Behind the scenes: One Year Later

In the garden of the house in Somerset that we’ve been renovating is a small pond. In my next psychological thriller, One Year Later, a toddler drowns in a large pond in the garden of a rambling farmhouse. One year later, the family meet on a remote island off the coast of Italy for her anniversary in an attempt to reconnect and heal, but will everyone make it home?

‘Ruby-May holds out a bunch of tiny purple flowers in her small fist. Her fingers smell of spearmint. She opens her mouth and green water pours out; skeins of pond weed are tangled in her baby teeth.’
Nick. One Year Later

 

Thankfully our pond is neither big nor deep – and I do love the water lilies and the dragon flies…

One Year Later – out 1 August

I’m so thrilled – my fourth psychological thriller is out on 1 August. Just in time for you to pack in your bag for a beach holiday! It’s partly set in Somerset and Bristol, but mainly on a seemingly idyllic island in Italy. It’s available to pre-order.

 

Some secrets won’t stay buried….

 

 

Since Amy’s daughter, Ruby-May, died in a terrible accident, her family have been beset by grief. One year later the family decide to go on holiday to mend their wounds. An idyllic island in Italy seems the perfect place for them to heal and repair their relationships with one another.

 

But no sooner have they arrived, than they discover nothing on this remote island is quite as it seems. And with the anniversary of the little girl’s death looming, it becomes clear that at least one person in the family is hiding a shocking secret. As things start to go rapidly wrong, Amy begins to question whether everyone will make it home… 

Blueprint for a house…and a story

In May 2017 we bought a house in Somerset. It was originally built in the 1950s and for almost two years we’ve been renovating it. And it’s finished! I hesitate to do a huge cheer in case something else falls apart or starts leaking – but we are absolutely delighted. In fact, our house was shortlisted  for an award (LABC SouthWest Building Excellence)!

While we were working on the house (yup, it’s a stressful as everyone on Grand Designs tells you), it made me think about the similarities between building a house and writing a novel. Both kinds of projects require vision, creativity, tenacity, an eye for the big picture, being dogged about detail, technical skill, imaginative flair and fair amounts of sheer blood, sweat and tears. 

Here’s what I learned about the parallels between designing a house and plotting a novel:

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Vision: We had a clear idea of how we wanted our house to look – we sent a nine page brief to our architect. Julian Mills of Orme Architecture then drew a picture of what our house was going to look like, and I do believe, it’s come out as we’d all hoped it would! With a novel, you might have a vague idea of what’s going to be in it, a general feeling for its shape, a wisp of atmosphere, a hint of the kinds of characters that will people it. You might want to create an ideas board or a mood board, as we did on Pinterest (and I also do for whatever novel I’m working on). You can have a look at my previous mood boards here.

However, at some stage, you’re going to want to firm up this vision so that you can communicate your idea succinctly to publishers and agents to make them excited about your novel, as well as understanding what they’re going to get when it’s finished. There’s nothing so dispiriting as giving your novel to an editor who was expecting something totally different…

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Blueprint: Orme Architecture used the original design and our thoughts to create a blueprint. This enabled us, the client, to see what our house would be like, as well as showing the builders exactly what to do, from which wall to take out, to where the light switch should go in my office.

You wouldn’t start building a house without planning it first…why do the same with your novel?

Some of you may not like planning your novels. You may just want to start writing. And that’s fine, but my advice is, you may spend a long time writing your way into finding out what your novel is actually about, and even longer editing it if you haven’t created a blueprint. This is your outline for yourself, which you may wish to share with your writer’s group, your agent and your editor. It tells you how the plot will unfold and how you’re going to structure your novel. 

Creating a blueprint is the skeleton for the novel, upon which to hang your beautiful words and well-crafted sentences. Effectively, it’s going to tell you where the walls will be built (major twists) as well as where the light switches will be fitted (minor revelations). It’ll help keep your writing focused on  your theme: in our house it was minimalism, white walls and wooden floors, with a Swedish vibe; in a novel, it might be on identity, for instance, which was one of the themes in my thriller, The Stolen Child.

