This month, I am delighted to welcome romantic suspense author, Sandra Danby to my Author Spotlight. Sandra’s second identity detective novel, Connectedness, has just been published, and she’s here to tell us more about it and her other writing today.
Sandra Danby – Connectedness
TO THE OUTSIDE WORLD, ARTIST JUSTINE TREE HAS IT ALL… BUT SHE ALSO HAS A SECRET THAT THREATENS TO DESTROY EVERYTHING
Justine’s art sells around the world, but does anyone truly know her? When her mother dies, she returns to her childhood home in Yorkshire where she decides to confront her past. She asks journalist Rose Haldane to find the baby she gave away when she was an art student, but only when Rose starts to ask difficult questions does Justine truly understand what she must face.
Is Justine strong enough to admit the secrets and lies of her past? To speak aloud the deeds she has hidden for 27 years, the real inspiration for her work that sells for millions of pounds. Could the truth trash her artistic reputation? Does Justine care more about her daughter, or her art? And what will she do if her daughter hates her?
This tale of art, adoption, romance and loss moves between now and the Eighties, from London’s art world to the bleak isolated cliffs of East Yorkshire and the hot orange blossom streets of Málaga, Spain.
A family mystery for fans of Maggie O’Farrell, Lucinda Riley, Tracy Rees and Rachel Hore.
Buy on Amazon.
An extract from ‘Connectedness’.
London, September 2009
The retired headmistress knew before she opened the front door that a posy of carnations would be lying on the doorstep beside the morning’s milk bottle. It happened on this day, every year. September 12. And every year she did the same thing: she untied the narrow ribbon, eased the stems loose and arranged the frilled red flowers in her unglazed biscuit-ware jug. Then she placed the jug on the front windowsill where they would be visible from the street. Her bones ached more now as she bent to pick them up off the step than the first year the flowers arrived. She had an idea why the carnations appeared and now regretted never asking about them. Next year, someone else would find the flowers on the doorstep. In a week’s time she would be living in a one-bedroom annexe at her son’s house in a Hampshire village. She walked slowly back to her armchair beside the electric fire intending to tackle The Times crossword but hesitated, wondering if the person who sent the flowers would ever be at peace.
Yorkshire, May 2010
The clouds hurried from left to right, moved by a distant wind that did not touch her cheek. It felt unusually still for May. As if the weather was waiting for the day to begin, just as she was. She had given up trying to sleep at three o’clock, pulled on some clothes and let herself out of the front door. Despite the dark, she knew exactly the location of the footpath, the edge of the cliffs; could walk it with her eyes closed. Justine lay on the ground and looked up, feeling like a piece of grit in the immensity of the world. Time seemed both still and marching on. The dark grey of night was fading as the damp began to seep through her jeans to her skin. A pale line of light appeared on the eastern horizon, across the flat of the sea. She shivered and sat up. It was time to go. She felt close to both her parents here, but today belonged to her mother.
Three hours later, she stood at the graveside and watched as the coffin was lowered into the dark damp hole. Her parents together again in the plot they had bought. It was a big plot, there was space remaining.
Will I be buried here?
It was a reassuring thought, child reunited with parents.
The vicar’s voice intoned in the background, his words whipped away by the wind. True to form, May was proving changeable. It was now a day requiring clothing intended for mid-winter, when windows were closed tight and the central heating turned on again. Or was it that funerals simply made you feel cold?
She repeated the vicar’s word, a whisper borne out of many childhood Sunday School classes squeezed into narrow hard pews. She was not paying attention to the service but, drawn by the deep baritone of the vicar who was now reciting the Lord’s Prayer, was remembering her first day at art college. The first class. Another baritone. Her tutor, speaking words she had never forgotten. Great art was always true, he warned, and lies would always be found out.
In her handbag was a letter, collected from the hall table ten days ago as she left the house for Heathrow and Tokyo. She had expected to return home to London but, answering the call from her mother’s doctor, had come straight to Yorkshire in the hope of seeing her mother one last time. The envelope, which was heavy vellum, and bore smidgens of gold and scarlet and the Royal Academy of Arts’ crest, was still sealed. She knew what the letter said, having been forewarned in a telephone call from the artist who nominated her. It was the official invitation. If she accepted, she was to be Justine Tree, RA.
And now for my interview with Sandra:
Can you tell us more about what inspired you to choose the theme of an identity detective for your books?
The concept of the ‘Identity Detective’ series was originally about adoption reunion and how the adopted person, adrift from their roots, gains a sense of identity. Where does this feeling of belonging come from; genes, place, a secure family, life experience? As I started to process these thoughts and put them into Ignoring Gravity, which was intended to be a standalone story about Rose Haldane, I realised there was a whole experience out there that wasn’t being told. We hear about adopted parents and children being reunited but not about how they find each other, the struggles, the failures, the rejections, the awkward meetings, and who helps them. It seemed natural that Rose, a journalist, should evolve into an identity detective helping others to find their families as she had found her own. From there it was a logical step to developing a series of novels, each one looking at a different viewpoint in the adoption experience. Birth mother, father and siblings; adopted child; adoptive parents and siblings. These names are blunt tools, labels that serve a purpose in aiding lost people to find each other.
How do you go about coming up with ideas for your books that work with your theme?
