My Not-A-Blog...

PREVIOUS POSTS:


2011


A Handful of Time, Revisited


Remembering


A Very Big Adventure


It’s Always Something


The People in My Neighbourhood

Part Three: My Cover Designers



2010


Happy Holidays!


The People in My Neighbourhood

Part Two: My Translators


The People in My Neighbourhood

Part One: The Sales Team


Myself Again


What’s In a Name?


Magic Hour


My Book is Like a Red, Red Rose...


Tinkering





2009


Back to the Beginning


The Unexpected


After Long Silence


Connections (Or, Six Degrees of Jan Cox Speas)


Location, Location...


In the Bath


Deadlines Part II


Deadlines


Leaving Well Enough Alone


I See Your Face Before Me


Atticus was right.




2008


By Any Name


Some “Thing” to Consider


Time and Chance


What Happened Next...

What You Give Me


In My Own Words


The Kindness of Strangers


Never Complain...


A Mother’s Touch


The Club


Jitters


Doing Murder

 

Up With Romance


Slow-Growing Crops


Beginnings


To Be Continued...



2007


Old Friends


A Handful of Time


Hollywood Dreams


The Best Laid Schemes


Creating Our Characters


Tell Me a Story


On The Shore


Passing Judgement


No Ivory Tower


Keeping Secrets


Out of Fashion


Reading and Writing


The Dogs of Zeus


Seeing Ghosts in Delphi


The Mysteries of Memory


The Isles of Greece...



























Bit Players

First Posted November 7, 2010

Re-Posted April 3, 2012


Full confession: I’m cheating again, by re-posting a previous blog post. This one originally appeared back on Sunday, November 7, 2010, for my turn on the group blog The Heroine Addicts, which I share with five talented fellow writer friends. You can visit the blog here, for everyone’s posts.


Two weekends ago [although of course it wasn’t really two weekends ago, it was more like a year and a half ago, nearly...], I took my daughter and her best friend to Toronto to see Wicked, the musical they'd both been dreaming of seeing since the first time they'd stumbled across clips of the Broadway performance on YouTube a year ago. To make it extra-special for them both, I got us tickets for a private box, with polished brass railings and real chairs and curtains to shut ourselves off from the rest of the theatre. The girls, at the front of the box, had a marvellous view of the stage. Unfortunately for me, the designers of the set for Wicked, gifted though they were, had elected to hang their speakers, not to the side of the stage, but within the proscenium arch, so whenever the lead actors moved upstage left I lost sight of them.


After a while I stopped minding so much, though, because I had noticed a curious thing: when my view of the main scene was blocked, all the actors who were playing at the fringes of the scene came into sudden, sharper focus.


Which set me musing on the role of minor characters in fiction who, like those actors downstage right in Wicked, tend to go about their business in the shadows just beyond the spotlight.


If not for them, the fictional worlds we create would be so much less interesting. How could we write something set in a village without any villagers? Or write a scene in a restaurant without any servers or customers? Cameos, bit parts and walk-ons add life to a story.


And sometimes they add even more. I learned this long ago while writing Mariana, when a very minor character – a woman by the name of Mrs. Hutherson – showed up early on with a plate of Bath buns to welcome my heroine to the village, resisted my attempts to write her out again, established herself as the housekeeper up at the manor house, and proceeded to change the whole course of the story.


Still, any lesson learned can always be forgotten, so I'm grateful to that inconvenient speaker in the set design of Wicked, because it helped me to rediscover just how vital every player is, upon the stage.

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A Handful of Time, Revisited

First Posted December 22, 2007

Re-Posted December 26, 2011

This was my first ever Christmas post, and I’m still fond of it. Even though I’m posting it a day after the fact, and although I’ve already blogged about Christmas at both The Heroine Addicts and A Woman in Jeopardy, I still want to share it again, in case you’re feeling half the stress I’m feeling, these days:


* * *


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 had a wonderful Christmas.


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Remembering

Posted September 1st, 2011

You would think, since it’s been two months since I’ve posted here, that I’d be bursting with ideas, things to tell you, things to talk about.


But all that I can think is, “It’s September.” And that’s never a great month for me, because it was the month I lost my sister, and at this time of the year I feel her presence round me strongly, and I feel her absence even more.


And this year, with the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 drawing near, I’ve been reminded that I’m not alone in feeling loss, or missing somebody.


So for this month, I’d like to share a song that helps to put a voice to what I’m feeling, one that leaves me with a sense of peace and comfort. It was written by Jane Siberry, a fellow Canadian whom I was lucky enough to see once in an open-air intimate concert, with her voice so impossibly pure on the summer night’s breeze that it lodged in my memory like magic.


Here she is, singing in as close an environment as I could find to how I first heard her that night, with a song that helps me through September, and reminds me not to “miss the beauty of the light upon this earth.”


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A Very Big Adventure

Posted June 27, 2011

Photo copyright www.urban75.org


Tomorrow I’m boarding a plane for New York. Well, I’m actually boarding a plane for New Jersey, but THEN I’ll be taking a taxi across to Manhattan, fulfilling a dream that I’ve had since my childhood.


In one sense, it’s a homecoming. A few of my own ancestors once lived in New York City, though of course they didn’t think to leave their property to me – not even the teensiest corner of William Hallett’s great estate at Hell Gate...


In another sense, I’m following a family tradition, in the footsteps of my mother’s father (who came to New York in 1946 for a motion picture projectionists’ convention, and whose letters home give a sense of the bustle of postwar New York), and also my own father, who as a boy saw both the Empire State Building and the Rockettes, both of which made an impression.


And in yet another sense, my trip is kind of a pilgrimage – my chance to finally see first-hand the city where Jo found romance and a publisher in Little Women; where the turn of the century All-of-a-Kind Family (in Sydney Taylor’s warm series of books about life on the lower east side) walked and played and made friends with the library lady; and where so many of my favourite films are set, from Working Girl and Barefoot in the Park to Crossing Delancey and Sunday in New York are set.


While outwardly I’m going there on business (for the Romance Writers of America’s annual National Conference) I know that I’m about to have a Very Big Adventure. And perhaps, like Jo in Little Women, I will find my writing “All the better for the change. I shall see and hear new things,” Jo vowed, “get new ideas, and even if I haven't much time there, I shall bring home quantities of material for my rubbish."


One can hope!


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It’s Always Something.

Posted April 26, 2011

The gentleman above, with the reproving look, is Robert Boyle, creator of “Boyle’s Law” and a founder of the field of modern chemistry. He no doubt looks reproving in the portrait because, in my book The Rose Garden, I incorrectly called him Richard Boyle.


