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How it Began

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How STRANDS Began:

Is there a story you heard when you were little that really creeped you out, so that long after you heard it or read it, it kept popping back in your mind? After reading “Bluebeard” in the red fairy book when I was a kid, it was that way with me. I remember thinking, How is that a fairy tale? Maybe that was when my touch of fascination with the macabre began. Through the years I’ve always loved reading ghost stories and murder mysteries and gothics, but I also adore fantasy. So, if I could mix Lloyd Alexander and JRR Tolkien with Victoria Holt and Madeline Brent, I would be perfectly satisfied.

My next experience with the story was when I was working with a teenage literary group at the library where I worked. We had a spooky, candle-lit “Ghost Stories At the Library” event, and I read “Bluebeard” aloud, which reminded me how creepy it is.

 Then, a couple of years ago, I couldn’t find a job in Canada, so I had begun trying to treat my writing as a job. I made myself write for at least four hours each weekday and I sold some more magazine stories, but what I wanted to start on was a book—a glorious many-page-long book. Short stories are a delight to write, but a novel is hard work, and I was ready for it. I was reading something (I think it was Emily of New Moon), and it mentioned “Bluebeard’s chamber.” The question shot into my mind, Has anyone ever written a full-length Bluebeard?

I looked into it, and, to my amazement, I couldn’t find anything but a few re-told short stories. Gradually, my characters took form. My heroine was innocent, curious, and canny (kind of how I like to think of myself), and M. Bernard fascinated me. He was charming, sociopathic, but with some vulnerability. I wanted the hero to be a good, good person—a man of God with integrity and some quirks. I wanted this because so many times these days the religious person in books and film turns out to be the crazy villain, and in real life it just isn’t so. And so Gideon was born.

The ghosts of the wives evolved because I wanted them to be more beautiful and sad than scary. I really do love how they turned out.

 

I wrote several chapters using England as my setting, since most Gothics I had read were set in England. But in the middle of the night (which is when many of my best ideas come), I realized that STRANDS wanted to take place in the American South. Mississippi is what I know and love. However, I saw no reason why I had to give up my medieval abbey just because the story had moved to Mississippi, and so M. Bernard brought Wyndriven over.

My preference, as far as the treatment of race in writing, is to have the characters be of different races, but only matter-of-factly—it’s some little piece of them, but not the defining characteristic of either the character or the story’s plot. Because STRANDS takes place among the wealthy in antebellum Mississippi, I had to address the issue of slavery, since twenty percent of white people in the American South (and forty-nine percent in Mississippi) in the 1850’s owned at least one slave. I was concerned about this, for fear of offending anyone, but I also needed to be realistic. I dislike books which take place in the past but impose too much 21st century mindset on the characters. I hope I captured the truth and the attitudes and the problems of the time period without being too preachy or too hesitant.

 I don’t like anachronism, and the copyeditors helped me a lot to prevent this. They told me things like: “The word ‘footwear’ did not come into usage until 1881.”

My goal was to capture the creepiness of the original tale, but to flesh it out in a realistic way—just how did a serial killer continue to make women trust him and fall in love with him? How did he hide his true self, and how did bits of it slip out? How could a clever girl like Sophie realistically agree to marry him?

My editor, Allison Wortche, and many others who read and commented on the different versions of STRANDS, helped me to create a book I am proud of.

 


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