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© 2007  Emma Cole

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Location, Location...

Posted June 27, 2009

 

It seems to me one of those great serendipitous moments that, just as I’m preparing to switch gears again and get back to work on the long-sidelined sequel to Every Secret Thing, I find myself scheduled to go to a conference in Washington D.C., where two of my characters live. I haven’t been to Washington for nearly seven years, when I was just beginning to write Every Secret Thing, and way back then I had no clue the book would have a sequel. But it does, and Jim and Matt need places they can call their own, so on this trip I’m setting out to find them. I’ll be guided by my new friend Cindy Speas, whose mother, Jan Cox Speas, was an amazing writer. Cindy, with her firsthand knowledge of the way we writers work, has apparently already done a bit of groundwork and found places in the city where each man might live based on their personality, so when my plane lands we’ll be heading off on an adventure tour. And in between the conference sessions I’ll be sneaking out to find the settings for a few stray scenes I have in mind. I know I’ll come back all charged up and ready to take up the sequel’s reins again. Which will, I’m sure, be good news for the characters I’ve left in limbo all this time...   

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Deadlines Part II

Posted April 10, 2009

 

So last month, in my post about deadlines, I compared the feeling I get when I’m nearing that date on the calendar to the feeling a sailor must get when he finally sights land. A pretty good analogy, actually...except I completely forgot all the perils of bringing a ship into shore. Because the truth is that the closer you get to the shallows the greater the obstacles thrown in your path – hidden reefs, giant rocks, pirates shooting at you from the beach... There are days when it seems I’m getting farther from the goal, not closer to it; when a scene I thought would take one chapter stretches into two, instead, or when some family issue comes up suddenly and knocks me off my course. I see the shore, I see the harbour, but I just can’t seem to get to it. What keeps me from despairing is the fact I’ve done this several times before. I know I’ll get there in the end. No matter what the obstacles, the tide alone will carry me exactly where I need to go, just as it’s done with every book before this. But it would be nice if, for a day, those pirates would stop shooting...

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Deadlines

Posted March 16, 2009

 

I’ve never been too fond of deadlines. Even the word itself: Deadline…it’s just not appealing. Besides which, I never have any idea how long it will take me to finish the book that I’m working on – all I can go by is how long it took me to write the last one, and that’s not always helpful. When I started writing Every Secret Thing, for instance, I thought it might take me a year and a couple of months, just like Season of Storms. I was off by three years. (And I started the next book a little bit nervous, believe me). I stand in awe of writers who sign contracts for a book they haven’t written yet, because the one and only time I tried that I was seized by panic for the whole year I was writing, sure I’d never make the deadline, and I haven’t had the nerve to do it since – I write the book, and then I sell it. Fewer ulcers, that way. Still, there’s no denying that a deadline serves a purpose. Which is why there comes a time with every novel where I set one for myself, because I know I will write faster as that circle on the calendar draws closer, and it helps renew my energy, the way I would imagine that a sailor who sights land after he’s been at sea for days must feel a stronger sense of purpose and be glad that he’s about to finally bring his ship to shore. I’ve set my deadline for the Cornish book for April. Wish me luck.

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I See Your Face Before Me

Posted February 01, 2009

 

In honour of Valentine’s Day...

This is the song that Jim recalls was playing in the background when he sat down for coffee with Deacon in Istanbul, towards the end of Every Secret Thing. In the book, Doris Day’s singing the song, but I couldn’t find a link to her version of it, so you’ll have to make do with Old Blue Eyes instead...who, come to think of it, is an appropriate choice in his own right, since all the BSC ladies who helped with my research remember lining up to hear him sing while they were in New York! For them, and you, here is my little valentine. Enjoy. (You can click on the picture itself, or if that doesn’t work, use this link: http://ca.youtube.com/watch?v=nVdvkdegeKM)

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Atticus was right.

