As you know, we love writers here, and we’re keen to learn from them. Last week we reviewed Sheila Bugler’s procedural Hunting Shadows. Now Sheila tells us how she gets those pesky words out of her head and onto the page.
I’m pretty sure all experience is an influence, although thinking about my own writing, two things seem most obvious. The first is being a parent. I started writing properly after the birth of my second child. Unwittingly, themes of parenthood, parental love and the importance of giving children a safe, secure childhood recur throughout my writing. I suspect I have a need to explore the strong emotions and vulnerability you experience as a parent.
The second strong influence is my status as an immigrant. I live in a country that’s not my own. This sounds very dramatic, I know, but in a sense it’s how I feel. I adore the beautiful part of England I now call home but I am – first and foremost – an Irish emigrant. I love my country and miss it. Writing novels with Irish characters has always been important and I suspect it will remain so for some time to come. It’s a way of connecting me with where I’m from.
What’s your writing process? What comes first – plot or character?
Character, although I had to think about this so the answer’s not that straight-forward. Sometimes, a novel starts with a single scene. Other times, I’ve dreamt the entire plot of a novel and that’s the starting point. No matter how it begins, though, once the writing starts the narrative is driven by the way the characters develop. Plot definitely comes second to that (although as a crime writer I do have to think very carefully about plot, of course).
Take us through a typical writing day for you?
I’m not sure there is a typical day, unfortunately. I have a job and two kids and life is very busy. On a good day, I get up early (usually before 5) and write until the day begins for everyone else. The days I commute to London, I write on the train.
Basically, I squeeze the writing into whatever little bit of free time I can find. I long for the day I can write full-time.
Who are the authors or you love, and why?
So many. First and foremost, I have a definite leaning towards US writers. Why? It’s something about the lyrical way US authors weave the amazing landscape of their country into their writing. But I adore many other writers too.
Favourite crime writers include Megan Abbott, Gillian Flynn, Craig McDonald, Philip Kerr, James Lee Burke, Denis Lehane, Raymond Chandler (of course), Ken Bruen, Cathi Unsworth, Louise Welsh, Harlan Coben and the incredible Robert Edric who writes the best UK noir fiction I have ever read. I’ve also recently read books by Stephan Talty, MD Villiers and Derek B Miller which were all brilliant. In fact, Talty’s book was so good I wrote to him and told him I wished I’d written it. And I really do.
I also read a lot of non-crime. All-time favourite authors include Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Norman Maclean (A River Runs Through It would possibly be my desert island book), Kazuo Ishiguro, Alan Hollinghurst Patrick McCabe, Raymond Carver, Richard Bausch and the incomparable genius that is PG Wodehouse. I’ve just started re-reading Jeeves and it really is the most sublime writing.
That I’m not going to make a fortune in this line of work! Also that it takes time to get anywhere. I’m not a very patient person and you really need a lot of patience to persevere with this odd occupation we have chosen.
How do you deal with feedback?
I’m pretty okay with feedback. I don’t take criticism too personally. In fact, it is impossible to survive as a writer if you take everything to heart. I went through an intense editing process with Hunting Shadows. Even though my editor is wonderful, I found the process quite gruelling. I do admit, though, that it’s now a better novel than it would have been if we hadn’t made all those changes.
I’ve also learned that all views are subjective. When I started writing, I took every piece of feedback on board and tried to change my writing on that basis. Now I realise that no one’s opinion is ‘right’ (although naturally some opinions are more right than others!). The important thing is not to take anything personally and to be sensible. Generally, if someone doesn’t like something you’ve written, your gut will tell you if they’re right or not. If something feels wrong, then it is wrong and you’ll need to change it.
How have your own experiences shaped your writing?
In lots of ways, I suspect. As I mentioned above, being a mother and an emigrant are key influences. But so many other things in my life feed into my writing, consciously or sub-consciously.
Give me some advice about writing…
Read lots and be realistic. You may think you’re the best, most original talent that has ever lived but the chances are no one else will think that. And even if you find someone who does share that view, it will still be hard work.
Being able to write is very special and I feel so lucky that I’ve found this thing I want to do with my life. But it’s also incredibly hard work. Mostly, it’s a grind and you have to put so much else on hold to do it…
Finally, every aspiring writer should read Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s brilliant.
What’s your best advice for an author looking to get into the marketplace…
Be patient. Be realistic. Be doggedly persistent.
What’s next for you?
Working on the sequel to Hunting Shadows. It’s called Watch Over You and should be out in the first half of 2014. It’s quite a different book, full of dark, demented females. I like it but I’m not sure, yet, if anyone else will!
Sheila grew up in a small town in the west of Ireland. After studying Psychology at university, she left Ireland and worked in Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland and Argentina before finally settling in Eastbourne, where she lives with her husband, Sean, and their two children.