Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Guest Author, Susanna Kearsley: It Takes a Village... Doing On-Site Research for THE WINTER SEA

I am extremely excited to present our guest author to you today, Susanna Kearsley.  I am currently reading her book, THE WINTER SEA (review to be posted in the next week), and LOVING it!  She has a unique way of grabbing the reader and pulling her in.  I was fascinated to learn that Ms. Kearsley did her research on-site for this book, and to tell you the truth, it shows!  While reading, I truly feel as though I am there with the characters. 

It Takes a Village… Doing On-Site Research for The Winter Sea

by Susanna Kearsley

Author, Susanna Keasley
Photo by Ashleigh Bonang

Most of my research begins with a book – in this case, John S. Gibson’s account of the failed Franco-Jacobite Invasion attempt of 1708, called Playing the Scottish Card, which introduced me to an episode of history that I’d never even heard of, and inspired me to hunt down the original resources he had used to write his book. I started with the memoirs of the Jacobite Nathaniel Hooke, and went from there to letters, journals, ships’ logs, anything to help me reconstruct the past events and learn about the lives of those who’d been involved.

I love the reading; love to hold the old, old books and haunt the British Library’s hushed reading rooms, where I can lose all track of time reading the letters John Moray – my hero in The Winter Sea – wrote home to his mother and father, or those he wrote to Queen Mary of Modena in his neat and careful French.

Hooke Book and Moray Letter
But even more than that, I love to go to where the book is set – to walk where my characters actually walked, and to try to unearth the small details that help bring a story to life.

I’ve grown a lot more confident since I made my first research trip back in the early 1990s. Back then, I was too shy to tell anybody that I was a writer. Now, I tell everyone – bus drivers, bartenders, anyone – because I’ve learned two things about on-site research: One, that the best details can come from the least likely places, and two, that most people are wonderfully helpful.

Cruden Bay
 The Winter Sea is a perfect case in point. The day my plane touched down in Aberdeen, a heavy snow had closed the roads along the coast, so while I’d found a friendly bus driver prepared to set me down on the main road to Peterhead, it meant that I still had to walk a mile or so from there into Cruden Bay, through snow that nearly reached my knees, and in the dark. When I stopped at the first village pub to get out of the storm, they suggested I call for a taxi to take me the rest of the way up the road to my hotel. I took their advice.

St. Olaf Hotel
 The taxi driver, on hearing that I was a writer, shared some interesting bits of local history with me and gave me an introduction to the Doric language of the northeast, which came in handy since my landlord at the St Olaf Hotel still spoke the Doric. And my landlord, with his mother and his wife, not only made sure that my room had the same view of coast and castle as my heroine would have from her imaginary cottage, but did all they could to help me with my research.

Any time I had questions they answered them for me or found me the answers from people they knew in the village, or simply by asking the women and men in the public bar. One of these women, who came for her lunch almost every day, turned out to be the owner of the local taxi fleet, and she began to drive me round herself, on one occasion with the meter off, to find me the locations that I needed for specific scenes.

The Beach from Ward Hill
 Another of the regulars advised me where my heroine should have her cottage, on Ward Hill, and sure enough when I climbed up to look I found the rubblestone foundations of a cottage that had stood there once, and found the view exactly what I needed.

The local librarians, learning that I was a writer, spent hours finding newspaper clippings and reference books they knew would help me. The cook and the young woman serving my breakfast each day at the St. Olaf helped me. The shopkeepers helped me. The minister helped me. The staff at the Kilmarnock Arms Hotel helped me. People I met on the beach walking dogs helped me. Everyone helped me.
Cruden Bay

And everyone told me I ought go see Margaret Aitken, their own local author, who’d written a few books of local and personal history. I did, and along with her husband and daughter she charmed me and answered my questions and offered me tea, even giving me photographs I could take home for my research.

Slains Castle, Cruden Bay

One thing I was able to do in The Winter Sea was show a little of how helpful people can be when a writer is gathering facts for a novel. It’s what makes my research trips so unforgettable – meeting these wonderful people who take such good care of me while I’m among them.

The reading I can do alone…but on location sometimes it can truly take a village, to do research for my books.



History has all but forgotten…
In the spring of 1708, an invading Jacobite fleet of French and Scottish soldiers nearly succeeded in landing the exiled James Stewart in Scotland to reclaim his crown.

Now, Carrie McClelland hopes to turn that story into her next bestselling novel. Settling herself in the shadow of Slains Castle, she creates a heroine named for one of her own ancestors and starts to write.
But when she discovers her novel is more fact than fiction, Carrie wonders if she might be dealing with ancestral memory, making her the only living person who knows the truth—the ultimate betrayal—that happened all those years ago, and that knowledge comes very close to destroying her…

About the Author

After studying politics and international development at University, Susanna Kearsley worked as a museum curator before turning her hand to writing. Winner of the UK’s Catherine Cookson Fiction prize, Susanna Kearsley’s writing has been compared to Mary Stewart, Daphne DuMaurier, and Diana Gabaldon. Her books have been translated into several languages, selected for the Mystery Guild, condensed for Reader's Digest, and optioned for film. The Winter Sea was a finalist for both a RITA award and the UK's Romantic Novel of the Year Award, and is a nominee for Best Historical Fiction in the RT Book Reviews Reviewers Choice Awareds. She lives in Canada, near the shores of Lake Ontario. For more information, please visit http://www.susannakearsley.com/.

Two lucky commenters will win a copy of THE WINTER SEA.  (US and Canada only)


Chicks of Characterization said...

