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Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity

Part Nine: The Four C’s of Creative Writing

The four C’s of creative writing are Character, Charisma, Contrast, and Conflict—so here’s what you need to know about them…


Every human being on this planet is the sum of all their past experiences. From princes to paupers and everyone in between, the way they were treated as a child, their birth position in their family, education, health, work (or lack of it) and every other life experience comes together to create a unique person. We’re all works in progress!

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Your past is what makes you, you. It’s the same with fictional characters. To make the life they live between the pages of your book feel real, give each of them a past. The very best characters capture the imagination of readers so well, it feels as though they will have a life beyond the end of the story.

Kate Walker provides a great template for developing your characters in her 12-Point Guide to Writing Romance. I adapt her idea by adding some questions of my own about background and circumstances each time I start a new writing project. This creates a database for every new fictional character, tailored to the story I’m writing.

Some of the most interesting questions to ask yourself about your characters concern their childhood. The position of children within their family is a fascinating subject, and important. The upbringing of an only child will be very different from the life of a youngster who is the middle one of three (potentially bossed around by the eldest child, and invisible if their younger sibling needs attention). And what about twins? How much of their character depends on nature, and how much on nurture? Perhaps their mother saw one as “good” and the other as “attention seeking”. The treatment you get as a child has a lasting effect.

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I’ve never been a believer in horoscopes but when the poet Paul Groves gave me a book on Zodiac Types, I had to admit that there were eerie similarities between my own character, and those of my birth sign. After that, I compared the personality types of all my family members and friends with the book. It scored more hits than misses, so I’ve used it ever since to help me create characters. Whether or not astrology actually affects our day-to-day life, the way this book lists linked traits of personality, body type, suggestions for ideal careers (or jobs to avoid!) and other details provides exactly the sort of information to kick-start anyone’s imagination.


Whether they are heroes or villains, the best fictional characters have charisma. This is much more than simple charm. It’s almost indefinable, but it’s obvious when you see it, or read about a character who has it.  

Eva Peron at Casa Rosada, Via Wikimedia Commons

Charisma is a combination of confidence and determination, together with an ability to communicate, and inspire. Charismatic people aren’t always “nice”. Some of the most charismatic people in real life aren’t liked by everyone. Eva Perón and Donald Trump are both examples of charisma in action, but that doesn’t mean you’d automatically vote for either of them.

In fiction, Pride and Prejudice’s Fitzwilliam Darcy is charismatic: George Wickham is charming. Darcy gets the job done: Wickham basks in admiring glances. The best type of fictional hero combines drive and determination with charm and intelligence. Create characters your readers can recognise, then tune their individual facets up or down to make them either more or less heroic, depending on the part they will play in your story.


When shall we two meet again? Photo by Ibrahim Asad on

Keep contrast in mind whenever you are writing. If all your characters think, speak, dress and act in similar ways, it will be difficult for the reader to see them as individuals.

Use different types of setting—interiors, exteriors, town, and country, to add variety to your work and keep your audience interested. Use the weather as shorthand, but avoid slipping into cliché.

Shakespeare set the standard for using weather—imagine how different the opening scene of Macbeth would be if he met the witches on a sun-warmed beach at midsummer! Play with the idea of weather setting the scene by turning the idea around— contrast the furious revelations that end a marriage with the beautiful peace of a summer evening, to highlight how poignant relationships can be. Alternatively, have your lovers brought together by a thunderstorm rather than being torn apart. That idea worked beautifully for Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in the Isn’t is a lovely day? routine in the film Top Hat.

Within your story, vary the length of your scenes and chapters. Contrast is also useful in pacing your story. Follow some languid scene-setting with lines of punchy dialogue, or let a violent incident result in a tender love scene, for example when Jack slips away in Titanic.


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Once you’ve created a great character, give them something to kick against. In the memorable image first used by an anonymous nineteenth-century theatre critic, you need to chase your protagonist(s) up a tree, then throw rocks at them. There’s a time and place for introspective fiction, but at times of stress or boredom most people don’t want to read about Jo Dull from Beigeville. They’ll grab an Ian Fleming, ready to follow James Bond across oceans to exotic locations.

