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 this is a video I did on that day...
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.
As a huge thanks to my readers, I've teamed up with a bunch of your favourite authors to run an #AdventingAuthors Calendar with exclusive content and goodies behind each door. Simply visit this page each day to see what's behind the door.
To kick it all off on Day 1, I'm giving you the chance to win a beautiful wooden reindeer necklace, a signed copy of The Lost Sister AND the chance to read an early digital copy of my latest novel, The Family Secret, before it comes out in January.
To enter, just email me your name and postal address with the subject line Advent 1 and I will randomly choose a winner by 10 December so you can receive the item before Christmas!
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.