Then and Now. Jennifer Laam, author of ‘The Secret Daughter of the Tsar’

The Secret Daughter of the Tsar

Since starting the ‘Then & Now’ feature this year, I’ve come across some hugely inspiring tales of determination, hard work and self belief. I’ve been very lucky to connect with lots of authors from around the globe,  writing in many different generes, who have kindly shared their publication stories with me, and I am completely blown away by them every time. ‘Then & Now’ reminds me that this job of writing, which we all love so much, is definitely not for the faint-hearted!

This month, I’m delighted to welcome author Jennifer Lamm to Whims & Tonic. Jennifer’s debut novel THE SECRET DAUGHTER OF THE TSAR is published tomorrow. The novel tells an alternate history of the Romanov family and has been getting great advance reviews. With that stunning cover and such an intriguing premise, I have a feeling this one is going to do really well. Jennifer will be hosting an author Q&A over on Goodreads tomorrow and competitions on her website all week (see below for the links), but for now, over to Jennifer to explain how her debut novel came to be ….

What stage were you at with your writing this time last year? 

My journey from acceptance to publication day took almost eighteen months, so I’m going to go back two years, before I had an agent or a publisher. Two years ago, I was “almost” finished with The Secret Daughter of the Tsar. I had a solid idea for the last chapter and had been working on the novel on and off for at least eight years. The last chapter was a few paragraphs with a big “NOTE TO SELF: WRITE THE LAST CHAPTER” or words to that effect. When I saw that note, I always returned to edit earlier chapters. I think I had a mental block with the ending. Finishing that chapter meant I was truly done. And then it would be time to submit to agents. Even though my dream was to become a published author, I felt terrified of failure. I think a part of me never wanted to finish because then I would have to let the work go.

What was causing you the greatest challenge with your writing?

The greatest challenge for me was and is self-doubt. I have low moments, but I keep going because I really do love to write and to escape into the worlds I create. But the idea of letting go of those worlds and turning them loose unprotected in the real world sometimes feels overwhelming. It took me a long time to get past the fears associated with showing deeply personal work to others.

What important decisions did you make in the last 12 months?

This decision happened three years ago. I joined a writing group. First of all, I got used to showing my work to other people. Secondly, without their support, I’m not sure I ever would have submitted or even finished this book. That last chapter would still hang over my head!

What was the pivotal moment for you in the last 12 months? How did that come about?

I remember composing my query letter while sitting with writing friends at a café. I was about to hit send, but then hesitated at the last minute and told them I would wait until morning to give it “one more look.” One of my friends said something like: “Just do it. Do it now. Don’t wait until tomorrow morning.” This was exactly the right amount of peer pressure. I see now that if I had waited until the morning, I might have waited another year. Or five years. Or I might never have sent the query at all. That was a pivotal moment. It led to the moment when Erin Harris offered to represent me and my book.

What were the high points of the last twelve months?

First of all, being able to say the words “my agent” was huge. I smile all the time when I use that phrase. When The Secret Daughter of the Tsar was accepted for publication and I started saying “my editor,” my smile got even bigger. Another high point was the cover reveal. Lisa Marie Pompilio at St. Martin’s Griffin did a beautiful job and clearly “got” my novel. I feel the cover captures the idea of Russia and the lost world of the Romanovs as they are seen by my characters: eerie, beautiful, and mysterious.

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

Perhaps I overthink my writing. It slows me down. I spend time playing out different scenarios in my head, but inevitably return to most of what I set down in the first draft. Don’t get me wrong, I will always need multiple rewrites. I don’t plan much in advance. I believe in writing a quick and dirty first draft that then needs heavy editing and further research. But in terms of the general plot and the personalities of the characters, I think I’ve grown to trust my gut a bit more.

What are your hopes for the next year?

Over the next twelve months, I want to build relationships with readers who share my sensibilities. I’m writing a sequel to The Secret Daughter of the Tsar and would love to see that published. Ultimately, I want to publish a novel every year. I want to explore other time periods in Russian history, specifically, the world of Catherine the Great and her advisor Potemkin in the century and that of Alexander Pushkin in the early 19th and 18th in the Russian presence in Spanish California.

