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William Dalrymple: ‘The key rule is no drinking at all until the pen is down’

I have two quite different writing routines depending on whether I’m actually putting pen to paper or not. I sit down to write a book once every four or five years, and it normally takes a year to get the thing written: the shortest was nine months for Nine Lives; the longest and most difficult was From the Holy Mountain, which took 18.

Writing up one these big non-fiction books is like a final year of a four-year university course. The first year is the easiest: I’m on a book tour for the previous title – to Rome or Karachi or wherever – doing readings from that book, and while I’m doing that I try to finalise what the next book is really about. It’s the least hard-working year: I’m mainly popping into libraries, and sending emails to other historians in the same fields. Year two is reading the secondary sources from all the previous books on the subject. Year three is about archives, so I sit in the Delhi National Archive or the Punjab archives in Lahore, or the wonderful state archives in Kabul as I did for Return of a King, with my nose in a laptop.

I have a very highly tuned filing system which I learned from Antony Beevor, and have now got it down to an art. I have three card indexes, organised by name, place and topic. I also keep a dateline with every event, from the beginning of the story to the end, with all the references. By the time I’m ready to write it’s at least 400 pages long. It’s a slow process, but it means when you are actually writing, the quote is already there, on your computer, ready to be cut and pasted. The key is to be able to write at some speed. If everything is planned out, you don’t end up with writer’s block.

The final year is completely different. I stop going out much, and never go out to lunch. In that year, I get up at 5.30am. I prop up a print-out of the chapter I’m working on beside my bed, and when I wake I’ll go on to the roof terrace fresh from sleep, my mind wide awake, and I reread the chapter then make the corrections on the print-out. It takes me about a month to write a single chapter and by the end of the month, everything at the beginning would have been sifted through about 30 times, re-edited each morning. I don’t do what novelists do, which is to thrash out a first draft and then go back to it to revise. I’ll be revising the whole chapter every morning until it’s cooked.

In this final year, I will put my corrections in on the computer, then go for a run and have breakfast; with luck by about 9.30am I’m writing new material, which I do until about 2pm, when I have a late lunch. I stop then, and that’s the point that I’ll do the mail, start worrying about laundry, where we’re going for dinner, all the normal paraphernalia of everyday life.

I go back to do a final edit and research for the next day in the afternoon between 4 to 6pm. Then just before dinner, I’ll do a print-out and put it by my bed. After dinner, I’ll collapse by the telly, watching Game of Thrones or Taboo. Often I’ll fall asleep during it, especially if I’ve been awake since 5.30am, and I’ll be kicked awake by my children for snoring.

I work in the shed at the end of the garden where there’s no wifi, because as soon as you are online, two hours can disappear in a trice. I put my Samsung in a draw and lock it, and do not look at emails until after lunch. The second key is to extend the morning as long as possible, at least until 2pm. It is crucial that you live in that book for at least four hours a day. The other key rule is no drinking at all until the pen is down, at dinner. If you drink you might write lots, but you read it the next day and it’s often complete rubbish.

I’m very easily led astray by temptation. But nonetheless in my writing year I’m super disciplined and go from a disorganised and rambling individual to one who is obsessively focused. That, to me, is the one discipline of being a writer. One year in four or five you have to be completely eaten up by the book. If it is working, you are really dreaming your book, not as a figure of speech, but in a very literal sense. You are harnessing the power of your subconscious.

At the back of my Delhi farm is a path cut through high grass where my goats graze. My children call it the goataway. It is my thinking path. When I’m stuck with a passage I’ll go round and round. For a big problem it’s 10 rounds, for a small to medium problem, it’s five or six. It is a very important part of my creative process.

Until last year, I had a beloved white cockatoo called Albinia. Albinia was my companion for my writing and she sat with me. She was a very noisy, boisterous bird and loved dancing and music and conversation. But she had a weird second sense when I got down to writing, and she used to keep completely silent until it was done.

Hours when researching six to seven; when writing 10 to 15

Number of words when researching 0; when writing 1,000 to 2,000

Number of hours on Twitter, Facebook, emails when researching three to six; when writing two, max

Tea, coffee, wine when researching two coffees, two teas, one wine at lunch; when writing four coffees, two teas, 0 wine

Rounds of the goataway when researching 0; when writing 15 to 25

Koh-i-Noor: A History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand is published this week by Bloomsbury.