The Vanishing…

vanishing

‘If we take his life,’ she said, ‘we had best do it quickly.’

            ‘Madam,’ I said, ‘there is no “if”.’

I’m happy to say that my next book, The Vanishing, will be out in January 2017. Set in 1814-1815, it tells the story of Annaleigh, a foundling, who, in attempting to lead an independent life, finds herself drawn into a story of darkness and betrayal.

A large part of the book is set in Yorkshire, a place which has always intrigued me – not least because of my deep-rooted affection for the Brontë sisters’ work. Being a fan, and having re-read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights many times over the years, I felt I knew something of the landscape. But it was a second-hand, imaginary knowledge, gleaned from reading and dreaming; in reality, I hadn’t been there since I was a very small child, on a family holiday of which I retain only fragments of memory. So in 2014, and again in 2015, I went back to Yorkshire, not the Yorkshire of my imagination, but the real place; I discovered I loved it; and its epic, brutal beauty shaped The Vanishing.

On the Yorkshire Moors, in an isolated spot carved out of the barren landscape, lies White Windows, a house of shadows and secrets. Here lives Marcus Twentyman, a hard-drinking but sensitive man, and his sister, the brisk widow, Hester. 

When Annaleigh, a foundling who has fled her home in London, finds herself at the remote house, in service to the Twentymans, she discovers all is not as it seems.

 Isolated and lonely, Annaleigh is increasingly drawn to her master. And as their relationship intensifies, she soon realises that her movements are being controlled and her life is no longer her own. Slowly she is drawn into a web of intrigue and darkness, and soon she must face her fears if she is to save herself.

The Vanishing will be published by Simon and Schuster on 12 January 2017.

 

“In the sudden darkness, she felt alone…”

I admit, the image shown below is not a good photograph. It’s one of many I took when I was walking through the Shell Grotto in Margate (if you want to see some really beautiful images of it, I recommend that you go to their website, or, even better, visit it in person. It’s astonishing).

I went to the Shell Grotto because my Victorian tourists visit it in The Widow’s Confession, set in 1851. It’s a mysterious place: an underground grotto decorated with thousands of exotic shells in strange and intriguing patterns. Discovered by two children in 1835, no-one knows who made it, or why, and it has been a Margate tourist attraction ever since.

The locations I chose for my Victorian tourists to visit shaped the scenes that take place in the book, something which happened almost completely below the level of my awareness. The chapter set in the Shell Grotto turned out to be an important one. It forced my characters to descend from the bright sunshine of their seaside holiday into subterranean gloom. They have become entangled in a series of deaths, and the Grotto’s darkness brings these shadows into their consciousness. As Delphine walks along the uneven passage into the heart of the complex, she realises:

 She was in the midst of the party, but in the sudden darkness, breathing in the unfamiliar scent of the saturated air, she felt alone.

In fact, even today, with electric lighting rather than gaslight, the Grotto is a deliciously spooky place. In the book the visitors are startled by a cat jumping out at them, something which happened to me on our visit (another reason for really experiencing a place – it gives you details you could never dream up at your desk).

The Grotto also does something else. It forces my characters into close physical proximity with each other. These are true Victorians, papering over their feeling with etiquette, trying to be prim and proper, but there are many feelings seething below the surface. The strangeness of the Grotto, its enclosed space, and the stark relationship between daylight and darkness, loosens their inhibitions, just slightly:

The shells offered texture to the eye – but it was still cold, and dark. In most areas the gaslight offered little relief, but there were also apertures from which light fell and uncoiled, like white liquid, on the floor….

They moved around the rotunda, and Delphine looked up at a great shell-pocked blister of daylight, bluish-white to her eyes. She blinked, suddenly disorientated, and took a faltering step back.

She felt someone’s hands on the tops of her arms, hesitant, steadying her. The touch was such a gesture of intimacy that she thought it must have been Julia. But glancing back, she found Theo there, his face barely two inches from hers.

The photograph shown here became that moment for Delphine: a moment of disorientation, when she realises that many things are going on beneath the surface that she doesn’t yet understand.

