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Bringing history alive
  1. M C Scott

Abstract

M. C. Scott was senior clinical anaesthetist at Cambridge vet school before turning to writing. Of the 10 novels she has published, the first four were contemporary crime thrillers. She now writes historical novels and has set up the Historical Writers' Association

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I QUALIFIED from Glasgow in 1984 and spent 10 years becoming a semi-decent anaesthetist before I had the time and space to start writing. My plan had always been to be a writer and a vet, but I massively underestimated the amount of time and emotional energy taken to do both well. There was a long bridging period when I thought I was going to be able to work part time, because I really didn't want to give up veterinary medicine completely but, in the end, the time needed – not just to write, but to promote the brand of Manda (MC) Scott – is so huge, there isn't time to be the kind of vet I'd want to be.

Starting writing

I started writing for television in 1992 while I was working full time as senior clinical anaesthetist in the clinical department at Cambridge university. I finally gave up the day job completely at the turn of the millennium, by which time I was working part time at the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket. In between, I'd worked as an anaesthetist in Dublin, and as the financial director of a computer games company.

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Thinking time

I have the best job in the whole world: each day is genuinely different; I am entirely my own boss, while having the framework of a major publishing house as my support, help and go-to place for problems. I get up when I wake up, not when the alarm clock goes, take the dogs for a run down the lane to pick up the paper, read it over breakfast, then either take the dogs up the hill for their main walk, or go and train with my agility trainer, a world-championship contender who lives locally. That's my thinking time.

I start work approaching midday and clear the admin. That has become a great deal heavier in the past 18 months since I set up the Historical Writers' Association (HWA). I am chair of the HWA and of the organising committee for our two-day literary festival at Kelmarsh as part of the English Heritage Festival of History. Answering the e-mails, adding new members to the website and – if there's been a launch recently – writing blog posts as part of the general brand awareness can take well over an hour. I aim to be writing by noon, but that doesn't always work, particularly if my editor calls and we need to sort out the direction of the most recent book.

I write from then until seven or eight, with brief breaks for the dogs and/or my head. Then we run down the lane again: it takes about five minutes and gives me time away from the screen to think.

Some days I can write without a break at all (which annoys my chiropractor hugely). Mostly, I take breaks every couple of hours to take the dogs out in the garden and then spend a bit of time on Twitter and Facebook: authors are encouraged to use social networking as ways of reaching our online audience. Given the increase in e-book sales, this is becoming increasingly important: blog reviews are as important as newspaper reviews now.

My partner works from home as well – we have a biggish cottage and we each have a wing. She designs and makes couture children's dresses (www.damselflyboutique.co.uk) and so we have similar timetables. We finish work around 8 pm, feed the animals and then ourselves, and have an hour or two of quiet time by the fire in the living room to wind down … unless there's a deadline, in which case we eat by the workstation and keep going until we have to sleep.

Creative freedom

I love the creativity of writing: I am phenomenally lucky in that my publishers are big and powerful enough to ensure sales, and are happy to let me write more or less what I want. Each book is different – I have no interest at all in writing the same book time after time; each one stretches me in new ways, each one takes different research, different writing techniques, different ways of thinking. I can bury myself in the library for a couple of months getting to grips with a new topic; or (with a different book) I can sit at home making things up. I can write TV/film scripts, short stories, newspaper columns and blogs in the gaps between books, and the scope for creating new worlds is immense. I can touch people I have never met, reach into their lives and change their dreams: I still get e-mails weekly from people round the world who have read the ‘Boudica:dreaming’ novels that were written a decade ago, but are still reaching people. The freedom, the solitude, the chance to explore ideas … there's no better job in the world.

Having said that, I'm not thrilled about the weekly trips to London, which means at least a four-hour train ride, which on a bad day can become eight hours.

Before I began writing full time, I went on a writing course at which Fay Weldon was the tutor. She said: ‘Find your own voice’, which was the best bit of writing advice I have ever had. When I was a baby crime writer I joined the Crime Writers' Association. Val McDermid and Ian Rankin sat me down and told me that, ‘We're not in competition, we're all in this together (yes, really) and we're all each others’ best ambassadors', which was the best advice any writer can have.

For anyone considering a similar career, I would recommend getting yourself an agent, and the next thing is to write daily and edit often.

My first novel was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, which made me pretty proud, although I was still working at the vet school at the time, among people for whom writing was a slightly strange hobby, so I didn't really make the most of it. Since then, some of the reviews for ‘Eagle of the Twelfth’ have been stunning, and it's easily the best historical novel I've written. It feels like a new child and I'm hugely proud of it.

Bringing history alive, and the opportunity to change people's perceptions of who we were, and therefore of who we could be, is astounding. I found a historical basis for Christ (three different men whose stories were conflated into one), and I think I've discovered the real Joan of Arc – that's the next book. I can brighten people's lives. It feels real, and important.

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