Any other good news, inspirational or positive experiences to take away from the last twelve months?

I’ve been writing since college, but it took me nearly 20 years to take the steps necessary to become a published author. I’m glad I finally took those steps. It’s given me tremendous confidence. I feel good about calling myself a writer. When I talk to other writers, I feel like I can provide solid encouragement. Keep writing. Keep rewriting. Keep submitting. Your dream can come true.

About the book
“Weaves a lively tale…Laam [tells] her story with verve and imagination.” —Kate Alcott, New York Times bestselling author of The Dressmaker

THE SECRET DAUGHTER OF THE TSAR tells the stories of three women: Veronica, Lena, and Charlotte and imagines an alternate history for the Romanov family – one in which a secret fifth daughter, smuggled out of Russia before the revolution, continues the royal lineage to dramatic and unexpected consequences.

Veronica is an aspiring historian living in present-day Los Angeles when she meets a mysterious man who may be heir to the Russian throne. As she sets about investigating the legitimacy of his claim through a winding path of romance and deception, the ghosts of her own past begin to haunt her.

Lena, a servant in the imperial Russian court of 1902, is approached by the desperate Empress Alexandra. After conceiving four daughters, the Empress is determined to sire a son and believes Lena can help her. Once elevated to the Romanov’s treacherous inner circle, Lena finds herself under the watchful eye of the meddling Dowager Empress Marie.

Charlotte, a former ballerina living in World War II occupied Paris, receives a surprise visit from a German officer. Determined to protect her son from the Nazis, Charlotte escapes the city, but not before learning that the officer’s interest in her stems from his longstanding obsession with the fate of the Russian monarchy.

As Veronica’s passion intensifies, and her search for the true heir to the throne takes a dangerous turn, the reader learns just how these three vastly different women are connected.

About the Author

Jennifer Laam
Jennifer Laam earned her master’s degree in History from Oakland University in Michigan and her bachelor’s degree from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA. She has lived in Los Angeles and the suburbs of Detroit, traveled in Russia and Europe, and worked in education and non-profit development. She currently resides in Northern California. The Secret Daughter of the Tsar is her first novel.

Contact Jennifer at the following links:


Ta dah! New cover reveal …..

Frankly, it is just too blimmin’ exciting for words, so without further ado, I give you the beautiful new cover for THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME. So excited, so excited, so excited …… !!!!!

The Girl Who Came Home


Available in paperback and ebook, April 2014

I am now going to run around a field and do some cartwheels!


Discovering the creative spark!

pages flying from book

Ah, Saturday mornings. Quiet, peaceful, reflective Saturday mornings ….. yes, I’m kidding. My Saturday mornings usually consist of a stressful hour of trying to find football boots and unwashed rugby kit and cursing at our rubbish toaster before standing reluctantly on the side of a field (aka pitch), wishing that I’d worn my ‘big coat’. No surprise then, that as soon as I saw Katharine McMahon was to run an Historical Fiction writing workshop in Dublin last Saturday morning, I jumped at the chance!

I’ll be honest, I’m never too sure about writing workshops. I’m never sure whether I should just spend the three hours actually writing, or whether it is beneficial to spend three hours ‘talking’ about writing? The answer, in this case, was categorically ‘yes’ to the latter.

Katharine was focused, pragmatic, honest and extremely inspiring. She encouraged us all to think about our ‘historical spark’ – what, precisely, is it that has drawn us to write about a particular period, event or person in history. What prompted that moment of ‘oooooo’ and ‘aahhhhhh’ which led us to write thousands of words and develop a stooped back and a fondness for jaffa cakes in the process?

I found Katharine’s question really interesting. I’d never really thought, in any great detail, about my ‘historical spark’. I presumed I was drawn to certain historical periods, people or events simply because they interested me. Those haunting, sepia tinted images; pretty dresses; the drama and tragedy of great historic events … that sort of thing. But that wasn’t enough for Katharine. She wanted us to go further, dig deeper.

