SARA Maitland's first novel was commissioned before she'd written a word. Such a thing happening these days is unimaginable, she says.

The Weardale-based writer was fortunate because, in the mid-1970s, there was a determination by publishers to produce British feminist fiction.

Nowadays, there are many new writers just waiting for that chance. "The publishing market is quite tight. It's difficult to get things published, more difficult than it was," she says. "That's not because fewer books are being published. More first novels were published last year than ever. But publishing houses are much bigger and much more commercial. They don't think it's good for their reputation to carry a lot of loss-makers. Before, no one expected you to make a profit on a first novel."

Maitland feels the need for a culture that encourages writing, and the emergence of writing groups is one way. Another is the BBC's Get Writing With The Canterbury Tales, a scheme aiming to find modern day Chaucers on the back on the current BBC1 series inspired by his classic stories.

On Wednesday, she joins series producer Kate Bartlet for a Get Writing session in Newcastle designed to give writers hints, tips and inspiration in one of a series of writing events taking place around the country.

A large section of submitted stories will be published on the BBCi site. Five will be chosen to be developed and production for Radio 4's Afternoon Readings slot. Local radio stations will broadcast some stories too. The competition is open to all writing beginners over 16 who've never been published or had work broadcast on the BBC.

For Maitland, the event at Newcastle Playhouse means a rare journey into town from her isolated County Durham home. By her own admission, she was born in South-West Scotland but been "a bit of a wanderer". She went to Oxford, married a vicar and lived in the East End of London, and later the Midlands. She came North four years ago.

"It was my millennium present to myself. I turned 50, my youngest child left home and I suddenly thought I could do whatever I wanted, probably for the first time in my life.

"I just love the moors here, more than the Yorkshire Moors. I have a house on the top of the moors and a very good view, 20 miles of absolutely nothing. I am somewhat reclusive. At this stage in my life I'm a very solitary person."

This extends to not having a TV set, so she's not actually seen any of BBC1's The Canterbury Tales, the series being used as a springboard for the writing competition.

"But I'm very keen on getting people writing," she says. "The scheme is very cleverly done. To use radio for the winners but basing it on a TV programme really pulls things together."

Maitland admits that the timing was right when she set out to write. A student until the early 1970s, she was there during the cultural explosion when publishers were looking for new things. "The early 1970s were the best time in 200 years to want to be a writer," she says.

Her first novel, Daughter Of Jerusalem, in 1978 won her the Somerset Maugham award for what she calls "baby writers under 30". Since then, she's published a series of novels and short stories, as well as writing for radio and working with director Stanley Kubrick on the script for his AI film.

"My CV is very long and very diverse, which means I haven't forged a big public career. To do that you have to be very easy to slot into the same type all the time," she says. "But I've made a living as a writer for 25 years."

Her most recent publication was On Becoming A Fairy Godmother, for new publishers Maia. She's a great advocate of the New Writing North group, with its grants and awards structure as well as the ability to put newer writers in touch and keeping everyone in contact with one another.

As yet, she hasn't written about the area where she now lives but thinks it will happen increasingly, although not specifically about the North-East. "It won't be about Geordie life or the grimness of the lead mines, but I think the atmosphere of the place does affect your writing," she says.

l Tickets to the Get Writing event at Newcastle Playhouse, Barras Bridge, on October 1 are free and available from the venue. Full details from 0800 066066 or