I started writing love stories for a magazine and eventually turned these 16,000-word serials into novels. I tend to write about things I am interested in. So in the 1970s I wrote a novel about showjumping because I've always loved horses. I finished the first draft of Riders but then lost the manuscript on a bus. I was devastated and I didn't have the heart to start again. So I just mooned around the showjumping circuit for years, until I felt ready to try again.

I have always done masses of research for my books. Sometimes this can take years. I tend to submerge myself in the world I am writing about. When I wrote Rivals I totally lived in the television world. But I end up having miles more material than I need, which can be a problem. I'm actually trying to cut down on the amount of research I do, because it wastes so much time.

I've always been fascinated by my characters. I write about 10 pages of notes on each one, more if it's a main character. I write everything down. Speech, characteristics, funny quirks. When a character is right the dialogue starts writing itself.

In keeping with my need to be absolutely prepared before I start writing, I always draft a really long synopsis for my books. I feel I've got to get to grips with everything in the novel before starting. When I'm in full flow I tend to add bits here and there, going back to chapters I'm not happy with.

I try to end each chapter on an exciting note and I think the key to keeping the plot moving is to make it unexpected. Hopefully people like my characters and they keep reading because they want to know what happens to them. I like writing about lovable and sexy people and they must have some strength of character. My problem is I am now writing the sixth of a series, so I have far too many characters, which makes things very confusing. That is why clarity before you start is important.

I loved reading as child and books have always been hugely important to me. I adore Nancy Mitford, Anthony Powell and Jane Austen - all very funny writers who are experts at portraying social nuances.

I hope my books are a good read and that, like knickerbocker glories, they have something for everyone. I find that people really adore love stories with happy endings and that is just the sort of book I like writing. But some love stories can be a bit heavy, so I always put in lots of jokes and lots about nature. I can't describe houses and things like that, but descriptions of people, animals and flora comes easily to me.

I used to love reading to my children when they were younger. They adored Beatrix Potter and Wind in the Willows. Spending time reading was really important to us. You see my mother used to read aloud to me and she was absolutely brilliant. I think if you read enough to children they start to really enjoy books and eventually read to themselves.

competition Rules

Story of the Year 6 offers a pounds 2,000 prize for the winner, with pounds 500 each for two runners up. The top 10 stories will be published in an anthology by Scholastic Children's Books. You are invited to submit stories of 1,500-2,500 words which must arrive on or before 28 February 1998 at: PO BOX 21302 LONDON WC1A 1PE. You may enter only once and entries must be made by the writer, not on his/her behalf. Entries must be typewritten, double-spaced and on one side of the paper only. We will not accept stories with illustrations. Manuscripts will not be returned, so please keep a copy. All entries must be unpublished, but published writers may enter with new material. Each entry must be submitted with both a cover page and title page. The cover page must feature the story title, and the entrant's name, address and telephone number. The title page must feature only the title of the story. The story should start on a new page, and the author's name must not feature on any of these pages, so that all entries can be judged anonymously. The winning story will be published in The Independent subsequent to the final judging of the competition which concludes on 22 May 1998. The top three stories and up to 10 others will be published in the autumn, in the anthology Story of the Year 6 by Scholastic Children's Books.

The competition is not open to employees of, or relatives of employees of Scholastic Ltd or Newspaper Publishing plc or anyone connected with the competition. Proof of posting cannot be accepted as proof of delivery. No responsibility can be accepted for entries which are delayed, damaged, mislaid or wrongly delivered. The judges' decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into. Entry grants to Scholastic Ltd the exclusive right to publish an entrant's story in all formats throughout the world for the full legal term of copyright. A copy of the form of the contract may be obtained on application to Scholastic Ltd. By submitting an entry an entrant agrees to be bound by the terms of and to sign this agreement if called upon to do so. Any story chosen for publication in the anthology that does not win one of the top three cash prizes will receive a fee of pounds 200. Any entry not submitted in the form specified will be deemed invalid. If your story is not published in the anthology or in the newspaper by the end of December 1998, these rights revert to you. Entry into this competition implies acceptance of these rules.