From spending the morning with Katharine, who provided some excellent writing advice and tips, as well as some fascinating source materials to consider, I began to figure out that my historical spark is women, or more specifically, the many amazing women who have featured in my life.

My spark comes from simple childhood days spent in my great-aunt’s kitchen watching, in wonder, as her frail hands turned the cup around so she could read my tea leaves and predict the future. My spark comes from my amazing mum and my three formidable aunts – if ever there was a rich seam of source material about the relationship between sisters, they are it. My spark comes from vague memories of a Queen Victoria-style great grandma who I see now only in faded photos and who I wish I could talk to about her life. My spark comes from my ninety-three year old grandma’s revelations of the hardships she experienced through the war years.

When set against the fact that I grew up in a village which was originally a Viking settlement, that I lived close to the incredibly historic city of York, that Emily Bronte’s dramatic moors were just a drive away and that I used to play in a remarkably antiquated sewing room on the top floor of my Dad’s clothing shop, it is quite clear that history has always surrounded me. And from the environment I grew up in, to the incredible women in my life, it has become the women from history who fascinate me. It is their stories – the social history of women’s roles, the intriguing relationships between women, the remarkable women who have overcome their social status or gone against societies expectations – that I now feel compelled to write about.

So, now I know two things. I know the source of my historical spark and I know that writing workshops are ALWAYS a good idea (especially on a frantic Saturday morning).


Katharine McMahon is the bestselling author of nine novels, including Season of Lightand The Rose of Sebastopol, which was a Richard and Judy Bookclub choice. Katharine was in Dublin as part of the inaugural Dublin Festival of History.

Then and Now: Anna Lee Huber, author of Mortal Arts


This month, on Then & Now, I am delighted to welcome Anna Lee Huber, all the way from Indiana, USA! Having just launched her second novel MORTAL ARTS, Anna is a busy, busy lady, but took time out to share an insight into her path to publication and her writing year. For a lady who took seven years (yes, SEVEN!!) to get published, I’m sure her story will be inspiring to many.

Over to Anna ….

Can you give an overview of what stage your writing was at this time last year.

Last year at this time I was anxiously awaiting the release of my debut novel, THE ANATOMIST’S WIFE, which was published by Berkley Publishing on November 6th. I was booking stops for my first ever blog tour, as well as setting up my first book signing, and trying to figure out the whole confusing Marketing and Promotion side of the business. I was also in the midst of working on a side project, that I still need to finish, and doing research on the third Lady Darby novel.

What was causing you the greatest challenge/frustration with your writing?

Deciding on a plot for the third Lady Darby novel, A GRAVE MATTER, which will release in July 2014. I knew where I wanted to set the book, and what the major character developments would be for my herorine, but beyond that I was stumped.

What was the pivotal moment for you in the last 12 months?

The publication of my debut novel – actually seeing it on the physical shelf of a bookstore and knowing people were out there in the world reading it. After struggling for so long to see it happen it was such a thrill! It’s confirmation that perseverance pays off. It took me over seven years and four unsuccessful manuscripts to do it, but I made it.

What were the high points of the last twelve months?

Certainly the publication of THE ANATOMIST’S WIFE, as well as the double RITA® Award nominations it received from the Romance Writers of America. That gave me a feeling of validation, a confirmation that, “hey, I really can write.” I was also ecstatic to actually win a few awards from RWA chapters in New England, Wisconsin and Colorado. I must say hearing that my editor loved my second novel, MORTAL ARTS, was also an extremely high point, especially as it was such a struggle to write.

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

That you have to fiercely protect your muse, and you need to give yourself permission to do whatever is necessary to do so. Don’t let guilt keep you from doing what you know you need to do. And you cannot let all of the other aspects of your career as an author get in the way of actually writing. Protect your writing time like it’s your most precious possession.

What do you have coming up in the next twelve months ?

