The Stolen Child: A dark fairy tale

‘They stole you from me. They took you away for seven years. Your entire lifetime…Make no mistake, my darling. I am coming for you. I will take you back.’

 The Stolen Child is about a couple, Zoe and Ollie, who long for children and when they’re unable to have their own, they adopt a little girl, Evie, from birth. But when she turns seven, Evie receives a card from her real father, telling her that she was stolen from him. Like most thrillers, the idea began as a one-liner…but when I started to flesh out the story, I realised that I had another, darker influence…

My mother and step-father are Irish and I grew up in Ireland before coming to live next to Ilkley moor, where The Stolen Child is set. So my Irish background, and then moving to West Yorkshire when I was eight, played a huge role in shaping the kind of story I’ve told, as well as where it takes place.

Many Irish myths and folktales revolve around the little people, or faeries: one of the frequent themes of these tales is of a child who is spirited away by the faeries to the underworld, and then either returned years later when everyone they know is dead, or replaced with a changeling. When we were children, we used to chant a poem about faeries by Donegal poet, William Allingham. It seems to start off light-heartedly – Up the airy mountain, Down the rushy glen – but grows ever more sinister:

They stole little Bridget

For seven years long;

When she came down again

 Her friends were all gone.

 

I’m sure Allingham influenced WB Yeats who, at the age of 21, wrote The Stolen Child, also about a child being taken away by the little people, and which gave me the idea for the title of my novel.

Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild 

With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world’s more full of weeping 

than you can understand. 

Of course, there are no faeries in my story: it’s set in modern-day suburbia, and any nastiness is purely the result of our all too human desires. But there’s a dark thread that runs through The Stolen Child borrowed from those ancient stories. Evie, gorgeous and innocent though she is, may be damaged. Her biological mother was a drug addict. When Zoe first sees Evie as a baby, she finds it hard to love her:

‘Something is not quite right. I struggle to inhale. Something is wrong. Seriously wrong…She doesn’t look like our child. She doesn’t look like a baby at all. Not a human one.’

And later Zoe worries about Evie’s ‘quirkiness’, as if her daughter, a dark child in a blonde family, is a changeling. And then, there is the setting – Ilkley moor – where the heather is interspersed with rowan trees, which in Ireland, belong to the little people. You must never fall asleep beneath one of them… There’s something too about the age seven: it’s a time when there’s a big shift in brain development and children start having a conscience and becoming more emotionally and cognitively aware. Evie, as she turns seven, starts to realise what it means to be adopted, to be the outsider within a family. The faeries only release little Bridget after seven years…and seven is the number of years you’d serve in prison if your crime was extremely serious, but not quite as bad as murder… 

In Yeats’ poem, the child initially wants to go with the faeries because they promise to give him stolen cherries and take him somewhere beautiful, away from the woes of the world. But when he agrees, they reveal the true nature of what they’re doing and what the child will lose. And Evie, like many adopted children, is, at first, intrigued and beguiled by the idea of her real father coming to take her away.

‘Evie is our beautiful, dark-haired, green-eyed child,’ I say. I can hear the tremor in my voice. ‘Like many seven-year-old girls, she’s obsessed with princesses. We think she looks more like a fairy… Please find her. Please bring her back to us. We miss her beyond measure. She is the love of our life.’ 

But to find out who has really taken Evie Morley, you may just need to read the whole story…!

 

Happy Mother’s Day!

Happy Mother’s Day! I had hoped to spend today being spoilt with prosecco and cake in some nice cafe – but I’m grateful that my family are healthy and safe at the moment, and spending time with them, no matter what, is the best Mother’s Day present.

All four of my psychological thrillers are about our relationship with our mothers in one way or another. They’re about the fierce love our mothers have for us but how sometimes love isn’t enough to protect us.

My Mother’s Secret – if Stella finds out what her mother is hiding, the family will be ripped apart.

The Stolen Child – can Zoe stop her adopted daughter from being taken by her biological parent?

One Year Later – Amy’s daughter drowned. Is a family member responsible?

Bone by Bone – when Laura tries to protect her daughter from a bully, she makes one small mistake – and now he’s after revenge.

