I’m thrilled to welcome to my blog this week the hugely talented novelist, Wendy Clarke. Like me, Wendy started her writing career writing short stories for women’s magazines and I’ve followed her transition from short story writer to novelist with admiration.
Wendy’s debut novel, What She Saw, was published earlier this year by Bookouture and this was swiftly followed by We Were Sisters which was published in August. She is currently working on her third novel.
Hi Wendy and thank you for agreeing to answer my questions. I’ll start with the one every writer is said to dread.
Where do you get your ideas from?
Having had over three hundred stories published in women’s magazines, the question ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ is one I’m asked a lot. I usually say that my ideas come from everywhere: something I’ve overheard, a headline in a newspaper, a memory or maybe it’s an idea that’s just blossomed in my head while walking the dog.
That was in the days before I wrote novels. Before I needed a story plot that would entertain a reader for eighty thousand words and could be interwoven with subplots. It also had to be an idea strong enough to support a cast of several characters rather than the two or three needed for my short stories. Strangely, the idea for my debut psychological thriller, What She Saw, didn’t come to me in any of the ways I’ve mentioned above. It was the setting that came first rather than the plot, and this is how it happened.
My husband and I love walking and we love beautiful scenery, which is what first attracted us to the Lake District – especially the area around Ambleside which has become a favourite. It was while staying in a small miner’s cottage in the village of Chapel Stile and looking out at the fells from the living room window, that I had my lightbulb moment. As I watched the clouds move across the peaks, darkening the once-green slopes, it came to me that this was the perfect scenery for building suspense. The agent I had at the time had suggested I write a psychological thriller and slowly the ideas started to come. Who might be looking out at those everchanging fells? Were they worried… or maybe afraid? What if it was a mother and daughter who stood at a window in a miner’s cottage just this like one and what if they both had secrets?
As I thought about some of the places we’d visited – the pub at the end of a long walk near an old clapper bridge, the cairn where we’d sat and watched the sun go down, the disused slate quarry with its pool of dark water – more bits of the puzzle began to fall into place. Even the little village supermarket has its mention in the novel. It’s the place where my protagonist, Leona, first thinks she sees Ria – the woman who once ruined her life. It’s where she realises this beautiful place where she’s always felt safe, might not be after all.
My second psychological thriller, We Were Sisters, was published in August. This time the idea came to me while walking in a meadow at the base of the downs behind the village where I live. It reminded me of a children’s book I’d read as a child called Marianne Dreams, about a girl who was confined to bed with an illness. Out of boredom, she would draw pictures with a pencil belonging to her grandmother, then at night would dream about the lonely house she’d drawn… the one that stood in the middle of an expanse of waving grass. It might have been a children’s book, but it was the first to give me goose bumps.
As the wind started to blow, whipping the seed heads against my legs, I knew the meadow of rippling grass I was walking through could play a part in my next thriller. And when my path through the meadow led me to a disused rifle range, its brick walls covered in graffiti, that possibility became a certainty.
So, this is my advice. If you’re stuck for ideas, get your coat on, take a walk and have your senses on high alert. It worked for me!
The Books’ Blurbs
What She Saw (a standalone psychological thriller)
How far would you go to keep your daughter safe?
Everyone knows Leona would do anything for her daughter, Beth: she moved to Church Langdon to send Beth to the best school, built a business to support them and found the perfect little cottage to call home. They hike together, shop together, share their hopes and fears. It’s the relationship every mother dreams of.
But Leona never talks about why they moved to the Lake District.
She’s never told Beth anything about her father.
She says Beth should never speak to strangers. She says Beth doesn’t need friends.
She’s only trying to protect her daughter.
When Leona answers the phone one morning, her heart stops as she hears a voice from her past.
She’s given her daughter everything, but now she must tell her the truth. And once it’s out, can she keep her little girl safe?
We Were Sisters. (a standalone psychological thriller)
I turn to where I left my baby in his pushchair and pull up short. With a racing heart, I look around wildly, fear gripping my stomach. I only looked away for a moment. The pushchair and my baby are gone.
Kelly is taking her twin daughters to their first day of school, ushering them into the classroom, her heart breaking to think they might not need her anymore, when she turns around and sees her newborn baby is gone.
As a desperate search ensues, baby Noah is quickly found – parked in front of a different classroom. But when Kelly reaches forward to comfort him, she finds something tucked in the side of his blanket. A locket that belonged to her sister Freya. A locket Kelly hasn’t seen since the day Freya died.
And then Kelly’s perfectly-ordered life begins to unravel…
Thank you, Wendy. I can’t wait to read We Were Sisters. I absolutely loved What She Saw. It was set in a part of the Lake District I know and love, so that was an additional bonus. My next question was going to be ‘what inspires you most? Characters? Settings? Books you’ve read?’ But I guess you’re already answered that!