MORTAL ARTS, Lady Darby Book Two, has just released, this week, and I have high hopes for it. I would love to see it hit a bestsellers list. I’m also looking forward to the release of Book Three, A GRAVE MATTER, in July 2014. I’ll be pitching the next three books in the Lady Darby Mystery series to my publisher soon, and would be very pleased if they made me a nice offer for them. I want to finish the side project I’ve been working on, a more straight Gothic suspense, and hope to see that also find a publisher.

Any other good news, inspirational or positive experiences to take away from the last twelve months?

It’s amazing how perspective can change everything. Over the seven years I struggled to land a literary agent and publisher, I received countless rejection letters, and it was not always easy to stay positive. But this past spring when I got a self-address stamped envelope delivered to my mailbox and opened it to discover a form rejection letter inside all I could do was laugh. They had to have been replying to a query letter that I sent at least two and a half years before, rejecting a book that was already published and receiving award nominations. It felt full-circle somehow that as often as rejection letters had made me cry, this one only made me giggle. Had I known when I was biting back tears all those years before that I would eventually laugh when facing a rejection letter, it would have made it much easier to bear.

So when you’re facing yet another closed door, remember that one day you will be able to look back on all of the struggles you faced and smile. It may be soon, it may be far off, but it will come.

About Anna


Anna Lee Huber is the award-winning author of the Lady Darby historical mystery series. She is a graduate of Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN.  She currently resides in Indiana with her family, and is hard at work on the next novel in the Lady Darby series.  Visit her at

About the book – MORTAL ARTS

“Lady Darby is an engaging new sleuth to follow.” – Julia Spencer-Fleming, New York Times bestselling author.

Scotland, 1830. Lady Kiera Darby is no stranger to intrigue-in fact, it seems to follow wherever she goes. After her foray into murder investigation, Kiera must journey to Edinburgh with her family so that her pregnant sister can be close to proper medical care. But the city is full of many things Kiera isn’t quite ready to face: the society ladies keen on judging her, her fellow investigator-and romantic entanglement-Sebastian Gage, and ultimately, another deadly mystery.

Kiera’s old friend Michael Dalmay is about to be married, but the arrival of his older brother-and Kiera’s childhood art tutor-William, has thrown everything into chaos. For ten years Will has been missing, committed to an insane asylum by his own father. Kiera is sympathetic to her mentor’s plight, especially when rumors swirl about a local girl gone missing. Now Kiera must once again employ her knowledge of the macabre and join forces with Gage in order to prove the innocence of a beloved family friend-and save the marriage of another…


Thanks so much to Anna for taking the time to answer my questions. It looks like she has an exciting year ahead!

What happens next …

I can’t believe that an entire season has passed since I jumped up and down in my kitchen one Wednesday night in June, immensely giddy with excitement about securing a publishing deal. It was quite a magical day/night and I’m sure it will live long in the memory.

But … what next? What exactly does happen after the initial euphoria of signing a book deal has passed? I’d often wondered, and now I know!

Well, first there’s plenty of form filling: author bios, descriptions of the novels, social media details, information for marketing and promotion  – necessary details which really made me think about my novels again – and in a much more businesslike manner. Having guessed and floundered my way through the publishing process on my own so far, it was so lovely to have my publisher asking me to provide them with these details. Small things. Big difference.

Then there’s the contract. Wowzers. Lots and lots of pages of very, very detailed information which – I found – was best considered while sipping a G&T in the sunshine. Seeing everything in writing, signing my name, posting it back to New York – each part of the process was another marker of reality – a reminder that this is really happening.

Next, for me, came discussions about the book covers. This, I loved (and came much sooner than I’d expected). I’ve been able to send on ideas and images to add into the mix and am being kept fully involved in the process. Again, having navigated the creative cover process on my own, it’s very exciting to know that people are having meetings and discussions about this. I can’t wait to see what the art department comes back with.

Next came the line edits for THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME, in a marked up copy of my manuscript, which looks like this when printed out:


Seeing my editor’s annotations, marks and comments on my pages is what I had always longed for. Like some terrifying hybrid of Hermione Grainger and Monica Geller, I locked myself away, devoured my ‘homework’ and thoroughly enjoyed the whole editing process – even when I had to look up what some of the editing symbols mean, which is a bit like studying hieroglyphics.


