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Elizabeth Buchan talks about undercover work, daughters and separate beds

I am thrilled to host author Elizabeth Buchan on my blog today.

When I asked for suggestions for my brand new Kindle reader, Separate Beds was recommended of Carole Blake of Blake Friedman Literary Agency. Tweeting with Elizabeth, I discovered one of her novels was about a female SOE agent in war-time France, Light of the Moon. As my own heroine becomes a special forces operative, I began to see parallels…

And there’s a  free, post-paid copy of Light of the Moon for the lucky winner of a secret numbers competition.

So how did you get started?
Having children made me realise that golden periods of leisure were off the menu. Therefore, if I wished to write, I had better get on with it. I used to write a page early in the morning and another late at night after seeing to the children and coming home from work. I reckoned two pages turned into four, and four into eight. So it transpired… and I wrote a novel called Daughters of the Storm which was set in the French Revolution.
 
What draws you to your particular genre?
I am never drawn to a genre per se. I am drawn to an idea or a situation. Out of those comes the novel. It is for other people to apply labels!
 
What drew you to the story of Evelyn, who in Light of the Moon becomes a member of the SOE?
As well as being hugely interesting in itself, undercover life is a wonderful, resonant metaphor for all sorts of things and also for human behaviour. What is not to be drawn to as the novelist? In Occupied France, there was danger and darkness and the roller coaster of life on the run. There was also the complex political and social situation. As I wrote it, I asked myself: how would I have behaved? The answers are not straightforward and, for me, portraying a female agent was especially fascinating as I not sure I would have possessed the courage – particularly if I had had young children which some of these women agents did.
 
What makes a heroine in such an environment, e.g. special forces, MI6 operative so attractive, or not?
As mentioned above: courage and moral integrity. When thrown into an intense crucible, these qualities are under attack. Do they survive? Or, is it impossible? Does the knowledge that your life expectancy is practically nil intensify your experiences in a manner which is almost addictive? Evelyn emerges from her experiences with part of her broken for ever – but with her vision enlarged. Surely, that is what most of us aspire to?
 
Separate Beds is layered, complex and dissects the interior life of a family – a world away from Light of the Moon. How do you flex your writing muscles on such different projects?
The answer is: I don’t really know. All I do know is that an idea grips me and I work away at it until a novel emerges. This takes a huge amount of work and grind. I write each novel three times on average. Separate Beds arrived because I could see that all around me people were beginning to loose their jobs. What was that going to do to them and their families?
 
To plot or not to plot? Are you a planner or do you just dive in?
I always tell myself to plot… then ignore my own advice and just dive in. Usually, I know the beginning and I know the end.

What is the hardest part of the writing process for you?
The first draft! It is like wringing blood out of a stone.

Do you enjoy research, and how do you set about it?
I love research but I have learnt to be wary of it. It can become all consuming. In my early novels, I had a tendency to include EVERY single bit of research because a) it was fascinating b) I had done it. I think research overkill  is the stumbling block of inexperienced novelists. You learn to do the research, discard much of it and just retain a few killer, salient facts which will fuel the plot and characters. That is enough. Of course, if you are writing a historical novel then you must strive to reproduce the background as authentically as possible but, again, this can be done with simple brushstrokes, not dossiers of facts and information.
 
How do you develop your characters?
They grow. Often they take their time about it. But I know the process is taking off when I wake up in the morning and my first thought is about a character.

You’ve worked as an editor. What do you think an editor, or reader for that matter, is looking for in a good novel?
It can be reduced to a very simple sentence. Do I wish to continue reading this novel? If I do, then a vital, elective process has taken place – even if the manuscript needs a lot of work.

You’re related to John Buchan, I believe. Is he one of the authors who have influenced you?
Do you mean John Buchan who wrote The Thirty Nine Steps? He is my husband’s grandfather and I admire his books very much. If I could steal some of his story-telling abilities, I would…

How do you relax? What interests do you have other than writing?
Opera. Walking. Reading. Theatre. Pour me a glass of very good red wine with a gathering of dear friends and I am very happy.

Are you into social networking, and in what way do you feel it helps your career?
Social networking is obviously something which authors have to take seriously. The plus side is that it is hugely stimulating and you can make wonderful new contacts… like this one!

What is your latest book?
Daughters will be published by Penguin in March 2012. Here is a sneak preview of the blurb which has just been sent to me.
 It is a truth universally acknowledged that all mothers want to see their daughters happily settled. But for Lara, mother to Maudie and stepmother to Jasmine and Eve, this is looking increasingly unlikely.
With an ex-husband lost to a mid-life crisis, and the surprising and late blooming developments in her own love life to contend with, Lara has enough to worry about, especially with Eve’s upcoming wedding. But a mother’s work is never done.

And when she begins to fear that Eve is marrying a man who will only make her unhappy, and Maudie reveals something that shocks the entire family, Lara faces the ultimate dilemma. Does she step in and risk the wrath of her daughters? Or does she stand by and watch them both make what she fears will be the biggest mistakes of their lives?

Yet, there is something bewitching, even elemental, at work in the garden where the wedding is to take place… which changes things.

Can you tell us something of your work in progress?
I am back working on another novel about the SOE, only this time in Denmark. Like many, I am fascinated by Scandinavia and I thought Denmark would be very interesting to explore in this way. My research has unearthed a mother and a daughter who both worked for SOE and I am currently reading up about them.
 
And finally, what advice would you give a new writer?
Do it. Nothing is a substitute for sitting down at the desk and beginning. No amount of reading, talking and thinking will, in the end, suffice if you don’t take your courage in your hand and put pen to paper.

Now enter the competition to win  a free, post-paid copy of Light of the Moon.

4 comments to Elizabeth Buchan talks about undercover work, daughters and separate beds

  • Elizabeth’s novels sound fantastic! I’m off to add them to my Goodreads right now. Thanks for a wonderful interview, ladies.

  • alison

    I’ve read the above three and have added more to my wish list.

    I was particularly interested in the SOE story as my own heroine goes undercover and joins the special forces…

  • Liz Harris

    What an interesting interview. Thank you, Elizabeth and Alison.

    Liz X

  • alison

    Comment from Denise Barnes:
    “I enjoyed the interview with EB. Also, really interested in this novel, having read loads of autobiographies of women in the SOE. And my next novel is set in 1941 through the eyes of a young girl.

    I wondered if Elizabeth has read the true story of a Danish war heroine, Monica de Wichfeld, written by Christine Sutherland. It’s riveting.

    Now going to try to do the comp.”
    (Transferred from another post)