Behind the scenes: One Year Later – The Cottage

When we bought a large plot of land and a house that we were planning on renovating in Somerset, I had the idea to set my next psychological thriller, One Year Later, partly in Somerset. 

In the garden of our house we found the ruins of an old cottage…and I started thinking, what if a child were playing amongst the ruins and it collapsed? It became the basis of a terrible scene in my novel… 

 

‘I was lucky, the doctor said later, that I hadn’t been buried alive. I was lucky, he added, that I hadn’t died. 

Since then, but only to myself, I’ve always rephrased his statement: I’m lucky my sister didn’t kill me.’

Nick. One Year Later

 

I told my husband what I was writing and he was so freaked out he got a stone mason to shore up our ruined cottage and make it safer. This is what it looks like now – a lot of the vegetation shrouding it has been cleared away, and one wall has been repointed. 

 

‘We walk through the garden, and the beam clips the outline of the ruined cottage. I pause alongside it, feeling the familiar surge of panic, the sickening sensation I still have in dreams, of falling, of being buried alive. It’s shrouded in ivy; a sycamore has grown through the bread oven, the roots like something out of The Blair Witch Project.‘ 

Nick. One Year Later

 

One Year Later – out 1 August

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

 

Some secrets won’t stay buried….

 

 

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

 

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

Blueprint for a house…and a story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

Letter to my younger self

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

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

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

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

 

Sanjida O’Connell

 

 

How I write

The Royal Literary Fund has recorded a mini -podcast with me on how I write – with a black coffee, and some dark chocolate and then I begin!

‘Writing a novel feels like being an ultra-marathon runner, it’s going to be a gruelling slog to reach 90,000 words and I will be unable to pause, to breathe properly, to take in the view until then.’

You can listen here:

Sanjida O’Connell

 

What do you think? Let me know how you write.

 

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 co