These edits are now back with my editor, who is due to send me her line edits for DAUGHTERS OF THE FLOWERS very soon. Hermonica is ready and waiting ….

In the meantime, I have had the less exciting issue of tax forms to fill out and the whole aspect of international/domestic tax to deal with (again, best faced with a G&T in hand), but I’m not going to complain about that, because it’s all just part of the process. Best just to suck it up, make lots of phone calls and get on with it.

What else? Well, THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME has been ‘retired’ in her current format, a process which was, thankfully, pretty straightforward. I’m in the process of rearranging my office/desk in the vague hope that it will make me more organised and I’m busy working on Book Three – which I am very excited about, although I’m not entirely convinced my cat shares my enthusiasm.


Busy times. Happy days. Onwards, with my lucky horseshoe keeping watch …..


Then and Now. Susan Spann, author of Claws of the Cat

Claws of the Cat Cover (50)

I started my ‘Then and Now’ blog feature at the start of 2013 as a way to celebrate writer success stories and learn a little of their ‘how I got there’ story. I’m not sure what I expected, but I certainly didn’t anticipate the tales of sheer tenacity, unrelenting self belief, endless resources of hope and downright refusal of aspiring writers to crumble under the harsh reality of rejections and manuscripts which were destined for a life under the bed. Inspiring stuff, to say the least.

The path to publication can, at times, feel like a completely impossible place to be, but, as I now know (still grinning from ear to ear!), and as my guest author today, Susan Spann expresses so brilliantly below, it really is so worthwhile when it all comes together and you find yourself on ‘the other side of yes’ (as Susan so wonderfully puts it).

Susan’s debut novel CLAWS OF THE CAT, a Shinobi mystery featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori (yes, ninja detective – how awesome does that sound!), was released in July and I am so delighted to welcome her to Whims & Tonic to share her thoughts on the road to publication. Aspiring authors be warned: you will be filled with renewed determination after reading Susan’s words of encouragement and may have to go and write 50,000 words immediately.

Over to Susan ….

Can you give an overview of where you were with your writing this time last year.

In July 2012, I had just completed line edits on CLAWS OF THE CAT and was eagerly anticipating the cover art. I didn’t actually see the cover until autumn, but I did see an early concept sketch and fell in love with it instantly. I was also editing the second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, which will release in July 2014.

What was causing you the greatest challenge/frustration with your writing?

At that time? Learning to write a series. I wrote four (unpublished) manuscripts before CLAWS OF THE CAT, but each of them was a standalone historical. I hadn’t anticipated the challenges involved in writing a series, which turned out to be much harder than the transition from writing historical fiction to mystery.

The hardest part was learning to reference the events of an earlier book without losing the reader or giving away details that would spoil the earlier story. I also found it challenging to re-introduce the characters without confusing new readers or boring the ones who would have already read CLAWS OF THE CAT.

What important decisions did you make in the last 12 months?

Not to quit my day job. That’s mostly a joke — I’m a publishing attorney with many clients, several of whom were concerned that publication might lead to the demise of my legal practice. Fortunately, I see writing and law as parallel, and compatible, callings. I never intended to quit my day job after I became a published author.

I also made a commitment to continue writing every day, even when traveling. I haven’t managed to keep it 100% but I’m pretty close, and it’s made a big difference in my productivity, especially now that I’m traveling on book tours.

What was the pivotal moment for you in the last 12 months?

I think, for me, the pivotal moment was seeing my cover art. In addition to being the first time something about the process made me cry, seeing the art made me realize the dream was really coming true.

The cover art also marked the point where the various marketing and publicity efforts surrounding the book began to take off. I started doing interviews, making sure I didn’t miss blogging days (as I sometimes had in the past!) and focusing on getting the next book done in time to enjoy the release of this one. The moment was pivotal because it marked the true change from more casual blogging and scheduling to “published author mode.”

