My latest novel The Lost Sister is dedicated to a very special someone: Archie, my old Jack Russell, who sadly passed away a couple of years ago. Combined with the fact one of the main characters in The Lost Sister is a vet, in its own way, the novel is a shout out to the importance of animals in my life… especially my writing.
First, from the point of view of writing characters. I feel the way a character interacts with animals gives a real insight into their personalities.
As a vet, Becky in The Lost Sister is clearly someone who adores animals. Her three dogs - her ‘skinnies’ as she calls them - are like children to her. Becky’s the kind of person I can totally imagine being friends with, strolling along the beach with our dogs. Like me, she judges people by how they treat other living things. One character in The Lost Sister kicks a dog out of the way, an instant black mark against her name in my view.
I also use the way animals treats humans to give an indication of character. For example Becky’s mother Selma is selfish on the surface, running away from her family to write in a cave. Sarcastic and vain, often cold and careless with her words, at first glance, she’s pretty unlikable.
But there are parts of her that are at odds with this: the way she sticks up for a friend and the way she’s able to see people’s vulnerabilities and help them with those vulnerabilities. And though Selma isn’t a fan of animals like her daughter is, they seem drawn to her: she reluctantly lets a dog tag along with her when she’s living in the cave.
I think animals are so very perceptive. They sense parts of us we don’t even know ourselves. The dog in the cave, for example, senses Selma’s innate vulnerabilities and the fact she won’t hurt anyone… not wittingly, anyway.
And what about the influence animals have on writers as we work?
When my dog Archie passed away, I told myself I would leave it a year before getting another dog. There’s no denying dogs, especially puppies, can be a challenge and a lot of hard work. People just don’t get that a lot of the time, hence why you’ll hear of so many abandoned puppies. So I knew with deadlines looming, it was best to wait to get another dog.
But the fact is, I simply couldn’t write without an animal companion beside me. The house felt different. My office, once my sanctuary, began to feel like a dark cavern of nothingness. I walked around the house literally calling Archie’s name out, seeking him in those places he might retreat to sometimes. I knew he wasn't there, couldn’t be there, but all-the-same, I searched for him. My whole being ached with his absence.
Of course, that was grief. Real raw grief. This dog had seen me through thick and thin, and had become my daily constant companion when I gave up work to write full-time.
But now he was gone.
I missed him because I loved him, but I also missed his quiet soft-breath (or snore!) which brought a rhythm to my writing. The knowledge that during moments of plot hell, I could grab a lead and take him out for a walk, each step untangling knotted stories. The way his furry face would peer up at me when I muttered an expletive at not being able to get the bloody printer to work. A raised eyebrow, a sigh, then back to sleep. Then the way he jumped around my legs when he sensed any excitement, like when I got my books delivered or discovered My Sister’s Secret had hit the number one spot on Amazon UK. And yep, the way he somehow understood when I was going through a tough time, furry chin on leg, big brown eyes staring up with sympathy.
I missed all that, and I learnt a valuable lesson: any author who has grown used to writing with an animal companion can never do without one again.
Three months after Archie passed away, I brought home a beautiful little Cavalier King Charles Spaniel called Bronte (well, it had to be Bronte, didn’t it?).
Of course, I will never ever forget Archie and he lives in in my novels and my memories. But as I feel Bronte snuggling up to me right now (and, to be honest, completely taking over my chaise longue, meaning I’m balancing my laptop on a nearby chair), I’m so pleased to have the one asset every good author needs: a furry-faced companion.
The question I get asked a lot is: where do you get your ideas from? And in the past, the answers have been easy.
‘A farmer and his skulking dogs in Exmoor’ (The Atlas of US / Before I Say Goodbye)
‘The underwater forests my uncle told me about’ (My Sister’s Secret)
‘A walk in the park with my daughter.’ (No Turning Back)
‘A documentary about houses falling into the sea’ (Her Last Breath)
It was different for The Lost Sister though. The answer is very personal to me, you see. And one I hold close to my chest. But now I feel I can share it.
The Lost Sister opens with an author watching her daughter play on the beach, seemingly happy and content. But it’s quickly apparent there’s a restlessness there. A hint of an internal struggle. And though Selma and I are so different in so many ways, in creating her, I drew from my own struggles at the time.
You see, despite my life being everything I wished for - working as a full-time author, having the daughter I always dreamed of, being in a happy marriage and being so blessed with a wonderful family and group of friends - there was this weird niggling darkness inside.
For example, I would be on holiday, watching my husband and daughter giggling over something. I tried to join in the fun, but there was a numbness that dominated my mind.
