WHEN ANDREW TAYLOR was diagnosed with repetitive strain injury (RSI) and realised he would have to dictate his books, it seemed that the career he had longed for since childhood was over. 'I thought it was going to be the end of the world, or at least the end of me as a writer,' says the author of more than 20 books, mostly historical crime fiction. Taylor, 55, tried numerous treatments, but his RSI is now chronic. He's learnt to live with it though and says it's proved to be a strange kind of blessing. He dictates his books, which are transferred to computer by his wife, whose own RSI is so bad she can't drive. She uses voice-recognition software (which Taylor can't because seeing the words appear on screen in front of him interferes with the flow of his work). Dictating his books has forced him to write a linear first draft - no cutting and pasting; no revising yesterday's pages. 'The problem with computers is that it's so easy to edit,' he says. 'If you're dictating, you're trapped in this eternal present. The big argument against it is that I feel I can't effectively revise a book until I finish it.' But for Taylor, that's not such a problem. 'I don't know what a book is going to be until I finish it,' he says. He sometimes begins writing with little more than a title in mind. 'During the first draft some sort of plot emerges.' For instance, A Stain on the Silence, due out later this month, is a story about missing children set in the present - his first such book for 10 years - with a back story set some years earlier. It evolved from the title, something Samuel Beckett said several times during the final years of his life. 'He thought of his work as the only thing that made it possible for him to go on, to have a stain on the silence,' Taylor says. 'The title came first.' So, too, The American Boy, the title and inspiration for which resulted from Taylor's discovery that American writer Edgar Allan Poe had lived in England for four years as a child. 'Very few of my books are particularly planned,' he says. 'The American Boy started with that idea of knowing the young Poe was in London, which seemed a bit like having the young Elvis appear in Virginia Woolf's journals. I had that and I had the idea of somehow involving the war of 1812 with the States. I started to write it as a third-person narrative and that didn't work.' So he began again, writing with a narrator, former soldier Thomas Shield, now tutor to the young Poe and his best friend, Charles Frant. 'I often find that finding the voice is the thing. You have to find the way into the story,' says Taylor, who once discarded 30,000 words after deciding his 'way in' wasn't the right one. So important is the voice - or voices - to Taylor that, as he dictates, he sometimes 'does the voices' when reading aloud. 'When my kids were small they used to say, when I would read aloud to them, 'Oh, dad, don't do the voices',' he says. 'I do find one of the advantages of dictating the first draft is that I hear the sound of the words and I think it improves the dialogue because it has to sound right in my ear.' In The American Boy, Taylor was at pains to ensure his voices spoke in 19th-century English - poring for hours over one of his favourite books, The Oxford English Dictionary. He draws both the squalid underbelly of Regency London and the lives of the wealthy with critically acclaimed veracity. A former librarian, Taylor loves research, but does most of that when the first draft is complete. 'That's exactly the time I know the information I need,' he says. 'The second draft tends not to be another linear process - having got the first draft on screen, I edit that. I dart about.' A slight improvement in his RSI means he can use the computer for such editing or to answer e-mail, but he must be careful. And the years of always looking forward have left their mark. 'I find increasingly now that even if I'm getting back the typed-up chapters, I try not to look back too much,' he says. The tale that emerges in The American Boy is both a love story and crime fiction, a long and complex evolution from an idea about the young Poe. Shield, the narrator, is drawn to Frant's beautiful mother, Sophia, but when her husband's bank collapses and he's found murdered Shield becomes embroiled in a web of intrigue. It's a prime example of the way genre can be in the eye of the beholder - or, more likely, publishers and critics. Whereas it won a crime-fiction award in Britain, it was widely reviewed as mainstream fiction in the US, where it won a literary fiction award. Taylor says his books became increasingly historical as he grew in confidence. At first, not having a history degree, he felt unqualified to write a historical novel, despite his life-long fascination with history and how it relates to the present. 'History does tell you an awful lot about the problems of the present,' he says. 