If your hero chases villains around the world leaving a trail of destruction behind them, that’s what is known as external conflict. Plenty of successful books and films rely on little more than that, but including an element of internal conflict adds depth to both characters and storyline.   

External conflict is the sort you see in news bulletins (or Bond films)—war, natural disasters, accidents, fights, financial panics, and so on. Internal conflict is the struggle within a character to reconcile their opposing emotions. They may feel inadequate while trying to live up to the expectations of others, or struggle with the contrast between their public image and private reality.

Inner conflict in action,Victorian style…

Internal conflict is the engine driving your character to act in the way they do—guilt, shame, fear, and secret love are some good starting points.

This isn’t the place to discuss the contrast between our contemporary liberal values and the moral strictures of Victorian England, but Holman Hunt’s painting The Awakening Conscience is the perfect example of inner conflict. The painting is packed with the popular imagery of its time and repays careful study, but here’s a quick 101—this unmarried couple are living outside of society (like Lydia and Wickham in Pride and Prejudice). He has been playing the sentimental tune Oft in the Stilly Night. The lyrics of that popular Victorian song are chock-full of longing for the past, and memories of friends and family who have been lost.

She leaps to her feet in a torment of inner conflict: the life of a mistress at this time was shameful and short. It almost always ended with pregnancy, a sexually-transmitted disease, a descent into prostitution, or a combination of all three. Brought up at a time when everything not permitted was forbidden, this woman’s childhood would have been spent listening to Sunday sermons about wickedness, and veiled hints about the fate of adulterous relationships (don’t get me started on A.L. Egg’s Past and Present, Numbers 1, 2, and 3 or we’ll be here all day!) Her family will either have disowned her when she ran away, or she has been too ashamed to make contact.

Holman Hunt has caught her Will I ever see my family again? moment of inner conflict. Should she stay, or should she go? As with all the best internal conflicts, there’s no easy answer. Should this woman continue her life of present comfort with its almost guaranteed future pain, or abandon it in favour of possible humiliation and rejection if she tries to be reconciled with her family?

Mark my words, this isn’t going to end well… A.E.Egg’s ‘Past and Present, Number One’

To return to the work of Jane Austen: think how much shorter and less captivating Pride and Prejudice would be if the first time George Wickham’s name was mentioned Darcy announced, “He’s a rogue who should be horsewhipped!”. Wickham would be cut from polite society in an instant — end of story.

Instead, Darcy struggles with concealing what he knows about the man. Despite his charisma, Darcy has already been shown to be a judgemental stuffed shirt. If he exposes Wickham as a shallow rogue and compulsive gambler who tried to elope with Georgiana Darcy, he would seem bitter, vengeful, and as big a snob as Mr Collins. More importantly, it would wreck the good name of Darcy’s sister.

The four C’s of Creative Writing will help you put in place the scaffolding that a great story needs. Next time I’ll be writing about how writers can help readers find solutions to problems in their own lives by examining popular themes in their work.

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Part Eight: Plan of Action

In this series we’ve talked about imagination, capturing it, and then turning your ideas into words. Putting all that together to create a novel takes patience and concentration. I’m about to start a new writing project, so this week I’ll show you how the hints and tips I’ve shared come together in real life.

Last week, Jean Fullerton of the Romantic Novelists’ Association hosted a panel about writing sagas. I’ve written stand-alone historical novels (you can discover my other books here), and was curious to find out more about sagas. I’d never thought of writing one myself— until I listened to Jean and her panel of best-selling authors.

I learned that sagas have changed in recent years and no longer have to be enormous tomes covering decades. The word count for individual sagas within a series can be as low as 80k—or as long as it takes you to tell that segment of the story. Sagas today don’t have to be all clogs, shawls and trouble at t’mill, either. Readers particularly enjoy novels set in Victorian times, but they also love Second World War stories.

The more I listened to the RNA panel, the more I felt like writing about a time of uniforms, silk stockings, and air-raids.

The rail and its commemorative stone ©Christina Hollis, 2021

While I was researching Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol, I came across lots of fascinating real-life accounts of life in the city during the Second World War. I only had room for a fraction of them in the published book. For example, a bomb blasted this heavy iron tram rail high into the air and sent it flying toward the famous church of St Mary Redcliffe. It just missed the houses of Colston Parade, and buried itself to half its length (it would have been about six feet long) in the church grounds. Imagine the carnage if it had landed on the houses…

The rail was left where it fell, and a commemorative stone set beside it.

