I’m joined today by Kat Armstrong who sharing #TenThings about herself and her writing. Thanks to Kelly at Love Books Tours for inviting me to take part in the tour. A Pair of Sharp Eyes is published by Hookline Books and is available in paperback or as an ebook. You can order your copy here: https://amzn.to/2xybjGO
Where I live
Recently I moved to a rural part of Essex. I’d never set foot in Essex before, but I feel a real connection with the landscape. It’s deep in history – ancient churches, beautiful villages and market towns – and wildlife. Whenever I walk up the lane near my house I see something of interest. This morning it was a female blackcap perched in an elder bush, perfectly framed against a clear summer sky.
Wild green places
Like many writers, I’m happiest reading or writing, with intervals for seeing friends and going for walks in the countryside. I’m passionate about nature and conservation; it grieves me to read the work of eighteenth-century naturalists such as Gilbert White and contemplate all we have lost.
The day job
I’ve done lots of different jobs in the last few years, most of them in education. They’re all stimulating, and help the writing indirectly, but I’m usually itching to get back to my desk. Creating a novel takes a lot of time, and there never seems to be enough.
My work-in-progress is a sequel to my debut, A Pair of Sharp Eyes. The early chapters are set on a sailing ship, so I’m deep into maritime history at the moment – and I’m reading lots of novels set at sea.
Despite being born in Australia and spending six weeks of my early childhood on an ocean liner I’ve never sailed, and I’ve lived inland most of my life. But I love the sea and find it enthralling to imagine how it felt to voyage in the early 1700s, when ships were so small and passengers knew little of the places where they were heading.
Road to publication
Hilary Mantel is a great role model for aspiring writers. Her advice is to ‘Be patient,’ presumably because she found a wider readership relatively late. I’ve written several unpublished novels, and even gaining a Distinction for my Creative Writing MA didn’t help me find an agent. That said, I write for myself at the end of the day, and if I hadn’t found a publisher I’d still write.
If a character doesn’t come to life, neither will the story. I’ve learned to ditch ‘thin’ characters and start again. Characters the reader will want to spend time with tend to be the opposite: they are irrepressible and a pleasure to write. My heroine Coronation (Corrie) came into being fully fledged; I could picture her face before she’d done or said a thing. In my imagination she looks a little like William Hogarth’s Shrimp Girl except she’s shrewder and more street-wise. Corrie sees everything – and those around her are blissfully unaware of her watching them.
Lots of books influenced A Pair of Sharp Eyes: Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, Jo Baker’s Longbourn, Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring to name just three. But it was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodiesthat helped me solve various problems peculiar to historical fiction. Modern readers want to learn about the past but to relate to it too. My heroine’s employer Mrs Tuffnell gained a new dimension when I gave her a business to run. Just as Liz Cromwell braids and sells silk, Mrs Tuffnell makes and sells cosmetics. And although my heroine Corrie isn’t as learned as Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell, she’s capable and fiercely ambitious.
I started my career researching the eighteenth century (for a doctoral thesis on the early novel), and learning about the period is still a joy. I look out for survivals wherever I go: timber-framed buildings, calf-bound books in dusty corners of antique shops, unmetalled lanes, old farms, centuries’-old trees. Most sources are printed, obviously – the walled city of Bristol Corrie knew has virtually disappeared – but museums are great at bringing the past to life. The Geffrye Museum of the Home in London is a particular favourite. The visitor centre at Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, round the corner from where I used to live, boasts a room in which everything is made of wood. Standing in that room really helped me understand my heroine’s everyday world: one in which there was no plastic, no industrial dyes, very little metal, not much glass. Her auditory experiences would have been so different from ours. Sounds would have been as muted as colours. Thumps, thuds, swishing brooms, slopping pails of water, whistling, clattering hooves. But very few clicks, almost no machines, and absolutely no beeps.
I have so many favourite books. All I can do is name the ones at the current top of an ever-expanding list. Melissa Harrison’s beautiful All Among the Barley; Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread for its quiet audacity. As a vegetarian I found Michel Faber’s Under the Skin painful and unforgettable. John Lanchester’s The Wallskewers the times. Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is required reading for anyone who wants to understand Britain today. Many years ago Persephone Books rediscovered the brilliant mid-twentieth-century novelist Dorothy Whipple, and I’ve been grateful to them ever since. Lastly, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve re-read Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill.
Getting published was a long slog. When I saw the gorgeous cover design (by More Visual Ltd) for A Pair of Sharp Eyes it all felt worth it – the sense that I had created an original work, and that it had inspired a piece of art in its turn.
From the back of the book
Coronation hears of the murders before she even reaches the slave port of Bristol – six boys found with their throats slit. Horrified, she questions the locals’ readiness to blame the killings on Red John, a travelling-man few have actually seen. Coronation yearns to know more about the mystery. But first she has to outsmart the bawds, thieves and rakes who prey on young girls like her: fresh from the countryside and desperate for work. When the murderer strikes shockingly close to Coronation, she schemes, eavesdrops and spies on all around her until the shameful truth is out.