In search of inspiration, Caroline Deacon invites established writers and illustrators to tell us about their creative space. This month features Jonathan Stroud.

Jonathan Stroud is the author of Lockwood & Co. and the Bartimaeus Sequence and founder of creativity campaign, Freedom To Think. His new book The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne was published in March this year and is set in a fragmented, dystopian Britain.

Tell us about your creative space

It’s a spare bedroom at the back of my house. To get to it, you have to go along a narrow corridor and turn a sharp corner. Symbolically, this means it’s just a little bit removed from all the chaos and mayhem going on elsewhere at home. I have lots of bookshelves, mostly with files and foreign editions; a desk and computer; and various pieces of lovely art relating to my books. It also has a box of 500 Beanos from my childhood, mainly because I didn’t know where else to put them.

Why does this place work for you? 

In the morning it is shady and cool; it’s only on sunny mid-afternoons that the sun swings round and the atmosphere becomes somnolent. Its main attribute, really, is benign dullness – there is nothing here to distract me, which is the essential ingredient of any writing space. It is a doorway to whatever world I’m currently exploring.


Your creative tools – what are they? 

It depends where we’re at in the process. If I’m mainly writing notes and figuring things out, all I really need is a good 0.7 blue pen and a pad of A4 lined paper (wide spaced). Green and red pens are an optional extra for underlining key thoughts. All my brainstorming is written by hand, allowing for diagrams, lists, sketches, maps, plans etc., and it all gets filed in a ring-binder in due course. When I’m actually writing the text, I type it straight onto the computer, so some kind of PC or laptop is essential then.


Do you have a routine? 

I try to keep to a 9 to 5 working day, and when I’m in the throes of writing a book, I’ll have a word count or number of pages to aim at too. Back in the days when I was writing the Bartimaeus Trilogy I aimed for 25 pages a week, but I can’t match that rate now – three or four pages in a day is a very good result. I’m always most productive in the mornings, so ideally I try to break the back of the work before lunch. I can also do admin and non-creative things in the evening too.

What was your favourite book as a child? 

It depends what age we’re talking. If you’d asked me at three it would have been Richard Scarry’s Storybook Dictionary; at six Enid Blyton’s Five Go to Smuggler’s Top. Not long after that, The Hobbit would have taken the laurels, and Lord of the Rings when I was about ten. In my early adolescence, I devoured fantasy books of various kinds, and that’s still the broad genre that I tend to write in, though curiously I don’t read them any more.


Does walking or exercise help the creative process? 

Definitely! It’s all about loosening the mind, relaxing you and letting things fall into place. I don’t consciously think through creative problems on my walks, let alone during the runs, but it’s often the case that just the simple act of being out in the open air rids me of whatever mental logjam I’m experiencing. And I’ve never forgotten that I got the idea for the Bartimaeus series while on a half-hour walk (I scribbled my thoughts down in a notebook as soon as I got home). On a slightly separate level, the endorphins you get from a run (or other exercise) make you feel more buoyant and better able to cope with work once you’re sequestered back at the desk.


Planner, pantser, or mixture of both? 

I think all the best creations involve elements of both these processes. You need to be able to improvise – to just let ideas and thoughts tumble out and follow them wherever they lead. This is usually where the spark comes from: it’s a vital part of book writing for me, and often it’s quite dominant early on in the writing, when I’m still figuring out what the story is about. But you also need to be able to take a step back, look at the bigger picture, and impose rational order upon the chaos of ideas. You do this by asking questions. What’s the logic of the story? What’s the rhythm of the scenes…? So one part of the brain is cool and calculating; the other is impulsive and effervescent. These two opposing impulses are equally important, and I flit from one to the other repeatedly through the course of a project.


What inspired you to first start writing? 

The desire has been deep inside me since I was very small – my first surviving ‘books’, made out of wallpaper scraps, with crayon pictures and simple text, date from when I was about five. As a reader, I’ve always liked the feeling of losing myself in a created world, but even better than that is the feeling of losing myself in a world where I’m in charge, where the rules are mine, and I orchestrate the story. There’s a deep joy in making something that didn’t exist previously, and that sustains me through the long months of solitary scribbling.


Why writing for children? 

The books that you read as a child – particularly the ones that snare you on the cusp of adulthood – are the ones that remain with you always. They have the deepest effect and the most sustained power. As a writer, that’s something worth aspiring to. And the best children’s books are attractive to any age. I always try to please two hypothetical readers simultaneously: the child I was and the adult I am now.


What advice would you give to writers who are trying to get established? 

You have to remain true to your own instincts and vision. Always create something that gives you joy: if you manage that, the chances are that others will share the reaction. Other than that, it’s really about the long haul. Getting recognition is often a slow process, so you have to be happy to keep plugging away, enjoying the act of creativity for its own sake, and being aware that you’re honing your skills every day. Finally, if you can, find someone you trust to read or comment on your work – someone who will be critical as well as encouraging. It’s a solitary business, and having someone in your team to share the successes and knock-backs with you is a good idea. In short: persevere and have fun.


What question do you most like being asked about your work? 

I like being asked for tips about the process of writing, especially by children, because I know from experience that this can have a real, tangible effect. When I was about ten, the science fiction writer Douglas Hill came to my school to talk about his ‘Last Legionary’ series (it was very good). I told him I wanted to be a writer, and ended up sending him a little book I’d done, along with various questions. In due course he wrote back with words of encouragement. He told me that if I kept practising, and crucially sorted my spelling out (it was dire), he had ‘no doubt’ that I’d one day be a published author. Twenty years later, I was able to thank him in person and tell him that his words had come true.


Which is your least favourite question? 

Ha ha! I like all questions! Often the hardest ones to answer honestly are the ‘simplest’, such as ‘What’s your favourite book?’ – because there’s not really a straightforward answer, and any choice is more or less arbitrary. That’s not going to stop me answering, though (see above!).

Find more about Jonathan Stroud on his website or follow him on Twitter.

*All photos courtesy of Jonathan Stroud


Caroline Deacon lives in Edinburgh and is the author of several childcare books. She now writes MG and YA and is agented by Lindsay Fraser of Fraser Ross Associates, Edinburgh. Find her on Twitter and at

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