Inspiration – where does a novel start?


I am fascinated by ideas. How do authors keep coming up with fresh, original ideas which make an intriguing premise for a book. Location, character, structure – where does the inspiration come from and what do writers do with that first, precious seed of an idea? How does it become a fully formed novel?

For me, inspiration has come from a number of different sources. For THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME I knew that I wanted to write about Titanic and when I read about the group of Third Class Irish emigrants from Ireland who sailed together, I knew immediately that I had found the inspiration for my book. With my second novel, I was inspired by a fascination with the lives of London’s flower sellers. This partly stemmed from a love of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and the musical adaptation My Fair Lady. I wanted to find out more about the women and children who led such a pitiful existence and yet were surrounded, each day, by the beauty of the flowers they sold and the elegance of the ladies and gentlemen who bought their flowers.

With the subject of inspiration in mind, I am delighted to welcome author, Jessica Brockmole, to Whims and Tonic to share an insight into the inspiration behind her critically-acclaimed debut novel LETTERS FROM SKYE, a sweeping story told in letters, spanning two continents and two world wars, which captures the indelible ways that people fall in love, and celebrates the power of the written word to stir the heart.

Where did you get your inspiration for LETTERS FROM SKYE?

I had long wanted to write a novel told only through letters, but lacked the characters and place to tell such a story. I found them on a family vacation on the Isle of Skye. Something about the island, with its indescribable landscape, all of the crags and lochs and gray sea all around, called out to me. I was taken with not only the beauty but with the poetry infused in the very rocks. I could imagine a character, a dreamer writer out of place amongst the fishermen and crofters, yet still so bound to the island. It was a place so tied to its own legends and history that you could trace the years just through the place names marked along its coasts. I was also struck by its isolation, so far from the big cities on the mainland and even farther, in so many ways, from Europe. An island, cushioned by its location and its own culture, from the world wars, would be, I decided, a fascinating setting for an epistolary novel.

How did that ‘seed’ of an idea manifest itself and develop into a fully formed concept for a novel?

That little scrap of an idea unfolded slowly into a whole story as I wrote. Other than wanting to write an epistolary novel, I didn’t know anything else about my novel. I let my two main characters—one a reclusive poet and the other an impetuous college student— introduce themselves through letters and then let the plot develop organically from there.

letters from skye

Did the story or characters change at all as you wrote, or did you have a very clear plot and structure from the outset?

Elspeth’s character didn’t change too much from that very first letter she wrote. David’s did morph over the course of writing. Initially, though he was bold on paper, he was more self-correcting in his life off-page. Then I brought in college pranks—purloined trees, painted horses, misplaced cows—and his character seemed to come alive. I needed him to be unflinching in everything so that he could act as a foil to Elspeth’s fears.

How did you set about researching two World Wars and two very different locations?

I was lucky enough to be living in Edinburgh while researching Letters from Skye, and made good use of the Scottish history room of the library and of the many secondhand book shops in the city. I was able to track down some wonderful little memoirs and out-of-print history books that really helped me to understand the attitudes and culture of both Skye and Edinburgh during the wars. I was also fortunate to have access to oral histories, through people I met in Edinburgh. Some shared their family stories of life in Scotland during the two world wars; some shared their own stories. I was able to bring those details—the things they worried about most of all, the things that brought them joy in the midst of war, the memories that still lingered after all that time— into my writing.

What has surprised you most about the process of writing and publishing your debut novel?

The thing that surprises me most about the publication process is, I think, the enthusiasm. For a novel written almost in secret and then held close to my chest for years, it’s amazing to me to see so many people reading and connecting with David and Elspeth the same way I always have. I’m surprised, overwhelmed, and completely touched that my characters and their story resonate with so many readers out there.


If you needed any further temptation to read this intriguing novel, watch the amazing trailer for LETTERS FROM SKYE here, which was filmed on location in Skye.

