As part of The Song of the Sea Maid’s Book tour I was pleased to be able to catch up with Rebecca Mascull for a chat… about writing, travel, cakes and cuppas…
Hi Becca, can I start by asking you a little about yourself?
Hello Jo! I’m a 44 year old novelist with two books out published by Hodder and Stoughton and a third on the way. I’m also a busy mum and I love reading, cinema and baking (particularly the cake eating part). I live by the sea and feel very lucky to do so.
When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer and how did you begin that journey?
I’ve been writing stories since I was a little girl. My first major work, aged 13, was a western totally ripped off from the back story of Romancing the Stone and my second major work was a hospital drama about a dodgy radiologist also ripped off from St Elsewhere, because I had a crush on the radiologist in that show. Since then, I have tried to be less derivative and come up with some of my own ideas. I decided in 2001 to leave full-time teaching and do a Masters in Writing, because I figured that I’d never make it as a writer if it was always done part-time i.e. if it was always Plan B. So I made it Plan A and took a big pay cut (which I’ve never really recovered from!) and got my Masters. Then followed quite a few years of rejections by agents and publishers until I finally got my first book deal with Hodder in 2012 and my first published novel The Visitors came out in 2014. It’s been a long old journey to get here and, of course, there is still a long way to go and I mean that in a good way! I honestly think I’d go mad if I didn’t write stories, so I hope to keep doing so as long as I live.
Both of the books you have written have been historical novels. Are you staying with this genre or have you any plans to write a contemporary novel?
I don’t have any particular plans to write contemporary novels, largely because I feel so comfortable writing about the past. Part of the joy of writing, for me, is the historical research and all the stuff I learn by doing it. I love the challenge of setting myself the task of trying to understand how it must have been to live through a particular time and particular events, to render those in a way that is faithful to the time and yet also resonates with the present day. However, you never know, and if a story grabs me and it happens to be contemporary, then so be it. Of course, whether you’re writing a contemporary story or an historical one, if it’s about a subject that is new to you, there is going to be some research involved, perhaps a lot. For example, if I wanted to write about a polar bear expert in the Arctic, I’d have a lot of work to do! For me, novels are escapism and that can be either into the past and/or into a very different environment from my own. I couldn’t bear to write a story about a novelist and mum who lives by the sea and likes baking cakes – I’d die of boredom writing the damn thing, even if someone on the other side of the world might find that fascinating! I want to escape to a different life in my writing, even though I’m perfectly happy in my own! Fiction, for me, is about other minds and other places and, yes, perhaps other times too.
Are you a panster or a plotter? What works best for you?
Now, this is interesting – I had to look up the word ‘panster’, as I’d never heard of it! So, thank you for teaching me something new today! I’m still not entirely sure what it means though! I have a feeling it’s about how much planning you do before you write. If so, I am most definitely a plotter. I spend a good year or more researching and then organising my research notes; then comes a detailed synopsis; from that develops detailed chapter plans and only then do I feel able to sit down and start drafting. Once I start the drafting process, it actually doesn’t take that long, because a lot of the legwork has already been done in the planning process. I have a clear story arc already in place, but this always changes in the writing. This suits my brain and also, I think, suits writing historical fiction, for me. Personally, it would annoy me if I were constantly having to look things up that I didn’t know about the setting as I’m going along, having to stop and start the flow of the narrative to get the details right. I still do this to a certain extent, as even a year of research is never enough to find out every tiny thing you need to know, so I leave quite a few gaps in my first draft with phrases typed in capital letters such as CHECK THIS or very specific little messages to myself like EDWARDIAN HAT! Then I go back in the second draft, with my research files open around me, and I fill in all the little gaps. So mostly I’m a plotter, but I am totally open to allowing the characters and the narrative to take over and go their own way and I follow that wholeheartedly, as I know that most of the important work in a novel goes on in the subconscious and, let’s face it, we have little control over that – thank heavens!
Can you tell us something about your current WIP?
I can tell you a little bit about it, though I am always a bit fearful about revealing too much before the book is actually finished. So, I’m not being mysterious on purpose, just paranoid! It’s set in the Edwardian period, beginning in 1909 in Cleethorpes, which is just down the road from me. If all goes to plan, it’ll be out in April 2017, so there’ll be more details on this in the forthcoming months. Suffice to say, it’s about a young woman with an unconventional ambition – my kinda gal!
Are you a beach or city girl? Name a few of your favourite holiday destinations.
Well, I hate really hot weather, so my favourite time of year to walk on the beach is spring or autumn, where I can enjoy the beauty but not have to worry about sun cream or heat stroke! I live a few minutes from Cleethorpes beach and it’s so beautiful at all times of year, just a paradise for me of big blue Lincolnshire skies, soft sand and rolling waves as far as the eye can see. As you can probably tell from Song of the Sea Maid, I adore the sea and I am fascinated by it, so I love visiting English seaside places such as Whitby or down
to Dorset or Devon. If I could choose one place to live in the world, it’d be Cornwall. But I love cities too. I travelled quite a bit in my youth, and visited wonderful cities like Paris, Vienna, Rome, Prague, Berne, Bonn, Madrid, Delhi, New York, Boston, Los Angeles. More recently I’ve visited and really enjoyed Edinburgh, Manchester and, of course, I’ve been to London countless times. I live not too far from Lincoln, a beautiful cathedral city and I also love York. I adore beautiful
buildings, such as cathedrals, like the one in Exeter where I went to university, or other lovely city centres with parks and quaysides or rivers and fascinating shops, like Bristol where I did my teacher training, or Bath or Canterbury or gorgeous old places like Stratford-upon-Avon. I was raised near Oxford and loved wandering through the college sector. So, I have a great affinity with cities and like to be a bit of a flanheur – but most importantly, there must be bookshops and cafés with cake and Earl Grey tea, to make it a perfect city excursion for me. I also love small towns like Horncastle near us, that has brilliant second-hand bookshops (and lovely plum bread!) One thing not included in the beach/city idea is the countryside, which I
adore too: I love walking through woodland or beside fields, watching the birds dip over the corn or the treetops waving in the breeze. I love trees almost more than anything, apart from the sea
And lastly, if you were a castaway on a desert island, what four things couldn’t you possibly live without?
Oh my word, a desert island would be my idea of hell. Firstly, I am not good at being on my own for long periods of time. I love having peace to write but I know from past experience that I would soon go nuts if I were alone all the time. Secondly, I hate the heat and constant full sun, so I’d be really miserable there! However, having written in Song of the Sea Maid about my main character Dawnay Price studying the flora and fauna of the
Berlengas Islands and Fornells on Menorca, I quite like the idea of a brief sojourn in one of those, maybe a writing retreat. I can dream, can’t I?! But the key difference would be that I’d have access to people and civilisation, which is what I’d miss most of all, I think. So, on this desert island, the four things I would need would be: shelter from the sun, books to read, writing materials and facilities to make cake and a cuppa. As a castaway, I suppose I’d have to make do without people, so the books I read would have to serve as my company. They do a pretty good job of that, books…