Posted January 01, 2009

 

I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favourite scene from To Kill a Mockingbird, I love it all, but in particular I love the bit near the end where Scout stands on the Radley porch and views her street with newly-opened eyes. “Atticus was right,” she tells us. “One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them…” Well, lately I’ve been helping judge a writing competition, and it’s given me a whole new view of editors and how they choose a manuscript. The contest is blind, I don’t know who the entrants are, only that there are 65 of them, and that each one submitted the first 20 pages or so of an unpublished novel, complete with synopsis. Two other judges are reading the entries as well. We’ll compare notes to make up a shortlist of titles we’d all like to read the whole manuscript of, then from those we’ll decide on the winner. But right now I’m dealing with partial submissions, the same as an editor would, and I’m reading them much as an editor might, in those random spare moments I’m able to squeeze from my schedule – in the car waiting to pick up the kids after school, or while cooking supper, or just before bed. And I’ve learned something valuable. Because even though I read the whole submission, every word of it, and even though I keep in mind that I’m not judging for my taste alone, I’ve found some stories start to sing to me within the first few pages, while the rest – although they’re competently written, for the most part – never really grab my interest. I put asterisks beside the ones that sing. I have four asterisks now, having read through 43 submissions, and while I don’t know how close that one-in-ten ratio comes to a professional editor’s reality, I do know that the qualities that make a manuscript stand out are maddeningly indefinable; not something I could tell a writer, “See here, if you do this it would work for me.” And I’m guessing that my fellow judges’ favourites may be different than my own. So now I think, like Scout, I’m standing on the Radley porch – I think I get it. And the next time that an editor rejects my work, I’ll understand it’s less a comment on the work itself than on their own connection to it. Atticus was right.

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Some “Thing” to Consider

Posted November 27, 2008

 

While writing about titles on my alter ego’s site this month, I started thinking how the choice of titles for a series posed a different sort of problem. All my Kearsley books so far are “standalones” which is to say that when the book is done it’s done, the story doesn’t carry on into a sequel (although characters from one book have been known to wander in to other stories...) When I first wrote Every Secret Thing, I thought it was a standalone as well. Now I know better. But the choice of what to name the second book in what I think may be a series of, say, three or four books, needs a bit more thought than I first realized. My initial working title for the book that follows Every Secret Thing was Hidden Things, for no reason other than the book was set in Greece and I went looking for a quote from a Greek poet and found Constantine Cavafy’s poem “Hidden Things”, and the words of the poem were such a neat fit for my plot that I wanted to use it. But after a while it occurred to me that if I were to use that as my title for the second book, it might be seen by some as the beginning of a pattern and I’d then be stuck having to come up with titles that use the word “thing” for all books in the series. Not that I couldn’t; I’m simply not sure that I want to. The title that I’ve had in mind for what will be the third book in the series has no “thing” in it at all, but I’m quite fond of it. And if the series carries on beyond the few books I foresee, what happens then? Would I run out of “thing” quotes? I’m inclined to think the wisest choice to make would be to give each book a title all its own, and yet...and yet...

Cavafy’s poem keeps on calling to me, trying to persuade me to do otherwise. So many “things” to think about...

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Time and Chance

Posted October 22, 2008

 

Here’s a little secret I can share about the writing business: Luck plays a much greater role than a lot of us like to admit. Making a sale often comes down to finding the right editor at the right moment of the right day - a task on a level with picking which horses will win a trifecta. And it doesn’t always get easier. Editors come and go, leaving your book at the mercy of others who don’t always share that initial enthusiasm... someone’s bestseller blows your little book off the shelves and review pages... lots of things happen that you can’t control. I, for one, had a book come out just as the Net Book Agreement collapsed in the UK, sending shock waves through British publishing and bookselling and making my then editor-in-chief proclaim aloud (while standing right beside me, as it happened, at our Christmas party) that she pitied any author who was being published just then, since their book would be doomed to sell poorly... Still, luck swings both ways. Whenever a book does have good sales or win an award, while I’d like to believe it’s because of the writing, it’s more likely I’ve just had awfully good luck. I suspect that it’s always been thus. More than 2,000 years ago the writer of Ecclesiastes must have suspected it, too, when he sat down to comment that: “...the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” True words, in this business. The trick is to let it all go and not worry about all those factors in publishing you can’t control; just get on with the next book and make it the best that you can, and the next after that, and the next, and the next. That’s what you can control. All the rest will just happeneth as it plays out.

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What Happened Next...