LETTERS FROM SKYE is published by Ballantine (US) and Windmill Books (UK). Find out more from Jessica at or follow her on Twitter @jabrockmole


A novel intermission – why THE GIRL is going away for a little while.

back soon2

Way back in March 2012, I sat at my kitchen table with my finger poised over the ‘Publish’ button on Amazon’s Kindle Publishing programme. My debut novel THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME was about to be launched to the reading world. Dare I? Should I? Would I press that button?


I waited for a moment for the sky to fall down, or for somebody to start a trumpet fanfare or to set off a firework display, but none of that happened. My book was launched with all the heady razzamatazz of a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit, and there was something very lovely about that.

For a couple of weeks, my little novel existed without any fuss or fanfare, but steadily the downloads and reader reviews crept up and up and by the summer THE GIRL had been to the very top of the Historical Fiction charts. I had a Kindle bestseller and THE GIRL was on her way.

Fast forward to May 2013 when I opened my email to find a lovely message from an agent in New York who had read THE GIRL on her Kindle, loved it and wanted to talk to me. It really was the stuff of dreams and within a matter of weeks, I was signed by the agent (the wonderful Michelle Brower) and was offered a two-book publishing deal with William Morrow Books (HarperCollins) to republish THE GIRL and to also publish my second novel. You can read all about the wonderful excitement of THAT experience, in this post (I am, by the way, still smiling like a Cheshire Cat).

What this all means in practical terms is that THE GIRL will be taken down from Amazon in a couple of weeks. Over the next six months, she will be dusted down, given a bit of a makeover and will return in early 2014 with a brand new cover and will be re-launched in trade paperback (the big paperback) format. Think of it as a very long – and well deserved – spa break, from which she will return with a healthy glow and an infectious joie de vivre.

But before she disappears for a brief while, I want to say thank you to everyone who has read THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME in her current format. I have been very, very touched by the lovely reviews, email messages and tweets from readers, telling me how much they loved the book. It has been a wonderful, and very unexpected, experience and spurred me on to write book two.

So, for now I will bid a slightly teary adieu to THE GIRL as I have known her. I have grown incredibly, incredibly fond of her since those early first drafts and, like a proud mother, I am SO excited to see where she goes from here. She is, and always will be, my very first novel and, because of that, she will always be a very special book to me. I will miss having her around, but I cannot wait to welcome her home – once again – in the New Year with a new look. I will have the tea and neatly arranged biscuits (and possibly something a little stronger!) on standby and THE GIRL and I will set sail all over again.


Dear so and so … getting a few things off my chest.


Dear children,
When I’m at my laptop I am not always ‘writing my books’. Honestly. Quite often, I am planning fun days out with Tesco Clubcard tokens (it takes a lot longer than you’d think), emailing Lego about your missing magazine, ordering presents for your birthday or booking flights to see your cousins at Christmas. OK. Oh, and I love you very much.

Dear Royal Baby,
Where ARE you, for crying out loud?

Dear Robert Galbraith,

Dear cat,
Please can you decide whether you want to be in or out so I can actually finish typing a page without having to get up to open the kitchen door.

Dear Twitter,
You keep distracting me. Stop it. Stop it now. No. I mean it. Stop.

Dear neighbour’s dog,

Dear laptop,
Please stop doing that freaky thing when you sound like a 747 taking off. It concerns me greatly.

Dear cat,
I didn’t mean it. Please come back. Please be my friend.

Dear ‘Book Three’,
It will all start to make sense soon. I promise.

Dear Tanqueray,
I have tonic and I’m not afraid to use it.

Dear editor,

Dear house,
Please stop scowling at me. I promise I will clean you very, very soon. Possibly in September.

Dear agent,

Dear children,
Yes, you can a) dress up, b) get an ice lolly, c) take your socks off, d) change your top, e) have a cookie, f) call on your friends. No, you cannot watch any more cartoons.

