Sara Foster: West Australian author

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image-sarafoster200West Australian author, Sara Foster, has just released her second book – Beneath the Shadows. Her first novel, Come Back to Me, was released in 2010 and was well received by readers and critics alike.

Beneath the Shadows is set in the isolated North Yorkshire Moors in England. Grace has returned there one year after her husband, Adam, vanishes. In her attempts to uncover the truth about Adam’s disappearance, Grace discovers more about the villager’s superstitions and folklore – and secrets that endanger her and her daughter.

Originally from England, Sara settled in Perth with her husband in 2004. She has had a long career in publishing in editing but has had a passion for writing since she was young.

In 2002 she was heavily involved with a charity children’s book series to raise money for War Child. She also contributes regularly to holidaygoddess.com, a website devoted to female friendly travel.

Click play to listen. Running time: 24.28

Beneath the Shadows

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Thanks for joining us today, Sara.

Sara
You’re welcome.

Valerie
Sara, this is actually your second podcast with us, because your first novel Come Back to Me, we spoke to you then. In the time that’s passed, you’ve now released Beneath the Shadows. Tell us a little bit about Beneath the Shadows.

Sara
Beneath the Shadows is really my story of Grace. Grace goes back the North Yorkshire Moors back in England, which is a very isolated part of the world, to search for her missing husband who disappeared there about a year earlier. When she goes back she goes away from London, so she’s been a city girl. She’s been living in the bright lights, having a career, and then she’s had a baby.

So, she takes a young child to this very isolated spot in the middle of nowhere to find out what happened to Adam. And, when she does that she’s confronted by all sorts of different things that really prey on her vulnerabilities. There are some very suspicious locals that don’t seem to embrace her very much, there’s lots of myths and legends around the place. The cottage is a little bit creepy that she’s staying in. So, she is faced with those different challenges while she is searching for the truth.

Valerie
How did this come about? How did the seed of this idea come into your head?

Sara
The seed was really Grace herself. She came into my head back in 2001, when I’d been working in Harper Collins in the UK for a couple of years. I was really beginning to think about the direction I really wanted to go in life, and it was becoming more and more apparent to me that I felt that I was on the wrong side of the desk. I was really wanting to be with all the other writers who came in and out, and who I saw everyday.

That was quite a confronting thing for me at the time, because I hadn’t really acknowledged yet how much I really wanted to write, for a living. And so I began to think- and at the same time this woman popped into my head who had all these different vulnerabilities. So, I really began to think about what I could throw at her and challenge her and see how she coped with them.

Valerie
Do you switch between writing and editing, as in editing other people’s work these days?

Sara
Not for the moment, because my switching for the moment goes between writing and being mom to a very active toddler. I think to add editing into the mix might topple me. So, I’ve stayed away from that right now.

Valerie
Now, a lot of writers do actually have to combine their writing efforts with things like parenting. How do you carve out time for yourself, because with writing you really do need long stretches that you can get right into it. What do you do? Do you have a routine? How do you make sure you have that time?

Sara
It’s interesting at the moment, because I’ve been busy working on the promotion material for Beneath the Shadows for quite a while. I’ve really lost that sense of routine at the moment, but when I was writing Beneath the Shadows I would have a good couple of mornings each week where I had a child minder come in and take care of Hannah, and that really helped.

And then my husband is also brilliant, so he could maybe give me another extra hour or two when he got home from work. But it is very different. Once you’ve had a child, I find that you’ve got to be a lot more flexible, and that’s hard work at times as well. While she’s so little, she really needs me to have that flexibility, so we do just have to play it day by day at times.

Valerie
Beneath the Shadows is set in England, as you’ve mentioned. Why England? You’re living in Perth now, is it a sign that you’re homesick, or-?

Sara
Not really. Basically, the novel came about when I was still in England, and the setting was always very clear to me, because I’ve had the personal experience of the North Yorkshire Moors. And when I was looking for somewhere for Grace to have to work through her issues, there’s no where more confronting, and it had all the different elements that I wanted. It’s very beautiful, but it’s also very isolating, very stark, and quite difficult at certain times of the year. The setting just came about because it worked within the book rather than anything else.

Valerie
Was there a lot of research required, or you pretty much had that in the bag already?

Sara
In some ways, it obviously really helped that I had the personal experience, but I did do quite a lot research as well. I certainly looked into all the myths and legends I used, and the different folktales of the area, which was really enjoyable. I did quite a lot of going around to make sure that I had quite a few of my facts straight. And a lot of quizzing my in-laws as well, who were very good on providing me with answers to different things.

