I’m giving a talk on plot at Novel Nights on Wednesday 23 Many. This is a wonderful monthly event, organised by writer, Grace Palmer, in Bristol. A writer talks about an aspect of their work, and local authors and aspiring writers read short extracts from their work-in-progress, all over a glass or two of wine.
If you happen to be in Bristol, do come along – the details are here. The full story, about how to plot, will be on the blog on Sunday 27 May.
In the meantime, here’s a sneak preview, inspired by a story my daughter wrote for me when she was four. Like most kids, she fascinated by dinosaurs and pirates. Now, if I could come up with a movie concept – Jurassic Park meets Pirates of the Caribbean – I’d be minted.
There are 25 different kinds of cake name-checked in My Mother’s Secret, from Daim cake bought over the counter in Ikea, to scones with cream and jam, and lavender shortbread, served with Earl Grey from Tyntesfield’s National Trust tea shop, to chocolate-orange brownies and courgette cake decorated with a cream-cheese frosting and scattered with rose petals and rosemary flowers, made by my protagonist, Emma Taylor.
The chocolate cake doesn’t rise, so Harry and I rescue it by soaking it with an espresso-rum syrup and layering it in tiers with salted-caramel butter cream.
It’s an odd juxtaposition: cake and crime. Emma is a baker, working in Kate’s. Although she spends her days in what seems the most secure and seductively comforting of occupations – baking cakes and sourdough bread – Emma is anxious and nervous, hiding a terrible secret from her family and her friends. Whilst she rises around 4 a.m. to feed the yeast, her teenage daughter, Stella, is spying on her, determined to find out what her mother’s secret is. Meanwhile, a young student, Lizzie Bradshaw, out of her comfort zone in Leeds city centre, witnesses a shocking crime that will have repercussions for the rest of her life.
‘She doesn’t like alcohol in cakes. That’s Katie’s thing. And she isn’t into gluten-free or, you know, polenta. She doesn’t think it’s right for cake. Anyway, it’s what poor people eat.’ My dad winces, in spite of his best Dr Seuss face. ‘In developing countries like Mexico, I mean. You have to be middle-class to afford it here.’
The cakes – from the blackberry muffins, to the Black-forest gateau – are, of course, symbols of security, but in a thriller, nowhere, least of all the places where we live and work, are safe.
‘It sounds like something a pirate would eat.’
Whilst I was researching this novel, I had to delve into organised crime on the one hand, and on the other, hang out in a bakery (Hart’s Bakery in Bristol, which is the one Kate’s is based on) learning how to make croissants and discovering what on earth a friand is. Fortunately, I love baking anyhow so I found it a wonderful indulgence and a relief to write about cake in between the rather more chilling happenings in My Mother’s Secret.
‘She’d like a Victoria sponge with lots of cream and some fruit. Raspberries and jam. Something simple.’
He looks disappointed. I can see he wanted a statement of a cake. Like his love.
Unlike Emma, though, I don’t eat gluten and try not to consume sugar, so cake, in my real life, is an infrequent treat, usually made with polenta or gluten-free flour and sweetened with dates. Emma would not approve.
What are your favourite cakes? Do you have any favourites in My Mother’s Secret?
I love reading and writing – obviously! And I then love meeting up with people to chat about what I’ve read, maybe over a glass of wine!
In case you’d like to talk aboutMy Mother’s Secret in your book club, we’ve put together some questions to get you started. You can download them below. Do email me if you have any of your own, or have a look at a Q&A with me.
The wonderful writer and the editor of the Asian Writer, Farhana Shaikh, interviewed me for her new podcast, Dear Writer. She had some lovely, sensitive questions and we discussed writing from fear, why I write thrillers, the link between nature and creativity and being British Asian.
And here’s a short interview with me talking about My Mother’s Secret.
I’ve got ten free copies of My Mother’s Secret to give away! To enter the competition, please sign up to my newsletter (the sign up is to the right). The competition closes on the 3rd May and I’ll be selecting winners at random the following day.
You can also sign up The Pigeonholeto win My Mother’s Secret, which will be serialised in ten extracts. The chance to win this competition ends on 3 May too.
Happy Earth Day! Today, we’re celebrating our extraordinary planet, and trying to end plastic pollution.