Dear sunshine,
Please keep your hat on. It really, really suits you and makes me very happy.

Dear readers,
Thank you. Thank you very, very much.

Book covers. How important are they?

Very. Well, in my humble opinion they are very, very important and while there might be some moral truth to the well known saying, I think you can judge a book by its cover (even if you might not be able to judge the book by its author’s name – see J.K Rowling/Robert Galbraith!).

I am a very visual person so I find that I am regularly drawn to books by their covers. In this way, I often discover a new author purely on the basis of an appealing/intriguing/beautiful cover which makes me pick it up, read the back page and pay my cash to take it home.

Familiar covers can guide us towards what we like, and publishers and booksellers use this to their advantage. Shields and swords; sumptuous, period dresses; grey ties and whips – these all suggest (rightly, or wrongly) what the reader can expect from the book. Then, of course, there is the occasional, intriguing curve-ball, such as this:

maria semple cover

Covers are especially on my mind this week because I have started initial cover design discussions for my novels with my editor (even typing that sentence brings a huge smile to my face!). I love the whole process and can quite easily get lost for hours finding images, thinking of themes and layouts and colour schemes which suit the subject matter, style and feel of my books and when it comes to getting the perfect cover for your own words, there is an undeniable element of wanting – so much – to get it right. I am excited at what the coming weeks and months will bring, on that front.

With covers in mind, I have been so excited to see two lovely covers for debut novels this week. Firstly, LETTERS FROM SKYE by Jessica Brockmole which launched in the US and UK this week. There is something wonderfully compelling about this cover – the woman, the colours, the water – stunning, and I cannot wait to read the book.

letters from skye

Author Heather Webb revealed, today, the cover for her debut novel BECOMING JOSEPHINE, which is released from Plume/Penguin this December. Heather’s novel is already receiving wonderful praise and with such an elegant, evocative cover, which is sure to make us all want to find out more about Napoleon’s Josephine, I am sure it will go on to be a huge success.

becoming josephine cover

I wish both authors all the very best for their novels.

Of course, books didn’t have artwork on their covers when authors such as Charlotte and Emily Bronte and Jane Austen were writing. Their novels were simply plain, leather-bound or cloth-bound and, in the case of the Bronte sisters, didn’t even carry their actual names. Dust-jackets only became more common during the late 19th century.

wuthering2 wuthering

How fascinating, when we think how universally successful so many of those classic novels have become, because – of course – the decorative cover is the image which guides us towards a novel, but it is the words, the prose, the narrative, the dialogue, the characters and the experience the writer offers the reader which really stays with us as we turn all our beloved books sideways and display a lovely collection of book spines on our shelves!

It may be a truth universally acknowledged that a book will ultimately be measured on the merits of the writing, rather than the cover design, but I, for one, will always love a brilliant book that little bit more, if I also love its cover.

And just out of sheer interest, here is the hardback cover for ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ – debut crime novel by ‘Robert Galbraith’ aka J.K Rowling. I’m not a fan of crime, but I actually really like this cover (it doesn’t ‘feel’ particularly crime-y to me). Perhaps you can judge a book by the cover, but this fascinating ‘pseudonym’ revelation makes you think twice about judging the author!

cuckoo's calling


Then and Now: Maria Duffy, author of The Letter

The Letter by Maria Duffy small

It’s July. The sun has finally put his hat on and loads of lovely new books are hitting the bookshelves in time for lazy summer days reading on the beach. So, for July I am delighted to welcome contemporary women’s fiction author, Maria Duffy, to Whims & Tonic. Maria has just released her third novel THE LETTER, which follows the great success of her previous two novels, ANY DREAM WILL DO and THE TERRACE.

I’m always intrigued by the life of a writer, so I asked Maria to tell me all about the process of writing ‘book three.’ Over to Maria ….

Where were you with your writing this time last year?

