I had written fifteen books when I signed a new contract for three more with Simon & Schuster, who have published me since 2010. At that point I was very keen to do something different, but I wasn’t sure what or how. I just knew I needed to keep my writing fresh and I also needed to feel inspired and excited by something new. Julian Fellowes, who wrote Downton Abbey, is a friend of mine, and I remembered him asking me whether anything I had written had been optioned for TV. Nothing had, so he suggested I write something ‘that rolls’ (those were his exact words). What he meant was something that had legs, not a story that ended but one which could continue indefinitely, like Downton Abbey, which could go on forever, really. So when Simon & Schuster signed me up for three books the idea came to me to write a rolling trilogy.
I was excited and a little nervous at the thought of plotting something so immense. First, I had to choose my location; I always decide on that first. Ireland sprang to mind because I have always loved the mystical, wild, rugged feel of it – and the troubled history is so perfect for a novel. I based Secrets of the Lighthouse in Connemara and adored immersing myself in a more gothic setting than previous Mediterranean and South American settings, so I was keen to return there. However, I chose Co. Cork, mainly because I have friends who live there but also because it’s heart-stoppingly beautiful.
I have always adored castles, both ruined and intact. The once majestic castles of Ireland which were burned down by the rebels during the troubles are so evocative, one wants to know who lived there and what their lives were like. I’m fascinated by the past and feel a delicious sense of nostalgia when I visit these places. I think we all do. I visited Bandon and wandered around the ruins of a once magnificent castle and thought: Yes, this is what I want to write about. I want to see it before it was burned down, in all its desolation, and after its restoration. I want to follow the life of this castle and see what happens.
The year 1900 seemed a good place to start if the story was to ‘roll’. So I chose three girls all born in that year. Naturally, they had to be different. So one is the daughter of the castle, another the daughter of the cook and the third the London cousin of the daughter of the castle. I have driven down the A303 for the last thirty years, having been at school and university in the West Country and now that my daughter is at school there, and I always pass a sign to The Deverills. I thought that would make a brilliant name for my Anglo-Irish family. (Barton Stacey is another signpost, so there’s a Barton Deverill, and Stoke Trister another, hence Stoke Deverill – amazing what one picks up on the road!)
I was lucky enough to make a new friend on the internet. A wonderful man called Tim Kelly wrote to me about one of my novels and we started a correspondence. He was so funny. I adored his emails and wrote back immediately. After a while I told him what I was planning to write and he revealed that he was born and brought up in Co. Cork in the forties/fifties. I don’t believe in coincidence – Fate had most certainly put him in my path, and for good reason! We met up and he entertained me with his stories. We then plotted the trilogy together. I could not have done it without him. I simply wouldn’t have found gems like the ones he gave me, in books, and he’s an encyclopaedia when it comes to history. If the stories have an authentic feel it’s thank to him and I owe him so much. It’s also been fun having someone to share it all with.
With the first two out I’m now polishing the last part. I hope it ends with a crescendo that will thrill my readers. It’s been enormously entertaining for me, but also a huge challenge. I’ll write something very simple next time!