I was writing The Family Secret throughout the first half of 2018. It was particularly strange to be writing wintry scenes as spring began to make its appearance. But then something strange happened: it snowed!
And here's a bonus pic of my snowy dog to wish you a very happy Christmas and New Year!
Back in Christmas 2017, I visited the pretty Alum Chine area of Bournemouth in the UK with my daughter and my mum. I'd already started writing The Family Secret /The Girl on the Beach, and knew I wanted to base the wintry out-of-season seaside town on Alum Chine. So as it's just a couple of hours' train ride way plus a Nordic Christmas market was being held there that year, what better excuse did I need to go?
Did I also mention I stayed in a chocolate hotel? Yeah, really! I'd like to say that was an essential part of the research but truth is, I just love chocolate!
It was great being able to walk around and take in the atmosphere. I think British seaside towns have a different quality during the winter. Quiet, calm, cold! I needed to get a sense of what Amber, the gift shop owner who discovers a girl walking on the beach barefoot, saw, felt, smelt and tasted during those cold sparse winter months.
It was also a great way to get me in the Christmas mood. A lot of the scenes in The Family Secret are based during the festive period. Don't let that fool you into thinking this winter tale is full of joy and laughter. Frozen deathtrap lakes, chilling family secrets and wintry heartbreak are all included too. This is a Tracy Buchanan novel after all!
See a gallery of pics from my travels to Alum Chine below. If you want to order The Family Secret here or in the US, click here.
Location always plays an integral role in all my novels, whether it be the ravished shores of Thailand during the 2004 tsunami in The Atlas of Us or the eerie underwater world of submerged forests in My Sister’s Secret.
And it’s no different with my latest novel The Family Secret (The Girl on the Beach in the US), which is set in several locations such as a wintry British seaside town, a stunning loch in Scotland and the ice beaches of Iceland.
Location is so crucial for building tension and atmosphere. Here are five ways I do that:
1. Use all the senses
I learnt this one while working as a travel journalist. It’s not just about what you see, but also what you hear, smell, taste and touch.
Take a Scottish lodge that features a lot in The Family Secret, for example. This is how wildlife documentary maker Gwyneth experiences it the first time she walks in:
'I was instantly struck by the contrast between the house’s chilly exterior and warm interior: inviting oak panelling, the smell of an open fire and Christmas spices, the delicious warmth of its air compared to the icy white setting outside. A large patterned rug lay in the middle of the hallway, and two wooden stairways swept up towards a balconied landing. Another Christmas tree stood at the back of the hall, so high the star at the top reached the top of the railing on the balcony. A stag-antler chandelier hung from the ceiling on chains, golden lights glistening. It was just Dylan and I in the hallway, but I could hear talking in the distance, laughter, the faint trace of Christmas music tinkling from speakers. I could also hear people walking around on the floorboards above me.'
As you can see, I used all the senses so the reader feels they themselves have stepped into that lodge.
2. Bad things can happen to beautiful places
I love writing about beautiful places which have something rotten beneath the surface. In The Family Secret, that Scottish lodge looks like the perfect location for a festive gathering, perched on the stunning loch with snow-tipped mountains beyond. But that loch, despite its beauty, can also be a death-trap when iced over, as Gwyneth discovers the first time she's there and falls through the ice. As I write, the loch ‘shone beneath the moonlight, as menacing as it was beautiful’.
3. Don’t worry toooo much about weather clichés
Authors are always warned off using weather in obvious ways when writing, especially when opening up a novel. But when it comes to scaring the bejesus out of readers, clichés – especially weather clichés – can work to a writer’s advantage. In The Family Secret, I use the increasing snowfall to create a mounting sense of tension and claustrophobia. In fact, the whole season of winter is used to enhance the effect of the locations with the potential for cracking ice and stifling snowfall.
4. Treat location like a villainous character
Okay, confession time. I sometimes plan my novels using Excel. And in every Excel worksheet I set up for a novel is a section on characters. And in that section is where I place all my notes about the location of my novel because (and you’ll hear this from a lot of writers) I treat location like a character. In The Family Secret, location becomes the main characters’ friend and their foe. Like Winterton Chine, the pretty festive seaside village where gift shop owner Amber discovers a girl walking barefoot on the icy beach with no memory of who she is or where she came from. Amber loves the place, it’s where she grew up and lives. But equally, the town can be a constant reminder of difficulties in her past. That loch is also a character on its own with the potential to claim lives beneath its hard icy surface.
