Stories within stories: The books mentioned in My Mother’s Secret

I’m delighted to welcome Tasha Locke to my blog this week. Tasha graduated from Bristol University this year with a degree in English Literature. I met Tasha through my role as a Role Literary Fund Fellow at Bristol University. Her insight into literature prompted me to ask her if she’d write the Book Club questions (My Mother’s Secret Book Club Questions) for you. There are a number of  novels mentioned in My Mother’s Secret, mostly by one of the main characters, bookish teenager, Stella Taylor, who is in a Book Club at school.  Stella is obsessed with Jane Eyre, but it’s Henry James’ The Golden Bowl that runs like a leitmotif through my thriller… Over to Tasha.

 

The novels mentioned in My Mother’s Secret provide layers for both the characters and the plot. These novels all present love in an unconventional, often forbidden, light. The debates on these novels in Stella’s book club get us to think about the complexities and themes of My Mother’s Secret. 

Introducing the theme of adultery to My Mother’s Secret, Stella’s book club first read The Golden Bowl by Henry James. The group can’t agree whether the book is about love, sex, or betrayal. Their book club debate invites us to reconsider our own opinions about betrayal and deception in relationships, which becomes increasingly important as the story of My Mother’s Secret goes on. 

The bowl from The Golden Bowl is also symbolic in My Mother’s Secret. In James’ novel Maggie Verver is about to get married and is gifted a golden bowl by her best friend and fiancé (who happen to be lovers) that has a crack in it. The symbolic crack in James’ The Golden Bowl mirrors the secret in My Mother’s Secret – but not just Emma Taylor’s, the mother and main character in the novel. It is not until the final twist of My Mother’s Secret that we realise the significance of Stella’s earlier statement: ‘the only person I know who’s read it is my dad.’

Another novel mentioned in My Mother’s Secret is Jane Eyre. My Mother’s Secret opens with a quote from Jane Eyre and Bronte’s gothic setting of Thornfield Hall resembles Tyntesfield, the estate outside of Bristol, where parts of My Mother’s Secret are set. Tyntesfield, like Bronte’s Thornfield, becomes a place of secrecy, deceit and even ghost-like doubles.  

Jane Eyre is Stella’s favourite book. She moulds herself on Jane, and, appropriately, her Instagram name is Mrs Rochester. Stella’s desire to find out what her mother’s secret is frames her narrative in a Jane Eyre-esque Bildungsroman, and the secret, like the character of Bertha in Jane Eyre, becomes the threat to her teenage romance. 

Stella’s teenage crush Adam – MaddAddam on Instagram – builds an unlikely connection between Jane Eyre and Margret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake. Whilst placing teenage love on social media is fitting, Atwood’s post-apocalyptic dystopia seems worlds away from Bronte’s 19th century England. But the twist in Stella and Adam’s love story – the reason their love must remain forbidden – draws these two novels together.

My Mother’s Secret invites a re-reading of one of Jane Eyre’s most famous lines, which Stella quotes:

No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

Stella will regret wanting love like that… like Adam says of Atwood’s ‘speculative fiction’: ‘it means that everything could happen right now’.

Stella’s book club, and the books they read, provide a platform for the reader to speculate on the relationships in My Mother’s Secret. But the constant twists prove that these books cannot be relied on; the complexities of love in My Mother’s Secret is utterly new.

 

 

Cover reveal for My Mother’s Secret in paperback!

I love the new cover for the paperback of My Mother’s Secret. It’s not radically different – apart from Sam Carrington says, ‘Brilliant!’ on the front cover – but the colours are really eye-catching.

It’s out 4 October. The audio version is here already, if you feel like giving that a spin!

And in other news, The Stolen Child, will be published in Poland in autumn, with a gorgeously atmospheric cover.

 

 

 

Wuthering Heights – the novel that has influenced me the most

When I was a teenager, I steadfastly refused to believe that so-called ‘classical literature’ could be better than the assortment I chose from the local library. What did these authors have to tell me? By this time in my life I had lived in several countries, attended eight out of what would be ten schools and knew no one else who was mixed-race. I feared so-called classics would be dull, staid and part of ‘the establishment’ that I was so busy rebelling against.