Posted September 19, 2008

 

I’ve always had mixed feelings when it comes to sequels. On the one hand, a lot of my childhood favourites were stories that took more than one book to tell. Only the most un-kindred of spirits could have left Anne and Gilbert where they were at the end of Anne of Green Gables. It seemed natural to follow them on into middle age, right through to Rilla of Ingleside, just as I followed the Ingalls and Wilder families through all of the Little House books. Again, who could have left Laura driving away from her house in the woods to the unknown wilds of the Prairies, and not want to follow? From the back covers I already knew that the Little House books were more memoir than fiction. I knew little Laura would grow up to marry Almanzo. I wanted to read on to see how that happened, and the last page of These Happy Golden Years was wholly satisfying for me. But I never read the book they tacked on afterwards, The First Four Years. For one thing, Laura Ingalls Wilder hadn’t finished writing it before she died, so there’s no way of knowing if the version as it’s published is the one she would have wanted us to read. And for another thing, I didn’t need to know what happened after Laura and Almanzo finally had their wedding and moved into their new house. It was enough for me to know that they had overcome their obstacles and found their happy ending, and the rest I could imagine for myself, thanks very much. In one of my all-time favourite books by one of my favourite authors, Jan Cox Speas, the heroine/narrator finishes telling her story to us with, “And need you ask, now that the tale is done, what became of them, the two who loved so unwisely and so well? Need you wonder, How did it go with them, how was it in the end?” I always loved that ending, always loved the little quietly contented feeling that I got from watching her two characters walk off into their life together, hand in hand. And no, I never needed to be told how things turned out for them. I knew. So when I started writing books myself, I never thought of sequels. It seemed natural that, at the end of every book, my characters would reach a place where all their issues were resolved, and I could write “The End” and let them go. In fact I always knew I’d reached the end when all my characters stopped talking, having settled all their business with each other. But twice now – first with Every Secret Thing, and now just lately with The Winter Sea, my characters have stubbornly refused to leave the stage after I’ve brought the curtain down, and in both those cases it appears I may have started stories that just can’t be told within a single book. It’s an idea I find daunting and exciting at the same time, but the characters from both books still have problems in their lives that haven’t been resolved completely yet, and I find I am curious to know what happens next…

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What You Give Me

Posted August 20, 2008

 

Back when my daughter was in first grade, the teachers who led her school choir thought it would be nice to have the students sing a tribute to their parents, so they taught the kids to sing ‘You Raise Me Up’. And then they taught them how to do the lyrics of the song in sign language, to make it extra special. Well, it’s a good thing that the lights were turned down in the gym the night of that performance, let me tell you. All those little earnest voices singing loud enough to lift the rafters, all those little hands that touched their own hearts before pointing to the sky…it made the toughest of the dads dissolve in tears, and even the teachers who’d organized it weren’t prepared themselves for quite that level of emotion. But it was a lovely tribute, and the words of that song came to mind when I sat down to write this.

I’ve often said my work is like the challenge that the miller’s daughter faces in the story ‘Rumplestiltskin’. She has to spin a room full of straw into gold, I have to turn a ream of blank paper into a book, and for the most part we both have to do it alone. But while she only has that little annoying dwarf and her alpha-male king to connect with, I have something infinitely better - all of you.

It’s the rare day now that doesn’t bring an email from somebody who has taken time to write and wish me well and say they like my books. And on those days when I feel tired or when the work’s not coming easily, those letters mean a lot. They send me back into my writing-room with energy and new determination, and remind me that although there’s only one chair at my desk, I’m never really on my own when I am sitting there. And when the book is done I have the added joy of coming out to meet you at events and signings, and to thank you face to face for all you do for me.

I know I’ll stumble on the words myself if I try to express them, so I’ll offer you instead the same song that my daughter sang in choir, because the lyrics say it all so simply and so beautifully.  You truly raise me up.

 

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In My Own Words

Posted July 31, 2008

 

Something a little different for you this month... Front row seats to an interview I gave last May at the Whitby Public Library, as part of the Canadian launch of The Winter Sea, with my all-time favourite interviewer: Ted Barris, himself a multi-talented writer and broadcaster whose questions are always both thoughtful and challenging, and whose web site will give you an idea of the breadth of his accomplishments.

Just click on the image above for the first clip. I’ll post more as soon as I find time to edit them.

 

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Never Complain...