Valerie
Your books have been described as mystery and suspense. Firstly, what about that genre appeals to you?

Sara
I think that I’m writing the kind of thing that I really love to read. That is why it was such a joy, really, to pitch in the other novels of mystery suspense like Rebecca into Beneath the Shadows, because they are classics that I’ve really loved. So, I am moving on from that, trying to stay with a genre that I enjoy. I think that I also like developing the twists and turns and the pace of such a story. It’s quite a challenge to keep that going. I really like the way that challenges me, as a writer.

Valerie
What are the key things you think that a writer needs to use to keep that suspense going, to keep the reader hanging on and wondering what’s going to happen next, particularly in something that’s a mystery. What’s important there?

Sara
I think having a delicate balance, really, is quite important. You’ve got to really work, and I wouldn’t say this comes naturally. It’s something you work up, you’ve got to really work at how long you can keep a reader hooked by providing clues, and then when you also need to move on from that. So you’ve got to do a series of reveals, and so you do need those twists and turns. It’s very hard to keep a novel going if you were just aiming for just one big twist without anything else as a buildup.

I think what I do is I am very aware going through that I need to let the reader in, gradually, to certain bits of the story. And, not keep them waiting too long before I give them another piece of information, another piece of information. That is really where editing skills come in as well, because it is a really difficult balance to get at times, and sometimes only on looking back do you realize that, “Oh, actually, I’ve gone a bit wrong there, and this has really slowed down now,” or, “It needs an injection of something else,” you know, the character, or another piece of pace, or a twist, or that kind of thing.

Valerie
Over time, obviously, you’ve worked out what that delicate balance is. But what are the things that have given you the clues to that balance? Has it been gut feel? Has it been response from your readers? Has it been actual techniques and formulas, like a 3 act structure? What has given you the experience and understanding to know when you’ve got that balance?

Sara
That’s a really interesting question actually. And I would say that quite a bit of it is more of the gut feeling. Not necessarily the response of my readers, because I actually haven’t had that kind of a detail of a response. I think it’s very detailed, this kind of thing. I think also just the amount I have read of all sorts of different things, you start to get a sense of how other people do it, even if you are not consciously analyzing things. If you do get a sense of what you enjoy, and what you appreciate, and what works. Then being able to take that part as an editor, I’m sure has provided me with a lot of subconscious insight into how it happens, and how to make it work.

Valerie
Your previous experience as an editor, you mentioned being on perhaps the wrong side of the desk, so to speak. It’s quite daunting to think of crossing over. Particularly in situations like this, whether it’s even becoming and actor and a script writer, or vice versa, or in your case an editor and a writer. How did you get over that overwhelming feeling of will it work?

Sara
Slowly, I think. I kept my writing to myself for a long time. I’m not very good at sharing things, and I find it just distracts me and confuses me. I’d much rather just work at something over and over again, to a point where I’m really ready to share it.

I did that for a long time. I felt that I was having quite a lot of practice, where I was working really hard, and I was looking at lots of different tips and advice, and I was reading lots, not just reading advice, but also just reading lots of the kind of fiction I enjoy, and all sorts of different things. And I worked my confidence up that way I think.

I know that a lot of people do get a load of support from writers’ groups, and things like that. It’s just a path I never went down, because I think it just fits me to work in isolation up to a point, and then after that, I love the feedback from an editor. But until I’ve got something that I feel is really comfortable, and really working well for me, I don’t like to share it too much.

Valerie
When you said you kept it to yourself for a long time, what’s a long time? Like how long is that, really?

Sara
Well, I mean, my dreams of being a writer, although they have been there since before 2001. I think it was around 2001-2002 I thought, “Actually, hang on, I really want to do this. This is my long-term aim.” I kept it to myself the whole time that I developed my editing career.

I didn’t really tell that many people that I was writing at all. I just started to play and work on different things. It was only really, probably 2006-2007 when I really sent out something to my agent, but I really began to share it. And at that point, the novel that I sent out wasn’t something that she wanted to take on, but she’d seen enough there that she’d said, “Let me know with the next thing that you do,” so that was Come Back To Me.

Valerie
Your editing skills are obviously extremely useful. Editing skills are useful for any writer, particularly in terms of pace and structure and that sort of thing. What’s you advice, how do you think writers can develop those sorts of editing skills so they can look at their own writing with that kind of critical eye?