And then I read Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Brontë’s tale, set on Haworth’s bleak and beautiful moorland resonated with me, partly because I spent my teens living on either side of Ilkley Moor.

 

 

As a sixteen-year-old, I understood Cathy’s passion:

‘He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.’

I was shocked by the power and the savageness of some scenes: the one in which Lockwood grabs a child’s wrists and saws them across broken glass still haunts me. But most of all, what struck me was how easy to read this story was: it is a gripping, page-turner; the writing is beautiful and profound; there is something about this multi-generational tale of love and loss that moved me then, and moves me still. As a teenager, I thought it spoke directly to me: do you choose the person who rocks your world but is ultimately unstable, or the one who is boring but steadfast and will give you security? 

Now, or course, I see more layers and nuances in Brontë’s novel. My fiction has always been gothic with an almost super natural element running through it. I’ve read, and re-read Wuthering Heights, and in my second psychological thriller, The Stolen Child, I turned back to the Yorkshire moors as the setting for a kind of demonic love story. It was a great excuse to re-read Wuthering Heights.

 

For more on Wuthering Heights, I’ve recorded two podcasts for the Royal Literary Fund. Here’s the first one:

 

My Favourite Book, part 2

 

One Year Later

As My Mother’s Secret has been wending its way into the world, I’ve been working on another psychological thriller. It’s called One Year Later

One year ago, the Flowers family gathered at The Pines, a rambling farmhouse in Somerset, to celebrate the youngest child’s third birthday. Tragically, the day before her birthday, Ruby-May drowned in the garden pond while her grandfather, David Flowers, was meant to be looking after her.

One year later, Ruby-May’s anniversary is fast approaching. The three Flowers siblings, Nick, Bethany, and Amy, who is Ruby-May’s mother, decide to hold the anniversary of the child’s death on a remote island off the coast of Italy. They’ve barely spoken to each other for a year, and none of them have seen their father, David, since the funeral. This is their chance to heal and come together as a family before it’s too late.

But as the extended family, including partners, children and hangers-on, gather in what appears to be an idyllic location, a rural farmhouse next to a stunningly beautiful beach, David shows up, still refusing to admit he was culpable. As the tension escalates, buried secrets will be uncovered…and not everyone may make it home…

Originally called The Anniversary, the novel is book-ended by scenes in Bristol and Somerset, where I live, but most of the action takes place on a tiny island off the coast of Italy. Sadly, I didn’t manage a research trip, as my husband pointed out I’ve been to Italy more than enough times to satisfy most normal people, and I should just do what writers are meant to – use my imagination. Fortunately, the weather this summer is breathtakingly-hot, which helps, although I would much rather be on a beach than at my desk.

One Year Later will literally be out one year later…August 2019. Just in time for your summer holiday.

 

 

Just Giving – Writing Desks

We are lucky to have been born into a time and a place where we have food, shelter, water and a decent education. Not everyone has these rights. My daughter and I are sponsoring a little girl called Mavellous who is eight-years-old.

Mavellous lives in Zambia and is the youngest of eight children. Every morning she has to walk five miles a day to fetch clean water. There are 100 children in her class and she has to share a desk with seven other children. We asked Action Aid what Mavellous’s school needed most and they said writing desks: forty of them at £30 each.

Since, as you’ve probably gathered, we like baking, my daughter and I have started pop-up cake sales to raise the money to buy writing desks. I’m sorry we can’t share our cakes with you (although maybe if you head over to the south-west…!) but if you’d like to contribute, or simply cheer us along, here’s our Just Giving page.

 

Launch party for My Mother’s Secret!

It’s hard to believe, for me at least, but after doing little else but think about the characters in My Mother’s Secret for a year and a half, my novel is out in the real world! We had a fantastic launch party at Waterstones, Bristol, with locally-brewed beer and locally-bought prosecco, and squidgy cakes inspired by the ones baked by my protagonist, Emma Taylor.

My wonderful friend and talented voice-over artist and presenter, Gillian Burke, read the part of Emma Taylor, and rising star, Abbi Bayliss, read the part of her daughter, Stella. I put my Northern accent to good use and read Lizzie Bradshaw’s section, which is quite dark. I hope I haven’t scared my daughter for life.

