Sarah’s successful debut thriller A Voice in the Night (see our previous interview here) is being followed by an historical fiction manuscript, The Dilemma. Clearly she’s a versatile author. We discuss the differences between the genres, especially the level of research required to write a period piece. Join us to find out more about her writing process.
Can you please share the blurb for The Dilemma?
1958. Esme, a novelist, finds a potential new literary project. A housemaid named Clara was convicted of murder, perhaps unjustly, amid the ending of World War II and the liberation of Guernsey from Nazi occupation. Esme’s trip to Guernsey is an opportunity not only to research the case, but to learn more about her mother’s family—as well as to heal from the heartbreak inflicted on her by the man she loved…
1915: A teenager marries her childhood sweetheart before he heads off to fight in the Great War. But he doesn’t come back, and Jane, presumed a widow, flees Guernsey—devastated by her loss. In London, Jane finds a new life and a new husband—but her past isn’t done with her yet.
This absorbing novel follows the parallel paths of two generations of women, and as each is faced with painful decisions and shocking discoveries, a question emerges: Can a lie be forgiven when the truth seems too much to bear?
Your first published novel was a thriller, A Voice in the Night. What made you switch to historical fiction?
The Dilemma started life as a contemporary novel, but I found that the premise just didn’t work in a modern-day setting. Firstly, my protagonist’s choices made her unlikeable and secondly, in a world of social media and instant communications the storyline lacked credibility. I decided to move it to a time period and circumstances which would make more sense and hopefully allow for more reader empathy with the character’s ‘dilemma’.
What were the biggest similarities/differences between the genres?
Similarities included structuring the novel to have unexpected twists and turns, maintaining pace and energy, and providing a surprise at the end.
As for differences, I found the depth of research required went far deeper and was much more time-consuming. In almost every paragraph I had to stop and check something – a piece of music, a make of car, the use of a particular word, a bus route, fashion style, cost of a cup of tea … it seemed endless! And that was aside from the bigger historical context of WW1, WW2, peacetime between wars and other milestone events – the stockmarket crash, the depression, change of governments, technological advances.
I’d always wanted to visit the Channel Islands and when the opportunity came for a holiday (pre-Covid) I thought it would be fun to include it as one of the locations in The Dilemma. As the book progressed however, Guernsey became more focal, and so I extended my time there to allow for more ‘on the ground’ research.
What sort of research did you do?
Initially I trawled around Google but there wasn’t a lot online for the time periods. Then I discovered the Ward Lock travel guides – marvelous guidebooks for intrepid travelers of the time, and I found the 1924 and the 1956 versions which became my bibles. They had fold-out street maps and listed everything you could possibly wish to know – the cost of a stamp, how to join the library, the bus routes (described as ‘devious’ which I couldn’t resist including in the book!), walking tours, ferries, hotels and lots of advertisements. I also joined a couple of Guernsey history Facebook sites and got lots of help and advice from locals, particularly one fellow, Alan Solway.
What did you do on your visit to Guernsey?
When we arrived in Guernsey, Alan offered to show us around. For two days he took us everywhere and was a mine of information. I also met with locals wherever I could, in particular staff at venues which featured in the book. I was blown away by the generosity shown to me. Everyone went out of their way to open up archives, share materials and photos, etc. And I spent hours in the local libraries trawling through newspapers of the time.
What drew you to explore the parallels between a mother and her daughter’s lives?
That was not so much a conscious decision as the way the book evolved. I hadn’t intended to draw parallels, so it was interesting how in different ways the two women actually experienced similar issues – even if they didn’t recognise it in themselves.
Spoiler alert. Skip this question if you haven’t read the book yet. What drew you to explore the dilemma?
My starting point had always been an interest in exploring what would cause a woman to commit bigamy – how could it be justifiable? My initial research unearthed very few cases of female bigamy – it is largely a male phenomenon which made it all the more intriguing. But as I said earlier, the early drafts were problematic, and it took quite a few re-workings to hit on a logical, acceptable context.
The Dilemma gave me an appetite for research and so I’ve another work of historical fiction in the wings. But I enjoyed thriller-writing too, so watch that space as well!
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Next time: an interview with Sara Adrien on The Jewellery Competition and her latest release.