When did you begin writing and how did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
I started reading at the age of two, and fell in love with stories, but I can’t remember when I first began to write on my own. I do remember being seven, sitting at the kitchen table writing Chapter One of something, while my mother did the dishes. That was the year that I read Little Women, and connected instantly with Jo. I thought it would be wonderful to be a writer, just like her.
After that, I was always writing something – stories, poetry, song lyrics – but I never thought that it was something I could make my living doing. Writers were people who lived in New York and dressed in black and were angst-ridden, and I was none of those things. So I went into museum work instead, which I absolutely loved. But then I finished my first novel and that feeling was like nothing else. I realized then that writing was the thing that I was meant to do, the thing that made me happiest.
How did you go about getting your first book published?
When I finished my first book, a short mystery-romance called Undertow, I was very naive about publishing. I sent the book out and it came back, rejected, and I threw it into a drawer for a year. But then I read Phyllis A. Whitney’s wonderful Guide to Fiction Writing, which reminded me that ‘luck can’t happen to manuscripts left in drawers’, so I took her advice and learned all that I could about the business of publishing – studying the markets and the editors, to find the companies that might be interested in publishing my style of writing. Four years and a lot of stamps later, the book finally sold to a small New York firm.
I’ve always found it funny that, after all those years of wanting to be just like Jo in Little Women, my first book sold for the same advance that Jo was paid for her first book....over a hundred years earlier.
What is your writing schedule like?
It changes. In the beginning, because I had another job – first as a museum curator, then when that became too difficult to juggle with my writing time, a waitress – I wrote at night. That was the only time available to me, and besides, I liked the peace and quiet, and my subconscious seemed somehow more active at night.
Then, when I had children, my writing time became their nap time – early afternoon, because by nighttime I was too exhausted to do much real writing. Now that they’re a little older, I’m more fluid in my schedule – sometimes morning, sometimes afternoon, and even sometimes back to those late nights I used to love the best. When I get near the end of a book though, I write at all hours, whenever I can, because the story by that point is coming much faster and I’m so wrapped up in it then I don’t like coming out of it.
How do you go about your research?
As a former museum curator, getting the facts right is very important to me. I always travel to my settings, which are usually small towns and villages, places where the people take me in and love to help me. I need to know what flowers grow along the coastline, and how the ground feels underneath my feet, and how the air smells when I breathe it. And I come home with hundreds of photographs, to help me hold those memories.
But the research doesn’t stop with setting. For The Winter Sea, for example, I had to learn the history of the Stewart kings, the Jacobite movement, and the period of Union between England and Scotland – a turbulent time – which meant trying to track down old first-hand accounts to get close to the truth of what actually happened. On top of that, I had to study the various theories of memory and how the brain stores it and what role genetics might play in the process. And then I had to read up on the navy of Queen Anne, and naval warfare, and the movements of the ships along the coast. And Scottish fashion of the period – the types of wigs that people wore, their manners and the food they ate, and since the story takes place north of Aberdeen, I had to learn a little of the Doric language still used in that area.
The research and the writing form a symbiotic process – what I research drives my writing, and what I write determines what I need to research. It’s a process that begins when a story first starts to take shape, and continues right through to the end.
So how do your stories start to take shape? Where do you get your ideas?
There’s no simple answer to that – every story is different. Mariana began with a scene from the book that just came to me, out of thin air. I saw it like a movie in my mind, and I just wrote it down – the dialogue and all. And when I read what I had written I could tell it was a woman of the present day, but speaking of an incident that happened in the distant past, so then I knew the book would have to feature time travel. I wasn’t keen to tackle that, but the characters just wouldn’t go away, and so at last I had to try.
On the other hand, The Winter Sea had its beginnings almost twenty years ago, when I was browsing in a bookstore and by chance (or serendipity) picked up a book by historian John S. Gibson about the Franco-Jacobite invasion of 1708. Titled Playing the Scottish Card, the book began with a quote from Lord Dacre that said: ‘History is not merely what happened: it is what happened in the context of what might have happened.’
That line caught my fancy, and I bought the book. And when I finally got around to reading it years later, I was captured by the true-life tale of treachery and intrigue, and my own imagination started spinning scenes and characters from that.
My friend and fellow writer Molly O’Keefe hosts a great feature in her newsletter in which she sits down and virtually “talks shop” with writers about everything from inspiration to process. In September it was my turn. You can subscribe to Molly’s free newsletter here on her website, and I’m sure she’d be happy to send you the digital back-issue with our interview as well. Among the questions she asked me was this:
I’m a big fan of the dual timeline but it’s got to be hard especially with a book like A Desperate Fortune to make sure that the contemporary timeline doesn’t get overwhelmed by the historical timeline. (I say this because of Hugh, gorgeous, dangerous Hugh). How do you approach this problem?
Well, it’s never easy. Each book is different and it needs a different balance, and I’ve learned I’m never going to please everyone. For every reader who wants more of the present day story, there’s another who wants to read more of the past. It’s difficult because the past story is generally set in a turbulent time, with more scope for adventure and mystery. There may be conflict in the present as well, but it’s often more personal and more internal, a quieter kind of suspense. I just try to be always aware that my readers might not want to be pulled too abruptly from one tale to the other, so generally towards the end of the book I let the past story take centre stage for a while. (And as you know yourself, with Hugh, it wasn’t like I had a choice—he’s not the kind of character you get to boss around!)
To browse my archive of previous questions, just click here.