5. You don’t have to write what you know
Yep, it’s nice to have an excuse to go on a jolly and visit the places I write about... and many times I have. But it’s not essential. I’m a writer after all, I like to use my imagination! I hadn’t visited the submerged forests I described in My Sister’s Secret, for example. I did it from online research and pure imagination. It’s the same for The Family Secret. I haven’t yet been to Iceland, one of the main locations, but I know people who have so picked their brains about it and did lots of online research. The location of Winterton Chine is, however, based on the lovely Alum Chine in Dorset which I visited during the Christmas I started writing the novel. Any excuse for a mulled wine on the beach, I'm pictured here with my daughter during the visit!
Right, I think that’s it, I’m off to lie on my chaise lounge (yes, I really have one!) and imagine the world of my next novel…
To pre-order The Family Secret, click here.
Just two weeks until Christmas, can you believe it? To celebrate, I’m giving away this beautiful handmade star created by the very talented Woodcutter... who also happens to be my husband!
To be in with the chance of winning this star, as well as an early digital copy of my next novel, email me by 14th December with the subject 'Advent Star'. If you like The Woodcutter page on Facebook you will be entered twice, THREE times if you're a member of The Reading Snug on Facebook too. Just me know in your email that you've done this.
To find out more about The Woodcutter's beautiful work, please visit his website.
Here's an exclusive extract from my new novel, which will be hitting digital shelves in January as The Family Secret in the UK and The Girl on the Beach in the US. This extract sees one of the main characters Gwyneth, a wildlife documentary maker, meeting Dylan McClusky for the first time in the remote Scottish highlands, a meeting that changes her life forever. Find out more about the novel here.
I took a step towards the frozen loch, carefully testing the ice beneath my snow boots. It was set, surely strong enough to sustain my weight. I was tall but thin, weighing less than usual after all those months of living on boil-in-the-bag camp food.
I took a deep breath and stepped onto the loch, watching as the bird, a fluff of white, soared across the sky, its soft white wings almost blending into the sheet of wintry clouds above. It headed down to the loch and to my surprise landed on it.
I took another step forward.
It froze, peering up at me, and I froze with it, pleased the camera was rolling.
Then the sound of cracking ice pierced the air. The bird flung up into the sky and I cursed myself. I went to step back but there was another crack. I watched in horror as a line zigzagged away from my feet.
I leant down and slid my camera across the ice towards the loch’s banks, watching in relief as it glided to safety. But when I went to follow it, I suddenly plunged down, neck-deep in icy water.
I tried to grasp at the ice but it broke under my fingertips. The sub-zero temperature gripped me, making me begin to tremble uncontrollably.
This quick? Surely not?
I twisted around, paddling my legs and heaving myself onto a thicker ledge of ice, but I just slid back down, fully submerging this time, gasping for breath and the pain of the cold when I reemerged.
You’ve really done it this time, Gwyneth.
I looked towards the huge lodge overlooking the loch.
‘Help!’ I called out through freezing lips. ‘Help!’ again, screaming this time.
As I said that, a piece of detached ice nearby floated towards me and smashed into my cheek. I fell sideways in shock, my hat falling off, freezing cold water swirling around my exposed head, the pain unbearable. I tried to grapple with the ice again but it broke, the fragments sliding over my freezing hands.
I kicked my legs, frantic now, gasping for breath, vision blurring.
I could feel myself growing weaker, my breath coming in spurts. Above me, the ptarmigan reappeared, circling around me, the feathers of its fluffy white wings lifting in the winter breeze. For a foolish moment, I hoped my camera was still capturing it, so close like I’d wanted.
Was this it, my last few moments alive? Of all the life-threatening positions I’d put myself in throughout my career so far, it had to be this that would take me: a frozen loch in my own country.
I thought of my parents then. Would they mourn my passing? Or feel relief I was gone?
Maybe relief. It was something I suddenly felt in that moment: relief I didn’t have to continue contending with the guilt, the sadness, the gaping hole left by their rejection. It was such a contrast to the fighting spirit people knew me for.
