For me, a great thriller is character driven, I want my readers to feel like they know the characters in each book like friends, and that the characters’ lives continue after the story has finished – that the book is a window on their world for a short period of time. Plot is vital, but as Robert McKee says, it is the character’s reactions to each other and the situations they find themselves in, that drives story and creates plot.
I see location as another character in every story. It’s not just a backdrop, it plays an integral part in the plot itself. There is a reason why the story is set there, and the location impacts on everything that happens. In Keep Your Eyes on Me, it was vital that the two women, Vittoria and Lily, who meet on a plane and realise that they have issues that they can help each other with, had time to discuss their stories. New York was the perfect destination, and became integral to a story predominantly set in London.
As I explained here, I write when I’m on holiday (in fact I write ALL the time), and I was just finishing a book that I thought would follow Keep Your Eyes on Me – another standalone – when an image popped into my head that wouldn’t go away.
It was the height of summer, and I was in Helford Passage, Cornwall, where we’ve been going on holiday for about fifteen years. I was sitting beside the river (only a few hundred yards from Frenchman’s Creek) when a picture arrived in my head of a dark-haired woman in green shorts, jogging down the beach, a German Shepherd lolloping along beside her. I could see her so clearly – her hair pulled up into a loose pony tail, her feet pounding the wet sand.
Directly across the river from where I was sitting is an old cottage and the ruin of what I discovered (with help from author Liz Fenwick who lives on that side of the river) was the original customs officer’s gaol. I felt sure the ruined building and the woman were somehow connected, but I had yet to find out how.
Wherever I am, my writer’s antennae are always wagging, and I have ‘light bulb’ moments when I see or hear something that will feature in a story. Often these moments or ideas don’t connect immediately, but they float in my head until something comes along, and like magnets attract, an idea forms. Below, as well as the house across the water – this photo was taken just a few days ago at dusk – you can just see the ruin to the right of the cottage that is the custom’s officer’s gaol. The house was used by the custom’s officer from 1780, and is grade II listed. I’ve been fascinated by the house and the ruin for years, although I only started to find out its history when running woman appeared.
At that stage, I didn’t know who the running woman was or what her story could be, but a few days later I visited Mel Chambers‘ ceramics studio in the nearby village, and I was struck by the stunning hares on the tiles she makes. A print of running hares had recently lit a very bright creative lightbulb in my head, and suddenly all the hare’s connected with the running woman, and the ruin. The first hares I’d seen were in a print, running across an old map, and I knew the location of a place – Hare’s Landing – was part of this story. And the ruin was part of the property.
But why would someone visit a ruin? The name Hare’s Landing suggested a bigger house to me, and one place I’ve always felt was waiting to inspire a story was Merchant’s Manor Hotel in Falmouth (below). So Hare’s Landing began to develop, inspired by this hotel – but I had to work out why the two women, Rachel Lambert and Caroline Kelly ended up there, and what the house’s own story was.
As I worked on the idea, I knew the place I was going to write about wasn’t in Cornwall at all, but was somewhere very like it, somewhere rural, on an esturary, and somewhere where the mobile phone coverage was very patchy. I felt the story was set in January, and the perfect location was West Cork. I have several friends who live there, and it was ideal – just the type of place that two women, trying to escape their own lives, would go for some peace and quiet.
At this point I also knew what the central crime was, and this made the location all the more important. A hotel anywhere less remote wouldn’t have had the features required for this part of the story to work…
When I develop characters, I look deeply into their backstory, working out who they are when we meet them, where they were brought up, what they studied in school, who their friends and family are. I did the same for Hare’s Landing, working out its history, and as I thought about it, allowing the ideas to grow, I got closer and closer to what had actually happened there.
I’m a plotter and I like to have an outline of the story before I start, but there were still elements of The Dark Room that I hadn’t quite pinned down when I started writing. I knew the boathouse, where Caroline stays, was significant, and I knew the hare statues outside the front door of Hare’s Landing were important. I also had an idea of the big event that happens at the end, but I only discovered exactly why things had happened as they did, as I wrote, as the house and its occupants revealed the story to me.
I’ve had many conversations over a drink with the moorings officer, Ian, down in Helford. He’s an ex police dog handler, and I knew there was a dog in this story, a police dog, very like his. I’ve also been struck many times how ‘invisible’ people, see so much more than anyone rushing about their business, and I wanted a homless man who sees something significant, to be part of the story too. All these elements came together in The Dark Room and the plot slowly developed. In a review in the Sunday Independent at the weekend, Breda Brown said:
‘Already well-known for her Cat Connolly crime series, Blake has recently branched out into the world of standalone novels. This book delivers a well-paced and layered plot that cleverly combines a number of cold cases with present-day drama, and the result is an intriguing read that delivers plenty of twists and turns and an absorbing conclusion.
Blake also has a wonderful gift for description, ensuring the reader can picture every scene in exquisite detail.
Her atmospheric depiction of West Cork triumphs in this novel, along with the wonderful portrayal of Rachel’s dog – a German Shepherd called Jasper who is pivotal to helping them with their investigations.
The book also has the comforting feel of an ‘old school’ mystery to it, as the lack of mobile and WiFi connectivity in the remote region means that Rachel and Caroline often have to rely on old-fashioned methods to get to the bottom of the mystery.
Being able to see Hare’s Landing, and understanding the very fabric of the building made it so much easier to write about, to bring the atmosphere vital to the story, to the page. As I described the hotel and the newly refurbished boathouse where Caroline stays, I could hear violins and smell perfume – doors slammed mysteriously and it became clear that Alfie Bows, the homeless man whose nickname comes from his love of his violin, and Honoria Smyth, the original owner of the house, were making their presence felt. I was almost at the end of the first draft when I discovered that in Irish mythology, hares are the messengers between worlds – and everything began to make sense.
For me, finding the right location enriches a story – it becomes more than just a place where things happen, but part of the story, and in The Dark Room, Hare’s Landing is a character with a voice of its own.
(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.