Shell Grotto

“It is not a dead thing…”

Over the next few weeks I’m going to be blogging about some of the images which have inspired my writing. Looking at pictures, whether photographs, paintings or prints, is a way of unlocking my imagination, and the visual is central to everything I write. When I think of The Silversmith’s Wife, I see the foggy, crowded streets of late eighteenth-century London; when I think of my second book, The Widow’s Confession, it’s the wide open skies and unpredictable seas of the Kent coast.

The Widow’s Confession is set in the summer of 1851, and it centres around a group of Victorian tourists who find themselves entangled in a series of murders. When I started writing I already knew the area, but it was important to visit the places mentioned in the book to try and see them through my characters’ eyes. One such place was Reculver, which is dominated by the twin towers of the ruined St Mary’s Church; seeing it on the horizon had scared and fascinated me as a child. The site has been a Roman fort, an Anglo-Saxon estate of the Kentish kings, and a mediaeval monastery which then became a church. Now, it is dominated by the ruins of the church, at the edge of the cliff, and the King Ethelbert Inn.

We went there on a summer’s afternoon (sadly, the budget didn’t stretch to horse and carriage), and I took the photograph shown at the bottom of this page. That photograph became an important token to me – something I returned to again and again, when I wanted to remember what it had felt like to be there. And Reculver felt: dangerous, remote, beautiful, and charged with all the lives and ceremonies that had taken place there. It surprised me how strongly it moved me, in some intangible way I couldn’t quite grasp. I gave that feeling to my characters; and it became a place where they begin to consider how their lives have been changed by all that they have seen. At least two of them are in love; another two are terrified that the past is going to catch up with them. This place, so strange and wild, gives them the space to consider what will come next.

When I got home, I wrote the following. It’s an extract of a letter from Delphine Beck, one of the main characters in the book, and she is remembering the past:

Of Reculver, I remember the cold – the kind of cold you feel in your bones – the desolation of that spot, even in midsummer, though I do not know whether we found desolation there or brought it with us…

            The chill, deep blue of the sea, the grey of the flint towers, the clouds tracking above us, edged with light, hinting at the hidden radiance of the sun behind them…it is all stamped into my memory. And it is not a dead thing, like pressed flowers, or a shell washed clean of its sand; it lives and scintillates, so that sometimes from my chair, I have watched it in my mind, a scene before me, on the canvas of the empty walls of the room.

This small, grainy photograph can take me back there in a moment.

Reculver

Thanks for the advice, Mr Hemingway

I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve never read anything by Ernest Hemingway. I know I should have. I even remember holding For Whom the Bell Tolls in my pudgy eleven-year-old hands in Broadstairs Library and thinking it was the best book title in the history of book titles (I took the book out from the library; I can’t even remember if I got past the first page). Anyway, I’m hoping to get past my Ernest Hemingway block soon. Promise.

However, there are two things I do know about Ernest Hemingway:

  • He wrote standing up.
  • He said: Write drunk, edit sober.

The first point is excellent advice and should be taken literally. The second I love, but I take it as metaphorical advice. He was a legendary drinker, and it’s safe to say if Mr H and I had ever chilled out together in the humid air of a Key West bar with rotor-fan beating above our heads, he would have drunk me under the table in the time it took for us to discuss why I’d never got round to reading one of his splendid books. But I absolutely agree with the spirit of write drunk, edit sober. I’m going to take it as: you should write as if you’re absolutely free. Free from judgement, free from the eyes of the world, free from inhibition.

This is in my mind at the moment because – having finished my second book – I’m writing the very first draft of something, and it feels new and precious. It needs lots of energy and lots of joy. And when I’m writing, when I’m walking down the streets of an eighteenth-century world which is utterly foreign to my twenty-first-century experience, it’s a heady, energy soaked feeling. We’re getting a bit drunk together, eighteenth-century London and I. We’re falling in love.

Then, at some point soon, I will have to sit down with my story and assess our future: clear-eyed, in the cold winter light. And all of those sweetly laid-down, bubbling words with all their bright, shining energy, will have to be edited and sculpted, and whole swathes of them will disappear for good – because, well, that’s the way it has to be.

But for now, I’m just enjoying the intoxication of it. And I’m sure Mr Hemingway would raise his glass to that.

A missed connection

I’ve lost one of my favourite writers.

At the turn of the year they deleted their blog. When I saw it was gone, I felt faintly hysterical, as though someone had silently walked through the rooms of my flat and removed a book from a shelf.

