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For Stephanie Lam, it all began with Agatha Christie and a make-believe town...

Beach Hut novelst Stephaine Lam describes how she came to write her first novel: The Mysterious Affair at Castaway House

I had invented a seaside town, Helmstone, and I was searching for a story that I could tell within it. I wanted to get across the same sense of fun that Agatha Christie does in her writing, while trying to evoke atmosphere and place so that the reader can get under the skin of the book. I was in the middle of struggling to find a plot to hang all of this on, when I found myself writing a sentence, The first time I ever saw Castaway House I knew it was meant to be mine. And from there, everything else just flollowed.

reading diet

When writing The Mysterious Affair at Castaway House I became totally obsessed with Helmstone; I went to sleep thinking about it and woke up with it on my mind. I commute to my day job and in the morning I use the journey as planning time. While writing the book I also went on a strict reading diet; according to which part of the novel I was writing. I tried to only read British books written, and set in, the 1920s and the 1960s, in an attempt to absorb myself as fully as possible in the world of the novel.

When I finished Castaway House, I targeted agents who represent authors whose novels I loved and whose work I thought might be similar to mine. First on my list was Judith Murray at Greene & Heaton who represents Sarah Waters, one of my favourite writers. I spent two weeks writing my pitch letter and synopsis to her, trying to get it perfect. Anyway, something must have worked because she loved the book, took it on, and then came another test; she sent it out into the world, to see if any publishers wanted to take it on.

book deal

Two nail-shredding weeks later, my agent called me as I was crossing a busy junction heading home from work. Amidst buses wheezing, car horns honking, and the blare of reggae from the Caribbean takeaway across the road, I jammed a finger in one ear and just about managed to work out what she was saying; I had a book deal. And not just any book deal; it had come from Penguin Books. Since then, I’ve been on an absolute giddy high.

You can follow Stephanie on Twitter @stephanielam1


Beach Hut Writer Jane Lythell talks about the flawed characters that inhabit her novels

I’m interested in the dark side of people and what makes them do extreme things. I think we all have a dark side which we hide from the world, and often, from ourselves. My first novel THE LIE OF YOU explores jealousy that deepens into full blown obsession. It has had over 200 reviews and I want to take this opportunity to thank readers for taking the time to write them. Reviews are pure gold for a debut writer and one of the points that emerged was a difference of opinion about whether or not to sympathise with the character Heja by the end of the book. This definitely divided people.

My second novel AFTER THE STORM also has a character in the grip of psychological trauma. My aim is to write character driven stories and to let the plot develop from how each character would react to circumstances given their history and their psychology.

AFTER THE STORM – published this summer – opens in Belize City and then moves to an island in the Caribbean called Roatan. An English couple, Rob and Anna, have just met an American couple Owen and Kim who have a handsome old boat. Owen suggests they charter his boat and he will take them to Roatan, where the diving is sensational. Anna does not want to go at all, but Rob is really keen and he persuades her. Unknown to them Kim is desperate to go home to Florida. It is Owen who is determined to continue their life on the boat. So straightaway we have conflict of wishes between the four characters and a boat can be a very claustrophobic place when tensions start to build.

They set off. With only the four of them on board it should be paradise: afternoons spent snorkelling; nights enjoying the silence and solitude of the sea. But why does Owen never sleep? Why is he so secretive about his past? And why does Kim keep a knife zipped into her money-belt? They arrive in Roatan and not all is what it seems. Anna, who is a speech therapist, can usually get people to talk, but this time does she want to?

I’ve been to Roatan and felt it would make a great setting for a novel. It is beautiful but also has a kind of frontier feeling where the normal rules don’t seem to apply. I drew on a journal I kept when I was there and my many photos to help me create the atmosphere of the island.