Way back in 1999, my husband went sailing across the Atlantic for eight weeks on the Atlantic Rally Cruise race. It was November and the evenings were long and dark, and I found myself sitting at home on my own, I had no children then, but I had an idea for a book. It was called The Poison Tree and was based loosely on the poem of the same name by William Blake, one of my favourite poets and coincidentally my now pen-namesake. I started to write it long-hand as I didn’t have a computer at home, going into the office in the evenings and at the weekends to transfer it to the screen. Like all first time writers, I was completely convinced it would be a bestseller. It wasn’t. I had made every rookie writing mistake possible, and on top of that, I sent it out the moment the last full stop went down. Thankfully, it was rejected by every publishing house I sent it to, all over the world. But the bug had truly bitten and I took the advice of a great friend, author Sarah Webb who told me to “just keep writing”.
So I did.
The ideas for novels arrive in a myriad of ways. Some take years to form, some come in a flash, others float into my head as disconnected parts and I have to write my way into the story to find out what it’s really about. As writers we hear snippets of conversation or read something in the paper and the germ of an idea forms. One ‘light bulb’ moment bounces off another, and then another, and then the story grows. Stephen King talks about a great story being the collision of two unrelated ideas, and this is the key, story is the synergy created when those ideas meet.
Four (unpublished) books later, the ‘unrelated ideas’ that fed what was to become my debut novel, Little Bones, collided one sunny Sunday afternoon as I was driving back from a Readers Day that Sarah Webb and I had programmed at a hotel in Dublin Airport. I had spent the day listening to internationally successful novelists discuss process and as I got into the car, I switched on the radio to a documentary about Kerry-born playwright, George Fitzmaurice. Fitzmaurice is best remembered for a play The Country Dressmaker staged by the Abbey Theatre in 1907. It saved the fortunes of the theatre but despite its success, Fitzmaurice died destitute in a room in Capel Street, aged 86. He had no will and few personal belongings, but on his bed lay an old suitcase containing a copy of every play he had ever published. That suitcase caused the collision of ideas which resulted in a bestselling novel.
Many years previously I had watched an RTÉ TV documentary about an unmarried twenty-three year old Irish girl, Belinda Agnes Regan who, in 1947, was living in lodgings in Manchester. She had left Ireland knowing she was pregnant, but terrified of the disgrace it would bring, had concealed her condition. She went into labour in the middle of the night and delivered the baby herself, incredibly, in a room she shared with a younger girl, her land lady’s daughter, who apparently slept through her ordeal. Covering the baby with a blanket “so Shirley would not see it,” she crept to the bathroom.
When she returned, the baby wasn’t breathing.
Wrapping the body in a blue frock and brown paper, she hid it in a suitcase under her bed. She went home for Christmas, and while she was in Ireland the body was discovered. On her return to Manchester, Regan was arrested and was one of the last women in the UK to be convicted of infanticide. The image of Belinda’s suitcase had always stuck in my head, and these two stories, linked by old suitcases but heard so far apart, came together on the drive home. I started wondering about dressmakers and what would happen if the bones of the baby had ended up in a different dress – a wedding dress – the crucial thing that Belinda Regan had perhaps yearned for, for nine long months. At that point I had no idea who had owned the dress, or how the bones got there or why…But I started writing. I knew the wedding dress in this story, then called The Dressmaker, was in a cottage in Dalkey, the home of an artist with a very troubled past (and present). After writing a few chapters about Zoe and her grandmother, I realised someone needed to find the bones to get the story started. That was when Detective Garda Cat Connolly, in the middle of her own personal crisis, arrived on the scene with her gym bag and boxing gloves in the back of her Mini. Cat Connolly guided me through the story. Despite hours of research looking for an explanation, investigating baby killers, it was only as I wrote the scene in which a key witness is giving a statement to Cat and DI Dawson O’Rourke, that I found out, with some relief, exactly what had happened and why. The true story of the bones came to light, and then it all made sense.
I’ve always read crime, I’m fascinated by puzzles and what goes on behind closed doors, about why people keep secrets and what those are. When I started what became Little Bones, I didn’t think it would be a police procedural or the start of a series but by the end of the first book, the characters weren’t finished with me. When my agent sold it, I found out that the publisher wanted a three-book series, so I was lucky enough to follow Cat through several cases, all of which test her.
For me, building successful characters is all about understanding their motivation, trying to get inside their psyche to see what makes them tick and behave the way they do. It’s essential to me, in order to make my characters feel really real, to uncover the factors that contribute to their behaviour. Motivation is key.
As a writer you draw on everything around you to create character. I have a friend who keeps fit with kick boxing, and Cat is very like her in many ways. I wanted Cat to be fit and fast in her day job, but also to have something to focus on outside of the Garda station to give her a personal life and depth. The sport conditions the way she thinks; she’s fierce and feisty. I love, as a reader, to learn about worlds I’m not familiar with – I didn’t know anything about boxing when I started and I wanted to bring that to Cat Connolly.