After looking again at the notes I have on file about life in Bristol during the twentieth century, I’ve decided to incorporate some of them into a saga.

One of the many things that going to university as a mature student taught me is that it’s not only important to make lots of notes—you need to be able to find the right bit of that research instantly, before inspiration vanishes.

This is where Scrivener comes in really handy. I talked about it in Part Six, and opening this new project is a way to show it in action. Here’s a screenshot of my first moves this week on Scrivener (to see a larger version, right click on the image):

As soon as I start work on documents within each folder, the appropriate card you can see in the main part of the screenshot will begin to fill with text. The beauty of using this system is that if, for example, I decide one book will cover the period from August 1939 to January 1941 all I need to do is point and drag all the relevant documents into the 1939 folder, and rename it Sept 1939-Jan 1941.

Below the list of dated folders on the left, you’ll see my list of characters. That’s where I’ll file all the details about them such as their age, position in the family, appearance, mannerisms, and anything else that comes to mind. None of this will appear in my finished manuscript—it’s simply a way of keeping all my ideas, research in one place rather than having my notes scattered aorund the house in any number of individual devices and notebooks.

This isn’t to suggest that the lives of my characters Wilf, Mary, their son Arthur, and daughter Sally are in any way based on Gandalf, Mother Teresa, Dean Martin, or Isadora Duncan! All I’m doing is collecting some visual cues for a patriarch, matriarch, party animal, and a free spirit. These will create an instant reminder for me…although I can’t help wondering who would come out on top if Gandalf and Isadora Duncan were involved in a “domestic”!

I’m not a planner, but would rather write “into the mist” as author Joanna Maitland puts it. However, because I’m setting a story in a defined period of history I’ll need to keep tabs on what is happening elsewhere. Writing about my characters munching steak at a time of rationing, or playing floodlit tennis during the blackout is not on.

I started my research for Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol by opening a spreadsheet with the columns representing the one hundred years covered by the book. I then used rows to represent International events, National events and Local events. I filled it in accordingly so that for any year I could see what was going on generally, and see which events might affect Bristol and its women. As you can see below, I’ve done a similar spreadsheet for SAGA_WW2_NURSERY.

This is an extract from my spreadsheet, covering the first months of World War Two.

At this early stage I’ve filled in only the basic details of major international and national events that might affect my characters, using nothing more than good old Google. If in the future I decide to refer to any of those incidents in my novel, I will do more extensive research but for now all I need is a flavour of Autumn 1939.

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Rain! Photo by Rachel Claire on

The Local Events row will involve much more detailed research from the moment I start writing, to help me keep my story true to time and place. I haven’t even begun to think about that yet! I have, though, included an extra row at the bottom of the spreadsheet for details obtained from the Met Office archive about the weather.

Including small details like that will help create a believable setting for my story. After all, what’s the first topic of conversation when any English people meet?

Next time, I’ll be looking in more detail at how to create characters. Sign up to follow this blog below, so you don’t miss Part Nine!

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Part Seven: Start As You Mean To Go On

Whether you are going to self-publish your writing, or send it to an industry professional, at some stage your work needs to be set out in a way that makes it easy to read.

If you create a dedicated template on your computer at the beginning of your writing career, it’ll save a lot of time. Just open a new document from that template, and start typing. All the details you’ve stored such as margin and type size, page numbering and font will be applied automatically.

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Very few firms request submissions to be made as a paper copy, but as I explained in Part Six, submitting your work in .doc or .docx form is almost universal so start by opening a document in Word. If you don’t use a Windows computer, you can find out more about Word documents here.

Any typed submissions need to be on A4 size paper in portrait orientation. Set up the document on your computer in the same way, and you can be sure it will print properly should you need to run off a paper copy.

Set a good margin all the way round the page— I use 2.5cms—by moving the tabs on the rulers set at the top and left hand side of the blank page. Editors often print out pages of text to read while away from their computers, and this allows them room to add comments.

