In 2021, Isla, a student of creative writing at the University of the Highlands and Islands, asked me to share my experiences of writing my first novel Castles of Steel and Thunder in this author interview. I’m happy to say that Isla also seemed to enjoy the follow-up book, Pieces of Sky and Stone, and recently asked me to take part in another Q&A session in a similar vein. Isla shared the interview with her newsletter subscribers earlier this month (you can sign up to her list here), and also gave me permission to share it here on the blog for anyone interested in reading more about my books, my writing and the process of transitioning from first book to sequel…
If my writing-themed posts appeal to you, you may also enjoy my articles on writing the first draft of your novel, motivation for writers and coping with rejection. Do also check out the article I wrote for the summer 2021 issue of PaperBound magazine on tips for writing young adult fiction (easily applied to other genres, too!).
Thank you to Isla for this interview, and for supporting my writing via her book blog – pop over to her Instagram page @islacwrites for lots more bookish recommendations. Finally, a quick spoiler alert: if you haven’t read Castles of Steel and Thunder and plan to, you may wish to avoid some of the information outlined in this post.
For new readers of your work, or perhaps someone who hasn’t read the sequel yet, could you summarise some things to expect from the book?
Pieces of Sky and Stone is the sequel to Castles of Steel and Thunder, and concludes the story of Sysa Steel, who left Caithness for a mysterious fae realm in the first novel. In Pieces of Sky and Stone, Sysa returns to Caithness, where she finds herself seeking out a healing stone – and making a surprising discovery about her family’s past. The novel sees Sysa forge an unexpected alliance with an old enemy in a mission to unlock the secrets of an age-old prophecy. Readers can expect twists, turns, a little bit of romance, and more of Sysa’s emotional journey through grief – various Caithness locations also feature in the book. I’ll let you into a little secret: Pieces of Sky and Stone is my favourite of the two novels. I loved writing it. I hope you love reading it just as much!
How was the transition from writing the first book in the series to this one? Was there a period of uncertainty or did it come quite naturally to jump back into Sysa’s world?
The experience of writing Pieces of Sky and Stone was actually easier for me than writing Castles of Steel and Thunder. There wasn’t a huge sense of transition, probably because I started writing book two in tandem with working on the final edits for book one. I was still very much in Sysa’s world, so it felt natural to continue the story to its conclusion – I also didn’t want readers to have to wait too long for a sequel. While COSAT took me two years to write, POSAS was completed in less than twelve months, which was fast for me! The only hesitation was over the plot – I knew how I wanted the story to end, but I wasn’t quite sure how to get there. It took me some time to imagine my way through the twists and turns of the storyline (a process I figure out, in case you’re interested, while out walking with my dog!). I had the last line of POSAS written before I even got started on the first chapter. That line was my horizon – once I worked out how to find a way to it, everything else just seemed to flow.
I asked both of these questions during our last interview, but what scene/part of the book was the hardest to write and why?
The hardest part of the novel to write was also, for me, the saddest part – it will be difficult to expand further without introducing any spoilers! If you read the book, I think you’ll know which scene I’m referring to – dealing with emotional situations while writing an ‘action’ scene can be challenging in terms of allowing the emotion attached to that moment enough space to be conveyed. I hope I did that justice – in contrast I find the experience of writing emotion in a reflective sense much easier. Altogether, there is a lot of emotion in both books. Secretly, I rather hope that readers might need to wipe away a tear or two as the story ends.
And contrary to that, what was the most fun scene/part to write and why?
My favourite scene to write in the book was anything involving Lavellan. I was so happy he had a bigger role in book two. He’s a complex character and I enjoyed everything about his ‘wickedness,’ possibly because I am personally much more of a goody-two-shoes! I loved writing his expressions, his mannerisms and his dialogue. I also enjoyed showing a different side to him in POSAS, and I hope that came across.
One thing I loved in particular was the adoration we feel from Sysa towards her grandfather, and how she was coping with grief in the second novel. Was it difficult to balance talking about her grief and emotions and continuing the plot of the book?
Grief is such a universal experience, and it was important to me to represent that in a way that possibly isn’t generally associated with young adult fantasy. So much of the whole story is about the love between family members (or the people who become like family) and I think that again, that possibly isn’t something that tends to be associated with young adult books. A lot of the story takes place in Sysa’s head, in terms of the journey she goes on, both related to her mission and her own emotional landscape. For me, the elements of grief and longing were intrinsic to the story, rather than being separate to the plot. I hope that people who wouldn’t necessarily gravitate towards books about faeries and folklore might still resonate with some of the other themes in the novels. A lot of the underlying messages in the story are about legacy – how people continue to influence our lives and the world around us even when they are no longer physically here.
The incorporation of local landscapes, landmarks and folklore seemed so effortless. Was there a lot of research involved in adding that to your plot?
Living in Caithness and experiencing all of the magic and stories in our landscape means that, really, nothing ever feels like research. All of the tales, places and landmarks feel like something I’ve absorbed rather than actively learned about, and the Caithness landscape has an intrinsic role in both novels – without Caithness, these books would not exist. One thing I particularly enjoyed with POSAS was writing the author’s note which is included at the end of the book and explains where all the folklore, names and places tie into the two novels. I always say that in Caithness, writers don’t need huge flights of imagination – there are stories all around us, everywhere. One reader told me they’d like me to write a whole book based on the details in the notes!
Do you have any tips for anyone planning to start a novel, or currently writing a novel of their own?
One thing I would suggest to new or aspiring writers is to be completely open to constructive feedback pre-publication. That’s something I found a little difficult in the early days of writing, but with this book I felt much more comfortable in terms of allowing the opening of the door to other eyes. Find a few trusted people to look over your manuscript and really consider the feedback they give you – you’ll probably find you end up with a much better piece of work because of that. At the same time, be protective of yourself in terms of feedback post-publication. Know how you feel about your story and own that.
And be proud of yourself.
It takes tenacity and courage to put your words onto the page.
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