What were the high points of the last twelve months?

There have been many. In addition to seeing my cover art, I’ve had the privilege of learning to work with a copy editor — thank goodness I worked on the law review in law school and already knew how to read the marks! — proofreading first pass pages, and seeing my novel on the shelf in a real, live bookstore.

Signing books has been a delight, and seeing my face on posters in the window of Barnes & Noble was a lifelong dream come true.

The best moment of all, however, was one of the least conspicuous. After my Santa Monica signing, a timid young woman approached me and shook my hand. She admitted she hadn’t read my book (to which I responded, “that’s ok, it just got published so nobody else has either”) and asked if she could ask me some questions about my writing process. When I asked if she was a writer too, she grinned and nodded, startled that I had asked. Our conversation lasted only about five minutes, but in that time I tried to give her the best advice and encouragement I could, as other authors did for me during my multi-year journey to publication. She left with a smile and, I hope, the courage to follow her dream all the way to success. I left with the profound honor and joy of knowing I finally had the chance to “pay it forward.”

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

I learned that I love writing more than anything, even when it isn’t going well. I’ve always written, and loved every part of the process, but since I started writing under contract for publication I’ve encountered new challenges: deadlines, series writing (as opposed to stand-alone stories), and working with a publishing house, to name a few. To date, there’s really nothing about the process I haven’t enjoyed. In fact, I’m loving every step of the journey.

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

My hope is that the debut Shinobi Mystery, CLAWS OF THE CAT, does well and that readers fall in love with ninja detective Hiro and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo, as much as I did while writing the book.

On the “definite” side of the equation, I’m looking forward to seeing the cover for the second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, and completing the third installment, currently titled FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER. I’m fortunate to have a three-book contract, which means I get to spend at least another year—and hopefully longer—with Hiro and Father Mateo.

Any other good news, inspirational or positive experiences to take away from the last twelve months?

I cannot state strongly enough how much I hope that every aspiring author continues working and struggling and dreaming and writing, for as long as it takes for his or her work to obtain publication. It took me many years and many manuscripts to find my voice and my niche. I’ve had my share of rejection letters, fears and doubtful moments. But now that I’m on “the other side of yes,” I can tell you, without hesitation, that every word and every day of the journey was worth it in the end. Nothing can replace the joy of walking into a bookstore and seeing your book on a shelf. Nothing dries the tears of old rejections like receiving an email from someone who stayed up all night to finish first “one more chapter” and then the book. Hold fast to the dream. Stay the course. Trust the process. In time, your time will come if you don’t give up.


About the book

May 1564: When a samurai is brutally murdered in a Kyoto teahouse, master ninja Hiro has no desire to get involved. But the beautiful entertainer accused of the crime enlists the help of Father Mateo, the Portuguese Jesuit Hiro is sworn to protect, leaving the master shinobi with just three days to find the killer in order to save the girl and the priest from execution.

The investigation plunges Hiro and Father Mateo into the dangerous waters of Kyoto’s floating world, where they learn that everyone from the elusive teahouse owner to the dead man’s dishonored brother has a motive to keep the samurai’s death a mystery. A rare murder weapon favored by ninja assassins, a female samurai warrior, and a hidden affair leave Hiro with too many suspects and far too little time. Worse, the ninja’s investigation uncovers a host of secrets that threaten not only Father Mateo and the teahouse, but the very future of Japan.

About the Author

Susan Headshot (2013)

Susan Spann is a transactional attorney and former law school professor whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. Claws of the Cat, her debut shinobi mystery featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori, is published by Minotaur Books (for more information visit

Susan has a deep interest in Asian culture and has studied Mandarin and Japanese. Her hobbies include Asian cooking, fencing, traditional archery, martial arts, rock climbing, and horseback riding, and she keeps a marine aquarium where she raises seahorses and rare corals.

You can find Susan online at, or on Twitter @SusanSpann

Thank you to Susan to take time out of her hectic book touring schedule to provide such thoughtful responses.


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

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