I don’t know why. I’d done my research, and I knew his name was Robert, but for some unknown reason when I came to write it down, I wrote down “Richard”. There it was, and there it stayed, unnoticed, all through several edits and the British copyedit and the proofread, by myself and other readers, and it might have gone unnoticed for a little longer if Gretchen Stelter, my American copyeditor, hadn’t caught and changed it for me just last month.


By then it was too late, of course, to change it in the UK or Canadian trade paperbacks, or in the e-book file that had gone out already, but at least in subsequent reprintings we can fix the text to make him Robert Boyle again.


But honestly, it’s always something.


Every time I finish with a book, no matter how much effort I put into proofreading (and just to let you know how OCD I am with proofreading, I often read the whole text backwards, word by word, because it can be easier to catch a misspelled word that way..) I know there will be something, something, that slips through past all of us, and winds up in the printed book. It never fails.


One day, perhaps, I’ll get a book from manuscript to print without a single flaw. Or maybe I’ll just learn how to embrace the imperfection, like the Japanese world view of “wabi sabi”.


But for now I send apologies to Mr Boyle, wherever he may be. And at least I know you’ll know I meant to call him “Robert”.


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The People in My Neighbourhood

Part Three: My Cover Designers

Posted February 17, 2011

At a book signing just this past weekend a very kind woman remarked, ‘And I do like the covers you’ve put on your books. You choose really nice covers.’ I thanked her, but corrected her by saying that I couldn’t take the credit; that like most authors I have nothing whatever to do with the choice of the cover – that’s the publisher’s prerogative – though I promised I would pass along her praise to whom it properly belonged: Christina Griffiths, the designer of my covers for both Canada and the UK for Allison & Busby. (That’s her, hard at work in the photograph above).


And to the left is Ferran López, who designs the covers for my Spanish publisher, including this amazing cover for The Winter Sea. When asked by Faceout Books what he enjoys most about his job, Ferran’s reply contained what was for me, a true epiphany. He said, ‘It’s an amazing challenge to transmit all of these emotions and tell a story within a few square inches.’


I’d never thought of cover design in quite those terms before. I’d always viewed the cover as a marketing device, designed to reach a certain reading demographic while at the same time looking smashing on the shelf, but in reading Ferran’s comment it occurred to me that, much as I appreciated my designers, I had never truly understood, till now, their own creative process, and how closely it reflected mine. We’re both of us trying to tell the same story, me within the pages of the book, and the designer on the cover, in those ‘few square inches’.


I found this concept so fascinating that I immediately asked Christina, the only one of my current cover designers I’ve actually been privileged to meet, for her thoughts on the subject. She agreed with Ferran. ‘Obviously,’ she told me, ‘the designer has to work with a commercial awareness of the intended demographic and of market trends, but ultimately the cover is the cipher for the whole book and therefore the jacket often takes on an almost esoteric quality, having to convey the core emotion of the story in one single image.’ She went on to add, ‘As a matter of personal taste – and probably because I started out as a photographer – I find that often what is missing from the image (empty spaces, shadows, the way a figure is cropped) can work to convey the story even more powerfully.’


I really love this insight. It reminds me of the playwright’s need to leave room for the silences, the spaces in which actors get to truly act.


It’s likely no coincidence that, like Christina, Ferran began his career as a photographer. Kelly Eismann, who designed the U.S. cover for The Winter Sea, is also a musician and a singer, and I’m sure if I dug deeper I would find that Roland Eschlbeck, who designed the German cover, has a similar expressive background. Storytellers all.


I’m very fortunate to have them. And I’ll never view a cover proof in quite the same way, now. Instead of looking at the picture as a picture, I’ll be looking for the ‘voice’ of the designer, and the story that their images reveal.


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Happy Holidays!

Posted December 28, 2010


Having spent this month writing a heap of guest blogs and answering interview questions for my American “virtual tour”, I have to confess I’m at a loss to come up with anything really interesting and original this month, but I promise I’ll do better in January!


In the meantime, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to wish you all the very best of everything the New Year has to bring. And in case you’re feeling a little let down in this week after Christmas, here’s something to cheer you, from Bob McGrath and the Sesame Street gang (as I remember them :-).


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sd5PEVKuAro


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The People in My Neighbourhood

Part Two: My Translators

Posted November 18, 2010

The woman in the photograph and I have never met, and yet we share a voice. That’s Karin Diemerling, the first translator of my books in Germany, whose skilled interpretation of my stories and my style helped me to gain a lot of fans there. I’m indebted to her, as I am to her successor, Sonja Hauser, and to all the other people who have taken on the task of translating my novels.


I’m in awe of how they manage it. Translation is an art form, and the translator, in my view, is an artist. It’s impossible to copy, word for word, a book into another language. Language isn’t words alone – those words are shaped by culture, history, and the shared experiences that create a code that is uniquely territorial. A phrase that works in English might make little sense in Latvian, and idioms (as anyone who’s ever tried to learn another language knows) don’t travel well.


And my books, in which characters might speak in Scots or even in the Doric, quote a random line of poetry or use a curse word of the eighteenth century, must be the sort of books that give a translator a headache!


“...the most difficult part of the work is the beginning,” says my Italian translator, Alessandra Petrelli, in this interview, “because I need to ‘tune in’ with the text, with the style of the writer, to try to reproduce it...”


And in this post my Dutch translator, Ellis Post Uiterweer, describes the process beautifully by saying the translator “unlocks” the book for the reader; and rightly points out that a translator, by choosing one word from the many he might have selected, creates his own signature stamp on the novel he’s translating.


Authors and translators don’t often get to meet. Recently, though, I was able to find Karin Diemerling online and thank her for all that she did for my books, and I do hope that one day I’ll get to do likewise for all of my translators, not just those listed above, but Katarzyna Kaczmarek, Phane Pantaze, Marja Alopaeus, Fernanda Oliveira, Pavel Holub, Francisco Javier Calzada, Dominique Wattwiller, and the invisible others whose names I’m still trying to learn.


In the meantime, I hope they all know that whenever a book of mine sells well in Amsterdam, or moves a reader to tears in Bulgaria, I know a translator chose the right words. And I’m grateful.


(My apologies to Alessandra and to Ellis, for my links to the imperfect Google Translator versions of their respective posts, but if nothing else the Google versions prove that a machine can’t do translation like a human!)

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The People in My Neighbourhood

Part One: The Sales Team

Posted October 02, 2010

That’s me, being wined, dined, and generally pampered by all the great people at Georgetown Publications, my Canadian distributer, at their sales conference last month. I look forward to sales conference season, because it’s the one time I get to sit down with the people who take on the hard work of getting my books into bookstores, and thank them in person for all that they do.

