Welcome Jodi, now for the interrogation - evil cackle.
1. What were the beginnings of St Mary’s Chronicles for you and how did you build the world?
Actually, this is quite a difficult one to answer because there wasn’t a specific moment of blinding revelation, when I thought I would invent an organisation, call it St Mary’s and then write about it. I had a lot of vague ideas swirling around in my head, not going anywhere in particular. Max was very shadowy. She was always a redhead and might or might not be tall. Leon hardly existed. The identity of Mrs Partridge was not clear. Markham didn’t yet exist – and so on.
I do remember the moment I decided to put pen to paper. I was painting a wall at the time. I put down my brush and went down the road to the local Co-op, bought a recycled notebook and three pens, and started the next day.
My thinking was greatly influenced by my previous job – Facilities Manager for the Library Service in North Yorkshire – a position which consisted mainly of somehow, anyhow, and against all odds – MAKING THINGS WORK. I sat down and thought about St Mary’s and how it would function. There would be historians, obviously, but also a security section to keep them safe, a kitchen to feed them, R&D to blow things up, and admin team to pay them all, housekeeping and caretaking to keep things working – and so on.
Obviously, they’d have to be located out in the middle of nowhere, not just because of all the explosions, but there was the security aspect as well. An old house would be ideal and the county of Rushford already existed from another earlier (and so far undeveloped) idea.
And then there was the actual mechanics of the job. How would they travel? I had a bit of a think about pods. What were the rules? What could they do and what couldn’t they do? What would be the dangers? What would they do with the information afterwards? To whom did they answer? And so on. And on. And on.
Gradually, a picture began to emerge. I actually sat down and wrote out an organisational chart and a list of responsibilities, a list of personnel, and a training and exam schedule, blu-tacked it to the wall in front of me and made a start.
2. Your cast of characters is large, not to mention them running up and down the timeline. How do you keep track of them all?
Another tricky one! Originally, there was only going to be one book - Just One Damned Thing After Another. With all the ignorance of inexperience, I allowed characters to spring up like Japanese Knotweed because they were all going to die horribly in the last chapter.
However, as the book progressed, I thought I might have enough material for a second book and so some of them were reprieved. Leon, for example. Kalinda was originally going to be Max’s partner in crime, but I liked Peterson. Especially after he peed on her, so Kal became less important. I try to make even the minor characters interesting and I let little snippets of information drop every now and then. For instance, in Book 5, while breaking into an older version of St Mary’s, Markham lets slip that he has a criminal past. Mrs Mack is Welsh and had previously been some kind of urban guerrilla. Professor Rapson and Dr Dowson started arguing the moment my back was turned and haven’t stopped since. Incidentally, I have absolutely no idea where Markham came from. Once he’d run into that horse’s bottom there was just no holding him.
And yes, they do die, some of them, because it seemed to me that if you have a central core of characters who are frequently in trouble but always escape, it lessens the tension somewhat. I wanted readers to feel the threat and know that any of them could die at any moment. And share the sense of loss when that happens. And in real life, violence and death do suddenly erupt out of nowhere and I wanted to convey this sense of never being completely safe.
I keep on top of things by keeping the groups small. I start with whoever is selected for this particular assignment and their interactions with others before and after their return. I try to ensure everyone gets at least one mention during the book.
3. Do you plan or go with the flow? If the latter, have you ever written yourself into a corner ad how did you get out of it?
Yes, I do plan – but fairly loosely. The only thing that is fairly fixed is the ending because I like to know what I’m writing towards. Characters appear and are discarded. Or developed, depending on how things are going at the time. Scenes happen, are deleted, moved somewhere else, or kept for a future book.
I don’t start at the beginning of a book – I start in the middle, because when I am stuck, I can move either forwards or backwards in the story and then come back to the problem later. Which has often resolved itself by then. I choose a scene that is dramatic, or tragic, or meaty in some way and dive right in. Once I have that under my belt, it sets the tone for the whole book. I write the ending fairly early on in the process and the beginning is usually written near the end.
So yes, I do plan – and go with the flow as well. Sorry if that’s not particularly helpful. I have learned to scribble dialogue, scenes, ideas as they occur to me, because if I carry on neatly with what I’m doing, thinking I’ll make a note of it all later – sadly, by then, I’ve forgotten it all.
And yes, I have written myself into a corner. I did it in Book 4, when a scene written in Book 1 really came back to haunt me. I was in head-banging mode for a couple of weeks until I had an inspiration, lost 20,000 words and took the book in a whole new direction. It was, I think, a better book than originally envisaged. So I would say to anyone – if that happens, don’t despair. It’s your book’s way of telling you there’s a better way to go.
4. Which is your favourite scene in all the books?
Aaaghhh! Another difficult question! I have several favourite scenes for several different reasons.
The scene in A Second Chance when Max unexpectedly meets a younger Leon and so very nearly plunges everything into chaos by running away with him, is one of my favourites because it wrote so easily. The words just fell out of my pen. I saw it all so clearly in my head and it hardly needed editing at all. An example of how wonderful writing can be when everything goes right.
The dodos in A Symphony of Echoes were fun to write. That’s one of my favourites, too.
I enjoyed writing all of Roman Holiday. After the slightly darker A Trail Through Time it was lovely to do something so light-hearted.
My very favourite – so far – are the scenes at Troy. It’s so easy when reading about historical events, especially when they occurred several thousand years ago, to view them with detachment. Troy fell. What a shame. But these were people’s lives and they were completely shattered, probably in the space of a single day. Imagine seeing your male relatives slaughtered and the surviving members of your family divided up amongst your conquerors, all of them being shipped off to live as slaves in a foreign land for the rest of their lives and knowing you’ll never see your children or your home again.
I know that as historians, they’re supposed to know what is going to happen, but I still try to portray the shock they must experience when watching events actually unfold, especially after they’d lived amongst the people of Troy for so long.
At the other end of the spectrum, the bit in A Trail Through Time where Helen confronts Leon about his surgical abilities came spinning out of the blue and was a huge giggle to write.
5. What is my approach to comedy?
Ah, the most difficult question of all, which you snuck in at the end, just as I was beginning to relax!
Sometimes an idea or a phrase occurs to me and I write a scene around it. For example, in Just One Damned Thing After Another it was, ‘We hit a tree.’ I sat and thought about why they would hit a tree. How would I lead up to it? What would happen afterwards? And after that? So I ended up writing a whole scene with Max and Leon having to travel to Thirsk. In a car. So they could hit a tree. So they could have head-banging sex afterwards. So everyone at St Mary’s could collect the money they’d been betting on whether they ever would get together or not. All that just so they could hit a tree!
Sometimes, I want a contrast. I tried to do this in the last scene of A Second Chance, when Max and Leon are finally reunited, only to have a massive falling out because he mistakes her for Izzie Barclay and she thumps him with a blue plastic dustpan. It would have been so easy to have them just falling into each other’s arms but this is St Mary’s, after all, and nothing ever goes according to plan.
And there are different types of comedy as well. The one-liner. The odd pun. An old joke I hope I’ve reworked to give a fresh approach – the inch joke, for example, at the end of A Trail Through Time. And the big set pieces – when they paint themselves blue and lose a monolith, or blow up the lake and are attacked by swans. They’re all of them such fun to write!
Thank you for sharing your story with us today.
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