What a wonderful post! Oh how nice it would be to actually get to do your research on site, in Scotland NO LESS! Sounds like you had a fabulous trip, found so many interesting stories and a slew of new friends! THE WINTER SEA looks like a fantastic read!!!! Love the cover!!! Wishing you the best of luck Susanna! Thanks so much for sharing.

Andrea :O)

Jody said...

I love this book. I read it when it first came out in the UK, Though I am wondering why they are republishing it here with the UK title didn't they already publish it with a different title with the word Sophie in the title?

How long were you able to stay in Scotland to do your research? Having done extensive family research there for three years, the Scotttish people are wonderful in sharing their history with everyone. I learn much more by just talking to the people. Glad to see your interview here.

Susanna Kearsley said...

Thanks, Andrea. It's always been my favorite way to do the research - going and spending some time on location, so to speak. And I do meet some wonderful people whenever I travel, including a handful I still keep in touch with and count as my friends.

Jody, I'm so glad you liked the book. The Winter Sea was the book's original title when it first came out in the UK and Canada two years ago, but my British publishers changed the title to Sophia's Secret for their mass market paperback edition, for reasons explained here on my website: http://bit.ly/hjFx50

For this first U.S. edition of the book, Sourcebooks decided to keep the original title.

To answer your second question, I was only able to spend eleven days doing on-location research for The Winter Sea, so I had to hit the ground running! But the people of Cruden Bay, and especially my hosts at the St. Olaf Hotel, were really helpful afterwards in chasing down stray details for me and proofreading my Doric dialogue :-)

Anonymous said...

I think your next book should feature the same subject, only with the Loch Ness Monster helping out, by eating the Jacobite fleet. Sort of an alternative history.

Sharron Gunn said...

So wonderful to hear you had such a good experience of the people of Cruden Bay. I'm sure after reading the book, a lot of us will put
the town on our itinerary!

Susanna Kearsley said...

Sharron, I hope you do get a chance to visit Cruden Bay. Apart from the lovely people who live there, and the ruins of Slains castle, there's a very good golf course as well, stretching right from the St Olaf hotel (my room overlooked it) to the dunes that edge the beach.

You'd best go soon, though, if you want to see the castle ruins as they are today. Sadly, an Edinburgh-based group has been granted planning permission to remodel the castle into 35 holiday flats.

Angela Johnson said...

I loved hearing the lengths you went to in order to do hands-on research for The Winter Sea. That would be a dream for me. I really love the cover, and the book blurb was so intriguing and mysterious--I can't resist a mystery.

Eliza Knight said...

Susanna, thank you again so much for visiting us!

I am so sad to hear they are remodeling the castle into holiday flats! I hope while remodeling they plan to keep most of what is left, and perhaps restore it, so that guests feel they are staying at an actual castle...

Jen said...

I am lucky enough to live in Cruden Bay, and was given this book to read by the sister of the local librarian! I think Susanna has done a brilliant job of representing the village, both its past and its present, and that makes for an evocative and thrilling read.
I am in the process of writing my own story set at Slains Castle in Cruden Bay, but about 100 years earlier. It's such a shame that this wonderful, haunting building has been left to the mercy of the elements. I would love to see it sensitively restored so visitors could come and appreciate it. If it's turned into holiday flats it will lose it's magic. Thanks for the interesting article.

Susanna Kearsley said...

Angela, I'm glad you like the cover. The designers at Sourcebooks did do a beautiful job. And doing the hands-on research was always a dream for me, too, in the very beginning when finding the time and the money to travel was difficult. Luckily, I have a very understanding and supportive family, who've grown used to my research trips.

Eliza, thank you again for having me here, it's been really fun.

And Jen, you've made my day! The highest praise I can get is when someone from the area I'm writing about thinks I've done a good job. Thanks so much, and please say hello for me to your friend's sister at the library -- I'm guessing it was either Rhoda Buchan or Brenda Murray? They were both very generous with their time and help, and I can't thank them enough.

I'll look forward to reading your book! Best of luck with your writing.

Marg said...

I do love this book so much! How I wish I could get to see Slains before it is changed. Thanks for another fascinating guest post Susanna!

Please don't enter me into the draw as I am not eligible.

Jen said...

Hi Susanna,
Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comment, it's great to speak to a writer you admire - you've made my day too!
It was Brenda's sister Janie, I'll say hello for you when I see her next. Interestingly we were part of the local tennis group that also included Margaret Aitken's grandson, James - it's a small place! I remember that we all had a good chat about your book and the history of the village.
I saw from your website that you're working on a sequel - I look forward to reading it.
Best wishes,

Unknown said...

As a fellow writer and voracious reader, I'm always on the hunt for a book to get lost in and so when I discovered The Winter Sea at my local library, I couldn't wait to get home to start turning the pages. I love the US cover as it sets it apart from the "bodice ripper" novel - of which it is not! The language Ms. Kearsley writes is hauntingly beautiful - in fact, by page 30 I had to do a google search for Cruden Bay and Slains to see the actual images! Thank you very much for writing such a well crafted novel. I'm your newest fan!

Linda Walker in Cincinnati Ohio

Odille Esmonde-Morgan, Australia said...

I bought this book just yesterday in a cheapies bin at the supermarket of all places. It just sort of called to me from among the junk. I must say I like the Winter Sea as a title much better than Sophia's Story (how stupidly trite, publishers must be dumb sometimes) and am enjoying it immensely. And as you can see I've been looking up the sites and the characters and author on the dear old Internet.

It would be a great pity to see the castle made into holiday flats, why not a nice resort/function centre/museum or something a bit more sympathetic.

Keep them coming, Susanna, I'll be looking out for your other books on the net. And I'd like to see another with this 'heroine' too, you've made her an interesting and engaging character.