Sara
The ideal is to go on a course to help you, because editing is quite a specific skill, and I think to do a course really helps you to get that focus. But there are other things that you can do as well. Look at a books that you love, or that’s in a similar genre of one that you’re trying to write, and really analyze it and take it to par.

I really enjoy doing that. Again, with Rebecca, when I was writing Beneath the Shadows, just trying to really look at how she pieced it together technically, because you read- as an editor or with and editorial eye, you read something in a totally different way than you do when you’re reading for pleasure. You’re really just taking that structure apart and breaking it down into the finest detail, so you are looking at anything from the meaning of words to how she’s structured her plot and her pace, and that kind of thing. So I’d say that’s a really useful thing to be able to do.

Another thing that I think is really important is just not to be scared of the process, to realize that it’s a natural part of the process of putting together the best piece of work you can do.

Valerie
While you are actually writing a novel, are you reading other novels in that genre, or other novels generally, or do you need to stay focused in your story?

Sara
No, I like to try and read for pleasure as well. I will read something relevant if I am looking for something particular that I want to incorporate into my work, or I just need advice, or input in that sense. But I certainly like to try and just read for pleasure and switch off that working side of it, and just be able to let a story take me away. I’d be really sad if I couldn’t get lost in a story anymore because it was all very much related to my writing.

Valerie
Your first book, Come Back To Me, was very well received. How did it feel to achieve that on your first novel?

Sara
It felt amazing, I still don’t think I’ve been working so hard on one thing or another, but people ask me that, and I think, “Wow, I’m not sure that I’ve taken it in, really.” I feel like I still need a moment to sit back and go, “Wow.”

I have this story about when I first got my finished copy of Come Back To Me, and my little girl was probably about six months old at the time, and she’d just learnt to sit up, and she was very wobbly. And I was distracted. My husband brought in this big box and I was distracted and we were both going, “Wow.” And she fell of the sofa behind me. And that was the moment gone.

Yeah, I’m always trying to take in, and there is something very surreal about it in a way. It’s hard to comprehend, that it’s out there now, and people are reading it and really engaging with it. But it’s also absolutely wonderful.

Valerie
Are you getting any feedback from readers?

Sara
Yeah, I am actually getting quite a bit of feedback this time from Beneath the Shadows, more than I did fromCome Back To Me, and it really positive feedback as well, which is absolutely awesome. Yeah, it just gets me wanting to get writing again.

Valerie
Oh, wonderful. Well, we’re very excited, and we’ve chosen it as one of the books, one of the handful of books, for our book club.

You’ve written two book in two years. Do you just- is that all you do, write? I mean, what was that difficult? Are you just naturally prolific?

Sara
Well, I do write quite quickly when I write. I do take my work apart a lot as well. It’s not an easy, fluid process by any stretch of the imagination. But, when I write, I think that the most I ever wrote for one of my novels in one day was ten thousand words.

Valerie
Oh my god.

Sara
When I write, I really write, and I really get lost in it. It often comes in these very short, intense, bursts, which isn’t actually the way that I find most comfortable to work. I quite like having a routine and a bit of stability, but it’s just that the story takes me over, and if it’s there, I just need to get it down.

Valerie
For example, for Beneath the Shadows, I know you started off with your character, but when you got into your writing, had you already plotted it out, or had your key plot points mapped out? Or did you, as you say, let the story take you where it went and see what happens?

Sara
A bit of both really. I had my key character of Grace. I knew all the different men that were going to be in her life. I knew she had this wonderful sister, I called AnnaBelle. So I had a lot of elements of the plot. I knew who the different villagers were, and how everything tied in, and I knew the major twist at the end. I always knew what that was going to be.

And, in both my novels so far it’s been very much like that. I’ve had all the characters firmly in my mind, and they’ve been very distinctive, and I’ve also known the big twist at the end. Some of the other stuff hasn’t been so clear. That has changed as I’ve gone along, but that seems to be the way that I work, and that’s evolved naturally, it’s not something that I’ve looked for.

Valerie
How do you create a character that you know so well? What do you actually do? Do you go through any particular kind of process to build that character? How does that character emerge?

Sara
So, I have a character that- I think something grabs me that interests me about a character, first of all. And I’ll hook onto that. With Grace it was a combination of this vulnerability, but this absolute determination as well to find out the truth. And, with one of the characters in Come Back To Me it was this terrible thing had happened to her. She was struggling to cope, and how was she going to get on with that? Those questions really hooked me.