Posted June 16, 2008

 

Recently I’ve followed with some interest a discussion on the Internet about some writers who have found a method of manipulating their reviews on amazon.com, removing any they don’t like and only leaving those that give their books four stars or more. I’ve followed this discussion, I’ll admit, with disbelief, because I honestly don’t get it. As a writer, I’ve had good reviews and bad ones –  some that made me walk on air, and some that stung; a few that humbled me with praise and one or two that made me want to say to the reviewer, ‘No, you’ve got it wrong, that isn’t what I meant at all.’ But I have always tried to keep a neutral silence and remember the advice James Michener’s mentor once gave him: ‘Never complain, never explain, never disdain.’ Because it’s good advice. No one forced me to become a writer. Writers get reviewed. It stands to reason that not everyone will like my books. And anyone who’s paid their own good money for a book and taken all that time to read it has a perfect right to say if they believe the story, in the end, was worth the effort. I’d never think of trying to remove their words –  they have a right to stand as written, just as mine do. Samuel Johnson once said: ‘It is advantageous to an author that his book should be attacked as well as praised. Fame is a shuttlecock. If it be struck at only one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground. To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends.’ So I’ll take the bad reviews together with the good ones, then, and keep the game in play.

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The Club

Posted May 6, 2008

 

Last Wednesday night I had the privilege to be on a panel with some other former nominees and winners of Arthur Ellis awards for the best in Canadian crime writing. To help celebrate the announcement of this year’s nominees, we’d been called together to discuss how our own nominations and/or wins had changed our writing lives. And one of the first questions that we tossed around was how we’d been affected by the news that we’d been nominated; what that news had meant to us. For me, it meant that I had been accepted, I was finally in The Club. Because although I had been writing books and seeing them get published for some thirteen years, it wasn’t until I heard my name being read out last year in the little group of finalists for Best Novel that I had the sense at last that I belonged. Because my peers – the other writers I admired – had said I did. They’d said, in the most certain way they could, that I was truly one of them. And that, to me, was the best thing about my nomination. Still is. So, to all the first-time nominees this year, I wish you luck. And welcome to The Club.

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Doing Murder

Posted March 31, 2008

 

I’ve been taken to task several times now for killing off characters readers are fond of. Not in every book, but in enough of them that people sometimes comment on it, and it was the rare review for Every Secret Thing that didn’t make note of the body count. In my defense, I have to say it’s not a thing I like to do. For starters, I’m the kind of person in my private life who rescues worms from rainy sidewalks, and who captures spiders in a cup and puts them back outdoors instead of squishing them (except the spiders who were always in my bathtub when I lived in Wales, but they were big enough to carry me outdoors, and I did warn them first...) So I’m as sad as anybody when I learn I have to kill a character. Because I’m not an outliner, I usually don’t find this out until I’ve come to know them for awhile. Only once have I ever created a character knowing that I’d have to kill him, and he turned out to be the most loveable person, and when the time came, I felt terrible. First I wrote slower and slower, avoiding the scene, and when that didn’t work I tried changing things so he’d be saved, but the simple fact was that, if he didn’t die, then my heroine wouldn’t have done what she needed to do. So I killed him and shouldered the guilt, and I still don’t blame readers who hate me for that one. Sometimes it’s not murder. Sometimes, as happened with another favourite character who was already dying from disease, a person chooses death. I fought in that case, too, but in the end he dug his heels in stubbornly and chose his moment, and no matter how I tried rewriting that scene he would not be moved. My characters are often unpredictable, as life is unpredictable, so though I  must plead guilty to the crime of doing murder on occasion, I can tell you that it’s never done without remorse. Not even to the spiders in the bathtub.  

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Slow-Growing Crops

Posted February 13, 2008

 

Veteran mystery writer Loren D Estleman, who also writes westerns, says that writing in two genres is like farming, rotating your crops and letting one field at a time lie fallow so you don’t exhaust the soil and start to suffer from poor harvests. I’m quite fond of the analogy, because I’ve found myself that writing thrillers in addition to my stories of suspense renews my energy for both and keeps me sharp. The only problem is, to stretch the “fallow field” analogy, that thrillers seem to be, for me, a slower-growing crop. I’d always thought it took me four years to write Every Secret Thing because I chose to have a baby in the middle of it, but now that I’ve started on the sequel I’m inclined to think it took four years because that’s just how long it took. Take radishes and carrots, for example. Plant their seeds at the same time and you’ll have harvested the radishes and eaten them before the carrots even start to look like carrots, really - they take twice as long to grow. I don’t know why, just as I don’t know why the thrillers take me longer. But bear with me - Kate is very much alive and on the move and I don’t doubt that, in its own good time, her next book will be ready for the harvest. Just don’t be too surprised to see my next Susanna Kearsley title ripen first...

