GUEST BLOG: The best of imaginary friends
5th July 2014 - Sara Sheridan
Sara Sheridan writes the highly-acclaimed Mirabelle Bevan Mysteries which are set in London and Brighton during the 1950s. Mirabelle has been called 'Miss Marple with an edge'.
England Expects, the third book in the series (following Brighton Belle and London Calling) is out in paperback now. Set during the heatwave of 1953 Mirabelle and her sidekick, Vesta, investigate the seemingly unrelated murders of a racing journalist and a cleaning woman. The trail leads them to Brighton Pavilion's crumbling passageways, to the quad of a Cambridge college and finally into the shady underworld of freemasonry in Brighton.
But what does it mean for a writer when a character like Mirabelle starts ton take on a life on her own? Sara looks what happens when readers start to have their say.
Some characters stay with you from the moment they first appear on the page. Recently I read Samantha Ellis's How To Be A Heroine. This fascinating exploration of female characters with whom Ellis has connected over several decades will chime a bell with any bookworm. I've always been a swot. As a child, reading allowed me to escape my many difficulties and try on the happier lives of fictional characters or at least explore some solutions to my problems. Like Ellis I was transfixed by the fierce love of Kathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and I longed for the sheer good nature of Anne in the face of her many challenges at Green Gables.
A book is a contract - a story delivery system that takes magic from the mind of the writer and deposits it into the mind of the reader. With fiction that contract has a curious dissonance: as a reader, you want to pick up a novel and disappear into the story. You long to believe every word of what you're reading. But the reality is you know from the outset that a novel is a feat of imagination. It isn't real. It doesn't matter if you like romances or literary fiction or historical epics - all readers want to feel the same way - drawn in inexorably to the story and subsumed into its world. That is the power of fiction. It stretches your imagination and the imagination is a very important muscle to stretch.
I write historical fiction over two periods. 1820-1845 and also a series of 1950s murder mysteries. If, as a reader, you are drawn into the world of a good book, as a writer you can double that effect. A book might take a few hours, perhaps a week or two, to read but it takes weeks and months to write and to write well you have inhabit a story's landscape. Writers have a reputation for being eccentric for a reason. There are times when I've walked into my own kitchen and found myself bemused at the sight of all the gadgetry because in my mind all cooking is done on a wood-fired range. When you're writing every imaginary detail becomes real and I've discovered that one of the joys of writing a series is that readers also live in that world and want to discuss it with you. Last year I spoke at an event alongside Rivers of London author, Ben Aaronovitch. I write historical crime but he writes fantasy crime. When we compared the feedback from readers (particularly the criticisms, for you always get some of those) we discovered the issues were surprisingly similar and the devil was certainly in the detail. I'd get people writing to me because they were sure tissues weren't available in 1951 (yes, they were) or because I'd written a police car putting on its siren (when although some cars had sirens by the 50s most still had bells). Ben was afflicted by readers writing in to criticize his system of magic. Apparently there's no way it could possibly work.
And then there are the people who love it. My character, Mirabelle, has spawned an array of fans and I wasn't prepared for that. I've always written stand-alone novels before and the interest with those tends to be in the writer rather than the main character. Mirabelle has taken on a life of her own over her three adventures (and counting). When we were preparing England Expects for publication I had a call from my wonderful editor, Alison.
'It's her bedroom,' Alison said, keen to get straight to what was on her mind. Mirabelle lives on the front in Brighton in a Georgian apartment. 'You have her sitting up in bed watching a yacht go by on the horizon.'
'Yes,' I was slightly mystified.
'Well, you can't see that from Mirabelle's bed. She's going to have to get up and go to the window.'
'Let me just get this right,' I checked. 'My imaginary character's imaginary view from her imaginary bedroom isn't possible?'
'No,' Alison was in earnest. 'She's going to have to get up.'
'They're long Georgian windows,' I countered.
Alison wasn't buying it. It turns out she has had a clear picture of Mirabelle's bedroom in her mind since book one. In the end I wrote in Mirabelle getting up to look at the damn boat. Why not? But really that's the biggest compliment - when something you've written takes on a life of its own. It's like a child leaving home, It's that place where something that you've cherished meets the world and exists without you. It's letting your imaginary friends go and make friends of their own.
Read Sara's previous blogs for Foyles
Sara tweets about her writing life as @sarasheridan and posts on Facebook as sarasheridanwriter. Mirabelle has her own twitter account @mirabellebevan