I think the process of developing them is just really me turning them over, and over in my mind all the time and trying to get to know them in a number of different ways. I might read up about the kind of area that I want them to be involved in. What has happened in the past is I’ve written questionnaires for them and answered them as the characters so I find out a bit more about them. I find that I often- there’s something very deeply sad about the way the characters are. I find it quite easy to answer these questionnaires, because I do feel like I know them. But it’s a matter of drawing out as well. So, I find that a really useful tool to get to know them. Then gradually just through a process of thinking about them repeatedly, all the time, they just become more and more real.

Valerie
If you’re thinking about them repeatedly all the time, once you get then to the end of your book, do you find that your friends have gone, your friends have left you, or something like that?

Sara
Yeah, very much so. I mean I actually wrote an extra chapter for Beneath the Shadows, which is available via the Random House website, from my character AnnaBelle’s point of view, because I loved AnnaBelle in Beneath the Shadows. I was finding it really hard to let her go. I didn’t feel that I had been able to necessarily bring her as much as I wanted to, because the story wasn’t really about her. She was just a supporting role in that story.

But, yeah, I really wanted to go back to her, and Grace I do miss. When I think about what happened to all sorts of different characters after the novel ends and wonder about going back to them, but they haven’t kept their association that strongly that I would return to them at the moment, but I may do in the future.

Valerie
You speak about wanting get writing again. Do you know what you next project is then?

Sara
Yes, I do. I’m going to be hopefully working a very complicated love story, which incorporates a real passion for the sea. So, I’m really looking forward to doing that. It’s going to be able two people who share this bond with the sea, as well as with each other. But, they also have hidden dramas in their past that needs to be resolved. So, I’m working on those characters at the moment. I think that’s partly why my old characters have to take a step back, because these new ones have now jumped into my mind.

Valerie
Wow. So, when do you think you’ll get stuck into that.

Sara
Well, I would love to- I’ve got some bits and pieces of work to do on the US version of Beneath the Shadowsfirst, and then I’m hoping that I’ll get that finished by April time. And, then I’d love to just start again straightaway, as soon as I have the time and space, any time and space to focus on them they will be lots more writing going on.

Valerie
Tell us then, say the next five years, now that you’ve had… you’re beyond your debut novel. You’re on the second one. It’s already getting a lot of wonderful feedback. Tell us about the next five years. Do you think you’ll be doing a novel a year? What are your plans? What would you like to see.

Sara
Well, I don’t know about a novel a year, but certainly not only have I got the story that I’d like to write next, but I’ve certainly got at least one or two more that are really coming together in my mind as well. So, I think a novel a year is a really ambitious goal.

Valerie
Yes.

Sara
And, so if I’ve got two or three stories lined up, that takes me over the next five years really.

Valerie
Yes.

Sara
One or two other things that I’m doing as well, I’m working on a book for the Holiday Goodess team, so that’s a little travel book that will be coming out in December. So, I have a few other little bits and pieces that keep me busy in the meantime. I think probably my next five years are going to be full, if that’s the way I’m going to go.

Valerie
Sounds like it.

Finally, what’s your advice as an editor- put your editor’s hat on now- to budding authors who really are wondering whether they’re at that stage, you know? Where you were when you knew that you were ready, that you were really happy with it. How do they know when they’re ready?

Sara
Yeah, that’s a really difficult question to answer on behalf of somebody else. I would say get a little bit of feedback from people you trust. My mum is a massive reader, and one of my inspirations. She’s always one of the first people I go to with my books, as is my husband. They will tell me.

If you have people like that who can give you honest feedback, and you really trust, well, then that’s a good way to find out whether you’re as ready as you think you are. It’s a very hard thing to know, because you’re often very close to a novel. So, it’s really difficult to distance yourself and see whether you’re ready.

If the worst happens and you send it out and somebody says, “This isn’t ready,” I’d just say don’t despair, because if it’s not ready now it doesn’t mean that it never can be. Come Back to Me went through a year of editing with agents before we even sent it a publisher, because even though I thought it was ready, the agents that I had involved with it had a lot more to say about that. They had some very good points.

It can take a lot longer than you think to go through this editorial process, but it is all working to make your book the best book it can be. So, while you feel like you might be tearing your hair out at times, just don’t despair, don’t give up, because you will get somewhere in the end.

Valerie
Wonderful words of advice. And on that note, thank you very much for your time today, Sara.


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