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To Be Continued...

Posted January 13, 2008

 

While answering the ‘Question of the Month’ this month, I started to notice the ways in which writing a series is different from writing my other books. The most obvious difference, of course, is that instead of starting with a stranger as my heroine, I’m starting with a person I already know quite well. In fact, I have a cast of people I can either bring on stage or leave there waiting in the wings until the next performance. And although I know my characters will change and grow throughout the book, I feel no need to tidily resolve their every problem. To the contrary, it helps to leave a few loose threads that they can carry with them to the next book, and the next one after that. The flip side of this freedom is, I have to pay attention to the details because once I’ve given somebody a house, say, on a certain street, I can’t go back and change it if I later change my mind. (Unless I make them sell the house and move). And mystery readers are notoriously good at finding all those inconsistencies that slip right past a writer, sometimes - changes in the colour of person’s eyes, or in their mother’s maiden name, or in the kind of car they drive. Then, too, because a reader might be picking up the second book before the first, I have to find a way to bring new readers up to speed while trying not to bore the reader who already knows Kate’s background. These are problems (and advantages) I’ve never had before - one of the many things about my work that makes it a continuing adventure all its own!

 

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A Handful of Time

Posted December 22, 2007

 

This is the time of year I love the best, and yet it is the time when I’m most likely to feel pulled in all directions, with a growing list of things to do and never enough time to do it all. School concerts, shopping for gifts and then wrapping them, getting my Christmas cards sent out before Christmas (always a challenge), and stealing an hour here and there for my writing...each night as I fall into bed all I’m thinking of is what I didn’t get done, what I still need to do in the morning. But when things get crazy I just have to stop and remember the day when my daughter, then two years old, wanted to do something as we were leaving the house for our holiday shopping, and I, at the end of my rope, said, ‘I haven’t got time.’ And my daughter just stood there a moment and looked at me, thinking. And then she pretended to reach in her pocket and holding her empty hand out, with her solemn brown eyes, told me, ‘Here,  Mommy.  Take some of mine.’

At this time of the year we could all use a handful of time, now and then, to remind us what’s truly important. So here you are - take some of mine. And here’s hoping you and the ones that you love have a wonderful Christmas.

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The Best Laid Schemes

Posted October 30, 2007

 

Stanislavsky, the acting coach, said if you want to express an emotion on stage you only have to conjure a time when you felt that emotion in real life. Need to cry in a scene?  Just remember the death of your favourite pet, that sort of thing. I’ve been thinking of his advice this month, when all of my stars seem aligned to prevent me from writing. First came my editor’s edit of The Winter Sea - questions and comments and small things to change, which took time. Then a few days of normalcy. And now the proofs have arrived to be read - and for anyone out there who’s never read proofs, let me just say it’s nothing like reading for pleasure.  You have to read every word closely, minutely, hoping you’ll catch every error, knowing you’ll still miss a few. And even though I love The Winter Sea more than I’ve ever loved a book, I’d love it more this month if it were a novella or short story, not a door-stopping 528 pages! In between my microscopic readings of the proofs, I’ve been going off on school trips to the pumpkin patch and nursing both my kids through colds and doing the odd signing and appearance to promote the paperback release of Every Secret Thing, so it’s been days now since I had the chance to sit down and do real work on the current book. I’m dying to. The need to write can make itself as keenly felt to me as can the need to eat, or sleep - when I’m deprived of it, I’m out of sorts. The only thing that cheers me is the knowledge that right now, in the new book, I’m in the middle of a scene in which Kate Murray isn’t able to do what she wants to, either. And if Stanislavsky’s method works, then my frustration this month should, if nothing else, at least give me the stuff I need to make that scene convincing...just as soon as I can find the time to write it.

