debut novels, there’s quite a lot of autobiographical detail in The Twins. Like Isolte and Viola, my brother, sister and I were brought up in a small cottage in a clearing in the middle of a pine forest. It was the 70’s; my mother was relaxed and trusting, (although, I hasten to add, nothing like Rose!) She encouraged us to roam free. From an early age I went off with my siblings into the network of sandy paths inside the forest. We would be gone for hours; with no watches or mobile phones we lost track of time, living, as children do, entirely in the moment.

Several people have remarked that reading The Twins stirred similar memories from their own childhoods. Many of us brought up in the time before technology took over, whether in a city or the countryside, had freedom to explore our surroundings. It makes me sad to think that we are afraid to let our children out of our sight a lot of the time. Most of them will never know the joy of going off on an adventure without an adult beside them. Being alone in the forest encouraged us to be responsible for each other, taught us respect for wild animals and to rely on our instincts. I’m certain it helped us develop our imaginations too.

Something terrible happens in my book as a result of the children being by themselves, but in real life no harm ever came to us as we tramped through the undergrowth, waded streams and hid out in dens. Although we did have a scare when my four-year-old brother ate some interesting speckled toadstools and was rushed to the doctor’s with violent stomach cramps. Eating them had seemed natural to him, as we’d been brought up, like Viola and Isolte, to pluck berries and mushrooms to turn into meals. Luckily, he was OK and the memory later inspired me to write about foraging for wild food in my book.

I couldn’t resist putting some other childhood experiences into the The Twins. For example, the dog’s head that the girls’ find in a hollow tree is based on reality. While playing a wintery game of hide and seek in some snowy oak woods, we really did come across the severed head of a black dog hidden inside the centre of a rotten tree. We were just as horrified and fascinated as the children in the book are. We never found out how it got there. Like the twins, we supposed that it must have been something to do with witchcraft. But it remains a mystery to this day.


My Twins



People sometimes ask how I did my research for writing about twins. If I’m with my daughters I gesture towards the brown haired and freckled young women by my side. ‘I’ve been observing these two since they were born,’ I say.

Twenty-two years ago, people stopped to gaze into the double pram I was pushing, murmuring, ‘Little angels!’ They couldn’t know that this was the only time the two tiny babies lying together in the pram actually slept. Night-time was party-time, with lots of screaming. And I was not prepared for how much the naughty-scale would increase when they learnt to walk, which they did in a determined way by 10 months.

I was a new mother, my ‘L’ plates still flapping on my back. I had to learn quickly. My dark-eyed identical girls liked nothing better than conspiring in corners so that they could climb a bookshelf when I was out of the room, sending a precious vase to the floor with a crash. Or escaping down a supermarket aisle to take all their clothes off by the baked beans. They covered the cat’s kittens in felt pen squiggles. When told off, they washed the kittens in soapy water. It was only later that I noticed the mother cat blowing bubbles.

Because they wouldn’t fall asleep in their beds, they often fell asleep in other places. Perhaps copying the cat, one of them once curled up deep inside the dirty laundry basket and slept for hours while I searched the house and garden in desperation. I was just about to phone the police when she woke up yelling because it was ‘all dark.’

When they turned six, it was as if a magic spell had been lifted: they began to read books, sleep through the night, desist from inventing new ways of creating havoc and generally turn into the bright, kind and lovely girls they are today.  Having twins has taught me things about human nature. We long for someone to share our life with, someone who will always understand.  But although my daughters were born with this on tap, and love each other with a fierce loyalty, they are also continually striving for independence and a place in the world that is unique to them as individuals.  Anybody who addresses them as ‘the twins,’ is met with two sets of brown eyes staring hard in best Paddington fashion. They don’t want to be compared. But it is their lot in life. The title of my book is partly an ironic reference to that.

I’m lucky that my girls have shared with me the bitter-sweet nature of having another ‘half’; and although I didn’t base my fictional twins on the real ones, they definitely provided the inspiration for the story. I held my breath while they read The Twins. Luckily, they approved!