Authors rarely thank their sales teams in a book’s acknowledgements, and yet we really should, because it’s largely through their efforts that a book achieves success. A book can’t sell well if it doesn’t reach the stores, and convincing a bookseller that, out of all the books published each year, they should buy and stock yours – well, if you think that’s easy, you’ve never attempted it, especially when the book in question is from a smaller publisher who doesn’t have the cash on hand to offer all the shiny extras and incentives that the bigger players do.

In my case, the fact that my books get into independent bookstores, let alone the bigger chains and supermarkets, is a testament to all the tireless work done by my sales teams, not just here, but in America and Britain and abroad, from the endlessly creative marketing directors and their staff, to the sales reps who go to the wall and beyond for me every time, through to the people who manage the orders, and those in the warehouse who make sure the books that are ordered are boxed and delivered on time.

Their work may be invisible to readers, but it’s plain as day to me, and when I see my book shelved in a bookstore I send silent thanks to all the unsung people who have put it there.

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Myself Again

Posted August 09, 2010


I am in love with this cover.


When my editor at Allison & Busby told me stock of Every Secret Thing was running rather low in their warehouse and they were planning a reprint, I was happy enough, because it’s always a thing of happiness for an author when a book not only sells through a first edition, but also rates a reprint.


And when Christina Griffiths, A&B’s talented designer, came up with this cover, I was beyond happy. I love everything about it.


But you’ll notice one thing’s different on this reprint: I’m no longer “Emma Cole”. Just as my German publishers decided right from the beginning to release this book as a Susanna Kearsley title, so too now my UK publishers are doing likewise.


And because I’m sure that you, my readers, having just recovered from the whole The Winter Sea/Sophia’s Secret thing, will no doubt send me many, many emails asking, “WHY?”, I thought I’d step back for moment while my editor, the lovely Lara Crisp, explains in her own words.


Lara writes:

Every Secret Thing was one of my very first acquisitions here at A&B. We are a publishing house very well known for our crime list and Susanna’s agent believed the book would be a natural fit to our list. I loved the book, but given that Susanna Kearsley until that time had been published very much as a romance writer, and this book was more of a pure crime novel, the decision was made to publish this under a pseudonym. So, Emma Cole it was.


Two years later, I received a second submission from the author called Sophia’s Secret (also known as The Winter Sea) and it was this book that changed things. Again, there’s a time slip and the reader encounters two stories told in different times. But it most certainly wasn’t a crime novel. So we decided to publish this book under Susanna Kearsley, building on the author’s established reputation in women’s fiction. Unsurprisingly – it’s a WONDERFUL book – it did very well and was shortlisted for the RNA prize. We’ve since republished Mariana, Season of Storms and The Shadowy Horses and we’re looking forward to publishing The Rose Garden in spring next year.


Susanna Kearsley has a distinctively beautiful writing voice and her fans can’t read her quickly enough. And although, Every Secret Thing does feature a few murders and intrigue, the voice is still the same. So, now it’s come to replenishing our dwindling stock, it was really a no-brainer. By reissuing Every Secret Thing under the Susanna Kearsley name, we’d be offering a new book to her fans – one they may have been previously unaware of. I hope you’ll agree.


So there you have it, from the person who knows best about these things.


I’ll still be Emma Cole in France, and Portugal, the Netherlands and all the other countries where the book was sold and translated, and – for the moment, anyway – in Canada. But fun though it may be to have an alter ego, I confess it will be nice to simply be myself again in Britain, and to finally see this book shelved with my others in the bookshops.


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What’s In a Name?

Posted July 16, 2010


It is a truth universally acknowledged that the naming of one’s children is a task not to be undertaken lightly. Choose the wrong one and you doom your son to playground taunts and boxing lessons, or ensure your daughter will be forced to spell her name aloud for everyone she meets. Even my characters don’t get named lightly – I frequently get out my baby name books and sort through them for meanings, then give my male characters names that won’t make their friends laugh at them down at the pub, and my heroines names that, while pretty, would also look good on a ballot should they choose to run for Prime Minister.


Knowing all this, you can only imagine how honoured I was when I received an email earlier this spring from one of my fans here in Canada, who after 16 heartbreaking years of trying to have a baby had finally given birth to a beautiful little girl. And as if that didn’t make me teary-eyed enough, the name she had chosen to give her new daughter was Verity – after my Verity Grey, in The Shadowy Horses.


This is, to my knowledge, the first time that anyone’s named their own baby for one of my characters, and I was honestly touched, so when that email carried on to say that my fan was creating a time capsule for little Verity, and wanted to include a copy of The Shadowy Horses in it so her daughter would always know where her name came from, and asked me if I could possibly sign that book for her, I leapt at the chance to present it in person.


With the collusion of one of my favourite independent booksellers, John Cheyne of The Book Express in Cambridge, Ontario, I was able to do so in May, just a week after Verity’s first birthday, and she accepted the book very graciously.


So here you are, everybody – meet little Verity Rose, and her mom, Cyndi (dad Colin was standing just out of the picture).


Please join me in wishing her all the best things life can bring: health and happiness, love and adventure. And if she does run for Prime Minister, give her your vote.


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Magic Hour

Posted May 2, 2010

(That’s my sister in the photograph above, by the way, not me - though we both learned to read at the same age, she looked a bit cuter while doing it!)


I don’t remember learning how to read. I’m told that at the age of three I used to sit outside the bathroom reading to my father while he shaved in the mornings, but I don’t remember that, either. I only know books and the worlds they contain have been part of my life for as long as my memory does reach, and it thrilled me when both of my own children learned to read early as well, because I knew what doorways had just been unlocked for them.


So when I was invited to take part again in the local Coffee, Tea and Words read-a-thon, held several weeks ago by the Literacy Council of Durham Region to raise money for their efforts to ‘help meet the needs of adults who strive to improve their reading, writing and numeracy skills’, my answer was an immediate ‘yes’.


Once again, the event was well-organized and enjoyable, with a fun and eclectic group of readers and listeners enjoying the ambiance of Isabella’s Chocolate Cafe. Staff and volunteers of the LCDR were amazing as usual. I read, they gave me flowers, the local newspaper sent a reporter who kindly took my picture and asked me a few questions, and then I settled in to enjoy a few of the readers who came after me, including crime writer Jill Edmondson.


During all this, I couldn’t help noticing one of the volunteers – a man a bit younger than me – because he seemed so keen and energetic, cheerfully helping out where he was needed and sitting attentively through all the readings. ‘Aha’, I thought, recognizing his type. A True Reader. A lover of words. Maybe a teacher, I thought, or a writer like me, who loves reading so much that he donates his own time to help others learn how to do it.


When the time came for me to leave, he was just getting ready to take his own turn in the reading chair. Another of the LCDR volunteers, a woman, brought a stool and sat beside him. I was gathering my things, looking for my umbrella, not really paying attention, and he’d already started reading by the time I pushed my chair back.


