Is it possible to really love a book without wanting to know something about the person that produced it? For me, the two are heavily intertwined. I have a fascination with authors and the background, skills, and habits that have allowed them to make such incredible art. Whether there are patterns in the way that great authors set about writing – their routines, planning, methods for combatting writer’s block etc. – is something that I’ve often wondered. In an effort to uncover whether there is any truth to this, while also learning more about some of my favourite authors, I’ve decided to dig a little deeper into the lives of our most celebrated writers. Since autumn will, for me, be eternally associated with Charles Dickens, I couldn’t think of a better place to start. Whether you consider Dickens to be one of history’s greatest authors or the peril of every teenage English student, we can certainly agree that his prodigious production of highly esteemed literature is truly incredible. His prolific popularity during the Victorian era and his ongoing estimation as one of the greatest novelists of all time make his writing habits all the more interesting. So exactly what were Dickens’s literary secrets?
Questions surrounding the routines of great authors are always among the most fascinating. While all authors will have a different approach to writing – often dependent on other life commitments, as well as their personal work ethic – understanding the habits of an author is typically quite revealing. Dickens’s own writing routine was heavily influenced by the demands of his deadlines. Publishing his novels in installment form via periodicals and magazines, Dickens was required to have multiple chapters ready for publication at very short intervals. This type of publication offered a number of advantages, including the ability to gauge the audience’s reaction as each new installment was released. However, having new chapters required on a monthly or weekly basis also places inevitable strain on an author’s creative output. To meet such an intense publication schedule, Dickens’s work routine was invariable. He kept to the same hours every day, without change. As his eldest son noted: “No city clerk was ever more methodical or orderly than he; no humdrum, monotonous, conventional task could ever have been discharged with more punctuality or with more business-like regularity, than he gave to the work of his imagination and fancy.”
As such, Dickens treated writing much like any day job. He woke up at 7am, had breakfast at 8am, and was sat down to work in his study by 9am. He would work without pause until 2pm, when he would stop for lunch and embark on a daily three hour walk around London. These walks were integral to Dickens’s success as an author. Not only did they provide him with space to muse on his writing and consider future developments, they were also key to Dickens’s unrivalled knowledge of the city. Dickens grew up in London and had always walked its streets. Moving through the city on a daily basis, among people of all kinds, equipped him to represent London at its most authentic and raw. Following his walk, Dickens would return home for dinner at 6pm, spend an evening relaxing with his family and friends, and be in bed by midnight. It was a strict routine that allowed him to produce work at an impressive rate. Dickens never varied his hours, even when inspiration failed to strike. He could write thousands of words in a morning, or sometimes nothing at all. But his routine did not change.
Dickens’s strict adherence to a daily writing schedule was mirrored by his formulaic approach to planning his novels. Publishing in serial form makes a novel very difficult to plan in whole. Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers, took 20 months to publish in full. It was released in monthly installments from March 1836 to October 1837 and comprised 57 chapters in total. Although this was certainly one of Dickens’s longer works, it perfectly represents the difficulty involved in making plans for a novel’s progression when published over such a lengthy period. Yet planning remained important for Dickens since serial publication prevents an author from returning to previous chapters in order to make changes or rearrange scenes. In order to ensure that he was prepared at the start of each new serial, Dickens utilised ‘Plan Sheets’ and working notes as a means to keep track of his story. The use of Plan Sheets was a particularly detailed process. Michael Slater describes Dickens’s planning process in his biography, Charles Dickens:
“For each number [monthly installment] he prepared a sheet of paper approximately 7 x 9 inches by turning it sideways, with the long side horizontal, dividing it in two, and then using the left-hand side for what he called ‘Mems’. These were memoranda to himself about events and scenes that might feature in the number, directions as to the pace of the narrative, particular phrases he wanted to work in, questions to himself about whether such-and-such a character should appear in this number or be kept waiting in the wings (usually with some such answer as ‘Yes’, ‘No’, or ‘Not yet’ added later)…On the right hand side of the sheet Dickens would generally write the numbers and titles of the three chapters that make up each monthly part and jot down, either before or after writing them, the names of the main characters and events featuring in each chapter, with occasionally a crucial fragment of the dialogue…”
What Dickens used, then, was not a detailed plan for every aspect of his stories but rather a rough outline of key events, characters, and plot points. This was important, as it allowed him to ensure that plot progression was planned at large, whilst also permitting alterations as feedback was received from his audience. These Plan Sheets were further supplemented by pages of working notes in which Dickens outlined his larger structure, developed salient character details, and took note of any symbolism that he particularly wished to incorporate.
Dickens’s writing habits were broadly reflective of his literary demands. He did not have the luxury of taking his time and making rounds of edits. Instead, he was required to ensure that his creativity could operate on a stringent schedule. His strict daily regime and structured approach to planning were necessities in ensuring that he could keep up with deadlines, whilst still making time to find inspiration in his London surroundings. Whether or not you enjoy Dickens’s works, his ability to publish in serial form whilst still ending up with a coherent and well-structured novel at the end of the process was truly impressive. Although modern authors might not require the same definite attention to daily habits, there is surely something to be learnt from Dickens’s remarkable abilities and the ways in which his lifestyle facilitated their expression.