Although they’re no longer on the web, and I can therefore no longer read them, many of the blogs remain in my mind as discrete units – not the words (I wish I could remember the words) but the images, still vivid with their own particular light. That writer pinned down the fleeting moments of revelation in the everyday. I occasionally try to tell other people about it, but they’re just hearing my garbled versions, second-hand. It’s as if I’m trying to sing a song they haven’t heard: no this is a great one, listen! when they need to hear the original.

In short, those words should have been in a book. And I had no luck convincing that writer to continue writing their blog; why should I, when we are just a little more than strangers?

To me, though, it doesn’t feel like they are a stranger. Because the best writing is a direct connection between writer and reader; a meeting of minds across time and distance. When it works, it fires a connection into life. But if the connection between writer and reader fails, it can be painful – the snap of a blown fuse and a trip-switch into temporary darkness.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is: for every writer, letting the world in can be hard. When I write, I forget to be afraid – but when I publish, well, that’s a different thing altogether and requires a thicker skin (hear that hollow tap, tap, as you knock on my shell).

I’ll miss that writer, though I understand their desire to retreat from the world. I’ll continue to remember the way their writing lit up my mind, and my day – and I hope that, in time, I’ll be able to read them again. They’re a much-missed connection.

My Writing Process blog tour

I’ve been invited to take part in the Writing Process blog tour by the brilliant Claire Fuller.  Claire’s debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, will be published by Fig Tree/Penguin in the UK in 2015, and by Tin House in the US.  You can find her blog post on the writing process here.

Here are my answers…

1)    What am I working on?

For the last few months I have been working intensively on my second book, a murder mystery set on the Kent coast in 1851.  It focuses on a group of visitors to the town of Broadstairs, and their relationships with each other over a long hot summer.  When bodies start to be washed up on the beach, the visitors’ lives and secrets start to be called into question.  It’s not a straightforward murder mystery – the relationships of the central characters are particularly complex – and I love depicting passion wrapped up in Victorian repression.

2)    How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I try not to judge myself against other authors – that way, madness lies – but if I was to define what I’m trying to do, it would be to give historical fiction emotional intensity and urgency.  I don’t write about real people – my characters are all fictional – and I don’t plot in advance, so I go where the characters take me.  I hope that the intensity I feel when writing will seep into the reader’s experience too.  In short, I really want to sock it to the reader – and I don’t want them to want to put the book down.  For this reason, I’m very selective about the quantity of historical detail I use – because I don’t want to break the reader’s sense of empathy or entrancement.  Ideally, the reader should feel that they have been transported, and are inhabiting the character’s world, but in a natural way.

3)    Why do I write what I do?

I think most writers would say they don’t choose their stories, the stories choose them, and I feel the same.  Much as I would love to write gritty contemporary stories, the past just has too much of a hold on me (for now, at least).  The idea for a story normally comes through pretty strongly when I’m working on another one, and I leave it to simmer for a while in the background.  Very often, the historical period and setting are clear to me very early on, as are at least two characters.  Once the idea is there, I wouldn’t want to write anything else.

4)    How does your writing process work?

I hesitate to call it a process, because that sounds like something methodical.  Step 1: I convince myself that I will be the complete mistress of my material, and will write the perfect novel straight off, with precision (rather than haphazardly, like ‘last time’).  Step 2: I write 30,000 words, read them, and throw them away because they’re dead on the page.  (In fact, I had two false starts on my current book – not both 30,000 words, luckily). I console myself with wine and pizza, helpfully provided by my husband, who has seen this coming.  Step 3: The real start of the writing process.  I start again and write a first draft, wildly, joyously, and with no idea what’s going to happen next (normally at this point characters start falling in love with the wrong people, arguing with each other, and bumping off strangers – this is, strangely, reassuring). Step 4: I revise the first draft repeatedly, until I feel it’s ready to go to my agent and editor. This is the longest phase, I find.  Then, it’s over to them for feedback…

Next week you’ll have the chance to read about the writing process of the wonderful Vicki Jarrett.  Vicki’s debut novel, Nothing is Heavy, was one of my favourite books of 2012, and was shortlisted for the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award.  If you haven’t read it yet, you should! Over to you, Vicki…