Then I stopped. Because I realized he was reading from a very basic reader. Simple sentences and words. He stumbled once or twice, and quietly the woman at his side would prompt him, helping him pronounce the word.


I didn’t leave. I stayed exactly where I was, and as I watched him read I got that feeling in my chest I sometimes get when I’m aware that what I’m seeing is remarkable; a moment to remember.


This, I thought, is what it’s all about. This single act of courage and accomplishment. I wanted to tell the newspaper photographer that she’d taken a picture of the wrong person – this was where her camera should be aimed. But she’d already gone. Which was a shame, because she missed what was, for me at least, the highlight of the read-a-thon.


In her novel A Tree Grows In Brooklin, Betty Smith describes the moment when her young heroine, Francie, learns to read. ‘Oh, Magic hour,’ she calls it, memorably. That young man who got up so bravely to read at the read-a-thon had to wait longer for his ‘Magic Hour’ than the fictional Francie did, but, as for Francie, the world is now his for the reading.


I hope he travels far in it.


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My Book is Like a Red, Red Rose...

Posted March 24, 2010


In the garden of our old house was a lovely climbing rose that had been growing there for decades. Left alone, it wandered off in all directions till it lost its shape and all but choked the new shoots in a mass of thorny tangles. Every year I donned my heavy gloves (that’s me there, in the photograph) and tackled that one rose, removing old dead growth and shaping what was left so that the roses, come the summer, had a chance to bloom their best.


It was a satisfying task, and I enjoyed it. And I thought about it last month, when my editor suggested that my new book was a little on the long side and could stand a little pruning.


My friends were actually more resistant to the suggestion than I was – not because they think my words are such gems, but because they know that I write at the pace of a pond evaporating, so cutting out even a few pages might mean I’ve done away with an entire week’s work.


But just as with that climbing rose, it sometimes does a story good to go at it with pruning shears and cut away the deadwood, so the parts that should be noticed see the sun. In fact, the more I worked, the more addictive it became. I’d hoped to cut 5,000 words to bring the manuscript to a more manageable size, but in the end I cut 8,000, and would likely have kept going if I hadn’t stopped myself with a reminder of the other thing we’d pruned in that old garden: a romantic-looking pear tree, which we’d tackled with such zeal it came out looking like an upright stick and took years to recover from the trauma. There is a point, in cutting, where you risk removing what it is that gives a book its character and beauty, and I think if I’d gone further I’d have stepped across that line.


The way it stands, I think the book is better for the cutting. And I’m glad I have an editor who makes me don my heavy gloves and get in there and do it. (Maybe that’s why she decided that the title of the book should be The Rose Garden...)


I think John Dryden said it best, more than three hundred years ago, when he remarked upon “The Art of Poetry”:


A hundred times consider what you've said:

Polish, repolish, every colour lay,

And sometimes add, but oftener take away.


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Tinkering

Posted February 1, 2010


Sometime last summer I started to think about giving my web site a makeover. Not because I didn’t like the way it looked or worked, or because I didn’t have anything else to do, but because the folks from Serif had informed me of an upgrade in their WebPlus™ software.


I must admit I have a little weakness when it comes to Serif’s products. I stumbled across them three years ago when I was trying to build my original web site, and I’ve been hooked on their software ever since. I have a shelf of it. I should own stock. Besides which, their head office is in Nottingham, and there’s something about doing business with ‘Serif of Nottingham’ that appeals to both my sense of humour and my love of legend...


So I bought the upgrade, set it on my shelf, and started planning. I had to wait, of course, until I’d finished with the Cornish book, but once that manuscript was done and with my agents, I set everything aside and started tinkering.


Design work, for me, is a playground. I love it, and find it relaxing, so though I’ve worked long hours on this it’s been a sort of holiday for me. I’ve tried to keep the site familiar, with a few new things to add a bit of interest.


To begin with, you’ll notice I’ve folded my Emma Cole web site into this one, for simplicity, and combined all the Not-A-Blog posts and Questions of the Month from both sites so you no longer have to flip back and forth to read them. And although the Hodge-Podge page is gone, most of its content is still here (the Not-A-Blog now has this page to itself, for example, while the Authors I Love now hang out in My Writing Room).


Many of you wanted to have an easier way to find my books for sale, so I’ve put together a ‘Buy the Books’ page that I hope will be helpful. And the site now has a ‘Search’ feature that, while it seems to have a personality all its own, does work in most cases.


I’m sure I’ll be tinkering more with it over the spring, but my holiday’s over – I’m back into writing again, so that’s it for the makeovers till the next book’s done. Or till Serif upgrades their software again...


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Back to the Beginning

Posted October 16, 2009


At the end of September, when I was halfway through the last chapter of my current work-in-progress, I happily posted that fact on my Facebook page, and received the following reply from my former Editor Extraordinaire, Humphrey Price: ‘Time to go back to the beginning and start again then.’


Which is, of course, exactly what an editor would say. And he’s exactly right – revision is a vital part of what I do.


I didn’t see the point of it when I was young. In high school, when my English teachers asked us to submit a first draft, second draft, and final essay, I would always write the essay first, then write a second copy making it sound worse, then write a third that was abysmal, and hand them all in backwards, third one first. But when I finally wrote my first full novel in my twenties, I at last became aware of the great joy and satisfaction of revising something properly and making it the best that it can be.


When I begin a book, I have an image of it in my head, the way I’d like for it to be, and most times what I’m writing on the page looks nothing like that. This is why I used to throw my stories out before, when I came to the middle –  they’d strayed so far from my Ideal I really thought they were unsalvageable.


It wasn’t till I’d got the whole way through one and revised it that I learned I have to slog through to the end, producing what looks more like a big lump of clay than a beautiful sculpture, because then through my revisions I can chip away the bits that don’t belong, that I don’t need, until I get down to the sculpture that is hiding underneath –  the one that looks, most times, a lot like what I hoped that it would look like.


So these days, when I come to that last page of my first draft and write “The End”, I feel excitement. And I have a little celebration, with a glass of wine. Or two. And then I clear my desk, and sharpen pencils.


And go back to the beginning.


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The Unexpected

Posted September 2, 2009


One of my favourite writers, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, once said:  ‘Writing a novel is like making a movie: All sorts of accidental things will happen after you’ve set up the cameras...Something will happen at the edge of the set and perhaps you start to go with that. You come into it accidentally.’


I’ve learned the truth of this many times over in writing my books. I’ll be happily typing away when a character says something out of the blue that I didn’t expect them to say, or new characters simply walk into the scene, or a character who should be in the scene doesn’t show up, and it changes the course of the story.