In a month I’ll be heading to one of my favourite places on earth, Langdale, in the Lake District, to go hiking and to talk about My Mother’s Secret in the Sticklebarn, a National Trust pub! I can’t imagine a more perfect combination: walking, wilderness, writing, reading, meeting old friends and new, and a cosy pub. Did I mention that my talk is in a pub? Oh, and the Sticklebarn brews it’s own gin and vodka!! (You can find the details here).
One of the settings for My Mother’s Secret is Elterwater, near Langdale. I’ve been going for a few years and staying in the fantastic Elterwater Hostel. You can read more about my experience here, if you’re interested. So when I was wondering where my character, Lizzie Bradshaw, and her husband, Paul, could live, it seemed like a no-brainer. I imagined Paul working as a National Trust warden out on the Langdale Pikes (a spectacular set of mountains), and as a part-time barman in Sticklebarn. Obviously that meant I had to keep returning for further ‘research’!
The metal frame of their thirty-year-old backpack creaked as Paul adjusted the straps. She ran through their names in her mind: Pavey Ark, Thunacar Knott, Pike of Stickle, Loft Crag, Harrison Stickle – the five Langdale Pikes. If they even managed a couple of these hills, they’d be doing well.
They’d taken the path directly behind the back of the Sticklebarn pub, where Paul worked part-time at the weekends, past the gold blaze of larches in Raven Crag, and now they were heading along the ridge, with Dungeon Ghyll roaring below them.
I’ll be writing about using setting and location in fiction for the The Asian Writer, so do look out for that post.
I’ve written before about the joy of hiking for writing as I believe walking can help one be more creative. I’m not alone; many writers, from William Wordsworth to Charles Dickens, used walking to help them think about their work.
Recently, I came across some research by behaviour and learning psychologist, Marily Oppezzo, from Stanford University, on how walking can help trigger new ideas. Marily has run several studies on movement and creativity, but in one, she asked people to brainstorm how an everyday object, say a key, could be used creatively. The definition of creativity she used was that it had to be novel and appropriate, in other words, no one has come up with that idea before, but also, appropriate for the situation (so, we all know keys open locks – so another use for a key that is unusual but fitting). The people doing the test either sat down or they walked on a treadmill in a windowless room.
What her team found was that the people on the treadmill came up with twice as many ideas! As a result of her research, she’s come up with a few tips: she says to decide on a topic you want to brainstorm first, then go for a walk, think of as many ideas as you can, and jot them down at the time (either take a notebook or record them in your phone).
This is also how I work: I put a writing problem into my subconscious, and then later, I’ll go for a walk, take it out and turn it about. Big hikes with company are fantastic in a different way. I won’t necessarily be able to concentrate on knotty problems on the way up Thunacar Knott, but I will return refreshed and reinvigorated by the walk, the wildlife and my inspiring friend; ready to crack on with the next novel!
I do hope to see you in the Sticklebarn pub for a chat about writing, walking and, maybe, gin!
It’s perhaps no surprise that two of the settings in my third thriller, My Mother’s Secret, are based at National Trust sites. For me, the best part of being British is the National Trust. I love the fact that the charity preserves great swathes of our countryside (over 248,000 hectares), including parts of the Lake District, fens and forests, 775 miles of our coastline, as well as conserving nearly a million works of art and over 500 historic houses, castles and ancient monuments.
As a trained zoologist, what’s most important to me personally, is the investment in our wildlife. More than half of the species in this country are in decline and need help urgently. Peter Nixon, the National Trust’s Director of Land, Landscape and Nature, said, ’Birds such as the cuckoo, lapwing and curlew are part of the fabric of our rural heritage. But they’ve virtually disappeared from the countryside. We want to see them return to the fields, woods and meadows again, along with other wildlife which was once common and is now rare.’
I’m a keen walker, but not everyone can trek along our rocky Cornish coastline, or hike up Scafell; another aspect that I think is wonderful is how accessible the charity has made our heritage, whether you’re five or eighty-five. Plus the cakes in the tea rooms are pretty nice!
The spoken word flies away, the written word remains.
