Interview with Wendy Percival, author of the Esme Quentin novels @wendy_percival #QandA
I’m delighted today to welcome Wendy Percival to Short Book and Scribes. I read and reviewed her novella, Death of a Cuckoo back in April and I really enjoyed it. I feel like the rest of the Esme Quentin series would be right up my street as I love books about genealogy, but sadly I haven’t managed to fit them in yet. In the meantime I asked Wendy a few questions about her books and her writing which she kindly agreed to answer. First of all though, here’s a bit of information about the other Esme Quentin books.
A thriller based on murder and family secrets.
“A desperate crime, kept secret for 60 years… but time has a way of exposing the truth…”
Esme Quentin is devastated when her sister Elizabeth is beaten unconscious, miles from her home. Two days later Esme discovers that Elizabeth has a secret past. Desperate for answers which the comatose Elizabeth cannot give, Esme enlists the help of her friend Lucy to search for the truth, unaware of the dangerous path she is treading. Together they unravel a tangle of bitterness, blackmail and dubious inheritance, and as the harrowing story is finally revealed, Esme stumbles upon evidence of a pitiful crime.
Realising too late the menace she has unwittingly unleashed, Esme is caught up in a terrifying ordeal. One that will not only test her courage and sanity but force her to confront her perception of birth and family.
Secrets from a tainted past…
Esme Quentin’s arrival in north Devon is marred by the gruesome discovery of a fatally injured woman at the foot of Warren Cliff. Esme is troubled by the woman’s final words and curious about the old photograph clutched in her hand. The police, however, dismiss Bella Shaw’s death as accidental.
But Bella’s daughter, Neave, has her own questions and approaches Esme for help. The subsequent trail leads Esme back to the brutal penal history of 19th century England and the mystery of a Devon convict girl transported to Australia for her crime.
As evidence of betrayal and duplicity are revealed, Esme discovers Bella’s link to events in the past – a link which now endangers Neave and, by association, Esme.
A legacy of hatred which has festered for generations in the ‘land beyond the seas’ now threatens to spill over on to Devon soil with devastating consequences.
Esme Quentin is reminded of a painful past when Max Rainsford, a journalist colleague of her late husband Tim, turns up unannounced asking about a story Tim reported on thirty-five years ago – the murder of an old soldier. Esme, wary of Max’s motives, declines to get involved.
Meanwhile, Esme’s friend Ruth, prompted by WWII anniversaries, wants to solve the mystery of Vivienne, her mother Bea’s sister, a wartime nurse who never came home. Despite Bea’s disapproval, Ruth is convinced the truth will finally help Bea come to terms with her loss and asks Esme to investigate.
Esme unpicks the threads of Vivienne’s past and stumbles upon a disturbing connection, linking the old soldier’s murder to her own distressing past and her late husband’s fate. As events unravel, Esme realises that to uncover the secrets behind Vivienne’s story, she must also confront the terrifying truth behind her own.
1. Your Esme Quentin books are genealogical mysteries and I understand you have a keen interest in genealogy yourself. What’s the most interesting thing you have discovered about your own family history?
Well, I’m not sure ‘interesting’ quite covers it! I’ve certainly found, as most people do, my fair share of bigamy, illegitimacy and infidelity, but one revelation I’ve uncovered recently I’d describe as shocking!
My 3x great-grandfather was hauled up in front of magistrates in Staffordshire in 1856 for “assault and cruelty” to my 3x great-grandmother. If that wasn’t bad enough, he was accused along with his housekeeper. My research has confirmed, as you might have guessed, that their relationship was a lot more than master and servant. I wrote the full story for an article for Family Tree magazine (Dec 2017 issue) so now my family’s shame is exposed to the whole world!
Fascinating! I think it’s long enough ago to not be too embarrassed about your ancestor’s behaviour.
2. Tell me about your journey to being a published author.
I started writing after buying a copy of Writing Magazine and entering their monthly short story competitions. After a while I got short listed a few times and then I won one, which gave me a real confidence boost. I had a short story published in a women’s magazine but it wasn’t really my sort of thing so as I’d just started to get into family history research, an idea for a novel of family secrets began to grow and became Blood-Tied. Once written (over a long period of time with lots of reworking, alternative versions and alterations, I hasten to add) I began the usual process of sending out to agents and publishers. I had lots of encouraging and complimentary rejections (genealogy stories “weren’t commercial enough” — that sort of thing!) but eventually Robert Hale took it on and it was published in hardback for libraries. By the time I’d got the bones of The Indelible Stain together, things were changing in the publishing world and ebooks were blossoming. The ebooks rights to Blood-Tied were due to come back to me so I decided to publish it as an ebook and made enquiries of SilverWood Books. They asked if I wanted to do a paperback as well so, impressed with the quality of their books I said yes. I liked what they did and followed on a year later with The Indelible Stain. Helen Hart, MD at SilverWood, commissioned me to write a novella – Death of a Cuckoo, featuring my character Esme Quentin – for their sBooks imprint and once I’d done that I went back to finish the third full length Esme novel, The Malice of Angels, which came out in October.