 

Big thanks to my lovely husband, Jaimie Rogers, my publicist, Kirsty Doole, and sister, Emma O’Connell, who kept the show on the road!

 

 

 

My Writing Toolkit

Book blogger and health journalist, Victoria Goldman,  asked me to tell her what my essential writing toolkit is for her blog, Off-the-Shelf Books. Here goes:

Office

Our exciting news is that we’re renovating a house in rural Somerset. In the meantime, we’ve downsized so I no longer have an office, but a desk in the corner of an open-plan room. I look out over a small, but beautiful green garden that backs onto an urban nature reserve. Jays and blue tits peep through the window. I can’t think if there’s any clutter, and I like to have a flower or two next to me. I work on an Apple Mac and a laptop. This has revolutionised my life: because everything is in the cloud, I can pick up my laptop and go, without having to check it’s saved, and I no longer have that awful realisation that I’ve spent hours working on the wrong document. 

Notebooks

I love having different notebooks with lovely covers. I have one for ideas, one for quotes and overheard snippets of conversations and a working one, with what I need to do next. It helps me keep track of where I am – for instance, My Mother’s Secret is just about to be published out, but I’m still talking to readers about my previous thrillers, Bone by Bone and The Stolen Child, whilst editing the fourth one, The Anniversary. I find writing long-hand is a good way of generating ideas too, although I actually type my novels straight onto the computer.

Exercise

Writing is incredibly sedentary, so I need to move! I get up before anyone else and do an hour to an hour and a half of the Tracy Anderson Method. Tracy is a trainer in the states; I stream her classes, which are a combination of light weights and dance cardio. At the weekends I run or go mountain biking. I love walking. One of the characters in My Mother’s Secret lives in the Lake District, so it was a great excuse to head up there for ‘research’. I find walking helps with creativity and general resetting of one’s mental equilibrium.

Coffee and chocolate

I start my writing day with black coffee and 80% dark chocolate. I’m lucky enough to have a fantastic coffee roaster, Extract, at the bottom of our road and I buy their organic espresso, which tastes of hazelnuts and cocoa. Apparently.

Candles

I light a candle when I start working. I like scents that are quite sharp when I’m concentrating: my favourite is St Eval’s Rosemary and Bay; and then soothing, like Sandalwood, when I want to unwind. I love being surrounded by greenery so I fill the house with lots of plants.

Protein shake

I get through that mid-afternoon slump with a protein shake, usually made of fruit and vegetables, non-dairy milk and protein powder. I normally add spinach; this one also has raspberries and coconut milk.

Headphones

Since we’re all in one room, there’s quite a lot of ‘negotiation’ about who gets to watch downhill mountain bike racing, How to Train your Dragon, or have some peace and quiet to write their novel. I spend quite a lot of time wearing headphones and pretending I can’t hear anyone speaking to me. I listen to audiobooks and podcasts when I’m doing chores; I’m a big fan of The Story Grid podcast and book, which is by editor Shawn Coyne and is aimed at helping writers and editors improve.

Cake

My daughter and I love baking: this is a cake that I made for one of my sister’s for her birthday. It’s a great way to relax and a slice of cake feels like a nice treat after a week of writing several thousand words and drinking spinach smoothies!

 

What’s your essential toolkit?

In a thriller, nowhere is safe…

This is a blog post I wrote on the importance of setting for The Asian Writer, and I thought would be most appropriate as I’ve just got back from a quick trip to the Lake District, where My Mother’s Secret is partly set.

 

There’s a thin band of cream silhouetting the cranes that hover over the half-built office blocks in the city centre. I head home, below an arc of houses that will be bright as jewels when the sun comes up. At this time of the day, it’s beautiful; the river is still, and seagulls fall above it, like flecks of confetti. 

 

I love Bristol, where I live, as anyone who’s read my first thriller, Bone by Bone, might be able to guess! For my third, My Mother’s Secret, I’ve returned to Bristol as a location, but also placed another character – Lizzie Bradshaw – in Leeds and the Lake District. The settings in my novels are extremely important to me, but I’m certain a well-drawn location enhances any book. Can you imagine Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children without the blooming buzzing confusion of Delhi, or Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney without the smell of money and crack-hustle of New York?