Inscription in Latin in Tyntesfield library
Many of the scenes in My Mother’s Secret are set at Tyntesfield, a gothic mansion and parkland just outside Bristol. Because I’m drawn to nature, I generally have some wildlife in my books (Paul Bradshaw’s son, Dylan, for instance, is helping Bristol University track foxes in Ashton Court), but also, as a thriller writer, I like the juxtaposition of urban and wilderness. As human beings, we’ve evolved to be frightened of being away from our tribe, of being on our own and in the dark in a forest or other wild place. Including these settings in a thriller feeds into the fear we feel when we read a tense passage, where the protagonist could be danger.
‘My voice bounces around the old stone walls, and the echoes make me even more scared. I’m crying properly now. How could he just go out and leave me? The pain drowns out my shame, just for a few moments. I take out my phone, but there’s no signal here. I’m starting to feel really frightened. I’m on my own in the dark, and no one knows where I am.’
I’m also interested in exploring what historic sites mean to us today: perhaps, as someone who is mixed-race, I feel this more acutely, but many were built using money from slavery. At the very least, the families that originally owned them, such as the Gibbs at Tyntesfield, inherited or made a fortune, whilst those less fortunate toiled in their fields or scrubbed their stairs for a pittance.
‘We drag our heels, going slower and slower, as the path winds steeply down through the ironically named Paradise, with its tree ferns and palms – all part of the Victorians’ plunder of Third World countries, to bring back rare stuff and show off. Everything is ornate. Even the benches are made of stone and carved with Tudor roses. All those poor people, chipping granite just to get some stale bread.’
However, I do think it’s important that these mansions and monuments are preserved, so that future generations understand where we came from and how many once lived – and that the surrounding estates and parklands are preserved to help our wildlife flourish.
If you’d like to see some more photos of the settings that inspired me, do have a look at my Pinterest board.
I’d love you to come to my book launch party if you can make it! It’s 7 p.m. Friday 11 May at Waterstones, Bristol. There’ll be readings from My Mother’s Secret, and since the lead character, Emma Taylor, is a baker, it’s only right and proper that we should have plenty of cake! There will also be fizz, beer and soft drinks to wash it down! It’s a free event, but do RSVP so we know how much cake to bake!
I will also be discussing plot at Novel Nights on 23 May at 7.30 p.m. and reading in one of the locations featured in the novel – Sticklebarn, Langdale in the Lake District on 26 May. Please check my Events page for details.
If you’re interested in finding out a bit more about what inspired me, have a look at this mini video, or take a look at In Conversation with…
If you are interested in reading further, it’s available to pre-order here.
So, Sanjida Kay, tell us what My Mother’s Secret is about.
My Mother’s Secret is told from the point of view of three women: Lizzie Bradshaw, Emma Taylor, and her teenage daughter, Stella. Stella thinks that her mother has a secret. She knows her mother had a traumatic childhood, and that she’s an unusually anxious person, who sometimes has panic attacks. But she believes her mother is hiding something bigger, and Stella is determined to find out what it is. As Emma tries to keep her secret, Lizzie is caught up in a terrible crime… and Stella’s investigations will uncover something truly shocking that could shatter all their lives…
I write, ‘My mother has a secret.’
What was the inspiration behind My Mother’s Secret?
It’s hard to say exactly what the inspiration was, because that would give away the secret Emma is hiding! There were a few stories in the news that obsessed me at the time. One of them was about undercover police officers who infiltrated environmental activist groups and had families with some of the women they were investigating. Although My Mother’s Secret is not about undercover cops, it made me think about longterm lies and deception within close relationships, whether you can ever truly know those you love dearly, as well as power imbalances within marriage.
…as you can see, my dear, I know who you are and where to find you…
The story is mainly set in Bristol, the Lake District and Leeds – with two National Trust estates featuring prominently! Setting is really important to you. Can you tell us a bit about the locations for My Mother’s Secret?
The settings in My Mother’s Secretare all dear to me. Emma and her husband, Jack, and their two daughters, Stella and Ava, live in a suburb of Bristol called Long Ashton. Emma frequently visits a ‘friend’ at Tyntesfield, which is a magnificent Gothic mansion owned by the National Trust, just outside Bristol. Stella says the house looks as if it was designed by ‘an architect on crack’; the estate was funded by the Gibbs’ family’s trade in guano. An episode of the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes was filmed there! Tyntesfield is surrounded by wonderful grounds and woods. I love visiting – and researching the novel was a brilliant excuse to go as often as possible!
