Stories come to you in the strangest ways. The original idea for The Dark Room, despite it being set in West Cork in January, actually started in the summer, in Cornwall, when I was on holiday in 2019. I was sitting on a rock above the tiny beach in Helford Passage, overlooking the Helford River estuary, and an image arrived in my head of a dark-haired woman – whom I was sure, was Irish – wearing green shorts and jogging down the beach at low tide, a German Shepherd lolloping along beside her.
Right across the river from where I was sitting is an old cottage and the ruin of what I discovered was the original custom’s officer’s gaol (pictured below – thank you Liz Fenwick for the history and the snap!).
A few days later, I went up to the nearby village of Mawnan Smith to see Mel Chambers’ studio. Mel is a potter who uses an ancient technique to create beautiful tiles, and I was struck by an image of a hare on one of the tiles she was making. I’d recently seen a gorgeous print of running hares that had lit a creative lightbulb in my head, and from there, everything started to come together – and Hare’s Landing was born.
For me character is vital to every story – the people who populate my books have to be ‘real’, truly three dimensional – I want you as the reader to feel that you know them by the end of the book, and to do that, I need to know them myself. I want to know how old they are, where they went to school, what their favourite colour is, whether they drink tea or coffee and prefer Chinese to fish and chips.
The characters in The Dark Room arrived in almost the same way as the original story had. I read an article about a film location scout ages ago in The Guardian and her job stuck with me – it’s fascinating, and crucially, to be good at the job, you need to be very observant. It’s this skill and experience that is a clincher for Rachel as the story develops. She’s a film location scout, but when her partner, Hunter, is injured in a hit and run, and then her houseboat is broken into, Rachel doesn’t feel safe in London. Trying to find out the identity and story behind the death of a homeless man – Alfie Bows, whom Hunter has been filming for a documentary, she’s led to West Cork. Rachel brings Hunter’s dog, Jasper, with her – he’s the German Shepherd who originally appeared in my head, and he becomes very involved in the story, but Rachel isn’t the dark haired woman – she lives in London now, and she’s originally she’s from Dublin, but she’s strawberry blonde.
So who was the dark woman I saw running on the beach? The image was so clear, I can see her hair falling out of her pony tail as she jogs away across the hard sand. The tide is out and the dog is circling around her, running into the waves and back to the beach.
As the idea continued to percolate in my head, it turned out that the dark woman’s name is Caroline, and it’s not her dog at all, but she makes friends with him. Caroline is a crime reporter based in New York, but she’s been – unjustly – suspended from her job – furious and needing a break, she books a week away in the corner of Ireland where she used to spend her summers as a child: West Cork. She books a self catered (but serviced) holiday cottage in the ground of Hare’s Landing. It’s an old boat house that has been completely restored, has a full fridge and a stunning view of the estuary. And as she quickly discovers, the phone signal is terrible, which suits her just fine.
The two women meet in Hare’s Landing and they discover that the house has a story of it’s own, one which someone doesn’t want them to uncover.
Location for me is just as important as character, and while Hare’s Landing is entirely fictitious, it’s based on a hotel I visited on the same trip to Cornwall in 2019 – one which has two large stone statues of dogs outside the front door. In my story those become hares and I’ve moved the hotel to Cork, and to the water’s edge – with the tumbledown customs gaol into its grounds just beyond The Boathouse.
With a story that had it’s origins in Cornwall, almost at the mouth of Frenchman’s Creek, I drew on a particular literary influence for some of the details – Jaspar is named after Maxim de Winter’s dog in Rebecca. There are other characters and references that a keen reader may spot too. In Keep Your Eyes on Me I wove some ‘easter eggs’ into the story that Sam Blake readers will recognise from the previous books, helping to create a world that rings true – and there are some in The Dark Room too. The Dark Room of the title, in this story refers to a literal photographic dark room, but also to the dark room of a troubled mind – several in fact, not unlike the cast of Rebecca who each have their own demons to deal with.
While I start each book with quite a detailed plot, I often wander away from it, drawn by the characters into places I didn’t expect. I could hear classical music playing, and smell wafts of perfume as I wrote, but when I started I really didn’t expect there to be an underlying supernatural element to this story – until I discovered, right at the very end of the first draft, that in Irish mythology, hares are believed to be the messengers between worlds.
Perhaps there are spirits helping Rachel and Caroline to get to the truth – we’re never really sure, but there are definitely some spooky goings on as the two women get closer to the real story – in a house full of secrets, the past never dies….and Hare’s Landing definitely holds the key to several deadly secrets.
And everything began to make sense.
I really hope you enjoy The Dark Room as much as I did writing it. It’s terrifying sending a new book out into the world – but reader feedback so far has been incredible. I’m running a competition over on my Sam Blake Facebook page for one of Mel Chambers’ handmade hare tiles that features in the book – if you’d like to join in, just take a picture of the The Dark Room and share on your social media, tagging me and I’ll put all the names into a hat. Good luck, and listen out for those violins…
(c) Sam Blake
About The Dark Room:
Hare’s Landing, West Cork. A house full of mystery…
Rachel Lambert leaves London afraid for her personal safety and determined to uncover the truth behind the sudden death of a homeless man with links to a country house hotel called Hare’s Landing.
New York-based crime reporter Caroline Kelly’s career is threatened by a lawsuit and she needs some thinking space away from her job. But almost as soon as she arrives, Hare’s Landing begins to reveal its own stories – a 30-year-old missing person’s case and the mysterious death of the hotel’s former owner.
As Rachel and Caroline join forces, it becomes clear that their investigations are intertwined – and that there is nothing more dangerous than the truth…
Order your copy online here.