Novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford, 88, published her first book, A Woman of Substance, in 1979.
Since then, she has sold 90 million books in 40 languages and 90 countries.
Now she's revisiting Emma and her best friend Blackie in a new prequel, A Man of Honour.
We chatted to the bestselling author about the tragic moment she decided to write her 39th novel and the secret to her success.
So, how do you start?
I wrote stories when I was seven years old in my school exercise books and I wrote one about a girl who wanted a pony. My mother liked it so she made me copy it out neatly and she sent it to a children's magazine.
One day she said, 'You have a letter.' They'd bought it and had enclosed a postal order for seven shillings and sixpence. But I didn't care about the money — the point is, I had my very first byline on a story.
I've always had lots of 'act friends' and they have always said the ones that become big successes always entertained as a child — they wanted to tap dance, recite poetry and act in front of guests. My great friend Christopher Plummer was the same — he always knew he wanted to perform. I was born with that desire to write.
What was your first job?
I left school and joined the typing pool for the Yorkshire Post, earning £2 a week. I was desperate to be a cub reporter and when I did get a job in the newsroom, my mother advised me to keep my head down and never to flirt with the men.
At the age of 20, I moved to London to work on Woman's Own magazine. I met Bob, my future husband, on a blind date in 1961. I was an ordinary girl from Leeds but I was a workaholic and that has never changed.
How did you write your first novel?
I didn't know how to write a book but when I wrote my first novel, A Woman Of Substance, I had a mentor who was a war correspondent called Cornelius Ryan, who later wrote The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far.
He said, 'You must think out your story and write an outline, which is like a lengthy dust jacket.' Connie advised me to try and write a thousand words a day so at the end of year I'd have 365,000 words.
He said, 'I write about real people who existed but you've got to believe that the people you create are real so if you've got a character, actually give them a whole background. You want to know the name of the person, when they were born, where they were born and what their good and bad habits are.'
For years I had postcards and I wrote a card with details of each character and put them in a shoebox.
The facts: What it’s like to be an author
Salary: Book deals for unknown authors can be as low as £3,000. In 1992, Barbara secured a $32million three-book deal with HarperCollins.
Regular hours? I get up at about seven each morning and try to be at my desk by nine or ten, working until four. I say, 'I've got to go to work,' and I go into another room, which helps the mental work-day switch.
Short and sweet advice: Have a purpose to your story.
So did your most famous character, Emma Harte, start her life in a shoebox too?
She did! She was a poor girl crossing the moors and I thought, 'Who is she? She's going to be a woman who has nothing and becomes one of the richest women in the world.'
Then I thought, 'How is she going to do that in the 1900s?' I thought, 'She's going to be a woman of substance,' and then I realised it was a good title. I liked the name Emma but to find her surname I looked in a book of English pubs.
I saw the Pig and Whistle and the Black Swan and then I saw the White Hart, which I liked, so I just added an E on the end.
Was it hard to find the beginning of the novel?
I wanted Emma to be a tycoon and I created her character — ambitious, clever and driven — but I needed to have a beginning and I thought, 'People are not going to want to read about a servant girl.'
But I had a brainstorm one day and I thought, 'I'm going to start it when she's a success — a middle-aged woman sitting in her big store in Knightsbridge and something will happen that makes her go back in the past.'
So I had Emma in her office, listening to a recording of two of her sons plotting to overthrow her. She's hurt and upset but she knows she can outwit them. A Woman Of Substance came out in 1979 and sold 30 million copies.
Barbara’s top tip:
'To write a novel you need desire and discipline. Many people want to write novels to be rich and famous but those are the wrong reasons. You need to want to write the book more than you want to do anything else'
Do you start a novel and then write as you think up the plot?
My suggestion is you're better to know your whole story first, even if it might take a long time. I thought out my whole book and it took months.
Once you have your main characters, think about the structure. Breaking your book down into different parts means you can skip a bit of the narrative by jumping time a bit — so it can be in 1901, then suddenly it's 1904.
You wrote this, your 39th novel, as you sat beside your husband in his last days…
Bob was clever, gentle, warm and loving but he would have been a bad patient. I couldn't wake him one morning in July 2019 — he'd had a massive stroke. He was rushed to hospital in New York by ambulance and he never opened his eyes but he squeezed my hand and he knew I was there.
As I was sitting by his bed for the third day, I thought, 'What am I going to do if Bob doesn't live? I owe the publishers a book.' I was in the middle of a series of books about the Falconers but I thought, 'There's too much research. I wish I could do a book about Emma.'
I'd already written seven books about Emma but then I realised I hadn't written about her best friend, Blackie. So that's when I started planning my book. Bob always told me I should carry on writing if anything happened to him.
A Man Of Honour (HarperCollins) by Barbara Taylor Bradford is out now
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