Definitely the setting – the characters and plot ideas come after.
So, how did your writing journey start? Have you always written? What was your first published piece?
I’d love to say I’m one of those writers who was born with a pen in their hand, but it wouldn’t be true. In fact, I took up writing quite late in life. Despite loving creative writing at school, it had never occurred to me that I might one day make it my career.
It was eight years ago, just after the February half term holidays, when my life changed. I remember it as though it was yesterday. I had just been told that the small primary school in Hove, where I taught English, was closing and all the staff were to be made redundant. I felt numb but it didn’t really sink in until the following Monday when, instead of going into class to teach, I remained at home contemplating an uncertain future.
As luck would have it, my brother had just completed an online creative writing course which he thought I might enjoy. With nothing better to do, I took his advice and enrolled. I hadn’t expected to enjoy it so much, and when it ended, I felt bereft. That was when I knew I’d caught the writing bug.
It was my course tutor who suggested I try writing stories for one of the women’s magazines. Missing the challenge of writing, I decided to give it a go. At first, I had the expected rejections, but I didn’t let it put me off. I carried on writing and submitting and my patience paid off when, three months later, I had a letter from the People’s Friend saying they liked one of my stories. Hurray!
And what are you future plans?
A few years ago, my writing changed direction again. With the magazine market for short stories shrinking, I turned my thoughts to writing a novel. My first attempt was a romantic mystery which bagged me an agent, but what they really wanted me to write was a suspense.
Did I think I could do it? My degree was in psychology and I’d always had an interest in how the human mind can affect behaviour, so I decided it might be interesting to explore a darker side to my writing.
A year later, I’d written What She Saw, a psychological thriller set in the Lake District. It didn’t work out with the agent, but last year I was thrilled when my novel won first prize in a competition and was picked up by digital publisher Bookouture. My second thriller, We Were Sisters was published in August and I’m about to start writing my third.
Tell me some things we might not know about you.
1. I try to embrace the days when I find I can’t write
There could be all manner of reasons why this could be: I’m feeling under the weather, it’s sunny and I want to be in the garden, I’ve promised to go to the garden centre with my mum, I’m stuck on the particular piece I’m working on… or I just simply don’t feel like it. In the early days, I used to feel really guilty if I wasn’t spending my free time writing and would make myself sit at my computer. I am much kinder to myself now. Unless I have a deadline, if the words won’t flow and there’s something I’d rather be doing, then I do it. I can guarantee my writing will be all the better for it.
2. I am a good loser and a bad winner
As a child, I was always a good person with whom to play games. Unlike other children, if I lost, I would never sulk, and I’d be the first to congratulate the winner. It didn’t change when I became an adult. When writing for magazines, it was par for the course to have stories rejected but when this happened, I’d get over it and write and submit something else. It was the same when I moved on to writing novels and started submitting to agents. When an email arrived with those hated words, I’m sorry but we didn’t feel passionately enough… I’d take it on the chin and make sure I had somewhere else to send it. But, unfortunately, being a good loser comes at a price… I am a terrible winner. If I have good news, I’m compelled to share it with someone straight away – I just can’t help myself! I post it on social media and tell all my friends. When I’ve had a story published in a magazine, I’ve even been known to tell the newsagent as I’m paying for it. Yes, I really am that annoying!
3. I’m constantly surprised and delighted by life
That’s because I have this thing where I’m convinced life puts an assault course of hazards in my way before I can reach any goal. I constantly overthink things and am always working out worst case scenarios. For example, if I’m planning a trip to London, my thought process will go like this: What if I miss the train? What if there’s a rail strike? What if I can’t get a seat? What if my ticket won’t let me through the barrier? What if I get lost? I tell you, it’s exhausting! The upside of having these anxieties is that when things are easier or better than I imagine (as they invariably are) and I find that nothing is as bad as my imagination paints it to be, I am constantly delighted by life.
Wow! Wendy, you are an inspiration. And your books (like your short stories) are fabulous. No wonder they are flying off the shelves as we speak.
I wish you the very best of luck with them. You deserve it.
Social Media Links, blog, website etc.
The all important buy link.
We were Sisters Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/We-Were-Sisters-absolutely-psychological-ebook/dp/B07RSB413T
Wendy Clarke started her career writing short fiction and serials for national women’s magazines. After having over three hundred short stories published, she progressed to writing novels. With a degree in psychology, and intrigued with how the human mind can affect behaviour, it was inevitable that she would eventually want to explore her darker side.
What She Saw is her debut psychological thriller, published by Bookouture. Her second, We Were Sisters, came out in August 2019.
In her previous life, Wendy has published three collections of short stories and has been a short story judge for the Chiltern Writers Group, Nottingham Writers Group and The Society of Women Writers and journalists.
Wendy lives with her husband and step-dog in Sussex and when not writing is usually dancing, singing or watching any programme that involves food!