I’ve always loved stories. It didn’t matter where they came from. Books, movies, or real life family histories. People intrigue me; I love trying to work out what drives them to behave as they do, what secret fears or desires influence the way they connect (or fail to connect) with the world. My great-grandmother used to tell me to always try and see the good in others, and her philosophy touched me deeply. In trying to see the good, I sometimes had to unravel quite a lot of bad, which taught me that everyone – even the dullest among us – are a lot more complex beneath the surface than they seem at first glance.
Every person you meet is an untapped reservoir of emotions, relationships, fears and dreams and longings. It’s possible to know someone for 60 years at close proximity – a husband, say, or a sister – and you think you know everything about them there is to know. Then one day they take you by surprise, and you realise that you don’t know this person so very well after all. Who are they? How is it possible to have known them for so long, and yet not really know them at all?
These sorts of questions actually keep me awake at night. Of course, there are no definite answers. That’s why it’s such fun to explore them in stories. By using a number of viewpoint characters and weaving two or three – or sometimes more – timelines together, I can create a patchwork of personalities, who each bring another layer of intrigue into the tale.
I’ve always really loved ‘cold case’ mysteries, where a crime has remained unsolved for many years. It seemed only natural that my novels revolve around an unexplained crime. Going back and forth between different timeframes lets me tell part of the story through the eyes of the people most affected by the crime. This adds emotional weight to the mystery. If the reader gets involved with my historical characters, and comes to care about them and understand their motives, they’re more likely to respond to the emotional punch at the end when the mystery is solved.
When you use a similar plot structure for several novels, and often explore related themes, making each new story different takes a bit of thought. Of course, character traits and backstories, settings, and the core mystery take each book along a very different path. But I also like to infuse all my stories with a distinct tone or mood. The best way I’ve found to keep the freshness alive from one novel to the next is by making an inspiration wall. For every new project I collect photos and postcards and pictures torn out of magazines. Each image in some way embodies the particular mood and atmosphere of the book I’m working on.
For Beyond the Orchard, I had lots of stormy dark seascapes and tall castles shadowed by trees. I take snapshots of the TV and print out favourite characters from movies or TV series. I like group shots with interesting expressions and body language. I reinvent scenarios for them which helps me keep track of the relationships between my own characters.
I stick all these pictures on my wall to create an enormous collage, and constantly refer to it while I’m writing. I also make a playlist of tracks that reinforces the mood I’m cultivating. For me, anyway, the tone or ‘feeling’ of each story is distinct. The mood board and music helps me to visualise the setting, but they also stir up the emotions I’m trying to portray. They help me feel more intimately in tune with my cast of characters and the mystery that links them.