Adaptability: Life never goes according to plan. You can create the most watertight of design briefs and building specs, but there’s no predicting what can happen. One then needs to adapt, whilst still retaining the big picture in mind. For instance, we ordered a beautiful kitchen – the design looked stunning on paper, and the kitchen fitters, the architect and the builders shared the blueprint with each other. However, when the kitchen arrived, no one had told the fitters that we had a steel beam running through the middle of what should have been the dishwasher (the beam was put in to hold our house up when we took out all the walls downstairs).

Sticking rigidly to the outline of your novel will stifle your creativity. New ideas and inspiration will come to you; characters will ‘act’ in ways you hadn’t foreseen. Also, things will go wrong – you’ll realise your research was insufficient, you may be left with a plot hole, or what seemed to work on paper before you began writing, just doesn’t, or it’s too slow, or too obvious. Or your publisher hates it.

 

Compromise: Most of our compromises with our house were to do with money. We had a comparatively small and fixed budget. We compromised on major design features – for instance, we wanted to open up the attic space but discovered we had four species of endangered bat sharing our living space! We didn’t touch the roof, and the bats are still happily (noisily) living in our attic. We compromised in minor ways – the brand new ensuite bathroom has the original shower screen, which is old and doesn’t match. 

How far are you willing to compromise with your novel? If you want to finish your book in two years instead of ten, you might need to give up on going out in order to have the time to write; you might need to accept that you’re not going to be Margaret Atwood or James Patterson and be fine about your writing skills and renumeration; you might have to change the story or the characters to satisfy your publisher. 

What’s important is to hold on to your original vision, but remember that to achieve it, you will have to depart from it to some extent, and be willing to adapt and compromise. 

 

 

Our house is in an AONB – an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty; we have a large garden with stables requiring a little love and attention, and three acres of meadow and woodland. I veer from thinking I’m the luckiest person alive to despair at how we will manage with limited time, resources and skills. My vision is to manage our land for writers and for wildlife… I’d like to tell you our story, from inner city Bristol, to the wilds of Somerset, along the way sharing writing tips and experiences, as well as our attempts to get on top of the brambles and bracken!

 

Let me know what you’d like to know more of – and if you’re a writer, do you create a blueprint before you begin?

 

Letter to my younger self

What would you tell yourself if you could? The Royal Literary Fund recently gave me the opportunity to write and record a letter to my younger self.

I know your grammar is… idiosyncratic would be the kindest way to put it. But you can learn where commas go, you know!

Do have a listen and let me know what you think!

My most important advice to you is: please don’t be frightened of failing, of falling, of learning, & of acknowledging that you need help

 

Sanjida O’Connell

 

 

The best books I’ve read in 2018

My best reads of 2018 – a mix of literary thrillers with my two favourite non-fiction books thrown in for good measure. Enjoy! And have a wonderful Christmas!

 

Paper ghosts by Julia Heaberlin

A beautifully written Gothic road trip.

Carl Feldman is old and is suffering from dementia. One day, a young woman turns up at his retirement home, saying she’s his daughter and she’s taking him for a short holiday. She is, in fact, the sister of a girl Feldman is suspected of killing and she hopes she’s going to find out what he did to her sister as well as all the other young women’s believed to have murdered… This has the hallmarks of an all American road trip through Texas except that the two people going for a ride are a young woman hell-bent on revenge and an elderly serial killer who may or may not remember his past…

 

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. 

This is a wonderfully written literary thriller about motherhood…and what happens when you don’t follow the rules.

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother- who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When old family friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town – and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at an unexpected and devastating cost…

 

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

‘The first rule is that you don’t fall in love,’ he said… ‘There are other rules too, but that is the main one. No falling in love. No staying in love. No daydreaming of love. If you stick to this you will just about be okay.’