You’ll need two near-identical templates, one for manuscripts, and one for synopses. This is because, while all the other details remain the same, manuscripts are traditionally double spaced (again, to allow room for written revisions) and synopses are single-spaced.

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Once you’ve created a template, all you need to do is type…Photo by Kaboompics .com on

Set up the line spacing on each template to “2” and “1” respectively, but always check before submitting whether the firm you are contacting is happy with those settings. Some have different requirements. The information will be included in their guidelines for submission so check and be ready to change your spacings if necessary. CNTRL A will highlight a complete block of text, so you can alter the look of your whole document in seconds.

Next, set headers and footers. On my computer this is done by clicking on “Insert” then choosing “Headers and Footers”. I put my name, and the title of my piece in a header, and use a footer for the page number. This means every page of work can be easily traced back to its original document, and its position within the manuscript. That’s important in case an editor prints out only part of your work, as mentioned above

I always use Times New Roman font, 12-point size for both headers and text. You’re not obliged to use Times New Roman, but along with Arial it’s one of the industry’s preferred fonts as it’s easy to read and universally recognised. Steer clear of anything else. If your work uses an unusual font which isn’t installed on your recipients system, a document that looks perfect on your screen might be unreadable when opened on their computer.

Here’s the layout I use for front and end pages

Always use black type. It’s easier to read, and looks professional.

Before submission, your work will need a title page which includes your name, contact details, and the word count. Once I’ve set one up, I copy and paste it to act as an end page, too. Then the reader won’t have to scroll right back to the beginning of the document to find my email address. It’s all there on the last page, ready for them to dash off a congratulatory message (I hope!) the second they’ve finished reading.

Once you have created a blank document with wide margins, an acceptable font and print size, set the spacing, and included placeholders for the heading, hit File >Save As, and then select “Template” from the drop down menu and give it a descriptive name such as Prose or Synopsis. Then all you need to do is select whichever option you need, each time you open a new document.

When your work is finished and you’re ready to submit, go through the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook to find somewhere suitable to send it. Even if you rely on the latest edition, personnel in the publishing industry regularly take on different roles, or change firms. Approaching the right person in the right company and giving them their correct title shows you’ve done your research. Cross-check all details with the company’s website, which will give you the most up-to-date information, and precise details about the form in which your work should be submitted.

It all started with a manuscript!

Make sure you send exactly what is required, and if you are asked to send a printed copy, don’t forget to include return postage. Publishing professionals receive hundreds of submissions each week. They don’t have the time or money to waste on printing out address labels, and calculating individual postage rates. If your work doesn’t appeal to them, it will be shredded unless you include an envelope with your name and address on it, and enough stamps to cover return of your work.

Next time, I’ll be giving details of what agents and publishers are looking for in a submission. Sign up below to make sure you can read Part Eight of Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity as soon as it is published!

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Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity

Part Six: From Notes to Manuscript

In Part Four, I talked about always keeping a notebook with you to capture your thoughts. That’s perfect when you’re writing a journal and don’t expect to show anyone else your work. If you have ambitions to see your name in print, then you’ll need to organise your thoughts into manuscript form. At the very least you’ll need to turn your notes into a computer file. Not many agents and publishers insist on typed scripts these days, but once you’ve created a document on your word processor you can turn it into any form requested.

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Handwritten manuscripts aren’t acceptable to the publishing industry. Whether you intend to self-publish your work or approach agents with a view to conventional publication it’ll save you a lot of work if, right from the start, you get into the habit of creating a computer document from your notes, set out in such a way that it’s ready for submission.

I’ll be looking at how to set out your work in more detail in Part Seven, but the most important thing at this point is that you need a computer capable of creating Word documents, which is the format usually required by the publishing industry. If you have a Windows PC but don’t already have Word (usually as part of Microsoft Office) and you don’t want to pay the subscription for it, then there are free Windows packages such as LibreOffice that can save their files in Word format. I use a Mac (that’s because I rely on my brilliant husband, a systems analyst, for all things technical. If anything goes wrong, he can fix it!) and this comes with Apple Pages which in theory also can save in Word format but in practice not perfectly. I would recommend getting hold of Office for Apple if you can; if you’re a student you may be able to access Word for free via your educational establishment, or get a reduced rate when subscribing.