In The Splendour Falls, for example, I was writing a scene early on where my heroine, Emily, walks a small girl safely home, and I’d planned for the little girl’s father to open the door when they got there. He didn’t. Somebody else opened it, and then I had to find out what this new man was doing there; how he fit into the plot.


And this month, with only a few chapters left till the end of my manuscript, my hero turned to my heroine and said...well, OK, I can’t tell you what he said, but honestly I hadn’t seen it coming, and I had to stop a moment and decide what I should do with it. Experience has taught me I should leave it in and run with it and find out where it takes me, so that’s what I’ve done.


But it’s this sort of thing that keeps writing so fun for me. Not only am I rarely bored, but every now and then when someone reads a book of mine and says, ‘You know, I really didn’t see that coming,’ I can smile and tell them honestly, ‘You know, neither did I.’


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After Long Silence

Posted September 2, 2009


That was, by the way, the working title that I used while writing Every Secret Thing: After Long Silence, from the poem of the same name by W.B. Yeats. I even arranged for (and paid for) permission to use it, and that’s why the excerpt remains in the front of the book, since it still suits the story quite well. So it seems rather fitting that those lines should be turning round in my head once again, now that I’m getting close to the end of the next Kearsley novel and can finally think of getting back to being Emma Cole, however briefly.


My original plan, as you may recall, was to give my alter-ego equal time; to write a Kearsley book, and then a Cole one, then another Kearsley, but the fact is the thrillers appear to take longer to write, and after working on the sequel for however many months I’ve had to set it to the side twice now to deal with a new Kearsley book impatient to be written. When I left the sequel last time, I’d come roughly halfway through the story. Kate was in a taxi heading down the eastern coastline of the Greek isle of Lefkada. And I left her there.


A rotten thing to do, I know. And if she never spoke to me again I couldn’t blame her. That’s always been my fear, those rare occasions when I’ve stopped work on a story to write something else entirely – the fear that, when I do get back to working on the first book I’ll discover all the characters have given up on waiting for me and gone off, and taken my ideas with them, and I’ll never get them back.


So I was very much relieved this week, while lying in my bathtub (where I feel the most inspired) to hear Kate’s voice speaking up again, if faintly, and to glimpse a few small bits of scenes from Greece, as though she, too, is keen to get things moving.


Speech, as Yeats said, feels good after long silence.

  

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Connections (Or, Six Degrees of Jan Cox Speas)

Posted June 27, 2009


Once upon a time back in the 50s, when my mother was a teenager, she was lying sick in bed in need of a diversion. In those days the Toronto Star newspaper had a “story” supplement, wonderful thing, and she opened it looking for something to read, with no great expectations. She still can remember the day. Because what she found was a condensed version of Jan Cox Speas’ novel Bride of the MacHugh. She loved the story so much that she searched it out at her local library, but of course had to return it after reading it. It took her years before she found a copy she could buy and call her own.


One day when I was twelve and it was miserable and raining and I found myself in need of a diversion, I discovered it in my turn – just a book among the many on my mother’s shelves. I took it upstairs to my room and opened it with no great expectations. Like my mother, I can still recall the day. This was the 70s, and with a little effort you could still track down the paperback reissues of the books of Jan Cox Speas that had been recently put out by Avon. I went out and bought them, and I have them still. They are among the books I never lend.


In time I, too, became a writer, and when I designed my web site I set off a little corner for the writers I loved best. I wrote a brief piece about Jan Cox Speas, not much more than a line or two, inviting anybody who could tell me any more about her life to get in touch. Somebody got in touch. I opened up my email one day to discover this amazing salutation: “Greetings from Jan Speas’s Daughter”. That daughter, Cynthia Speas, sent me pictures and book cover images so I could put up a proper page here for her mother. She read my book The Winter Sea, and wrote me a letter of praise that I keep on my desk to encourage me. While chatting by email about her mom’s writing – the authors she liked best, the struggles she faced, and the memories her family still have of her – Cindy and I both discovered that we, and our mothers, share so much in common.


In just under three weeks we’ll meet face to face for the first time, when I go to Washington D.C. for the Romance Writers of America National Conference. Cindy plans to meet me at the airport. We will spend an afternoon together, hunting down locations for my next Emma Cole book. And on the final night of the Conference, at the glitzy RITA awards gala, Cindy will be sitting with me as my guest to share my nervousness about my nomination for The Winter Sea.


It’s really kind of wonderful, I think, the way life works sometimes. I’m sure when Jan Cox Speas sat down to write Bride of the MacHugh over half a century ago, it never occurred to her that she was setting in motion a chain of connections that one day would end with her daughter becoming my friend. But I’m glad that she did. And it just goes to show how much impact one book, or one writer, can have on our lives.  

(The photo above is of me and Cindy Speas in Washington, D.C., in July 2009 - taken by her husband, John Clewett.)


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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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In the Bath

Posted May 13, 2009


A little while ago I happened to be reading a review of former US Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s memoir, The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World, in which the reviewer quoted Greenspan as saying, ‘To this day the bathtub is where I get many of my best ideas.’ It turns out that Greenspan wrote most of his memoirs, in fact, while immersed in the bath, and that he’s in the habit of doing this. As Greenspan’s wife, Andrea Mitchell, explained to a reporter: ‘He first started soaking in the tub because of his bad back. He found it was good quiet time to have uninterrupted focus to marshal his ideas.’ And why does this interest me, I hear you asking?


Because for some years now, whenever I come to a difficult place in my writing, the first thing I do is to run a hot bath. An hour or so of soaking and my characters inevitably stir and start to talk, and I emerge with scribbled water-spotted pages filled with random bits of dialogue and thoughts for scenes, enough to get my story moving. I never really mentioned this to anyone, because I assumed it was simply a personal quirk of mine, the predictable result of listening to too much Flanders and Swann in my childhood. But since reading the Greenspan review I’ve been Googling round, and I’ve learned that I’m far from alone in my habit. In fact, I appear to belong to a whole club of bath-loving writers with members as varied as Benjamin Franklin and Agatha Christie. And while I don’t know whether Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his bath, he did write a piece in the Saturday Review on the subject of Inspiration, stating openly, ‘Some prefer the bathtub to the study...’


So there you are. Why I’m inspired in the bathtub I really don’t know, though I privately suspect that the effects of lying neck-deep in warm water with the white noise of the bathroom fan obscuring outside sound comes fairly close to the experience of lying in an isolation tank – sometimes called a ‘sensory deprivation tank’ – in which most people’s brainwaves slow to a speed known as ‘theta’, the daydreaming state that falls somewhere between relaxed ‘alpha’ and sound-asleep ‘delta’. My creative subconscious, in other words, gets time to play. It’s a theory, at any rate. One I believe I’ll go ponder awhile...in the bath.  