Finally, time to stop fighting.
But then a man appeared.
I heard him before I saw him, the sound of his heavy boots on the still intact ice and his quick breath. Then I smelt cigars and whisky. He leaned over me, all coal-dark hair and eyelashes. There was a look of panic in his eyes. He wrapped one long arm around my chest, yanking me up from the freezing loch and carefully treading ice to walk me back to the loch’s banks.
When we got to the bank, I tried to wrap my arms around myself, the cold unbearable. He placed his thick woollen coat around my shoulders then pulled me onto his lap and rubbed my arms.
‘Are you okay?’ he asked in a thick Scottish accent. ‘Tell me you’re okay.’
‘N-n-n-n-not the time to be m-m-m-making a pass,’ I managed to stutter.
Relief spread across his face. ‘If this is how men make passes at you, then God help you. Body warmth means life,’ he said with a quick smile that showed straight, white teeth.
I leant into him, exhausted, as he rubbed my arms. He was wearing a black jumper, its tough wool scratching at my freezing cheeks. We stayed like that a few moments before my trembling stopped. Then he leant over, one arm still wrapped around me, dragged a rucksack towards him and pulled a hip flask from it.
‘Whisky fixes everything,’ he said, biting the top off with his teeth and handing it me.
‘Could you get any more Scottish?’ I asked, taking a sip and welcoming the warmth as it snaked through my insides.
His smile widened, his brown eyes sparkling as they explored my face.
‘You’re beautiful,’ he said matter-of-factly.
‘For God’s sake.’ I shoved the hip flask into his chest and stood up, swaying slightly. I was used to this, men trying it on. Frankly, it did my head in and distracted me from what I needed to do: my filming. I shook my head, trying to disperse the icy fingers clutching at my mind, and half stumbled, half jogged to the water’s edge, where I knelt down so I could grab my camera from a worryingly thin sheet of ice nearby.
The man laughed as he stood, revealing his full six foot three. ‘It’s just an aesthetic observation, not a come-on,’ he explained. ‘Don’t take it so hard. Anyway, you’re not exactly in any position to look unkindly upon me. You trespassed on my land, after all.’
‘So that’s your house then?’ I asked, gesturing towards the wooden lodge across from the frozen lake. It was huge, with vast windows looking out over the lake. In one window was a Christmas tree that reached up towards a vaulted ceiling, scores of beautifully wrapped presents beneath it. Each window of the house had candles flickering in it, creating a warm, friendly glow.
‘My family’s home, the magnificent and mighty McCluskys,’ the man said with a trace of sarcasm in his voice.
‘That’s one mighty house,’ I said, checking my camera.
‘And that’s an impressive piece of kit,’ he said. ‘You make films?’
He raised an impressed eyebrow. ‘The female David Attenborough.’
‘I’m the one behind the camera. You know, the ones that do the hard work?’
As I said that, I felt my head go hazy. I swayed slightly and the man clutched my arm.
‘I think we need to get you inside,’ he said, all the joviality gone from his face. ‘Get you warm.’
‘I’m fine,’ I said, pulling my arm away. ‘I’ll get the engine started, turn the heaters on.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. I have a warm house with access to a roaring fire, a bath and multiple clothing options thanks to my sisters . . . who will also be there, just in case you’re worried I’m an axe murderer,’ he added with a smile.
I couldn’t help but smile back.
‘Fine,’ I said. ‘As long as your family forgive me for trespassing.’
‘Once they find out why, they’ll forgive you anything. This Christmas Eve will always be referred to as “that Christmas Eve the wildlife documentary maker trespassed on our land.” Trust me, they’ll be delighted someone like you was the one doing it. What were you hoping to film here anyway, the bearded Scottish male?’ he asked, stroking his dark beard.
I shook my head. ‘I was filming a ptarmigan. I was actually lost and came across the loch.’
His handsome face lit up. ‘Beautiful birds. I see them a lot from the house, nestling up in the mountain there.’
We both looked towards the mountains and a hint of sadness flickered over his face. Then he turned to me, putting out his hand. ‘I’m Dylan, by the way.’
‘Gwyneth,’ I replied, taking his freezing hand and trying to ignore the spark of electricity between us, the loch a menacing witness before us.
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