This time last year I was ‘between books’ – roughly translated as ‘I’d better get my bum into gear because this book won’t write itself’. My second novel, The Terrace, was to be published at the beginning of August and I was riddled with excitement and terror in equal measures. Getting my first book deal and seeing my first book in print was a dream come true and I couldn’t believe that just nine months later, I was releasing my second one. The first had been a great success and in a way, instead of it making things easier for the next, it added to the pressure. I so badly wanted The Terrace to do well. I didn’t want to be called a ‘one trick wonder’ or hear people say ‘ah she must only have one decent book in her’! But I needn’t have worried because August arrived and The Terrace made it to the top ten in Ireland.

What was causing you the greatest challenge with your writing?

My biggest challenge this time last year was to get those first words of book three written. I probably have a slightly unusual way of writing in that I almost completely write the book in my head before I write a single word on paper. I profile all the characters and then I take them with me when I go out running, in the car, in the shower…! I live with them in my head until they act out their story and only then I begin to write. But for some reason – I don’t know if it was fear or just plain old writer’s block – I couldn’t seem to get started on the writing, even though I knew the story well.

What important decisions did you make in the last twelve months?

Well, let me see. Ah yes, I changed from the iPhone to the Samsung Galaxy. I also decided to let my hair grow because I was going to get it c… oh hang on… do you mean writing decisions? The one thing that springs to mind straight away is my decision to completely rewrite book three. It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do but it was a huge learning curve. I think, as writers, we know when something just isn’t working. My editor and agent agreed that all the elements were there, but it just didn’t feel right. After making the decision, I mourned my lost words and then I suddenly felt empowered. It was the right thing to do and The Letter was going to be my best book as a result!

What was the pivotal moment for you in the last twelve months? 

Without wanting to harp on about it, the pivotal moment for me in the last twelve months was definitely the realisation that starting book three again wasn’t a bad thing. I wasn’t going to die from it, the world wasn’t going to end but I was going to learn so much from the process.


What was the high point of the last twelve months?

I think the launch of The Terrace last August was a high point for me. My first launch was wonderful but I’d been so nervous, a lot of it went past in a blur. This time I was determined to take in every last moment of it. As I was getting ready for the big night, our house (as well as most of the country) came to a halt to watch Katie Taylor win gold at the Olympics. It was a very special moment. Then only hours later, Eleanor Mc Evoy launched my book with a wonderful speech, beginning with: “What a day for Irish women…!”

What is the most important thing you have learnt about your writing during the last twelve months?

I’d say that the most important thing is something that I already knew but I may have forgotten along the way, and that’s to be true to myself. To write as me and nobody else. To write from the heart. It’s these very things that secured me my agent a few years ago but while striving to be a better writer, I think I lost a bit of confidence in my own voice. But once I sat down to rewrite The Letter, I became me again and fell in love with the writing process all over again.

What are your hopes for the next twelve months and what do you have coming up?

The first thing I have to look forward to is the launch of The Letter which is happening next week. I regularly have to pinch myself when I see my books in the shops and I can’t believe number three will be there soon too. From now until Christmas I’ll be writing book four which hopefully will be launched in the summer of next year. On a more personal side, I’m looking forward to a more relaxed year at home. For the last two years, I’ve had teenagers doing state exams in the summer so being the typical Irish Mammy, I’ve felt like I’ve been doing them too!

Any other positive experiences you’d like to share from the last year?

My whole year has been full of positive experiences, writing and otherwise, so it’s hard to pinpoint any in particular. But having said that, one of my favourite things about writing books is hearing from readers. This last year, I’ve had hundreds of emails and tweets from people, telling me how much they’ve enjoyed my books. They tell me who their favourite characters are and what they think of certain plots. They give me advice, which I gladly take and they sometimes even tell me about their own lives. It really makes the whole process worthwhile.


Thanks so much to Maria – she’s certainly one busy lady! THE LETTER is available now in bookshops and is also available on Amazon.

Follow Maria on Twitter @mduffywriter or check out her Facebook page at