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Tell Me a Story

Posted September 24, 2007

 

‘I had a mother who read to me...’ That much-beloved poem by Strickland Gillilan has always been one of my favourites. Although I could read on my own at a very young age, I still loved those bedtimes - and afternoons, when I was home sick from school - when my mother or father would read me a story. There’s a comfort in that simple act that no doubt links us to our primal past, when books and paper were unknown and tales were told around the warming fire at nightfall, or to those less distant days when reading was a privilege of the few, and there was magic in the man who spread his blanket in the marketplace and said, ‘Come sit, and I’ll tell you a story...’

I felt something of that magic just the other day, when I sat down to listen for the first time to the audio recording of my own book, Every Secret Thing. Once I got used to the strangeness of having my own words read back to me, I found myself being drawn into the tale by the fine actress Tara Ward’s talent for giving the characters voices. I felt like a small child again, sitting back with my eyes closed, and listening.

I might have happily sat there all night...if there hadn’t been two little children upstairs, waiting tucked in their beds for their mother to come up and read to them.   

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Passing Judgement

Posted August 30, 2007

 

This year I’ve been invited to be one of the three judges for the Writers Circle of Durham Region’s annual short story competition, which puts me on the other side of the table from where I was this past spring, when my book Every Secret Thing was nominated for the Arthur Ellis Award for best crime novel. (I didn’t win, as it happens, though it was a heady moment to be nominated in the company of Peter Robinson and Kathy Reichs). But it does feel different being on this side of things, and knowing my decision could make someone’s day, or ruin it. Because fiction is subjective - show a story to five people and they’ll all see something different in it. Odds are they won’t all think that it’s wonderful. And my opinion shouldn’t be the mark by which a fledgling writer measures their ability -  that comes from deep inside the writer’s heart, that little voice that says, that knows, that he or she can tell a story. One of my own favourite writers, Stephen King, says it best in his masterful article “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully - in Ten Minutes”. After suggesting you show your work to several people for their comments, King advises, ‘If a lot of people are telling you something is wrong with your story, it is...But if everyone - or even most everyone - is criticizing something different, you can safely disregard what all of them say.’ Having been in this business for thirteen years now, I can tell you he’s right. Every Secret Thing faced an obstacle course of rejections before being published, and some of the things that those editors hated turned out, in the end, to be what the reviewers liked best! So try not to lose heart. And to those Durham writers who don’t win this year in the short story contest I’m judging, I hope you’ll give a shrug and say, ‘Well, what does she know, anyway?’ and get on with your work.

 

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Keeping Secrets

Posted July 12, 2007  

 

I’ve always considered myself pretty good at keeping secrets...except, of course, from my mother, who was born with the skills of a Spanish Inquisitor and who still knows by the tone of my voice on a long-distance phone call if I’m holding anything back... But there was a brief time in my youth when I thought that the life of a spy might be fun. I remembered that thought when I first met a few of the women who went down to work in New York for the spymaster Sir William Stephenson during the Second World War, because it soon became apparent as they shared their memories over lunch that these were women who could keep a secret.  One of first things they did in New York was to sign the Official Secrets Act, swearing they wouldn’t tell anyone what they were doing, and they took that oath so seriously that they didn’t even talk among themselves about their work while they were living in New York. Imagine that ― sharing an apartment and a workplace with your friends and never really knowing what each other did. And they stayed silent with their families, too. ‘Of course they [family members] weren’t allowed to know exactly what we did. I never discussed it with them,’ one woman told me. Another woman backed this up: ‘My husband died eight years ago, and a lot of what we did, he didn’t even know. I never told him.’ Some of the women didn’t even know themselves the full importance of what they were doing till the first books about Stephenson were published, some years later. They helped win a war, but everything relied upon their silence and their secrecy. As young as they were then, they understood that. And they haven’t lost the habit. They spoke freely over lunch of things that were already public knowledge, things that had been mentioned in the books, but they were careful with their words. They took an oath back in a time when oaths meant something, and they honour that. They didn’t tell me everything. But what they told me helped me bring Kate’s grandmother to life in ways I couldn’t have imagined...and reminded me you never know who might be keeping secrets. (Well, unless you’re with my mother...)