Imagine Vampire Lestat meets The Time Traveller’s Wife. A gorgeously rich and multi-layered novel about the impact of time on the human spirit.

Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret. He might look like an ordinary 41-year-old history teacher, but due to a rare condition, he’s been alive for centuries. The only thing that might protect him from being discovered, is the one thing that could save him…

 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

If someone asks you how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn’t spoken to another person for two consecutive days. FINE is what you say.

Eleanor Oliphant is lonely, isolated and deeply lacking in social skills. She has no friends, and her life consists of work and phone calls with Mummy. Until, that is, she meets Raymond, a bumbling, sweet guy who works in the IT department. But while Raymond does his best to befriend Eleanor, we gradually learn the terrible truth about Mummy 

An uplifting story about the power of friendship, with a splinter of ice at its heart.

 

 The Cry by Helen Fitzgerald

When a baby goes missing on a lonely roadside in Australia, it sets off a police investigation that will become a media sensation and dinner-table talk across the world. Lies, rumours and guilt snowball, causing the parents, Joanna and Alistair, to slowly turn against each other.

Finally Joanna starts thinking the unthinkable: could the truth be even more terrible than she suspected?

A brilliantly crafted psychological thriller, which has been made into a visually-stunning TV series.

 

All the Beautiful Lies by Peter Swanson

A film noir tale of dark taboos and dangerous obsessions.

Just before Harry Ackerson’s college graduation, his beautiful step-mother, Alice, calls with shocking news. Harry’s father is dead and the police think it’s suicide. Devastated, Harry returns to his father’s home in Maine. There, he and Alice will help each other pick up of the pieces of their lives and uncover what really happened to his father. But who is Alice really and what is she hiding?

 

How Far We Fall by Jane Shemilt

A slow-burning Macbethian tale of revenge and betrayal.

 Beth and Albie seem to have the perfect marriage. But Beth has a dark secret – a long-running affair with Albie’s boss, Ted. Albie is blinded by ambition and his admiration for Ted, but when Ted’s patronage starts to wane, Beth sees this as the perfect opportunity to satisfy her husband’s ambitions and have her revenge on Ted in one fell swoop.

 

Old but gold

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . .

A powerful and haunting Gothic psychological thriller.

At first, the second Mrs de Winter cannot believe her good fortune: a lady’s maid and an orphan, she’s swept off her feet by the rich and dashing Maxim de Winter. But when she arrives at his country estate in Cornwall, she realises how large a shadow his first wife will cast over their lives…her presence seems to be a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.

 

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

So here I am, upside down in a woman

So begins Nutshell, narrated by a foetus who sounds like an erudite, arrogant, aristocrat. Nearly nine months old, and fuelled by podcasts and Sancerre, our exceptionally young man is concerned because his mother and her lover are about to do something terrible to his father.

A combination of psychological thriller, treatise on modern malaise, ode to poetry and homage to Hamlet, this could be insufferable, but manages, to be wry, poignant, gripping as well as being wonderfully written.

Full review here

 

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

A domestic noir inspired by Hitchcock’s Rear View Window: psychologist Anna Fox has suffered some kind of trauma, which has left her agoraphobic and confined to her house in New York.

This is a beautifully written book, which starts gently before the stomach-clenching, jaw-dropping twists begin. The characters are brilliantly realised, the guilt, the fear and the claustrophobia are palpable.

Full review here

Non-fiction

The 7 Habits of Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen Covey

Begin with the end in mind.

One of the most influential books I’ve ever read. 

I assumed The 7 Habits was aimed at business leaders, but the principles described – on living one’s life with fairness, integrity, dignity and compassion – are one’s that apply to all of us, both personally and professionally. I’ve read this book twice and will, no doubt, keep returning to it.

 

On writing…

Monkeys with Typewriters: How to Write Fiction and Unlock the Secret Power of Stories by Scarlett Thomas

Part of becoming a writer is working out which of all the strange thoughts