How to write a thriller

In a few days time I’m heading to Ted Hughes’ old house, Lumb Bank, in Hebden Bridge, to teach an Arvon Foundation course on how to write a literary thriller, with fellow author, Adam LeBor. I’m looking forward to meeting guest author, Felica Yap, who wrote, Yesterday, as well as returning to the wilds of Yorkshire where I grew up.

 

 

Most of what one can learn about writing a thriller will apply to any kind of fiction – character, plot, setting, dialogue, language, style and voice are, of course, vitally important. But what is critical in a thriller is information: who knows what, and when and where and how did they or will they find it out? The key is to think about what is going to happen next. If you set up a question in the first few pages, finding out the answer is what will keep readers turning the pages. 

Think of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, which begins:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

Immediately this raises small questions: what is Manderley? Who is telling us this story? Why aren’t they at Manderley anymore? What is so special about Manderley that our unknown narrator dreams about this place? And then quickly we’re introduced to the larger questions: who was the first Mrs de Winter? What was she was like? What happened to her – and what will happen to our protagonist? These questions are what keep us reading.

The two main ways the writer can heighten this sense of anticipation is through the structure of the novel, and via suspense. The structure of the novel is essentially about presenting information in a particular order. For example, in a psychological thriller, moving the second most thrilling or exciting moment in the story to the prologue can create anticipation because we know that something bad is going to happen, yet in the first few pages, that terrible deed has not yet occurred.

For instance, here’s the prologue of Bone by Bone.

BONE BY BONE Prologue

Another example of how structure can lead to anticipation is through the withholding of information, by delaying telling the reader the answer to a question: leaving a scene early, just before the information is about to be revealed, is one way to do this. The resulting cliff hanger will hopefully make the reader want to find out what happens next. Think of Harry Potter: The Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling. When the Dursleys are hiding on a boat at sea and someone beats down the door and steps inside, we’re on tenterhooks – and this is where the chapter ends.  

Of course, endless cliff hangers could well become annoying, so another way of delaying answering the question is by complicating the story. This can be done by adding more information and greater levels of complexity – through a sub-plot, for instance, or by switching the Point Of View to another character.

Suspense, in contrast, is about who knows what at which point. Do the characters know, or only one of them? Does the reader know the secret but the characters do not? For instance, in My Mother’s Secret, the main protagonist, Emma Taylor, knows the secret, and her daughter, Stella, is trying to discover it. The reader finds out the secret about half-way through the novel, but the daughter does not – which is dramatic irony – and, I hope, has readers swiftly turning the pages, hoping against hope that Stella doesn’t do anything too foolish to jeopardise everyone’s safety….

I write, ‘My mother has a secret.’ 

 

If you’re interested in writing novels but missed signing up to my Arvon course, do ask me about assessing your manuscript or work-in-progress.

 

Cake competition!

My Mother’s Secret is out in paperback! To celebrate, I’m launching a competition.

As I’m sure you’re aware my love of cake has made its way into My Mother’s Secret. Not only is the protagonist, Emma Taylor, a baker, but quite a few kinds of cake are mentioned throughout My Mother’s Secret.

So what better way to celebrate the paperback release than with cake and prizes!

I’ll be holding a competition on my Facebook page from the 7th – 14th of October to see if anyone can guess how many types of cakes there are in My Mother’s Secret! The winner will receive a signed paperback copy of My Mother’s Secret and a £10 voucher to spend in Hart’s Bakery! I spent quite a bit of time at Hart’s Bakery when I was researching My Mother’s Secret, and ‘Kate’s’ (the bakery that Emma Taylor works at) is based on it, so it only seems fair to let you indulge there too!

All you need to do to enter is post your guess on my Facebook page and tag @SanjidaKayAuthor with #MyMothersSecret. If you add a photo of your favourite sweet treat you’ll be entered TWICE!

The competition ends on the 14thof October and I’ll be selecting the winner the following day.

Good luck!

 

 

Diversity in Fiction

I’ve written as a Jesuit priest in Outer Mongolia, a nine-year-old in inner city Bristol, a child abductor, an angry teenager, a man in his twenties, a Victorian lady trapped on an island in the Southern states of America at the turn of the Civil War. I’ve written about slaves, Buddhist lamas, racketeers and drug addicts, accountants and artists, actors and academics. As a writer, I want to tell any story I’m moved to, from the perspective of any character I wish, regardless of their race, religion and culture – or perhaps because of it.

My own background is that I’m half Bangladeshi, half Irish and grew up in Africa, Ireland, England and Wales in a Protestant-Catholic household, only distantly knowing the Muslim-American side of my family. Yet I rarely, if ever, read about anyone from a culturally diverse background in British fiction. 

Many years ago, when Zadie Smith burst on the literary scene with White Teeth, and Salman Rushdie was still in vogue, I thought the situation was about to change. Cut to the present day. The long lists for most literary awards are still filled with white authors. The multi-culturalism this country is famous for is rarely represented in literature. You can buy a Dansak, raw sauerkraut, Thai green paste and a Za’tar rub in your local supermarket, but have you found a novel where the majority of characters represent the Nigerian-Welsh, the British Somali, the Ukrainian-Bristolian and the Russian-Irish kids in my (Asian-Irish-Scottish) daughter’s class?

In my own genre, crime, BAME (Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority) writers only make up 4% of all authors. Mixed race characters and authors are still few and far between. Worse, according to a report, Writing the Future, commissioned by Spread the Word and edited by Danuta Kean, which was published in 2015, BAME writers are often pressurised to produce characters and settings that conform to white middle-class stereotypes of racial minorities, and the places (‘exotic’, ‘gritty’) they believe them to live. Publishers tell me that my market, like that of the majority of writers in this country, is largely 35-55 year-old white women. Yet in a scant thirty years, it’s predicted that one in five people in this country will be from an ethnic minority.

For me the situation is a broader issue.  As Kean says, ‘The big elephant in the room is class and socio-economic background.’ Those in the publishing industry, including agents, editors and people running literary festivals, are overwhelmingly white, middle or upper class. They, unlike many BAME candidates, are often educated privately and attended Russell Group universities (at a time when only 7% of the UK population has been privately educated and only 1% attended an Oxbridge University). Furthermore, BAME would-be publishers are frequently from families who can’t afford to subsidise them for a year or so as an unpaid intern in London. Kean comments, ‘Change is cosmetic and has not been structural or institutional.’

In other words, it’s not simply that British and American literature is not ethnically diverse, but that the very people deciding what is to be published and how it should be edited are largely not from diverse backgrounds, either in terms of their culture or their class. In this country, the children that borrow most of the books from libraries are British Asian…and yet, and yet, as adults, Asians are not buying or reading books. I’ve rarely attended an event where I was not in the minority solely down to my skin colour. And I’m still not reading books or seeing screen plays where the main characters are British Asian, so maybe this sector of the population are giving up because they are so overwhelmingly underrepresented in British fiction.

I think it’s fantastic that there are now initiatives to encourage more BAME writers into fiction, but until the publishing industry itself becomes more representative of the population as a whole (and pays interns and junior staff  better), I fear these small shoots will not produce the multiplicity of multi-coloured blooms we crave.

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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:

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

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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What other writers are saying about My Mother’s Secret

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 of My 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!

 

 

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Mothers & Daughters II

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 a blog 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. 

        Emma Taylor

 

 

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.

         Stella Taylor

 

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!

 

 

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First Lines

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?