1. A question from Katy Noyes on the TV Book Club Facebook Group: Where does the writing process begin? 'The big idea'? Chapter one? A character?
For me it's definitely the Big Idea - from which all other aspects of the story follow on. For instance, I had no thought whatsoever of writing The Somnambulist until the night when I visited Wilton's (a Victorian music hall that is still open to the public today) for a production of Handel's baroque operetta, Acis and Galatea. The venue's faded glory, combined with the wonderful music, was almost like a gift, so magical and inspiring that I woke up the following morning with the opening scenes of a story. I knew it would start in Wilton's hall and I knew that the themes of the plot would echo those of the opera: a story of the tragic consequences of jealousy and thwarted passions. But, in addition to that, the character of Phoebe was there from the start, with the words she speaks in the opening lines very clearly in my mind.
2. A question from Samantha on channel4.com/tvbookclub: Where and how do you engage in the writing of your work?
I am ashamed to admit that a great deal of my writing is done in bed. I have a little table with legs, upon which my pc and coffee cup sit. But, as I tend to be a writer who 'makes it up as she goes along' rather than plotting a novel, I can often be seen when out and about scribbling in notebooks - whenever a new thought springs to mind.
3. A question from Mez on channel4.com/tvbookclub: Who or what has influenced your style of writing?
Because I write Victorian novels the style is somewhat formal, and much of the inspiration for the structure and tone comes from the novels of the era: mainly sensational stories with strong characters and twisting plots by authors such as Wilkie Collins who wrote The Woman in White. I'm also a great fan of contemporary authors such as Sarah Waters, Rose Tremain, Charles Palliser and Michael Cox, whose work has certainly inspired my own. As to 'what' has influenced me, I would definitely say the architecture of the Victorian era: glorious settings still in existence today, which provide the backdrops for my plots. And I must not forget the art - both the paintings and the photography - all those wonderful images that so vividly bring the 19th century to life.
4. A question from Jo Baines on the TV Book Club Facebook Group: Do you feel it's inevitable that an author's life experiences will influence their writing or is it possible to write a book that is pure imagination and creative process?
A really good question. Certainly, when creating a historical novel the author can never actually 'visit' and must therefore do lots of research, to try and understand the physical 'reality' of the time, along with a sensibility of the practical and psychological restrictions imposed on any characters, which in the case of The Somnambulist would be the lack of freedom and choice for many female characters, or the fact that the means of travel and communication were by no means as easy or swift as today, allowing a sense of isolation and peril. However, regarding the human condition - the emotions and motives in relationships - to a great extent these would be the same as they are today and many scenarios are inevitably drawn from the core of personal experience. In my case, I drew on the 'loss' of my father when I was seven years old. But, from that seed, the story of Phoebe and her father was expanded into entirely imaginary realms.
5. A question from Ali on channel4.com/tvbookclub: My GCSE English teacher told me (a few years ago now), that when authors write a book they know exactly what the plot is, and wouldn't start without knowing what the end will be. I've always found this difficult to believe; is it true!?
Many authors do plan out an entire novel before committing to writing, but that's certainly not true for me. When writing The Somnambulist I simply let the plot carry me along. It was quite an adventure and I really enjoyed the 'not knowing'. However, having said that, with the new novel that I'm currently working on I do have an ending firmly in mind: a final dramatic scene that everything else will lead to, even if I have no idea how I am going to get there.
6. How old were you when you had your first book published, and what were you doing before you were a writer?
I was 50! I was a very late starter although the desire to write was always scratching away inside. When I first left university I worked for the Telegraph Sunday Magazine and was then employed on the editorial staff of a major London publisher. However, when I was pregnant I began to work from home as a commercial illustrator; a career that lasted many years.
7. A question from the TV Book Club Facebook Group: In a crowded market many authors don't get published; what's the secret of your success?
Oh, if I had an answer to that. The only advice I can offer is for any aspiring authors to read as much as they can, particularly in the genre to which they aspire to write. Read the very best and assimilate what it is you like about that work, and then put it away and create your very own world. Write what you love and, above all, enjoy the writing process.
7. A question inspired by Yaisa's suggestion on channel4.com/tvbookclub: How much research do you have to do, which are the most difficult types of scenes to research, and have you ever had to go to extreme or unusual lengths to research a scene?
Being an historical novelist I need to do a lot of research, much of which never finds its way into the novel at all, though none of it is wasted, often being reproduced in my blog, The Virtual Victorian. As far as my fiction is concerned, before starting work I read broadly around a subject, to really get a sense of place, time and language, of how people lived and what they wore as well as political and social constraints. The most difficult scenes to research for The Somnambulist were those taking place around the docks, particularly with regard to the episodes concerning prejudice against Jewish immigrants. They were also the hardest scenes to write because I was acutely aware of needing to be honest, but not wanting to cause any offence through the thoughts and words of my less sympathetic characters. As to going to any unusual lengths - well, although I didn't even know I was going to write the novel at the time, much of the research for the country scenes comes from a time when I was 18, when I worked as a cleaner at Dinwood Court (really known as Hampton Court) during my university holidays. The somewhat foreboding atmosphere, as well as the beauty of the grounds, had a profound and lasting influence.
8. What's the most outlandish idea you've ever had for a storyline, and has it made it into one of your books?
Before writing The Somnambulist I worked on another Victorian novel about a group of spiritualist mediums being consulted by Queen Victoria after the death of Prince Albert. The plot involved the theft of a sacred Indian diamond, the appearance of Hindoo gods and goddesses, ghosts, a teenage pregnancy, and a tragic drowning. You might say I threw everything into the pot, but that novel is still very dear to my heart and who knows? One day, it might be resurrected.
9. And another question from the TV Book Club Facebook Group: What do you think of e-readers and would you ever consider providing additional content for readers who use them (e.g. pictures, video clips, web links)?
There is nothing like the feel of a real book in your hands and, for now at least, e-books can't compete with the lure of beautiful cover artwork. Even so, whenever I'm travelling I take my e-reader with me. I love the fact that it weighs next to nothing and that I can upload any number of titles. We are only at the dawn of this new revolution in digital technology and I am convinced that in the very near future we will be embracing the means of providing readers with additional content. For instance, with The Somnambulist I would love to provide maps and pictures of East London and Herefordshire to show all the places described. There could be links to artwork, and downloads of Handel's music. It's very exciting.