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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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Leaving Well Enough Alone

Posted February 1, 2009


When Allison & Busby decided to put Mariana back in print, the first problem facing us was the lack of an up-to-date electronic manuscript. The original manuscript was all on 5 ¼ -inch floppy discs (remember them?) and didn’t include all the back-and-forth editing that had gone on between me and my editors, both in the UK and US.


The solution was to scan in a print book, convert the scan to text and then clean up the text file till we had a proper manuscript to work with. Which seemed simple at the time – so simple, in fact, that I offered to do it myself, thinking since I had written the thing in the first place I’d be far more likely to catch any errors that might have cropped up when the file was converted. I was fully prepared to find lines missing, words spelled wrong, all of the usual things that are part of the process. The part that I wasn’t prepared for was having to constantly fight the temptation to change things.


Not big things – a word here and there; a description; a phrase that I would have put differently if I had written the book today... Because as writers we’re constantly learning our craft and refining our style, and in making the new manuscript of Mariana I had to reread every word so closely that I couldn’t help but wonder if it really wouldn’t sound better to use this other word instead... And each time I would have to catch myself, and stop myself, and tell myself to leave the book alone. And so I did (well, for the most part – I did take out at least two commas, I confess).  But fighting that temptation was no easy thing, I’ll tell you.


Still, it seems I’m not the only writer who has had to face this. Leo Tolstoy wrote: “I scarcely ever reread my published writings, but if by chance I come across a page, it always strikes me: all this must be rewritten, this is how I should have written it.” It’s always nice to know I’m not alone!


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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 1, 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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By Any Name

Posted November 27, 2008


Titles are rarely a problem for me. Usually the perfect title for a book presents itself just after I start writing it – I find a line of poetry and something just leaps out at me and seems to fit the story and the theme, and that’s the end of it.


Mariana, for example, was an easy one. I’ve always loved Tennyson, and in his poem “Mariana” I not only felt the longing of the woman who was waiting for her lover to come back to her, but he had also penned those perfect lines about the house itself:

Old faces glimmer’d thro’ the doors,

Old footsteps trod the upper floors,

Old voices called her from without.

There wasn’t any question in my mind what I should call that book.


But now and then, a title gives me trouble. The Winter Sea went through several names, none of them right, before one of the characters in it (Colonel Graeme) made a comment to my heroine about “the winter sea” and in a moment of epiphany I thought, ‘Aha! That’s what the book’s about.’ But it did take awhile. And now I’m coming to the ending of my latest book, and I’m still sifting titles in my head in search of one that fits.


It started as November Eve, which had a lovely sound and fit the story in a lot of ways, but might be problematic for my publishers in Britain. And besides, it’s set in Cornwall, where November Eve’s not called “November Eve” –  they call it “Allantide”, which doesn’t really have the same ring for me. So I’m sifting. Reading endless books of poetry and song lyrics and plays, and hoping something will leap out at me so I won’t have to call this book “The Cornish Book” forever...  


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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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The Kindness of Strangers

Posted June 16, 2008


The run-up to a book’s publication is filled with many last-minute tasks and printers’ deadlines, and it wasn’t until the final printed copies of The Winter Sea had been delivered that my  U.K. publisher and I both realized that the “Note of Thanks” that I had written to be put in at the end had been left out, somehow. I’m hoping it can be squeezed in to the paperback edition later this year, but until then, here is what ought to have been on the book’s final page:

When doing my research, like most writers, I must depend on the kindness of strangers, and in Cruden Bay I was spoilt by kindness. So many people, from the shopkeepers to people I passed on the street, gave me friendly advice and assistance, that even if I'd learnt their names I doubt I'd have the space to list them here! I'm grateful above all to Joyce , Stuart and Alison Warrander of the St Olaf Hotel (pictured above), where I stayed, who made sure that my room (#4) had a view of both Slains and the sea, so that I could imagine what Carrie was seeing. The Warranders and their staff were incredibly helpful to me, as were their regulars in the hotel's public bar, who cheerfully answered my questions and even suggested the perfect place for me to put Carrie 's cottage. My thanks also to all the drivers of Elaine 's Taxis who ferried me around, and to Elaine herself who took good care of me and even switched the meter off one afternoon to help me hunt down some of my elusive settings. I'm also grateful to the landlord and staff of the Kilmarnock Arms, and to local historian and fellow author Mrs Margaret Aitken and her husband and daughter, who were kind enough to have me in to tea and share their knowledge of the history of the area. I'm indebted to both Brenda Murray and Rhoda Buchan of the Cruden Bay Library, who searched out articles and books for me and found me details I could not have found without their help. I've tried to repay all this kindness by getting my facts right. I hope I've succeeded, and that you'll forgive me if I've slipped up anywhere. Finally I owe thanks to Jane, for her years of encouragement, and to her family, for welcoming me to Glendoick.

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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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A Mother’s Touch

Posted May 06, 2008


With Mother’s Day approaching, I’ve decided that it’s high time I paid tribute – proper tribute – to the role my mother plays behind the scenes in all my books.


I have a private theory that most writers have one person, a “first reader” whom they show unfinished work to, whose opinion means the most to them, and who can both inspire and advise them to produce the best work possible. And when a writer whose books I have always loved begins to lose their magic touch, I wonder if perhaps they haven’t lost their own first reader, that rare person who won’t let us get away with being mediocre.


I didn’t start letting my mother read my work until I’d begun Mariana, and I still remember her first comment. After reading through the section where my heroine had bought a house and moved into the countryside from London, my mother put the pages to one side and asked, ‘Why isn’t her mother calling her?’ And she was right! There’d be no chance that I could buy a house and blithely pull up stakes and move without my parents at least pitching in to help me pack. I’d forgotten that my characters had families, and that had to be accounted for.


Since then, my mother reads all of my books as they are written, and whenever I get lazy with the plot she points it out, and when I try to make a character do something out of character she calls me on it. When I’m stuck it’s often something she says on the phone that starts me off again, and her notes and careful editing suggestions help me make each book the best that it can be. My mother’s touch may be invisible to those of you who read my books, but not to me. And when I get it right – when I can write something my mother loves, no other critic matters.


So this Mother’s Day, I’d like to say a very public ‘Thank You’ for the work my mother does, and the support and love she gives me every day that makes it possible for me to tell my stories. She is truly my “first reader”, and I’m fortunate to have her.


(The photo above shows my mother enduring the hardship of being my research assistant in Greece...)  

        

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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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Jitters

Posted March 31, 2008


‘This is a moment of suspense...’  So wrote George Eliot a century and a half ago when her novel Adam Bede first hit the bookstores. A few weeks later she was still pacing the floors, awaiting the reaction of the critics and wondering, ‘...Can anything be done in America for “Adam Bede?” I suppose not - as my name is not known there.’ I find it comforting to read those letters, since they reassure me that I’m not the only writer who has ever felt this way on publication day.


