How did you become a writer?
I have always written, ever since I was a little kid but my opportunity to make it a career came by chance. Ben Schott, author of the hugely successful Schott's Original Miscellany, was looking for a researcher. I had been working in radio, researching programmes for, amongst others, the BBC and so a friend of a friend suggested me. We hit it off straight away and I worked with Ben, learning from him and honing my skills, for seven years on Schott's Almanac. After the project came to an end I had a notebook full of ideas for books and decided the time had come to go freelance. It took a lot of work, a few rejections and a great deal of perseverance to get my ideas in front of the right people, but once I did things started to come together. I have since had 10 non-fiction books on arcane history, libraries, books and words published.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
As someone who is fascinated by history I spend a lot of time researching ideas in the rare books room of the British Library. Immersing myself in old books, especially from the Victorian era, has undoubtedly influenced my style. That said as a non-fiction writer clarity is key and although I love the content of old books the verbose style is to be avoided.
When and where do you write?
I am super fortunate that writing is my job and so I get to write every day. I spend hours researching in the British Library and the Cambridge University Library but I like to write best in my little study in my house. It is full of useful reference books and is nice and close to the kettle, allowing me to fuel my work with numerous cups of tea.
What are you working on now?
I am currently working on the edits for my upcoming book on museums which should be out in the spring 2019 and juggling this with starting research on a new and very exciting (but currently secret) project.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Not for any great period of time. If I feel stuck I usually just make myself start writing because sometimes just getting something, anything, on the page makes me feel better. The beauty of writing is that you can go back and edit and tweak until that initial try has been transformed from an incomprehensible jumble of thoughts into a neat, concise and enlightening sentence.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
I like George Orwell's advice to writers (which I featured in my book The Book Lovers' Miscellany), especially his exhortation: 'If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.' As a non-fiction writer, often writing to a tight word count, this advice has been invaluable.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Read, read, read! Read everything from books to leaflets to magazines to blogs. The more widely you read the greater your vocabulary will become, your ability to understand style and form will improve and you will collect ideas and inspiration. Writing non-fiction might not appear as creative as writing fiction, but curating words to form beautiful sentences to convey a great idea or communicate a complicated explanation in a easy-to-read fashion is, I believe, very creative.
Claire Cock-Starkey lives and works in Cambridge, England. Claire has published 10 books on history, libraries, books and words including Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins, The Book Lovers' Miscellany and The Real McCoy and 149 Other Eponyms.