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Once you’re up and running with a system that will produce your work in Word form, you’ll need to transfer your notes onto it. There are various speech recognition computer programs such as Dragon Dictate , which I mentioned in Part Four. These are a way of reading your work into words, rather than typing them and are available in both Mac and PC versions. I don’t use them myself, although lots of people find they work very well.

If you have a scanner then you could get hold of a package to convert scanned documents to text but none are 100% perfect, especially with handwriting, so you’d still have to check every word in the file it creates.

When I was working on Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol, I typed most of my ideas and notes straight into a Neo. This was essentially a computer that ran a built-in, basic word processing package and automatically saved as you typed. You typed, it saved your work, and that’s it. Sadly, the Neo isn’t made anymore. That’s probably because of the very feature that made it so valuable to me—its lack of internet connectivity—which meant I couldn’t waste writing time by surfing the net, looking at adverts, and buying online. All you could do with a Neo was type and then upload your file onto a conventional computer.

Much as I love writing, the temptation to surf the internet as a break from puzzling over a tricky scene is irresistible. I wouldn’t be without my Neo, so if you (or someone you know) has the technical skill to maintain one of these little treasures and you happen to see a second-hand one for sale, snap it up. It puts an end to online time-wasting!

Scrivener: By writers, for writers.
Click here to find out more

While I always send my finished work off as a document created in Word, if I’m working on a long article in several sections or novel, I use a package called Scrivener to help me. It stores all the notes and images I’ve gathered in the same place as I create my text. Each new project has its own file, which Scrivener calls (handily enough) a Project. This is described as a digital ring-binder. There’s somewhere to store everything you need to create your book.

I took some of the photographs which illustrate Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol, and stored them within my Struggle Project. There was also a file for the intricate timeline I developed which consisted of three strands: international events, national events, and local events. There was no need to lose that brilliant idea I jotted down on the back of a receipt while out and about somewhere—I’d take a snap, then upload it into the relevant .scriv file on my computer.

One of the photos I took for Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol

I opened a new chapter for each topic I wanted to cover (education, work, daily life, etc) gave it a snappy title such as Fun and Games or Firebrands and Fixers, and set to work. I could view my work in all sorts of ways, a scene at a time, or the whole document as a rolling scroll, for example. Creating the project within Scrivener was half the fun! Click on the badge above to find out more.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know that technology is definitely not my friend, but Scrivener is so user friendly I managed to install it myself, and the tutorial and video included with the package are straightforward. There are loads more videos on YouTube, both by Scrivener’s creators Literature and Latte and by keen users of the system, so whatever your question, somebody has it covered. If, like me, you learn more easily from books, I highly recommend Gwen Hernandez’s Scrivener for Dummies. There is a slightly more recent version available on Amazon, but I have this edition and haven’t bothered getting the newer one as I like Gwen’s style. Both her book, and her online tips are really helpful.

One of the great features about Scrivener is that if you want to self-publish your work, with a couple of clicks it will turn your manuscript into a format that can be uploaded straight into your chosen publishing platform. That means you can do almost all of the work of producing your book yourself, although to make your book the best it can possibly be you should still employ professionals to edit it. Creating your cover is another job that should also be left to a professional, unless you are completely confident with not only your artistic skills, but in your ability to design something that works well at thumbnail size. Those two talents don’t always go together!

No piece on using computers would be complete without a reminder to save your work, and save it often. You can set your computer to save automatically—mine does it every thirty minutes. Don’t just rely on that, though, in case your computer goes wrong and you can’t access any of your work. Save it in at least two other places. I use flash drives (dongles), and email. I don’t bother with cloud storage systems such as Dropbox, but that’s only because I have quite enough passwords to remember already!

This is what I use: the “F” at top right stands for Friday, of course!

I have one flash drive for each day of the week, and plug the appropriate one into my computer each morning. I can then save my work to it each time I take a tea break, or when I stop for lunch. In the event of some technological disaster, at most I’ll only have lost a couple of hours’ work. My other six flash drives hold the week’s previous drafts of my work, so I can always go back and rescue anything I may have changed, and then had second thoughts about.

At the end of each day I email the latest version of the document I’m working on to myself, as well as saving it to flash drive. That way, everything is covered.