Someone once told me they supposed it must feel much like sending out a child into the world and hoping they’ll do well, but to be honest, that’s not how it feels to me. My children are my children. My books are...well, they’re parts of me.


So this month, with The Winter Sea on shelves at last in Germany and Britain, I feel more like I’m arriving at a party, like I’m standing in the doorway of a room that’s filled with people. Some are friends and some are strangers and I’m wavering between my wanting everyone to notice me, to like me, and my hoping I won’t fall flat on my face in my new shoes. I know not everyone will be impressed, and some won’t likely notice that I’m even at the party, but I’m always hopeful that I’ll make new friends, and get to spend some time with old ones.


‘I perceive that I have not the characteristics of the “popular author,”’ George Eliot wrote shortly after Adam Bede was published, ‘and yet I am much in need of the warmly expressed sympathy which only popularity can win.’ I understand exactly how she felt.


(The quotes above are taken from George Eliot’s Life as related in her Letters and Journals, Arranged and edited by her husband, J.W. Cross, 1885)

           

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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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Up With Romance

Posted February 13, 2008


In honour of tomorrow, I’ve been thinking of the power of romance.


Forget the people who claim they don’t read “those kind of books”– there are few books in any genre, from the latest graphic novel to the most experimental work of literature, that don’t include at least a subplot thread of romance somewhere. With good reason.


There is nothing that gives meaning to the human life like love. It seems we’re born to seek it, find it, share it, lose it, and remember it until the day we die. The classic tales of romance that were told five hundred years ago still resonate today, and any writer who sets out to tell a story of the lives of men and women has to deal with love at some point. There’s no way to get around it, and no reason why we’d want to


I’m not arrogant enough to think that humans are the only creatures capable of feeling love...I only know that we’re not fully human till we feel it. So whatever way you like it best - with happy endings or with tears and tragedy – let’s raise a glass to romance, and remember why we need it in our lives.           


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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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Beginnings

Posted January 13, 2008


I’m sitting in my writing-room and looking out my window at a world of newly fallen snow, unmarked and perfect and as blankly white as all the yet unwritten pages of the new book I’ve just started. There’s no way, looking at the snow, of telling what lies underneath it – where the rosebushes begin, or where the rocks lie. Just as I’ve no way of knowing what will happen in my book.


I always start this way, with an idea and a group of characters, some notion of the challenges they’ll face, and of the ending. But I never really know what they’ll get up to once they start to come alive; what I’ll discover when I step into that garden full of snow. It’s an adventure, and like all adventures carries both excitement and a bit of trepidation, since I also never know how long the journey’s going to take.


I like to think I know. It ought to be an easy calculation – so many pages per day, for so many days, equals the right length of manuscript – and as an engineer’s daughter I have an inherited liking for schedules and lists...but the truth is, each book takes the time that it takes, so I really don’t know. Still, I’m putting my boots on, and stepping out into the snow, and we’ll see what I find.      


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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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Old Friends

Posted December 22, 2007


Having just finished reading the proofs of The Winter Sea, with all the words I’ve written set in proper type and looking for the first time like a real book, I’ve been thinking on and off about the process of re-reading what I’ve written.


There are writers who hate doing it, who purposely avoid their books once published. I can sympathize. Apart from finding all the minor errors that slipped past my blurring vision on the proof-read, I inevitably find a phrase I think I should have written better, or a bit of dialogue that ought to be reworked. I’m not alone, I know. No less a writer than the great Leo Tolstoy said that, if by chance he ever came across a page of his own writing, ‘it always strikes me: all this must be rewritten, this is how I should have written it.’ But for the most part, I confess that I enjoy the act of reading my own books.


For one thing, by the time a book is set in print, it’s often been some months since I last spent time with those characters – I’m hard at work on something else by then, and there’s a certain pleasure setting that new work aside for a few hours, as though old friends I haven’t seen awhile have just dropped by to visit. And for every line I read that I would like to have rewritten, there’s another that reads better than I’d ever hoped it would. So there’s a balance.


And in this last reading of The Winter Sea, there was an unexpected outcome: Several characters I thought I’d put to rest began to stir again, and speak to one another, and to me, so that I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that they, in time, demand a sequel...      


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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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Hollywood Dreams

Posted October 30, 2007


I love movies. I come by it honestly – my grandfather was a projectionist, one of those unseen magicians who used to sit up in that little booth over the audience, changing the reels at the right moment, bringing the movies to life on the screen. Little wonder my mother developed a passion for Hollywood magazines when she was young, or that I, in my turn, spent my childhood soaking up Saturday matinees at our town’s theatre, or that even now I still go to the movies each week with my friends, every Friday night after my kids are in bed. I love movies.


So few things in this business can excite me like the news that a producer wants an option on a book I’ve written. I know this doesn’t mean that there will ever be a movie; that in fact the work involved in bringing everything together at the same time – actors, script, financing, distribution, and the hundred other things it takes to make a film these days – would make the art of juggling knives look easy by comparison. Most projects that get optioned never make it to the screen, and those that do have usually arrived there after years of tortured travelling.


But still, it’s nice to dream. And nice to know that there are people like the ones I’ve just met in Vancouver, who in spite of all the odds believe that they can bring my books to film. I wish them luck.      


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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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Creating Our Characters

Posted September 24, 2007


One of my favourite films this summer has been Becoming Jane, which was inspired by the biography Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence, who appears to have triggered a bit of a backlash from Jane Austen scholars disputing his opinion of Jane’s feelings for Tom Lefroy.


As a writer myself, I have my own opinion, but I realize it’s pointless to argue with those historians who have decided they know better. Let’s just say I believe, having read the evidence, that Pride and Prejudice would not have been the same book if Jane hadn’t ever met Mr Lefroy.


Search through any writer’s life, and you will find a host of people who have turned up later on in stories. One of the joys of reading Agatha Christie’s autobiography is meeting all the people who inspired some of her most interesting minor characters. And I’m sure if I ever sat down to write an autobiography myself, the same sort of connections between people in my life and in my books would be as obvious.


Certainly there are at least two characters in The Winter Sea who wouldn’t have existed if I’d never crossed paths with their real-world counterparts. A handful of people who know me will spot the first, but I’ll lay odds almost no one, including the person in question, will notice the second.


A thought, perhaps, for those Jane Austen scholars who seem so convinced that they can know the true intentions of a writer’s private mind...       


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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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On the Shore

Posted August 30, 2007


I ended last month with a week in a cottage just steps from the beach on the shore of Lake Huron, where I grew up. I have a little ritual about the beach:  The minute that I step on sand, my shoes come off and stay off, like they did when I was five years old. There’s nothing that relaxes me as much as walking on the shore at sunrise, or at sunset, with the waves around my ankles and the seagulls overhead and almost no one else around to break the solitude.