I can’t help shuddering. He means the large, curved metal cage in the courtyard near the servants’ entrance. It’s large enough for a child to stand inside and, like the aviary on the other side, reminds me of something sinister out of a fairy story.
Lizzie and her young family, Paul and baby Dylan, live in Elterwater, a hamlet in the Lake District. Whilst Lizzie is commuting to Leeds for her job, Paul is doing a double shift for the National Trust, as a part-time warden in a mountain range known as the Langdale Pikes, and as a bar man in the National Trust’s only pub: The Sticklebarn Inn. I love hiking, and visit the Lake District at least once a year. I normally stay in an amazing hostel in Elterwater; from there I can walk to one of my favourite mountains, Scafell Pike. And I normally manage to call in at the Sticklebarn Inn on the way back!
Apart from hanging out in National Trust tea shops and having mini breaks in the Lakes, what kind of research did you have to do for My Mother’s Secret?
The life of an author is so tough! I had an odd juxtaposition with my research: Emma is a baker; she works in a bakery based on Hart’s Bakery, beneath Temple Meads station in Bristol. So I spent a day hanging out with the bakers, as well as visiting pretty frequently! I was totally able to indulge my cake obsession in this novel! The other aspect of my research, though, was investigating the impact of organised crime. From the sublime to the horrific.
His words echo in my head: ‘I can assure you that, as well as killing you, I will hunt down your family and I will kill them, and then I will find your friends and I will kill them, too.’
Although My Mother’s Secret is a commercial thriller, you’ve included a few discussions on some literary fiction. Why is that?
Stella is in a Book Club at school. She’s a spiky, slightly tom-boyish girl, who loves Jane Eyre – and, of course, the Gothic element in the book fits in beautifully with the Gothic mansion at Tyntesfield. One of the books she’s reading in her book group is The Golden Bowl by Henry James. For anyone who knows me, they’ll know that I like to write books that can be read as straightforward stories, but there’s usually another element going on for anyone who is interested. In My Mother’s Secret, the theme is from this wonderful tale, by Henry James. When American heiress, Maggie Verver, is about to get married, her best friend and her fiancé, who happen to have been in a relationship with each other, buy her a wedding gift. It’s a golden bowl, but when they bring it home, they realise the bowl has a crack in it. It’s a metaphor, a symbol, and also a key that unlocks one of the novel’s revelations.
The book he was looking at has fallen open on a double-page spread. It’s a quote in exquisite calligraphy: ‘It isn’t a question of beauty, it’s only a question of truth.’
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing another psychological thriller for Corvus Books, provisionally called The Holiday. It’s about a family whose three-year-old daughter drowned a year ago.The mother, Amy, wants the whole, extended family to go away for the anniversary of her daughter’s death to try and heal. She books a house on a tiny island in Italy though an online company…but the holiday goes dangerously wrong. My inspiration for this one was the rise of online holiday companies, which might not always be the safest option for travellers…
I lean on the windowsill to look down at the swimming pool, and something sharp digs into my palm. I wince; embedded in the heel of my hand is a human tooth. It’s tiny with a sharp point, a dull ivory, with a hollow where it once grew in a child’s jaw.
We’re coming up to the Easter holidays. My family had a lovely tradition when we were growing up: my mum would hide a book instead of a chocolate Easter egg for me…although I think there’d be a rebellion if I tried to do that in our house! I hope you enjoy some time to read over the holidays. Do let me know what you’re reading and what you think of these suggestions. Chocolate optional.
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 full term, 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.
Now I’m certain…they’re planning a dreadful event. Should it go wrong, I’ve heard them say, their lives will be ruined.
A combination of psychological thriller, treatise on modern malaise, ode to poetry and homage to Hamlet, this could be insufferable, but manages, instead to be wry, poignant, gripping as well as wonderfully written.
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. She and her husband are separated, and he currently has their daughter, Olivia, with him. Anna spends her days playing chess online, counselling fellow agoraphobics and spying on her neighbours.
Some nights I haunt her room like a ghost. Some days I stand in the doorway, watch the slow traffic of dust motes in the sun. Some weeks I don’t visit the fourth floor at all, and it starts to melt into memory, like the feel of rain on my skin.
New neighbours move in who seem to be a mirror of the family she’s lost: a husband, wife and their teenage son. Then one day, Anna sees something terrible happen in their house but thanks to Anna’s cornucopia of medication, and merlot as medicine, no one believes her.