 

I hope you all stay safe.

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

My Mother’s Secret – Location

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.

SaveSave

Life-changing literature

I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

I first read Wuthering Heights as a teenager, and since then, I’ve read it many more times – on each reading I see something fresh. Reading this book has indeed altered the colour of my mind. It inspired my second thriller, The Stolen Child, which is set on Ilkley Moor, not far from where the Brontes grew up,

To hear more about my thoughts on this story, head over to the Royal Literary Fund, where I talk about life-changing literature. 

I feared these books would be dull, staid and part of the establishment that I was so busy rebelling against; and then I read Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

https://www.rlf.org.uk/showcase/sanjida-oconnell-lcl/

What have you read that’s changed your life?

 

 

 

Interview with Historical Fiction Reader

…one of the scenes I lost, which I pine for, is where Joseph is in a small canoe, floating down a river lined with boats full of orchids that are for sale.

I’ve just been interviewed by Erin Davies, aka the Historical Fiction Reader, about my latest historical novel, The Priest and the Lily.

Erin had some interesting questions. The one above is the answer to: Which scene ended up on the cutting room floor?

There were many, but I particularly loved the opening scene, described above, although, it was, ahem, probably too flowery.

She also asked me about my inspiration, my characters and what fantasy cast I’d pick!

The rest of the interview is here

Let me know what you think!

 

 

Marketing and Me

‘I don’t much like it. Marketing is about selling & writers, as we know, are about writing and reading. They’re generally not known for their ability to get you to buy a Prius when you wanted a Yaris’

 

I’ve recorded a podcast about having to market myself for The Royal Literary Fund – publishers expect authors to promote themselves these days, as I’m sure you know!

If you’re a writer, how do you feel about it?

‘Hyping one’s novel can sound boastful. Secretly, most of us hope we’re Dostoevsky, whilst being plagued by doubt. There is an allure, in these days of posts & tweets, of becoming a writerly recluse’

 Let me know what you think. You can listen here:  buff.ly/3liP3ra 

Red Hot Chilli Writers Podcast

I had a wonderful chat with two of my favourite crime fiction writers, Vaseem Khan & Abir Mukherjee, for their Red Hot Chilli Writers podcast – out today!
 
Luckily I had two books to talk about, ONE YEAR LATER, as well as THE PRIEST AND THE LILY. We talked about camping in lockdown, as well as arriving in Outer Mongolia with only the clothes I was wearing, as my luggage had been left in Russia…
 
 
Hope you enjoy it!
 
 

The Priest and the Lily – the inspiration for my novel about men and flowers

Many of our most common and beautiful garden plants have come from far-flung locations throughout the world, brought to us by intrepid explorers who have literally risked life and limb in their search for the rare and exotic. Our gladioli originally came from South Africa, rhododendrons from the Himalayas, the monkey puzzle tree is indigenous to Chile, the regal lily was discovered in China and many of our most exquisite orchids originate in the Amazon. The stories of some of these men – for they were mostly men – who travelled the world in search of flowers, and got themselves into scrapes – attacked by bandits, gored by a bull, capsized from a canoe, fell off a cliff – inspired my story, The Priest and the Lily.

Set in 1865, just after Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, on his radical theory of evolution, The Priest and the Lily is about a Jesuit priest, Joseph Jacobs, who sets sail from Bristol for Outer Mongolia. Joseph, passionate, idealistic and driven, wants to discover rare plants and animals and make a name for himself in scientific circles back in Britain. The young priest is accompanied a Buddhist monk and a horseman; as they travel across the steppes, he hears stories of an astonishingly beautiful white lily. Finding this lily becomes his dream. But to discover where it grows, he will encounter many dangers, for he will have to face the savagery of the White Warlord, a Chinese General intent on seizing power in Mongolia, as well as the far more powerful Yolros lama, the living incarnation of the Buddha. And in his quest for the lily, Joseph will meet a woman who will show him something far more precious than a flower. 

I spent years researching my story – and travelled to Outer Mongolia, where I had my own mini adventure. We were due to spend three weeks travelling by jeep and horseback in order to meet the tribe I was going to write about in my novel. Unfortunately, my luggage ended up in Russia, and I had to set off in just the clothes I was wearing! Thankfully I was wearing my walking boots!