It was a sunrise walk this time that set me thinking of how many times I’ve set my books along a shore. It wasn’t a thing that I consciously did, but the pattern was there all the same, when I looked for it. Only The Gemini Game, which was set in the western horse country of South Carolina, had no water anywhere. Undertow was all about the shore, and even Mariana had a river running through it for my heroine to wade in. The Splendour Falls had the River Vienne, The Shadowy Horses was set on the Scottish east coast, Named of the Dragon took place on the Angle peninsula all but surrounded by sea, and Season of Storms moved from Venice’s ancient canals to the shores of Lake Garda. The harbours of New York and Lisbon may not play a leading role in Every Secret Thing, but they’re still there, and in my coming book The Winter Sea...well, you can probably guess that my characters spend a fair bit of time walking near water, in this case a beach not unlike the one I walked in childhood.


The countries may change, but the pull of the shoreline is always the same for me, as is my need to return now and then to walk barefoot on sand with the waves round my ankles and no one but seagulls for company.   


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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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No Ivory Tower

Posted July 12, 2007


The first time I read Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel (the daily notes he wrote to his editor while he worked on his classic East of Eden) I remember envying his solitude - he always seemed to be sharpening pencils (he really liked sharpening pencils) alone in his room while his wife kept the world from his door. But on re-reading the book several years later, now that I have children of my own, I can’t help noticing the little things I missed the first time round, and seeing just how much of that apparent solitude was an illusion.


Sure, Steinbeck’s two boys lived most of the time with his second wife, their mother. And his third wife did do a masterful job of ensuring his writing-time wasn’t disturbed. But even when his sons were not physically there, he still thought of them; worried about them. And when they were there, they were...well, they were kids.


‘The children are unusually noisy today,’ reads one of his entries, ‘but I haven’t the heart to make them stop.’ I know exactly how he felt, just as I understand his constant efforts to squeeze his writing-time into a schedule of birthdays and holidays, his step-daughter’s school plays, and doctors’ appointments. Like him, I have no ivory tower to write in, just a completely unfortified corner that’s breached on a regular basis...and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Among the many gems in Stephen King’s amazing book On Writing is the tale of his ‘T.rex desk’. I won’t spoil it for you, because you ought to read it for yourself, but here’s the moral: ‘Put your desk in the corner,’ King advises, ‘and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art.  It’s the other way around.’ Amen.    


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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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Out of Fashion

Posted June 24, 2007


This month I decided it was time to update my ‘Authors I Love’ corner. Easy enough, I thought. I picked the next two names from my list, pulled the pictures from my file, and started searching on the Internet for links to their biographies. An hour or so went by. No luck. All right, I thought, and chose two more writers. Nothing for them, either. While I came across their names and books in other people’s lists of favourites, nowhere could I find even the briefest of biographies, an interview, obituary, anything. Which baffled me at first, then made me sad.


These are my favourites, after all - authors whose books I have read and re-read. All wrote several books, all were well-known, well-reviewed, some were major best-sellers. All of them deserve better than to be forgotten.


Fashions in this business come and go, I know – new genres evolve and develop while others fall from favour, but good writing - and good writers – should endure. If you agree, then for my sake seek out the authors that I’ve featured. Hunt their books down in your library, or in used bookstores. If you like them, pass them on to your family and friends. They were famous for a reason in their day, these writers.


Read them, and you’ll understand.

(I’m happy to report that since I wrote this entry and created my own tribute page for Gregory Clark, pictured above, a listing for ‘Greg Clark, journalist’ has appeared on Wikipedia.)    


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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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The Dogs of Zeus

Posted May 21, 2007


I love animals – not a surprise to my readers, I’m sure, since it’s a rare book of mine that doesn’t have a dog or cat (or two) prowling through the pages. So when I knew that the plot of my next Emma Cole book was going to take me to Greece, a place I’ve always longed to visit, I braced myself for the inevitable and heart-wrenching appearance of stray dogs.


I’d been warned already by friends who went often to Greece, and I’d had a small taste of it already in Portugal, where I’d wanted to bring every skinny, unloved, shaggy mutt home to Canada with me. And when I walked through the gates of the Temple of Zeus, an ancient ruin at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, and saw several dogs lounging around the entrance, I felt sad at first...till I noticed that these dogs, though collarless, seemed to be well-fed and happy. A few of them fearlessly played in the grass at the feet of the towering columns, and as I walked round I discovered the un-ancient ruins of a tennis ball, chewed beyond use.


Suspicions growing, I approached one of the young uniformed guards, who stood off to one side in the shade with another dog sleeping not far from his feet. The dogs? Yes, he said, smiling, the guards had adopted them. ‘We give them food,’ he explained, ‘and they give us their company.’ He told me a few of their names, and he pointed out Paris, ‘the ancient one’, who was approaching the equivalent of 100 in human years.


And though I saw many wonderful things on my visit to Greece, nothing touched me as deeply as that small time spent at the Temple of Zeus, in this place where one feels that the gods might still walk in their varied disguises among us, and where it seems fitting that old dogs should play in the care of young men, and find peace.     


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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 Mysteries of Memory

Posted April 09, 2007


I’m fascinated by genetics – not just in the tangible sense, like the fact I’m a dead ringer for my grandmother, but the little things that get passed on, like how my son can have the same small mannerisms as my dad.


My research for The Winter Sea, a story that is built around the concept of ancestral memory, introduced me to a world of academic studies and genetic theories that suggest we might all have the memories of our ancestors encoded in our genes. It’s quite a thought. And it just might explain that small, strange incident in 1994 when I was hurrying to make it to my Mariana launch party in London, at a restaurant in a section of the city where I’d never been.


My cab driver got lost, and by some miracle I managed to direct him through the maze of streets -  turn right, turn left, go straight down there. The words just came. It wasn’t till I’d got us on the proper street at last that it occurred to me: I had just brought us through the heart of Kensington - the very part of London where my mother’s family’s ancestors had lived and walked 200 years before.


So yes, I think about genetic memory sometimes. And I wonder...

(The miniature portrait  above is of my ancestor Thomas Peter Marter, who lived in London before emigrating to New Brunswick, Canada.)  


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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.








The posts for 2007, 2008 and 2009 were archived from this site and my old Emma Cole web site, so you may see two posts for the same date.

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A blog, to be a proper blog, needs to be updated every few days. This was never a blog. It just looked like one.


To free up a little more time for my writing, I’ve decided to archive my Not-A-Blog. What I’ve already written will stay here to read, and I’ll still be posting at my group blog, The Heroine Addicts, and (less predictably) at my own blog, A Woman in Jeopardy.


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