The ash tree cowers, the limestone glowers, dark and damp. I remember dropping a glass onto the patio once; it burst like a bubble, merlot flaring across the ground and flooding the veins of the stone work, dark and bloody, crawling towards my feet.
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.
Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore
It’s 1792 and Europe is rocked by political violence whilst in Bristol there is a property boom, that will, as we know now, collapse barely a year later when war breaks out between England and France. Birdcage Walk is a psychological and historical thriller about Lizzie Fawkes, daughter of radical feminist, Julia Fawkes, who marries property developer, John Diner Tredevant. I loved the historical details, particularly as the novel is set in Bristol, where I have spent most of my adult life.
We gazed out at the plunge of the Gorge. From here we could not see the river crawling in its bed, but saw the dark curve of the trees on the other side. The forest was so thick that I never wanted to enter it. It seemed as if anything might live within it.
Although the backdrop of the novel is political and social, the characters are incredibly realistic, at its heart, it’s about the love between mother and daughter, and how Diner is threatened, not only by their relationship, but by Lizzie’s independent and questioning nature.
My irritation melted. No one, I thought suddenly, would ever look at me like that, except for Mammie, because to her every good thing, every moment of happiness that came to me meant more than if it came to herself.
We learn early on what manner of man Diner is; his desire to control and suppress Lizzie is claustrophobic. This is a beautifully written novel, laced with dread, and shot through with emotional depth and compassion.
Birdcage Walk is the last book Dunmore wrote before she died. She finished it before she realised how seriously ill she was, but it’s possible she knew subconsciously that she was failing, for this novel is suffused with darkness and loss. As she herself wrote, ‘The question of what is left behind by a life haunts the novel.’
Shetland based on Anne Cleeves’ Jimmy Perez detective novels: gripping, touching and emotionally raw; and thriller, McMafia, a taut, family-based drama, of one man’s road to ruin, inspired by Misha Glenny’s non-fiction account of international crime.
Story Grid Podcast based on Shawn Coyne’s book on how to develop one’s craft as a writer; with aspiring novelist, Tim Grahl. An absolute must-read/listen if you want to be a fantastic fiction writer!
Six weeks to go until My Mother’s Secret comes out! For an author waiting to see how her book will be received, this is a tense phase to be in!
For anyone interested in how the process works, once the book is finished, edited, copy edited, proof read and type-set with a draft cover design, an ‘uncorrected bound proof’ is created. It’s nearly the final version, but the cover might be tweaked slightly, and there could still be errors that we’ve all missed. The proofs are then sent out to magazine journalists and authors kind enough to say they’ll do their level best to read it before it goes off to the printers.
So far, I’ve had some amazingly kind comments from my fellow writers. Thank you!!
The next step is that early copies will be sent out to bloggers, who are really the most important people. They are readers who, in their own free time and without being paid, will read and post reviews of books on their websites. Waiting to hear back from them is even more nerve-wracking!
In the meantime, here’s what some of my favourite authors are saying about My Mother’s Secret:
This gripping story about families and secrets takes the meaning of ‘deception’ to a new level.
Jane Corry, author of My Husband’s Wife and Blood Sisters
A well written story that is so compelling you have no choice but to race through it to uncover the secrets. Twisty, tense and chilling until the very last page. Brilliant!
Sam Carrington,author of Saving Sophie, Bad Sister and One Little Lie coming in July
Sanjida has nailed it again. A claustrophobic, unpredictable thriller that I couldn’t get enough of. You’ll be holding your breath until the last page
Jack Jordan,author ofMy Girl and Anything for Her. A Woman Scorned and Before Her Eyes coming soon
And more from LV Hay, Luana Lewis and Peter Swanson…
I hope that’s whetted your appetite! If so, the kindest thing you can do for an author (apart from give them wine and chocolate), is to buy their book and post a short review on Amazon, Audible and Goodreads. It’ll keep them in coffee and Hobnobs. Thank you!
Happy Mother’s Day! This blog is dedicated to those very special women in our lives, without whom, we would not exist.
My first thriller, Bone by Bone, is about that unbreakable bond between mothers and daughters. It features Laura, her mother, Vanessa, and Laura’s daughter, Autumn. Now that my third psychological thriller is coming soon, I’ve realised that all three of my thrillers feature mothers and daughters.