Next time, I’ll be talking about how to layout your manuscript, so sign up below to follow my blog and you’ll be sure to see it the minute it’s published.

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Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity

Part Five: Let the Sunshine in…

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Now you’ve found your inspiration, you can set to work. Get ready to shine a light on all those subjects that have been waiting for your unique voice to bring them to life.

I’ve found that clearing my diary and desk before beginning a new project works like magic. Without the shadow of appointments or deadlines, or distractions such as my towering To Be Read pile and accounts waiting to be updated, I can sit down with a clear conscience and start writing.

Let the smell of the furniture polish and screen wipes you use when making that clean sweep act as stimulants, but don’t allow procrastination to lock you into an endless loop of housekeeping. There’s a limit to the number of times pencils can be sharpened before they disappear!

Only you can fully understand the motivation behind your need to write. Writing for pleasure, profit, or posterity are all equally valid reasons. I know many of you are using writing to help you through the anxiety of illness and lockdown. Hard though your accounts may be to write, they will fascinate future generations and offer insights into the ability of human beings to adapt to any situation.

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Regardless of your reason for starting to write, it should always be a pleasure. If you write from the heart, your enthusiasm will shine through. It doesn’t matter if nobody else ever sees what you’ve written. Translating your thoughts into words, seeing them on a page or screen and then refining them is an achievement in itself. Millions of people think about doing it, but only a small number actually settle down and put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard).

While I’m lucky enough to earn most of my living from writing, I have always looked on any payment I receive as a bonus. I enjoy writing so much I’d do it for nothing—and that happens more often than you’d think! I’ve been involved in projects that started well but somehow never gelled, others where I’ve loved every minute and poured my heart and soul into the work, and yet it wasn’t picked up by a publisher. Most frustrating of all, I’ve had a novel accepted by an independent publisher which—so far— has never managed to get as far as publication.

Writing is always worth the trouble, although your work is unlikely to be snapped up for a six-figure advance. In these days of shrinking budgets and growing costs, getting paid any money at all before your book has been on sale for several months is rare. Payments may continue to trickle in for years afterwards, but to begin with you’ll become richer in writing experience than in hard cash.

Look at the colour of that sky! © Christina Hollis, 2021

That experience will help you to help yourself, and others. In good weather, our house is a lovely twenty-minute stroll through the woods from the nearest main road. A few years ago, we were completely marooned by snow for several weeks. Collecting our deliveries and groceries meant a tiring half-hour trudge through drifts almost up to the tops of our boots, before hauling our goods home on a sled. That was fun the first few times, but the novelty soon wore off.

During that season of snowstorms the electricity was cut off quite often. The weight of snow kept bringing down branches onto the power lines running through the wood. As many people in this rural area were in the same predicament, we often had to wait for a long time before we were reconnected to the power supply.

Although our isolation then was nothing compared to the current crisis, keeping a journal about our day-to-day life kept me busy by giving me something to focus on. Looking back on the entries I made then is fascinating. It reminds me to double check our supplies of candles and torch batteries. Not to mention Calor gas, staples like flour, yeast, and the one thing I can’t live without—tea!

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One day, historians could be poring over your thoughts Photo by Pixabay on

You don’t need to live in interesting times to create something that will fascinate future generations. The Mass Observation Archive, which is held as part of the University of Sussex’s Special Collections, originally started in 1937 as a national life-writing project. Submissions from a cross-section of British people supplied accounts of lives that now exist only between the covers of history books. The difference is, contributions to the Mass Observation Archive have been written by people like you and me, rather than professors of politics and economics.

The most well-known example of a contributor to the MOA is probably Nella Last, whose journal entries have been published as Nella Last’s War, and were adapted by Victoria Wood to create the TV drama Housewife, 49. Nella’s life is a world away from how we live now. Things are bound to change in the future—why not leave a record of your own life for posterity? Imagine giving your grandchildren, and their grandchildren, a written example to follow (not to mention an endless source of material for school projects!). Start writing today. Your family, as well as future historians, will thank you for it.

Next time I’ll be talking about the ways your ideas can be turned into a manuscript that’s ready for submission. Make sure you sign up below, so you can read Part Six the minute it’s published.