A detailed backdrop in fiction helps create a tangible world for one’s characters, as well as being a tool the writer can use to heighten tension or thicken the atmosphere. My main character, Emma Taylor, lives in a leafy suburb of Bristol: Long Ashton. The ‘world’ this woman inhabits tells us a lot about who we think she is: middle class, comfortably off, the kind of person who shops in M&S for a treat and takes her youngest daughter to ballet lessons. It seems calm, safe, secure. Emma, though, is tense and anxious: she’s hiding a secret from everyone she knows, so Long Ashton appears the perfect place for her. Similarly, her job as a baker makes us believe she’s in a cosy, comforting cafe, filled with the scent of bubbling yeast and buttery croissants. When the reader discovers the bakery is actually in a tunnel beneath a train station, it might, perhaps, start ringing alarm bells. In contrast, Belle Isle in Leeds city centre, where Lizzie Bradshaw works, really is a dark and dangerous place.

 

A couple of boys around thirteen, but already taller than her, were hanging about on the street corner, and there was another group of young men in the centre of the housing estate, smoking and swigging from cans. She could hear the wind, boxed in by the flats, moaning round the corners. Chocolate wrappers and newspapers rustled across the ground, and a Staffordshire terrier tied to a bench with rope growled at her through bared teeth. 

 

 

Stella, Emma’s fourteen-year-old daughter, is determined to discover what her mother’s secret is. She’s a spiky, book-obsessed girl, and constantly reads Jane Eyre to make herself feel less anxious. Many of the Bristol scenes take place at Tyntesfield, a gothic mansion near Long Ashton.

William Gibbs’ collection of curiosities is stacked up and draped in sheets, but my torch picks out a few that haven’t been covered up: a glass dome with tiny, stuffed hummingbirds, the smooth carapace of an ostrich eggshell, a jade-green ammonite. This would be the perfect place for someone to stalk us. There are so many hiding places. 

The architecture and the claustrophobia of the rooms mirror both Stella’s gothic obsession, and the escalating tension in Emma’s life. The suburbs and the city centre are densely populated: as Emma says, ‘I like being surrounded by people – it feels safe;’ Lizzie, who lives in a remote village in the Lake District, feels safe precisely because there is no one around. She tells DI Simon Duffield, ‘You can walk for miles and never see a soul. Please, let me go home. I’ll be safe there.’ But, of course, in a thriller, nowhere is safe and the places we feel most secure are often the most dangerous.

 

The editor of The Asian Writer interviewed me for her new podcast. I was her first guest! It’s here if you’d like to listen:

 

 

 

 

How to tell a good plot

My seven-year-old daughter is teaching me how to plot. She’s drawn a story mountain for me, which shows the start, build up, climax, solution and the end (she’s obviously inherited her ability to spell from her mother). She’s broken down the key elements of a story she’s writing to demonstrate how it works. 

 

 

It’s about a girl called Jasmine whose horse is stolen. Jasmine follows hoof prints in the mud, and discovers a broken robot in a ditch with ‘Dr Evil’ stamped on it. With the help of her friend, Summer, they mend Tim the robot, and he leads them to Dr Evil’s house. Dr Evil has enslaved a group of robots and they’ve been collecting prize animal specimens from around the world on his behalf. The girls free the robots and they help them release all the pets. 

 

 

Obviously, it needs more work, but if I hothouse my daughter a bit more, she might keep me in prosecco in my dotage! But actually, the story mountain is a pretty good way of thinking about plot (in fact, I do ‘plot’ my stories on a graph before I start writing, although I know that sounds completely nerdy!).

Even at such a young age, my daughter, pretty much like every kid can do, has captured the key ingredients for a story: a beginning, a middle and an end. Plus there’s a hero – Jasmine, and a villain – Dr Evil. Her story also features some other essential characters: the friend and mentor (Summer); villains who become friends (the robots); victims (the animals, especially the horse, Faye) and a mentor figure (the mother, Sanjida, who is a vet and in the final scene checks that Faye is unhurt). Faye is the symbol of ‘desire’ in the story that motivates the characters: both Jasmine and Dr Evil want Faye, albeit for different reasons. The story also has some other essential elements: an inciting incident, a crisis and a climax – more on these shortly. 