I wrote ablog about mothers and daughters when Bone by Bone came out, and included this passage in it:
The bond between mothers and their children, particularly their daughters, is usually the strongest one that exists in human beings. Mothers shape their daughters, but daughters often rebel against being moulded. I was interested in exploring this tight and intimate bond; how some women raise their daughters to be like them, and their daughters then reject their values, but in doing so, may make mistakes of their own with their daughters – a tale familiar to some of us!
As Oscar Wilde so glibly said,
All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.
What I was interested in exploring in my latest thriller, My Mother’s Secret, is how that bond keeps loosening and tightening as the child grows older. Emma Taylor’s oldest daughter, Stella, is now fourteen. Like most teenagers, she needs to be loved and cared for, but she pushes back against her parents, particularly her mother, in her desire to become independent. Stella and her little sister, Ava, are in a more extreme situation than many young people, as their parents are paranoid about their safety. For example, when Jack, their father, works in his office at the bottom of the garden, he sets the burglar alarm on the house so the children can’t leave without setting it off. I’ll let you judge whether the Taylors are fruitcakes or pretty sensible and how wise or damaging their behaviour is to their children!
Those chilling words seared in my heart: if you give evidence against me,
I will kill you . . . I will hunt down your family and I will kill them . . . I am nothing if not a man of my word.
Obviously, in a thriller, what could happen to an child provides some of the tension the story requires, and this is what I’ve been playing with: how do you protect a child who is at risk, when you can’t tell her what the threat is, and she’s perfectly capable of operating independently and making decisions that are not in her best interests?
My voice bounces around the old stone walls, and the echoes make me even more scared. I’m crying properly now. How could he just go and leave me? The pain drowns out my shame. I take out my phone, but there’s no signal here. I’m starting to feel really frightened. I’m on my own in the dark, and no one knows where I am.
In real life, how much do we really know about what children and young people are thinking and doing? And by not knowing every last detail, are we neglecting our duty of care, or are we giving them the freedom to grow, make their own mistakes and become responsible adults?
So here’s to mother’s, who have the toughest job on the planet!
Did you know that many publishers won’t read past the first few lines of your manuscript? Harsh but true. Agents may read a page or two. And let’s be honest, if you’re browsing in a bookshop, what makes you pick up a book, and then buy it? For me, and I suspect most other people, what propels me into purchasing a book is if a) I have read and liked the author’s other books; b) someone I respect has recommended it to me; c) the cover looks good (this is 70% of the reason why books get picked up); d) the blurb sounds interesting and intriguing and then e) when I read the first few lines, I know almost instantly whether this book will be for me.
Obviously, there are a whole host of other reasons at play that you may or may not be consciously aware of: for instance, has the publisher been promoting this book (if so, you may have already seen subliminal images and read endorsements by famous authors); has the publisher paid the bookseller to place this particular book on a prominent table or are they paying a supermarket to stock it in prime position; does the author have a name that allows them to be shelved in a good location (and not the bottom shelf at the back of the store)?
In the past, when there was less competition, authors didn’t have to nail their audience in the first two or three sentences and could ease into the story and begin with things like the weather (apparently some agents will chuck your work straight into the slush pile if you start like that now!). However, many classics are notable for their fantastic, and now famous opening lines:
The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like… and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
All of which is quite daunting when one is writing a novel! It’s actually pretty daunting whatever one is writing, and you’re facing a blank computer screen or piece of paper. My solution is not to start at the beginning (and my suggestion to any students and aspiring writers!). I generally have an idea about what should go in the first chapter or the prologue, but to stop myself having jitters, procrastinating or becoming overly angsty, I don’t start there.
My third thriller, My Mother’s Secret, will be out in two months, on 3 May. I started writing it in October 2016 and I finished the first draft in March 2017, which is when I wrote the prologue. Here’s my first line, written last:
‘Did you know my name means God?’
A year on, and I’ve just completed the first draft of my fourth thriller and this time, I did start at the beginning. I heard the central character’s voice speaking in my head and I wrote down those first two lines straight away:
As far as I know it happened like this. Obviously, I wasn’t there when it mattered.
Let me know what you think! Do you begin at the beginning?
