Since then Sally and I have become firm friends, and she has continue to produce high-quality novels at a formidable rate (I wish I had a fraction of her productivity!), and today sees the launch of her latest work, The Secret of Lakeham Abbey, also published by Crooked Cat Publishing.
Welcome, Sally! Tell me: what prompted you to first start writing? What was the first thing you wrote?
I’d always had some vague notion that I wanted to be a writer, but without ever having put pen to paper. I can’t pretend I was jotting down stories from the age of 3. I was something of a dreamer as a child, so the stories were all there in my head, usually with me as the heroine. I could quite happily get lost in my dream world for hours and hours, even when I was older and had my own children.
I was in my early thirties when I first started to write. I can’t remember the exact first thing I wrote, though the first thing I do remember clearly is a skit I wrote for my GCSE Literature class about the day in the life of an adult learner. My tutor was so impressed she arranged to have it published in a local adult education newsletter. I started by writing a lot of poetry, pouring out my angst onto paper. The same with my first novels. They always had a heroine who was very much me, with the same life experiences, particularly in childhood. I think it was my way of putting things right.
Can you summarise your latest work in just a few words?
Young boy turns detective to save the family’s housekeeper from the gallows.
What was the inspiration for this book?
The Secret of Lakeham Abbey is a sort of unofficial sequel to an earlier novel of mine called The Dark Marshes. Like The Secret of Lakeham Abbey, The Dark Marshes was an epistolary novel, featuring characters from the Marsh and Lakeham family. But it’s set some 80 years before The Secret of Lakeham Abbey, so it’s not an actual sequel. I just had a hankering to go back to Lakeham Abbey, to see how the families had fared since. To me, the house is a character in its own right, and it was the effects of living in that house I wanted to explore. I also feel I’ll go back to it one day, though I can’t decide if I’m going to jump another couple of generations or let Percy Sullivan go back and investigate there!
Did you do any research for the book?
Although I write novels set in a historical period, I’m not a historical novelist. So I only ever do as much research as I need to tell my story. So I researched rationing after the war, the Berlin Airlift (just to set the date of the novel in readers’ minds) and women who were hanged. Oh and the difference between Tuscan and Etruscan pottery! (Hint: There isn’t any difference). The rest I more or less made up.
The Secret of Lakeham Abbey is a slight departure from your usual genre. What made you decide to write something different?
I don’t know that it’s that much of a departure. I’ve always written romantic intrigue with a suitably high body count. It’s just that with The Secret of Lakeham Abbey I decided to push the romance to the background, and concentrate on the investigation. Though to be honest, it didn’t start out that way. The story was supposed to be Anne and Guy’s. But then Percy Sullivan stuck his nose in and told me that actually it was his story. I suppose it is a departure in that the sleuth is a child and I’d never written a story from a child’s point of view before. That set its own challenges, as whilst Percy was the main character, I didn’t want to write a children’s book, and with the setting being the late forties, there was a danger it could come across as a bit twee. So it was a conscious decision to have him swearing the first time he met Anne, so that the reader knows we’re not in Enid Blyton country.
The story is written in epistolary form. What made you decide on this style?
The unofficial prequel, The Dark Marshes, was also in epistolary form, so it seemed right that this one should be too. But I’m addicted to the form anyway. Some of my favourite novels are epistolary, including The Woman in White, The Moonstone, Dracula, Les Liaisons Dangereuses and more recently The Book of Human Skin. I love exploring the different voices, and also peppering clues throughout everyone’s account of the events, so that eventually, from mere snippets, we get the whole story.
What does a typical writing day involve for you?
You know me, Sue. Wake up, make a cup of tea. Log onto Facebook. Decide around 10am that I ought to do something. Write for about three hours – I’m a touch typist so can get an awful lot done in a short time when a story is in my head – then back onto Facebook. Though I do have other things to do. Until recently I was on the Romantic Novelists Association Committee, organizing their parties, and taking part in other committee related tasks. And I’ve got grandchildren and am apparently the best babysitter in the world (I’m cheap and can be had for the price of a breakfast at my favourite watering hole).
How do you decide on the names for your characters?
Obviously I give some thought to the era, and what was popular, but mostly the characters tell me their own names. Until I have a name, I don’t really have a character. That’s not to say that I don’t sometimes completely change them!
Do you plot your novels in advance, or allow them to develop as you write?
I’m very much a seat of my pants writer, though sometimes I may write down a very quick – no more than 500 words – summary of where I see it going. But that’s not set in stone, and as I said earlier, I can start off with one idea – telling Anne and Guy’s story – then change it as the story demands.
Which writers have influenced your own writing?
From the point of view of epistolary novels, Wilkie Collins and Choderlos de Laclos, plus others mentioned above. For the crime element, it’s Agatha Christie all the way. As for romance, I used to read loads of Barbara Cartland, though her particular ‘values’ are very out of date now. And I have devoured dozens of Mills and Boon novels. Kate Walker is my particular favourite. Her novels are so emotional and beautifully written.
What has been the best part of the writing process… and the worst?
The best is getting new idea and not being able to do anything else until it’s written. I absolutely love that feeling. The worst is the opposite feeling, when even if I have ideas, they won’t flow and I can’t write until I have a story almost complete in my head.
Do you have any advice for new writers?
Don’t let anyone else tell you that you can’t be a writer. I know from personal experience that it’s very easy to get disheartened when someone who claims to be an expert tells you that you’re doing it all ‘wrong’.
Yes, if you want to be published you have to write to the market, but you can still write whatever you want. Don’t be ashamed of being a genre writer, if that’s where your imagination takes you.