Mongolia is stunning: it is a country of seemingly endless skies and steppes, with incredibly hospitable people. At the time of writing this blog, we’re in the grip of COVID-19, and everyone in the UK as well as many other countries, is currently in lockdown at home. I hope that my novel can, in some small way, help take our minds off this situation, transporting us to a country and a time far from own immediate experience, and perhaps, too, allow us appreciate what Joseph comes to realise – that it is love, which is more important than anything else on this earth. 

 

Thank you to Victoria Goldman for hosting this blog on her website: Off-the-Shelf Books.

 

How to create the perfect villain!

Today I ran a lesson about villains for homeschool with my nine-year-old daughter. She loved it and created a supreme baddie: Galactica, Queen of the Galaxy, who is 962 years old, born when an asteroid crashed into the Milky Way. She’s composed of  ‘stars, dust gas and magic in lady form’. Great fun, and a suitable topic for primary school English, but actually,  it’s a pretty critical subject for any writer.

If you want to create a villain with your child for homeschool, we began by thinking of our five favourite villains, what movie or story they featured in, and writing why they make such great antagonists.

We then created our own villain, and you can too, by downloading my worksheet: My villain.

Adults, if you want further background information, or help with your own writing, please have a look at the video, the rest of this blog and check out my exercise and tips.

So why do you need a villain? Well, without a baddie, basically, your story lacks drama. There will be no uncertainty, excitement or tension. An antagonist can provide conflict, which will help create this drama. The antagonist will also elevate your protagonist, the central character in your story, by stretching him or her because they’ll need to grow, change, and summon deep inner resources to defeat the villain – as long as your baddie is a worthy opponent.

However, an antagonist need not be a person: if you’re writing a supernatural or  horror story then your villain could be a creature or a ghost or a wizard. But in other genres, your villain could be a force, a concept, a trait or a psychological state. For instance, in 1984 the antagonist is ‘the Party’, the human (or inhuman) face of ‘Big Brother’. In spy thrillers, there is often a conspiracy or a government cover up; in LA Confidential, the hero is battling his own alcoholism; in Sense of an Ending, the opponent, seems to be Vanessa, but it’s actually the anti-hero, Tony’s, own character flaws; in Solar it’s global warming.

My two tips on creating a decent villain are first, have empathy. Get inside your baddie’s head. Almost no one thinks they’re doing the wrong thing or that they’re immoral – everyone can justify their actions.

And secondly, the villain isn’t always who you think it is. Check out my thrillers – in all three, Bone by Bone, The Stolen Child and My Mother’s Secret – the antagonist isn’t who you think it is.

For more on villains and for some writing exercises, please sign up to the Arvon Foundation’s newsletter and look for my writing tips on Antagonistic Antagonists, or download here: Arvon tip & exercise – Villain

Let me know what villains you created!

One Year Later – Bethany

I recently saw a set of three mugs in one of my favourite shops. They read:

I’m the oldest child – I make the rules.

I’m the middle child – I’m the reason we have rules.

I’m the youngest child – the rules don’t apply to me.

I had great fun creating Bethany’s character. She’s the middle child in the Flowers family in my psychological thriller, One Year Later. She’s a TV presenter – which was also my former career (this is a picture of me at the start of my TV career as a wildlife presenter for the BBC).

One of the producers I worked with was talking about another presenter and said, ‘He’d stab his grandmother to get ahead.’ I had to put that quote in my novel!

Bethany is feisty, fiery, independent, driven and ambitious. She’s also a victim of  TV culture where women have to look young and sexy no matter what show they’re presenting, whereas men are allowed to be on our screens at any age, looking, frankly, a bit dishevelled. Bethany is also a victim of the casual sexual discrimination and abuse against women that still exists in this industry.

He said, “Bethany, your problem is you’re smart without being intelligent,  good looking without being pretty, and approachable in a girl-next-door-way, but no one in their right fucking mind would want to be your neighbour.”

Bethany talking to Nick about her TV producer in One Year Later.