 

 

What I think every story needs are at least three acts corresponding to the beginning, the middle and the end (although, you can of course have multiple acts). In the beginning section, you need an inciting incident: this is the event that forces our protagonist to act – or decide not to act  – but is what starts your story. Think of Nick Dunne in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn finding his front door open, his living room turned upside down, and discovering that his wife, Amy, is missing. We immediately think: What has happened to her? What will he do?

This is followed (in the middle section) by what editor, Shawn Coyne terms, progressive complications for the protagonist, where he or she faces increasing as well as different difficulties (not several of the same type of difficulties). And boy, in Gone Girl, do Nick and Amy get put through the ringer in terms of the difficulties they face, from the police, to the press, to ex-boyfriends, thieving friends and Amy’s insane quiz… 

 

 

There is then a crisis, which is often described as the worst point for the protagonist; it’s a seemingly inescapable predicament or insurmountable dilemma. In the final act, there’s a climax, which could either be a showdown with the antagonist or could be internal – the main character battles with his or her internal predicament. If the inciting incident is – what will happen?, the climax is the unexpected but inevitable result of the opening event – this is what happens. 

 

 

The ending is the resolution, which ties up loose ends and lets us see how the dust is going to settle. Fairy tales and children’s stories often begin, Once upon a time, and end, happily ever after. And although readers tend to want a story to finish on an emotionally satisfying note, an open, unhappy and/or uncertain ending can also provide closure, even without the happy ever after. 

I’d highly recommend Story by Robert McKee and The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne for more detailed discussions on how to plot. And in the near future, I’ll do a breakdown showing how I plot my novels.

 

Let me know if you have any comments or questions!

 

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The octopus and the pirates

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.

 

 

Cake!

 

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.

Emma Taylor

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.’

Stella Taylor

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.’ 

Paul Bradshaw

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. 

Stella Taylor

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?

Thank you to Steph Rothwell, who first published this blog.

 

 

Book Club Questions for 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 about My 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.

 

My Mother’s Secret Book Club Questions

My Mother’s Secret Q&A

In the meantime, I’ll let you into a secret – the character I like best in My Mother’s Secret!

Do let me know who you like best!

 

My Mother’s Secret is out now!

My Mother’s Secret is out now! It’s available to buy in bookshops or from Amazon. You can read some extracts from it if you’d like to, or find out more about the book by downloading these links.

My Mother’s Secret – Prologue

My Mother’s Secret – Chapters 1 & 2

My Mother’s Secret Q&A

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.

 

 

Let me know what you think!

 

 

Win a free copy of 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 Pigeonhole to win My Mother’s Secret, which will be serialised in ten extracts. The chance to win this competition ends on 3 May too.

Good luck!

 

 

Hiking for writing II

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).

The view from the Sticklebarn

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!

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In praise of the National Trust

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.’

Stella

 

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.’

Stella

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.

 

sanjida oconnell pinterest

If you’d like to see some more photos of the settings that inspired me, do have a look at my Pinterest board.

 

 

 

 

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Party like a writer!

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…

 

My Mother’s Secret Q&A

If you’d like to download a free sample of chapter one and two, told from Emma, and her daughter’s perspective, they’re here:

My Mother’s Secret – Chapters 1 & 2

My Mother’s Secret is available to pre-order.

 

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In conversation with Sanjida Kay

 

It’s one month until my next thriller, My Mother’s Secret, is going to be published!

I thought I’d share a Q&A with you on what my novel is all about, where it’s set and the inspiration behind it. You can download it here, My Mother’s Secret Q&A or else read it in the blog below.

 

In the meantime, here’s a free sample: My Mother’s Secret – Prologue

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 Secret are 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.

 

Looking forward to hearing what you think!

 

 

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Easter holiday reading recommendations

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.’

Watching 

 

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.

 

Listening to

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!

 

 

 

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