I’m very interested in blurring the edges of fact and fiction so that the world that my characters inhabit feels completely real. It’s important to me that if a police officer reads one of my books, that it feels as true to him as it does to someone who knows nothing about policing. I write faster when I can clearly visualise a scene, and to do that, experiencing them is invaluable. I visit the locations, whether that is an elegant house in Monkstown or a wooded path in the Dublin Mountains; I want to hear and smell and experience what my characters feel. One of my favourite writing quotes is ‘As a writer, words are your paint, use all the colours’ (Rhys Alexander). I try to do that on every page.
To get Cathy right, and to give her fight scenes the ring of truth, I needed to talk to a kick boxing champion. And doing that, I realised that Google can’t tell you everything – it can’t tell you how your muscles burn after a training session, how they stiffen up, and it can’t tell you what it feels like, after a really tough hour in the ring, to be sweating so hard that you cannot see. I only found that out by taking up kick boxing myself. I’m fit, I go to the gym, but nothing can prepare you for the effort and energy used in a full-on kick boxing training session. And to write Cathy’s fight scenes I needed to know exactly how they unfolded, that she’s right-handed so she needs to lead with her left, that you need both incredible flexibility and balance, to be a champion in this sport. Going to classes was the best thing I could have done for Cat and for the books; my only problem was that, apart from being about twenty years older than everyone else and the only woman, I hate actually hitting people – but, fortunately, Cat Connolly doesn’t have that problem. The incredible Maeve Binchy whom I was privileged to know, always said “write what you know” – I can’t say I’ve killed anyone recently, but I have spent a lot of time in the ring ducking punches.
One of the wonderful things about writing a series is that the characters feel like those close friends that we all have, but rarely see. When you do meet up again, you pick up right back where you left off. My fourth book though, Keep Your Eyes on Me, is a total departure from the Cat series, a standalone that required a whole new cast. It is still at the editorial stage and I know I don’t have it quite right yet, but all the components are there. As I write this, one of the key characters is still eluding me, I know I’m missing a part of her make up, but she’s slowly becoming clearer.
One of the earliest lessons I learnt when I started writing was that writing is rewriting. Once the first draft is written, the words are on the page and you can work with them, change scenes, develop or delete characters, begin to shape the story. And that story can change. Despite being a plotter who needs to know roughly where my stories are going before I start, the published ending of my third book, No Turning Back is completely different to the first draft. I realised in the final round of edits that it just didn’t work and changed it completely. Recognising when something isn’t right, listening to your gut instinct, and having the courage to change it is something that comes with experience, and is a vital part of the process. Much of fiction writing is learning to tune into your subconscious, and the times when I’ve got stuck, when I can’t write, I’ve discovered are the times when my subconscious is putting on the brakes – I’ve invariably made a wrong turn somewhere, a character has said something out of character or made a comment about something that they couldn’t know. Once I go back to where it wasn’t working and find my mistake, it all flows again.
Any writer who has a day job (I have several) and/or children (I have a couple of those too) knows that getting away from it all is sometimes essential to getting a book finished. I have quite a busy mind and the only way I can turn off and focus on a story is to plug in my earphones and get away from the office (which is at home, to further complicate things). Music is the key to accessing the creative part of my mind and freeing it from the everyday clutter. I created a sound track for Cat Connolly, chart music she loves to listen to. When she’s pounding a punch bag in the gym and focusing on a case, like me, music is vital to drown out the noise in her head.
I’ve created a totally different sound track for Keep Your Eyes on Me – it’s set in Bloomsbury in London, in New York and in Dublin, and one of the key characters is an ex-ballerina, so it’s classical this time, music she loves. Because I run my own businesses I don’t have a nine to five working day (more like nine to eleven, six days a week) so I’ve learned to write anywhere, anytime. Once I’ve plugged in my earphones, I’m in my character’s world and immersed in the story. Even if it’s six o’clock in the morning and I’m on a plane to the Frankfurt Book Fair or early for a meeting in a city centre hotel.
When I’m working on a book, I aim to get at least a thousand words written a day, they might be total nonsense but I know I will go back over them and polish them before I start writing the next thousand words, the next day. The hardest words to write are always at the start but it gets easier once the story starts to roll. With No Turning Back I was under pressure to start in order to meet my deadline, and I had lots of bits of plot but I wasn’t quite sure how they connected. I took the advice of a writer friend, Alex Marwood, and ‘wrote the stuff’. She sometimes writes forty thousand words of ‘stuff’ to find her way into a story. In many ways it’s liberating to know that you’re not writing the finished story, but the ‘stuff’, and I literally wrote my way into the first draft. Lots changed in subsequent drafts but I had the words on the page.
Writing fiction is something I love doing, it’s my hobby as well as a job, and when I’m not writing I feel like a part of me is missing, as if something is empty. I’d write even if I wasn’t paid for it, but I have definitely put in Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hours, writing four full length novels and I don’t know how many partials before Little Bones found a home. Pinned up over my desk I have this quote: ‘The worst thing you write today is better than the best thing you didn’t write’. Hold that thought.
© Sam Blake October 2018