'Gradually, the books started to have a historical element until the point where I now think of myself as much a historical novelist as a crime novelist.' Crime has featured in his work from the outset, partly because he 'grew up in a house with a lot of crime fiction in it'. His early short stories and attempts at 'the great British novel' often featured a corpse. When writing Caroline Miniscule soon after reading Patricia Highsmith's work, it dawned on him that he was writing a crime novel - a view reinforced when his publisher said it could be published as general or crime fiction, but opted for crime because it would sell more. But Taylor resists pigeonholing. He says it's easy for him to avoid being labelled and to remain fresh for each book because he has several publishers, and produces different work for each. Varying his work also enables him to continue writing his popular post-war Lydmouth series, featuring Detective Inspector Richard Thornhill, without becoming bored or boring. 'One of the great problems with crime fiction as a genre is that even though you can do a huge number of things with it, it does have a tendency to become formulaic and I would hate to be the kind of author who wrote the same book over and over again,' he says. 'I would find that absolutely stultifying.' Taylor says each of his publishers would prefer him to commit to them alone. 'I think all publishers feel happier if they know they own an author in the sense that they have control of all that author's work.' But from the writer's point of view it makes sense to hedge one's bets, especially with a mortgage and children at university. 'As Anthony Burgess once said, 'I wrote much because I was paid little'. Publishing is not the most stable of areas in which to make a living. Publishers can drop authors.' These days, that's unlikely to happen to Taylor, whose reputation is firmly established. But it wasn't always so. When he gave up his career as a librarian in 1981 to write full-time, it was a leap of faith, as it was when he decided to write his first novel, Caroline Miniscule, published in 1982, without a plot. 'I decided when I was 10 or 12 that I wanted to be a writer, but I thought of myself as a writer-in-waiting,' says Taylor. 'I bought the special notebooks, I got the special fountain pen. I didn't understand that the first and only important rule is that you have just got to write.' He remembers the moment he decided that was what he had to do. An English literature graduate from Cambridge, he was employed in a London library, newly married, happy with his work, his colleagues, the people he met as a librarian and reading all those new books. 'I realised I could be doing this job for another 30 years and it would be a sensible thing to do. I had this really uncomfortable sense, one February lunchtime, that if I did that I would always feel I had short-changed myself, failed myself really, that I had been afraid. 'I just blundered into the first book without a plan. I had always thought you needed a plan, but you don't - the first page leads to the second page. The role of panic in the creative process is something someone should do a PhD on,' Taylor says. For some, the panic comes from deadlines. For Taylor, it was that now-or-never feeling. 'I remember saying to my wife when I was about 30,000 words into this book, writing in a notebook, 'I don't care if I don't get this book published, I've found what I like doing and I'm going to go on doing it'.' WRITER'S NOTES Genre Historical crime fiction Most recent title The American Boy (HarperPerennial, $116) Born Ely, England Lives Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire Family Wife and children, Sarah and Will Previous jobs Librarian. Five years spent odd-jobbing as a boat builder, wages clerk, school teacher and labourer Previous books More than 20, including Requiem for an Angel (The Roth Trilogy - The Four Last Things, The Judgement of Strangers and The Office of the Dead - now published as one volume), the Lydmouth series and the Dougal series Current projects Between books: A Stain on the Silence (Michael Jospeh/Penguin, $188), is due out this month; just finished a new Lydmouth book, Naked to the Hangman What the papers say 'One of Britain's best writers of psychological suspense.' - The Times Author's Bookshelf The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa To many, the greatest Italian novel, this story of the disintegration of the Sicilian aristocracy was initially rejected for publication when Lampedusa, a Sicilian prince, completed it shortly before his death at the age of 60 in 1957. It was published the next year. The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope Trollope's 1867 tale of the poor curate Mr Crawley, whose life becomes a series of humiliations after he falls into debt, is a satirical look at a materialist society. A Writer's Diary by Virginia Woolf Extracts from Woolf's diaries, edited by her husband, Leonard, from the records she kept for 27 years. Published in 1953, 12 years after her death. The Oxford English Dictionary 'My children make jokes about my unhealthy relationship with the Oxford English Dictionary.' Emma by Jane Austen A humility lesson for Emma in this comic 19th-century tale of attempted matchmaking and make-overs. The wealthy, charming but oh-so-vain Emma who has vowed to resist matrimony tries to remake her friend Harriet in her own image.