David Rollins a Sydney-based ex-journo, ex-advertising, now-pilot and now-author with a stack of thrilling novels up his sleeve and more to come. After his Special Agent Vin Cooper books, including the pulse-stopping Standoff, he’s now tackling the historical thriller with Field of Mars, tracing a lost legion in Ancient Rome. As a renowned nosey parker, I asked him to write about how he works.
I often get asked what my writing process is. The fact is, writing a novel is a pretty romantic notion for a lot of people. But is it? Most people envisage that they’ll be sitting in their study, soothing music playing, and otherwise undisturbed while the creative juices flow. Hmm…my reality is that I write at a desk in my bedroom, facing a brick wall. I used to listen to music, but for some reason I don’t any more. I used to do that so I could block out the real world and concentrate instead on the world playing out behind my eyes. I don’t need to do that anymore. I can hold reality at bay at will. I write sitting in departure lounges, or on planes, or in the back of taxis. I can write anywhere. Sometimes I have to because there’s not enough time for that desk in my bedroom.
For years I wrote 2000 words a day and I was religious about it. Sometimes that writing would start at 6 am and finish at 8 or 9 pm – whenever that 2000 words was on the hard drive. Some days I could peel off 2000 words a few hours. Sometimes the words come fast, and sometimes you have to lever them out with a crowbar. These days, there’s so much else I have to do that I’m happy if I just advance the story. Even a couple of hundred words, if that’s all I can manage.
When I’m in the middle of a manuscript, I go over and over the dialogue in my head until it sounds about right. Sounds cool, right? But often this happens at 4 in the morning when I’m trying to sleep. Or when I’m trying to exercise. Or when I’m watching my daughter play soccer. Or driving. Or at a restaurant with friends. In fact, sometimes I wish the voices in my head would just fuck off and leave me in peace. My wife will often say, “Hey, where are you?” because I won’t be in the here and now, I’ll be in someone else’s skin, in some other place, and, recently, in some other time. It’s relentless.
I also don’t always know exactly where the story will go, though I’m reasonably clear on where it will end up. I write a kind of an outline and this includes several key scenes I can see clearly. The outline is important – if it works, I know the book will work. This is my “spine” or “railway tracks” – I’ve heard a number of writers call this different things, but it’s all the same. If I don’t have something like this – even a paragraph – I know I might lose the plot.
You want to know one of my most favourite sounds? It’s the clatter of fingers on the keyboard of a computer. What a beautiful sound – all those words and thoughts being created. It’s like a rush of new life.
Is writing a novel romantic? Maybe it is, I don’t know. What I do know is that no one else will write it for me. If the words get written that’s me. If the words don’t get written that’s also me. So instead of going to the pub, I write. Instead of going to watch a game of rugby, I write. I’ve missed quite a lot over the years. And maybe lost a friend or two also. But in their place I now have 10 novels and each one has been its own adventure. I went to Siberia to research THE ZERO OPTION. And the Thai-Burma border for A KNIFE EDGE. For STANDOFF, I went to Colombia, Panama and Texas and hung out with The Texas Rangers and watched drug couriers come across the Rio Grande at night. I’ve also met some great people, though admittedly some of these have been conjured in my own brain.
And when you write the novel, you live with these people in your thoughts for the duration. That’s not always a good thing, believe me, because a novel has to be convincing. If you can’t convince yourself that the characters and the situation (or plot) is real, you can forget about convincing your readers. So when I’m deep in the story, the lines of what’s real and what’s in my imagination can get a little blurry. My family is used to it now, but the outcome is that I’m thought of (I believe) as being either vague and dreamy. There’s no room left in my head for names or faces or places that aren’t in my current book. It’s weird, I guess, but that’s how it rolls for me.