Labyrinth – the setting

Setting is so important to me. It’s almost like another character, setting the tone and the mood as well, as obviously, the location. My last four psychological thrillers, Bone by Bone, The Stolen Child, My Mother’s Secret and One Year Later, are all, or partially set in Bristol, where I lived for many years. 

The novel I’m currently writing, Labyrinth, is set in London. I wanted a bigger, better-known backdrop, grittier and more urban. But, what I’m obsessed with (as anyone who’s read anything I’ve written will know!) is nature. I’m interested in the interstices between the suburbs and ghettoised wildlife; how nature creeps in, even to the grimiest, grittiest streets, and how we carry a love and fear of the wild within us all.

So what better place to set Labyrinth than Hackney! It’s pretty darn urban, but encompasses Hackney Marsh, Walthamstow Nature Reserve, the Lee Valley, and pockets of reed beds in the recently completely Olympic Park. Parakeets fly through the ash trees bordering the River Lee and coots stride across the tow path. 

Cue a number of research trips! The latest one was this week – I sneaked a quick walk along the Lee with my mum before I met up with my publishers.

Labyrinth – new thriller!

My exciting news is that I’m working on a new book. Provisionally called Labyrinth, it’s a re-imagining of Vertigo, the movie directed by Hitchcock. It’s a slight departure for me, as it’s less psychological thriller / family drama and more of a crime thriller. It’s set in Hackney in London, and as you’d imagine, from a re-take of Vertigo, there’s a lot about heights…

My story is about ex-cop, Maddison Jones, who suffers from vertigo. She fails to save a young woman from committing suicide, The girl falls to her death from the twelfth floor of a block of flats. The stress pushes Maddison’s vertigo to Meniere’s Disease, which is vertigo combined with tinnitus and she ends up on sick leave, struggling to leave the house.

(The picture of the double rainbow over an apartment block in Hackney Wick is by my talented sister, Emma O’Connell.)

More soon!

 

One Year Later – Italy

I’ve always loved Italy, so when I needed a seemingly idyllic holiday for my family in One Year Later, my current psychological thriller, it made sense to choose Italy. I’ve certainly enjoyed remembering the delicious Italian food I’ve eaten on all those trips, the sandy beaches and the slower pace of life…but as the Flower family discover, their remote idyll is a lot more dangerous than it seemed at first…

‘From the air, when I checked on Google Earth before we came, the island is shaped like an embryo, curled around the scoop of an inlet, its backbone a reptilian hump, Maregiglio tucked on the inside of its tail. We’re driving along its spine: the land is dusky green and scrubby, with none of the features that would normally say Italy to me – no sunflowers or olive groves, Tuscan villas or vineyards – only the sea, glittering as sharp as flint, on either side of the island. When we finally see the town, it looks like an ice- cream cone, a swirl of houses in apricot and peach, with the castle, the colour of drying sand, at its peak. There’s a harbour and a spit of beach, packed with plastic sun-loungers and parasols, a wide sweep of promenade edged with date palms.’

Nick. One Year Later

Sadly I didn’t get to go back to Italy to ‘research’ my novel, but had to rely on my imagination, Italian friends and Google Earth.

I made up the Little Lily Island that the Flowers stay on though…

 

One Year Later – Dante

I did not die and yet I lost life’s breath…

I always like to have a theme or a leitmotif running through my novels and in this one, One Year Later, it’s Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

There’s the obvious aspects – it’s set in Italy, it’s hot as hell, but it’s about a young man’s journey through nine circles of hell; it’s about salvation and redemption, as one lovely, astute reviewer pointed out.

Above all, when one is grieving, it really can feel that you are alive, but you have lost life’s breath and found yourself within ‘a forest dark’.

One Year Later – Book Club Questions

 

 

Is anyone in a Book Club? I must admit, I don’t really have time, although I’d love to be! I have a Book Buddy instead, which is much more random and sporadic, but she inspires me to read books I’d never have chosen myself, and then we go for a walk or a drink when we can fit it in round kids and work and chat about the book, as well as everything else!

If you’d like to discuss One Year Later in your Book Club, here are some questions to get you started.

 

One Year Later – Book Club Questions