3. Is Esme based on anybody you know? If not, how did you come up with her as the protagonist in your series of books?
I don’t think I based Esme on anyone in particular. I’d had the idea for a sort of genealogy detective who dug around in the past to solve crime in the present (this was back in the early 2000s) when I read in the writing press about a call for older women protagonists. So I made Esme in her mid-forties. She’s been likened by more than one reviewer to a Miss Marple type character – though Esme is much younger, of course. But her grip on matters is similar, I guess – as is her dogged determination to solve the crime. After Blood-Tied came out, readers loved her and wanted to meet her again so the series was established.
4. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
My initial idea usually comes about because I’ve stumbled upon something fascinating in the course of my own family history research. Once I’m hooked, I’ll start reading as much background as I can and usually get even more intrigued the more I read! (The horrors of 19th century convict transportation to Australia which the mystery of The Indelible Stain is based, is a classic example.) Once I feel I’ve got to grips with the subject, I’ve generally got an idea of the story I want to tell so I start plotting. If I need any further background, I do that as I go, particularly if the plot takes a sudden unexpected turn, which it invariably does.
5. And related to that, do you plot your book meticulously before you start or wing it and see how it comes together?
I have to plot in detail or I could end up at a frustrating dead-end or with things which don’t tie up. Bizarrely, I find myself having to write two stories. The first story is about the secret in the past which Esme will have to uncover to solve the present-day crime. At this point, I work out the series of events, the characters and their motives. It’s only then that I can start plotting the book I’m actually going to write. Esme’s search for the truth and what she does to expose the secret will form the plot and how she does it drives the story. That said, it’s not fixed in stone and my plans always change. I might have a better idea (which I can’t ignore if I feel it will make a better book) which will involve a lot of re-writing. But there’s no way round that. No matter how much I think I have everything sewn up and complete before I start it’s the actual writing which activates the creative process. So I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that for me writing a novel is a very long-winded procedure!
6. If you weren’t a writer what do you think you would be doing now?
Given the enjoyment I’ve discovered researching my family history, I may well have become a professional genealogist!
7. Tell me about your writing day. Where do you write and do you have a daily routine?
When I’m in the middle of writing a novel I get straight to it immediately after breakfast. I write on a laptop in a sort of open plan “bay” off our living room with a sideways view across the room into the garden. If I’ve written solidly for a period of time (easy to do once I get lost in the task) I try to vary what I do then, either by having a complete break and going for a walk or working in the garden if the weather allows, or dip into social media and marketing, or do some family history research for the next post on my Family History Secrets blog.
8. Do you have time to read yourself and if so what kind of books do you enjoy?
I think all writers should find time to read. It’s vital. Besides, I’d consider myself very bereft without a book on the go! I like books with some sort of intrigue and I’m quite ruthless if I’m not enjoying a book. Life’s too short! I do read crime fiction but I’m not keen on too much blood and gore. I also enjoy reading other genealogical mysteries, of course. Sometimes I’ll fancy something completely different and read a saga for a change. Favourite authors include Robert Goddard, Susan Howatch, Sharon Bolton, C J Sansom and the earlier books of Elizabeth George.
9. Do you have any interesting writing quirks?
Not sure if it’s a writing quirk as such, but when I’m working at the screen I try and adopt the 20-20-20 system to save my poor eyes. I can thoroughly recommend it. Every 20 minutes, you stare for 20 seconds at a spot 20 metres away (it’s where the window over the garden comes in handy!). It’s very soothing.
I’ll have to give that a go.
10. What are you planning to write next?
I have a life-time of photographs and memories of my late parents and grandparents which I’m planning to bring together in a family memoir. I’ve lots of stories of other researched ancestors too which I’d like to record properly so they’re accessible for future generations.
I also want to get back further with my own family history research – which I’m sure will throw up something fascinating and set me off plotting another Esme Quentin mystery. It always does!
It sounds as though you have a wealth of plot lines just waiting to be written about. Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions, Wendy.
Wendy Percival was born in the West Midlands and brought up in the Worcestershire countryside. After training as a primary school teacher she moved to North Devon in 1980 to take up her first teaching post and remained in teaching for 20 years.
An impulse buy of Writing Magazine inspired her to start writing seriously. She won Writing Magazine’s Summer Ghost Story competition in 2002 and had a short story published in The People’s Friend before focusing on full length fiction.
The time honoured ‘box of old documents in the attic’ stirred her interest in genealogy and became the inspiration for the Esme Quentin mystery novels Blood-Tied and The Indelible Stain. She is currently working on the third in the series, where the clandestine past of the Second World War provides the secret world into which Esme must delve to uncover the truth.
When she’s not writing fiction, Wendy conducts her own family history research, sharing her finds on her blog, www.familyhistorysecrets.blogspot.com.
Wendy lives in a Devon thatched cottage beside a 13th century church with her husband and a particularly talkative cat.