How I Write


I am not a tidy worker. My desk is usually a mess of sprawling notebooks and bits of paper and unopened envelopes with vital things written on them; a collection of pens, most of which don’t work; hand cream, dictionaries; files full of hard copies of chapters; coffee cups and a large bottle of water that I force myself to drink. I think I was a camel in another life.

I make notes in lots of different notebooks. I have one in every bag, beside the bed, in the car. I panic if I find I’m without one. (Hence the envelopes.) I begin by researching the place and era that I’m setting the novel in, and also jot down ideas to develop my characters. I work out timelines. I begin to sketch out scenes. All of this looks scrappy and disjointed, but the book begins to come together in my head as a feeling, a colour, almost a sense of things remembered from another life.

Then comes the hard part. Putting words onto an empty screen.  I make time-lines and construct a loose plan. I sketch out rough scenes with pen and paper that will build the narrative; then I develop those scenes onto my laptop. I play around with what I’ve got and edit a bit, but if I think I’m going in the right direction I’ll add another chapter as I like getting things down fast.  It’s a strange process. I definitely write from instinct. I try to keep things fluid, feeling my way, so there are times when I realise that I’m going in the wrong direction or don’t need a particular character’s voice and then I lose pages of work.

The world in my imagination gets stronger and more intense as the months go by, the characters stepping off the page and making their own decisions. It’s at this point that I go back and weave in new details, things that have only become apparent to me through the process of writing the story out. It’s very addictive. The last stage, after getting a first draft, is my favourite bit. I get the chance to discuss the book with Emma, my editor, and she gives me her thoughts. It takes me about four months to edit a book and the changes I make at this stage are all-important.

My working day starts after my youngest son has gone to school and I’ve run or walked the dogs around the park. I sit down mid-morning with a cup of coffee and begin. The dogs usually lie around on the floor, and a cat may stroll across my desk – I keep ‘saving’, as a cat on the keyboard has been known to delete paragraphs!  I try and have at least four hours of undisturbed writing time. Towards the end of a book I can work for longer periods, going back to my laptop after doing tea for everyone and writing into the night. Of course, it’s not always as simple as this – life gets in the way. There’s the usual domestic stuff to contend with, and the odd drama or crisis. But without living there are no stories!





As I was writing The Twins, I was aware that it could be seen as an interpretation of a fairy tale, complete with a cottage deep among pine trees and a dark tower without a door. And of course there’s witchcraft and magic woven into the plot, with a ghost dog prowling just out of sight.

There are other similarities too. I like the dark hearts of fairy tales; they don’t shy away from revealing the cruelty in the world. The dying rabbit and ill-fated baby goat are in the book because you encounter such things in the country; but they could also be seen metaphorically as part of the lesson the girls learn about the sacrifices which life demands. Tokens are given in fairy tales and fables – symbols imbued with meaning – like Viola’s pebble, which stands for a love that’s as enduring as the stone itself.

One of the central drives of The Twins is Isolte’s quest to find the lost boys in order to save her sister. The quest is a device used in many fairy tales: Sleeping Beauty and The Seven Ravens to name a couple.  Although the genre takes us into magic places and introduces otherworldly beings, the acts of heroism needed during the quest renew our faith in humanity, leaving us with the knowledge that we have the power to change things through our bravery and love.

Children in fairy tales are typically cut free from adult protection and guidance – think of Babes In The Wood or Red Riding Hood.  They must use their instinct and intelligence to pass tests in order to survive or to achieve their goal. In the twins’ case, this is getting rid of Frank, perceived as the ‘evil’ step-father. Of course, in the novel, it goes horribly wrong and a ‘happy ending’ seems impossible.

Although there are definitely parallels between The Twins and a fairy tale, such stories are populated by characters who (even if they slip into disguise,) tend to be clear representatives of good and evil, whereas I hope that The Twins offers a more realistic look at the way we are all a blend of conflicting qualities, both ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ Ultimately, the characters in my book must strive to find their way back – not out of a literal forest – but out of the dark and tangled past. Their glittering prize isn’t a crown or the hand of the prince, but a chance to forgive and be forgiven.