 

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Reading and Writing

Posted June 24, 2007

 

One of the first things I discovered when I started writing for a living was that reading other people’s books while I was writing was a dangerous thing for me. Non-fiction was all right - and necessary, given all the research that I had to do - but fiction posed a different challenge. Every fiction writer has a ‘voice’ - a way of phrasing sentences, a trick of using words, and if I wasn’t careful it was easy for the other writer’s voice to weave its way into the scene that I was writing. To give you an example: On my research trip to Italy for Season of Storms, I picked up a copy of The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, who has a trick of repetition so distinctive that it only took a few days of my reading sentences like: ‘In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage’ before I found myself jotting in my own travel notebook: ‘The olive tree is old and swaying gently, swaying gently in the breeze’.... When that happens in your writing it’s like getting crabgrass in your lawn - sometimes you can’t just pull out the offending clumps, you have to dig the whole yard up and seed again. A lot of work. And so I got in the habit of not reading fiction for the year or so that I was writing, consoling myself by stacking up books that I wanted to read in the few weeks I took ‘off’ between books, hoping I could get through at least half of them before the urge to start my own next book took over. I didn’t expect that this pattern would change, but now that I’ve started to alternate between my Susanna Kearsley titles and the Emma Cole thrillers, one of the wonderful things that I’ve found is I’m able to read in the opposite genre without it affecting my writing. At least, I’ve been reading historical fiction while writing a thriller, and the voices are different enough that so far they haven’t tried to mingle. I’m hoping now that next year, when I’m back to writing as Susanna Kearsley, I can maybe read contemporary thrillers without having any problems. If nothing else, it will help keep that stack of between-books reading down to something I can almost manage!

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Seeing Ghosts in Delphi

Posted May 21, 2007

 

Every now and then a reader writes to tell me that they’ve gone on vacation to one of the settings I’ve used in my books, and have sat where my characters sat or have walked on the same path, and I’m always amazed and incredibly flattered that someone would go to the trouble of doing that. Not that I don’t understand - just last week I was sitting in Delphi, in Greece, my legs still aching from climbing past the ruins of Apollo’s temple the afternoon before so I could try the voice-trick thing from Mary Stewart’s My Brother Michael in the ancient theatre (it does work, by the way, and it was every bit as magic as I’d hoped that it would be). And here I was now, having tracked down with my mother the location of the old Apollon Hotel, where Camilla Haven (the heroine of My Brother Michael) first stays when she arrives in Delphi, and having decided we ought to have lunch in the same place Camilla did, and it occurred to me that I was sitting, not just where the characters had sat, but where Mary Stewart herself must have sat, ‘facing over the valley towards the distant gleam of the Corinthian gulf’ beneath the ‘two big plane trees’ that ‘made a deep island of shade for some wooden tables and chairs’. The view and the plane trees and tables and chairs are still there, as are the lights hanging high in the boughs of the trees, and the building itself - though it’s not a hotel any longer. And while I sat imagining the characters around me, seeing Simon and Camilla having dinner while the painter with his donkey trundled past, I felt a new sense of connection to my favourite author, and I couldn’t help but wonder if she’d also feel amazed and flattered that one of her fans had come on holiday to follow in the footsteps of her characters?

 

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The Isles of Greece...  

Posted April 09, 2007

 

For any fan of Mary Stewart’s books, a trip to Greece ranks something on the level of a pilgrimage, so to say I’m looking forward to my research trip next month would be an understatement. With my mother (and fellow Mary Stewart fan) for company, I’ll be hitting the ground at full speed to get all of the details I’ll need for the next Kate Murray thriller - cutting a trail for Kate from Athens to the island of Lefkada, in the Ionian sea. The fact that we’ll be in Athens at the same time that the Euroleague Basketball ‘Final Four’ is going on, and the little minor detail that the flight we’d booked back from Lefkada has been cancelled, meaning that we’ll have to improvise with ferries, guarantees that we’ll have some adventures to remember. But the greatest moment of them all, for me, won’t come when I’m researching  my own book, but when I stand at centre stage in Delphi’s ruined ancient theatre so that I can hear the echo of my voice the way Camilla hears hers in the Mary Stewart book My Brother Michael - something that I’ve dreamed of doing since I was a teenager. We’ll see how the reality compares.

 

 

 

 

Want to know what I’m working on now?

Here’s a sneak peek at where my heroine Kate Murray is now, in the book that I’m currently writing.  At the moment, she’s finding her bearings at Nydri, on the island of Lefkada, in the Ionian Sea...