A Cambridge Writer’s Diary
Avid lifelong storyteller and acclaimed crime author Leonie Swann shares an in-depth insight into her unique writing process
I enjoy telling stories about unlikely heroes. For my latest novel The Sunset Years of Agnes Sharp, the starting point was a rather simple idea: find the most inept bunch of detectives imaginable!
Let me introduce you to Agnes Sharp and her house share of the old and unruly. Agnes and her octogenarian friends might be struggling with mobility issues, memory loss or downright battiness, but when their neighbour meets a violent end, you couldn’t find a more dedicated gang of investigators at the scene.
There are benefits to finding a killer, of course; you could pin another dead body on him – like the one Agnes and her friends are currently hiding in their shed.
It would be a win-win situation, surely? A flurry of frantic and rather unconventional detective work ensues, leading our heroes out of their comfort zone and into the seemingly sleepy village of Duck End.
The book is set in idyllic rural England, not unlike my own little Cambridgeshire village.
Luckily, this is where the similarities come to an end. I have yet to come across a dead body – long may it remain so! – and the local peace and quiet is perfect for my creative process.
I find inspiration when I’m pottering around my garden, on long country walks or visits to Cambridge with its stimulating university vibes.
One of my absolute favourite spots has to be the top of Great St Mary’s bell tower – I defy anyone to look down on the hustle and bustle, with the dignified stone all around, and not feel inspired by what’s on offer.
I have always enjoyed stories to the point that, as a kid, I told myself my own bedtime stories when my parents’ offerings didn’t prove satisfactory.
Yet, becoming an author looked quite unattainable, something that required the muse to descend and the stars to align.
Only later, when I started to understand that writing is a craft, did I try my hand at one of the world’s first sheep detective stories.
The stars certainly did align, my first novel Three Bags Full was a huge success in my native Germany and ended up being translated into 26 languages.
It was quite a shock – requiring a steep learning curve – but I never looked back. I have never had a proper job, and the fact that I now work as a full-time author never ceases to amaze me.
I usually delve into a new story headfirst without too much of a plan. I pick a few characters, drop them into an interesting situation and watch events unfold.
The benefit of this method is that I keep surprising myself – and hopefully the reader too. The disadvantage is that I can end up writing a lot of the plot without any idea who the murderer could be, which adds a certain element of suspense.
This phase of the process requires perseverance and a portion of blind faith. All I can do is carry on and hope that everything will come together in the end – and when it does, it’s a wonderful feeling indeed.
The Sunset Years of Agnes Sharp by Leonie Swann is published by Allison & Busby and
is priced at £16.99.