One thing I am not short of is ideas. As a magazine features editor I had a box file of cuttings and scraps of paper, each one an idea for an article. And it’s the same now. I’m a magpie, a collector of facts and snippets, stories on the television news or in the newspaper, good news stories on Facebook. I have a series of box files into which all these cuttings are placed, and the virtual equivalent on my computer. Sometimes I will read a story and know immediately how it will fit into my work; there is an excitement that comes with this, like fitting the last piece into a difficult jigsaw. Each book has to have a mystery at its heart, questions to be answered, anonymous people to be identified. Often an event in history is the trigger, that’s how I found the idea for the third book in the ‘Identity Detective’ series. Sweet Joy will tell the story of an elderly woman seeking the truth of her abandonment; she was found as a baby, uninjured, alone in the bombed out ruin of a house in London during The Blitz. I had a vague idea that I wanted to set my third novel in wartime London and was reading in the library when I came to a passage describing how half of a house was demolished by a bomb while in the other half, an elderly couple slept on, curled up together in their bed, unharmed. What if, I wondered, it was a baby instead? I ask myself ‘what if?’ a lot.
How important is setting to you in your novels? I know this book is set in both Spain and Yorkshire, places you know well. What made you choose these places particularly?
Knowing the setting is one of the key building blocks for me, I must know the setting before I can start writing. Until then I will build on ideas, writing exercises to experiment with characters, motivation and personality. Perhaps I need to visualise a character in a particular place before I can write more. It seems all my novels are destined to be set in places I know; so, I will never write a fantasy novel! I found a note to my writing group, written in 2010, when I first started to explore the character of Justine. Even that early in my thought process Justine was born in Yorkshire, like me, though she was heading for art college in Paris not Spain. The Spanish connection happened when I realised it was futile planning to send Justine to Paris to study art, when we live in Spain only an hour from Málaga, birthplace of Pablo Picasso. And so the Picasso link was born and I spent many happy hours in Málaga researching the streets, the art, the parks, choosing the settings for key scenes. I was able to use my own sense of foreignness, alienation and language struggles, experienced when we first arrived in Spain, for Justine’s arrival in 1982. I still write about our life in the Spanish countryside at my Notes on a Spanish Valley blog.
How do you go about doing your research? How do you keep your research organised?
The other side of idea generation comes through research and I enjoy this a lot. I read a lot of non-fiction and history, I visit archives, museums and country houses – this instinct to research comes from my journalism training, the need to search for facts – and from this I will experience ‘light bulb’ moments. Sweet Joy is taking me into new territory and I am relishing it. I have always been interested in World War Two, raised as I was in the Sixties on my father’s diet of war films and Alistair MacLean novels. So my research list involves visits to IWM Duxford, the Fleet Air Arm Museum, and ‘The 1940s Relived’ day at the Brooklands Museum.
How long did it take you to write your first draft of this novel? How many more drafts were there after that?
I wrote the first chapters on Connectedness in 2015 though I had been researching and planning long before that, during the time Ignoring Gravity was written and published. There were seven full drafts with ‘down time’ allowed in between; I find it helpful to put the manuscript aside and occupy myself with something else so that when I return to the draft I read it afresh. This does mean that I write quite slowly, but I have come to accept that I will never be able to produce a novel a year, or even every two years.
What do you use to write your books? Word, Scrivener, pen and paper…?
I write on Word on my Mac, on an old wi-fi-free laptop, on the Word app on my iPad with a little clip-on keyboard, and in my writing notebook. Although I use Scrivener to produce mobi files, I haven’t used it for writing and admit to finding it a little confusing. Re-writing is mostly done on the old laptop. I don’t need to be in a particular place to write; I have written in noisy coffee shops, cramped airplane seats, vibrating train seats, and sitting on a sunbed on a beach. I do believe however in printing out each draft and reading it with a pen in my hand, another old journalism habit. I spend a fortune in paper and printer cartridges.
What’s the hardest part of writing for you?
I am not great at technology. I used to be when I was younger; it’s easy to be proficient when you work in a big publishing company with the latest computers, regular training and a helpful IT department. It’s very different being a company of one. But I have found a group of people who support me in what I do, who can answer my questions and help when I despair. I also find support in various online writer groups; all writers today, I think, sit alone at our computers so are ready and willing to help each other. I find that heart-warming.
What do you enjoy most about the writing process?
As the first reviews come in for Connectedness, each one giving me a little boost of excitement, I could say ‘now’, just before the book is published. But actually I enjoy the process of writing. If I could, I would live on a remote hillside or deep in an isolated forest, alone with my writing. Wi-fi not required.
Are you going to continue writing about this theme in your novels or do you have plans to write something completely different in the future?
I have ten clear outlines for further ‘Identity Detective’ novels and a few more sketchy ideas. I may take a break after Sweet Joy and write a standalone novel. There are a number of options I could choose. I grew up in Yorkshire and would like to return to my roots.
Have you started work on your next novel yet? If so, can you tell us anything about it?
Sweet Joy starts in 1940 as a baby is found alive in a bombed house in Twickenham after one of the worst nights of The Blitz. The house is shut-up and unoccupied, its owners moved to the countryside for the duration of the war. So why was a baby left there, alone, and what happened to her parents? Decades later, when Rose Haldane moves to Twickenham she cannot understand how she has acquired a stalker, an elderly woman who watches from across the road. Except the woman is not stalking Rose.
Thanks so much for being my guest this month, Sandra. Wishing you every success with your new novel.
About Sandra Danby
Sandra Danby is a proud Yorkshire woman, tennis nut and tea drinker. She believes a walk on the beach will cure most ills. Unlike Rose Haldane, the identity detective in her two novels, Ignoring Gravity and Connectedness, Sandra is not adopted.