I’m delighted to share with you the cover of my next thriller, My Mother’s Secret. It’s out on 3 May and is now available to pre-order.
Here’s what it’s about:
YOU CAN ONLY HIDE FOR SO LONG…
Lizzie Bradshaw. A student from the Lake District, forced to work away from home, who witnesses a terrible crime. But who will ultimately pay the price?
Emma Taylor. A mother, a wife, and a woman with a dangerous secret. Can she keep her beloved family safely together?
Stella Taylor. A disaffected teenager, determined to discover what her mother is hiding. But how far will she go to uncover the truth?
And one man, powerful, manipulative and cunning, who controls all their destinies.
I’ll be uploading a Q&A with me about the book, what inspired me, the process of writing it, as well as some short video clips, and some of the behind-the-scenes photos on my Pinterest board, so do check back. We’ll also be running a couple of competitions to win copies, and there will be a launch party on 11 May, invitations to follow!
Today is World Book Day! To celebrate I’m going to talk to the children in Year 3 at Sefton Park School, in Bristol, about villains! Seems like a suitable topic for seven year olds! Actually, though, it’s a pretty critical topic for any writer.
So why do you need a villain? Well, without a baddie, basically, your story lacks drama. There will be no uncertainty, excitement or tension. An antagonist can provide conflict, which will help create this drama. The antagonist will also elevate your protagonist, the central character in your story, by stretching him or her because they’ll need to grow, change, and summon deep inner resources to defeat the villain – as long as your baddie is a worthy opponent.
However, an antagonist need not be a person: if you’re writing a supernatural or horror story then your villain could be a creature or a ghost or a wizard. But in other genres, your villain could be a force, a concept, a trait or a psychological state. For instance, in 1984 the antagonist is ‘the Party’, the human (or inhuman) face of ‘Big Brother’. In spy thrillers, there is often a conspiracy or a government cover up; in LA Confidential, the hero is battling his own alcoholism; in Sense of an Ending, the opponent, seems to be Vanessa, but it’s actually the anti-hero, Tony’s, own character flaws; in Solar it’s global warming.
My two tips on creating a decent villain are first, have empathy. Get inside your baddie’s head. Almost no one thinks they’re doing the wrong thing or that they’re immoral – everyone can justify their actions.
And secondly, the villain isn’t always who you think it is. Check out my thrillers – in all three, Bone by Bone, The Stolen Child and My Mother’s Secret – the bad guy isn’t who you think it is.
For more on villains and for some writing exercises, please sign up to theArvon Foundation’s newsletter and look for my writing tips on Antagonistic Antagonists.
Well, I start the day with a large black coffee and some dark chocolate!
Writing a novel feels like being an ultra marathon runner. It’s going to be a gruelling slog to reach 80 – 100,000 words and I will be unable to pause, to breathe properly, to take in the view until then; I know I’ll have to keep going, unsure if I’m going to make it, or make it in time. And then, when I cross the finish line, I’ll be doubled over, sucking in air, celebrating how far I’ve come, before, – quick breath – I’ll start the first full read through, and the edits.
So I begin my writing day by reading through what I wrote the day before, and I end my day by making notes on what I’m going to write, so I don’t waste time trying to get in the zone.
I write a book a year – for the thriller that’s just about to come out, My Mother’s Secret, that meant 2,500 words a day, for three days a week during school hours. If I didn’t hit my word count, the walk to school to pick up my daughter would be filled with figures – I’d calculate that tomorrow, I’d need to write 3,500 words, and if I didn’t hit that word count, the day after would be… tricky!
Before I begin a novel, I spend a couple of months plotting my novel, scene by scene, until I have an outline of between 6 and 10,000 words. Even if some scenes are pretty sketchy – Scene 52: Stella and Adam getting closer.
And I’m going to come back to this and talk more about plot in the future…
The full answer to this question has been recorded by the Royal Literary Fund and will be available shortly. In the meantime, I’ve recorded other podcasts for the RLF, and there are many, many wonderful writers you might like to listen to via iTunes or their website.
The short answer, is because I have to! I’d write if I was shut in an attic at the top of a dark castle – but I also want to be read. I don’t just write for myself. I want someone out there to read what I’ve written, to see what I’ve seen in my mind, to experience what I felt, to be immersed in another world and other lives…
F Scott Fitzgerald wrote,
‘You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.’
