Today I am interviewing Rebecca Alexander, author of A Baby’s Bones and the sequel, released today by Titan books, A Shroud of Leaves. A Shroud of Leaves is the second Sage Westfield book, a crime series where history meets mystery starring archaeologist Sage Westfield.
Would you mind telling us a bit about what inspired you to start writing?
I suppose, reading brilliant books inspired me to write! My first realisation that people worked to make up stories that were turned into books came very young, and from then on I imagined the writer telling me the story in their own words. I love books, I still read a book a day.
What is your favourite part of the process? Are you a planner and a researcher?
I’m not a planner at all, I usually ramble my way into a story and rewrite once I have a beginning, a middle and an end. Having said that, I did do a fair amount of planning for A Shroud of Leaves, because I was quite new to writing crime and this was Sage’s first outing as a criminal investigator. It’s not the way I normally work so I found it time consuming at first. Research is definitely my favourite part of the process. I write a few chapters then follow up ideas and leads that have occurred to me, putting footnotes in as I go so I can use them in the second draft. I found so many lovely sources and bits of folklore and myth as I went. There’s a ghostly black hound legend in a village just outside the New Forest that I found and worked in to the story. I find writing is like reading a book in very slow motion, wondering what’s going to happen next.
Both the Jackdaw Hammond and Sage Westfield have themes of history and mystery, what draws you to them?
I have always liked history and old places. My father used to drag me around Roman and Medieval sites and I grew to love them (though not in the pouring rain). The 1580s are especially interesting in both England and the world beyond. Ideas were progressing fast, society was changing, people were more prosperous and better educated. The decade before the First World War was full of exciting archaeological discoveries but also a realisation that we should be conserving rather than just rifling tombs for treasure. Again, it was a time of prosperity and enlightenment.
How would you describe Sage Westfield?
Sage is independent to a fault, preferring to strike out on her own or follow a lead than wait for back up or rely on someone else. Her job as county archaeologist gave her responsibility over the whole island’s hidden history. Two new relationships with her baby son and her partner are eating into that freedom, and Sage is still adjusting. Growing up in a small community and looking different – Sage’s mother is from Kazakhstan – has made her less bothered about what other people think.
When you write the two timelines, do you write the historical one first? Or do you have your outline plot and go chapter by chapter?
I always write the contemporary strand first, slowly finding the story (loosely based on my plan, for A Shroud of Leaves). When I inevitably get stuck, I start the historical strand and it always flies onto the page. I sometimes wonder if I should write historical fiction, it comes easier! With A Baby’s Bones it was as if Vincent Garland, the estate steward, whispered the whole story in my ear. With A Shroud of Leaves, it felt like I was teasing the pages of Edwin’s journal apart, looking at the plans and sketches and photographs locked inside.
Is there any historical period or place you would love Sage to investigate? How do you choose which era to work with?
Places always spark story for me. I like to visit old buildings and sites all over the UK, and often stay in Tudor buildings or visit Victorian houses. We live in a cottage from the 1750s, I wonder who lived in the house and around the village. The last witch hanged in Britain came from the local area and Dartmoor is just an hour’s drive away. When you know a place really well questions bubble up. Why is that gravestone propped up against the wall, why are those attic windows bricked up, why is my dog walking path called ‘Slaughter Lane’ by the locals? Research will uncover things that find their way into the plot. I think the era comes from the place.
Are there more Sage Westfield books in the works? Could you tease us with any information?
I’m provisionally calling book 3 A Witch’s Skull and it’s already written in early draft. Sage needs find her way back to exploring the past, so decides to write a book about Viola Banstock, sixteenth century poetess. In 1581, recently married Viola travels to attend her older sister but the servants have fled amid rumours of plague, while her sister lies unconscious and abandoned. Two babies are in the care of a midwife who is under suspicion of witchcraft. Sage uncovers a tale of lies and villainy, and Viola’s efforts to save her sister’s baby from a threat that extends into the present day. Dartmoor is covered with Bronze Age sites but I’m much more interested in the medieval period, when it was almost uninhabitable and covered with violent gangs of beggars and robbers.
If you could put Sage into any book/film/tv show what would it be and why? How do you think she’d interact with the people there?
I think that’s the hardest question, I’ve wrestled with this! I suppose she would make an interesting appearance in something like Shetland, something a bit dark and windswept and grounded in the geography of the place. Ann Cleeves wrote the Shetland series and also writes ghost stories, and I think there is a creepy atmosphere in the crime books too. I do wonder how Sage would get on with Jimmy Perez, probably go off on her own and get into trouble.
What are you’re favourite genres and what are you currently reading?
I read very widely, alternating between crime and fantasy books, often set in the past. At the moment I’m reading a series by M J Carter set around 1840. The Strangler Vine takes place in India, and is the story of a young army officer teamed up with a reluctant investigator to find a missing poet. My bedside fantasy book is an old favourite, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, which I read once a year, after Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I do sometimes have nightmares…
Thank you for taking time out to answer my questions, I hope that everyone enjoys A Shroud of Leaves (and A Baby’s Bones) as much as I did.