There were also times when I’d be sat in my office, surrounded by copies of the books I’d written, receiving emails from readers thanking me for writing those books, and that numbness would return. I’d stare at my screen, and I’d feel nothing for the words I was writing and the career I'd carved out for myself.
The depth of my dispassion scared me.
I knew something wasn’t right. I presumed it must be depression. I tried to do what I could: changed my diet, exercised more, took breaks. But still, it would return. And it wouldn’t be there all the time. Often, the cloud would disperse and I would feel again, taking joy in everything I was supposed to. I thought maybe, maybe, the darkness wouldn't return.
But then I would see the cloud approach, and my heart would sink. I could literally pinpoint the moment the cloud descended. I thought about escaping. It feels awful writing that now. But during those times, I really thought about just running away from it all.
And that’s when the character of Selma came to me. Selma represents the person I became when the dark cloud descended. Not in every respect, I added a few fictional embellishments (and may I make it clear, her husband is nothing like mine!). But the general vibe was there, especially that desire to escape, a desire I decided to write about instead of do. It gave me some respite, like I was the one doing the escaping.
Over the months I wrote The Lost Sister, I poured myself into the novel, just as I did with The Atlas of Us / Before You Say Goodbye to help me when I was battling with infertility. Once again, writing a book became a form of therapy for me. But in the back of my mind, I knew there was a chance the darkness wouldn’t go away. At least before, I’d got pregnant eventually, so the awfulness of infertility, though something that will always be there for me, grew distant and quiet.
But I had a feeling there would be no release from this darkness I was feeling.
Then one day, I heard a radio show with my favourite presenter, Emma Barnett. She was talking to Laura Murphy, the co-founder and director of Vicious Cycle, a group focused on bringing attention to Pre-menstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD). As Laura talked about the symptoms she experienced, it was a complete lightbulb moment for me: I was suffering from PMDD!
PMDD is a severe form of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), which causes an array of emotional and physical symptoms every month during the week or two before women start their period. And the symptoms she described matched mine.
I can’t tell you the relief I felt at finally being able to pinpoint what was wrong. It gave me the strength to visit my doctor that very week and he advised me to try a low dose of antidepressants.
Combined with the relief writing brings, the difference has been amazing. I’m not saying all cases can be cured with a few pills and a creative outlet. But for me, it was what I needed and I now feel a million times better.
But Selma will always be a reminder of how I once felt… and how so many millions of women still feel each day. She’s a character that will draw mixed responses. Though fascinating, I wouldn’t call her likeable. But I would say she is the best character I’ve ever written. Never before have I truly drilled down into the depths of myself, my darkest moments, to create a character in a novel I've written.
So here’s to you, Selma. I hope as many people as possible get to read your story… and my story.
The Lost Sister opens in the beautiful coastal town of Queensbay. It's where one of the main characters Becky grows up... the very same town where her mother walks out one day to live in a cave. Here's one of the first descriptions of the town.
The tide was low, the sea hazy in the distance, seaweed and shells clogging the wet morning sand as people walked out of the café nearby with takeaway teas in polystyrene cups. It wasn't a built-up beach – even now it isn’t – just a plain and simple sandy cove, no trendy eater- ies or boutique shops. Its natural beauties are enough to draw people in, the chalk stacks adorn- ing most of the postcards in town. The bay beyond the chalk stacks with its five caves wasn’t as much of a draw then, people were put off by the stories of tourists being caught out there during high tide.
Before I started on The Lost Sister, I knew I wanted to write about caves and people who might be drawn to live in one. But I couldn't yet visualise where the cave might be set.
So I googled 'UK caves beautiful'. And that's when I discovered Botany Bay, a gorgeous little bay on the Kent coast.
I saw it was only a couple of hours away plus the most gorgeous looking hotel was based on the cliffs there. What better excuse to go on a research trip there?
So that's what I did... and I fell in love! By that point, I had already written quite a bit of The Lost Sister. But the location felt flat. Being in Botany Bay completely brought it to life.
Feeling the chalk of the cliffs beneath my fingertips. Standing in the damp darkness of the cave and looking out to sea. Walking along the beach as the sun set and taking in the STUNNING sight of the chalk stacks against those vivid pink and orange skies. It really brought the town of Queensbay to life in my mind and, I hope, on the page too!
In fact, I loved it so much, I went back with my family a few weeks later! Maybe reading The Lost Sister will inspire you to visit too?
To find out more about Botany Bay, visit the Thanet tourism website. To see the hotel I stayed at, check out its website.