I believe I have something to say. And I want to share it.
Stephen King said,
‘Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends.’
But actually I do want all those things! More than anything else though, I agree with him when he wrote,
‘[Writing is] about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting happy.’
And in the end, that’s true. I write to make myself happy.
The full answer to this question has been recorded by the Royal Literary Fund and will be available shortly. In the meantime, I’ve recorded other podcasts for the RLF, and there are many, many wonderful writers you might like to listen to via iTunes or their website.
‘Shall I tell you the story of you?’ I say, hugging my knees to my chest and wishing my daughter would let me cuddle her.
She nods, barely perceptibly.
‘A long time ago, before you were even a twinkle in anybody’s eye, your daddy and I really, really wanted a baby girl. We tried and tried to have a baby but we just couldn’t.’
The more I tell this tale, like a fairy story instead of an offering from the Brothers Grimm, the easier it gets.
‘Then we met a kind young woman who was pregnant with a baby girl and she said we could have her baby because we didn’t have one of our own. And so we waited and waited, and you grew bigger and bigger inside her and, one day, we got a phone call to say that you were ready to come out. So we rushed to the hospital—’
This is Zoe, the mother in my thriller, THE STOLEN CHILD, telling her adopted daughter, Evie, where she came from.
Adoption throws up so many difficult and complex issues: the child may experience a sense of loss, and a confusion about who they are and how they fit into their new family. The may feel a dislocation between their own identity and the adopted family’s culture, class and race. But adoption can be positive – about giving hope and love to a child.
‘Evie is our beautiful, dark-haired, green-eyed child,’ I say. I can hear the tremor in my voice. ‘Like many seven-year-old girls, she’s obsessed with princesses. We think she looks more like a fairy. She loves Lego and painting…Please find her. Please bring her back to us. We miss her beyond measure. She is the love of our life.’
But what really inspired and moved me was thisTed talk by Christopher Ategeka, who was originally from Uganda. His parents died when he was young and he grew up in excruciating poverty, before he was put in an orphanage and eventually adopted by an American family. He says,
‘These strangers showed me true love. These strangers showed me that I mattered, that my dreams mattered.’
He went on to get two degrees in engineering. As he says, ‘Talent is universal, but opportunity isn’t.’
He ends his talk with words that I hope will resonate with all of us:
‘We may not be able to solve the bigotry and the racism of this world today, but certainly we can raise children to create a positive, inclusive, connected world full of empathy, love and compassion.’
I think about the story I always tell her – of the kind lady who gave her to us. I suppose that must be how she imagines her father – as a kind man who gave her away too, as if she were a gift. Only now he wants her back.
Evie, the little girl in my thriller, The Stolen Child, was adopted at birth. At seven years old, she suddenly realises that she looks different from the rest of her family and starts questioning what it means to be adopted. In the UK, around 3,000 children are adopted each year, but the number adopted at birth is low (around 60) and the number in care is much higher.
The Stolen Child is about whether nurture or nature is more important, and what adoption means for a child’s sense of self, their identity, their place in the world and how much they believe they are loved.
The Adoption, a Radio 4 podcast, charts the real life story of two children taken into care. There are no dramatic twists and turns, just everyday heartbreak in what is, sadly, not a unique tale.
Do let me know if you have a story you’d like to share about adoption.
I’m heading up toGranite noir, a crime fiction festival in Aberdeen in one month. I’m going to be talking about children caught up in crime fiction with two incredible psychological thriller writers, Mel McGrath, author of Give Me the Child, and Colette McBeth, who’ll be talking about An Act of Silence.
All of our books feature a mother as the central character and their child, who is in peril. There is nothing our characters would not do to protect their child – although in Mel and Colette’s stories, the situation is more complex. Linda, the protagonist in An Act of Silence, has an adult son whom she has never truly trusted: will she believe him now, when he’s been accused of murder?
As for me, my character, Zoe, in The Stolen Child, would go to the ends of the earth for her daughter, Evie – if she knew where to find her. Arguably, Zoe inadvertently put her daughter in danger by falling for another man, an artist called Haris, who is darkly fascinating. This goes to the heart of what it takes to be a good mother: you obviously need to love and care for your child or children, but to do so well, you need to be happy too.
Where do we draw the line between our needs and those of our family?