Historical novel December Girl is set in Ireland in the 19th century, and is the first book by writer Nicola Cassidy. It tells the story of Molly Thomas, a young woman whose family are wrongfully evicted from their home by a vindictive land agent. Some years later, her baby son is abducted and Molly embarks on a mission to find him.
I spoke to Nicola about her writing process, path to publication and the challenge of writing with two children under the age of three.
Nicola, congratulations on your debut novel. This must be a pretty exciting time for you, promoting your first novel as a freshly minted author. Are you getting any sleep?
Nope. But then I have a three-year-old and an eight-month-old. We used to have a great sleep pattern when our toddler was contained in her cot, but now that she’s in her own bed she likes to appear and hover over ours at all times of the night. I’m used to it now, but in the beginning it was pretty spooky to be woken by a small banshee calling, ‘Mam’ in the middle of the night! She now wakes the baby or vice versa, so at the moment I am up every three hours .
It is an incredibly exciting time for me right now. I guess if I wasn’t so exhausted from the kids I’d probably be lying in bed worrying about things, so a little exhaustion goes a long way to getting some shut-eye!
December Girl is set in 19th-century Co Meath and is inspired by true events. Are you a history buff? How much research did you have to do? And was it difficult to find an authentic ‘voice’ to suit the period?
No, I’m not a history buff by any means, but I’ve always had a fascination with the 19th century. We were brought to stately homes by our parents on holidays or day trips, and that may be where some of the interest came from. That said, my brother studied cultural studies and we were brought up in a household interested in war documentaries and other historical events, so I guess history was always part of our environment.
I did quite a bit of research for this novel. The book is inspired by two real events, but the story itself is fictional. The eviction, setting and original parents in my novel are inspired by an academic essay I read. I managed to track down its author, Gareth Yore (Ireland is such a small country!), and he kindly agreed to meet and show me where the eviction [of protagonist Molly’s family] would have taken place. This was invaluable in recreating my story. The rest of my research came from a lot of reading, a research trip to London and my general interest in all things 19th century.
Regarding voice, you’ll see from my writing style that I have quite a modern approach. I don’t write in any flowery or old-fashioned way – it’s not something I’d ever read so I could only write the way it sounded in my head. It may not be to everyone’s taste, especially as a historical fiction novel, but I tried to write what I enjoy reading.
With historical writing, it must be tempting to get lost in the research if only to avoid the dreaded blank page. Did you fall into that trap or were you disciplined?
I love research – and I gave myself a two-month period to read materials before starting
writing. I didn’t have that straightforward a journey with this book – it was a bit stop-and-start, but in between I did keep up my research.
In general, I look to sources that are interesting to me – I’m usually seeking out a story. I also find, by reading details, that these will flow easily into a story. I hate to read books where the author has added lumps of research to sound knowledgeable. They should be peppered throughout to sound authentic. So that’s mostly how I research too – reading bits and pieces that might be of use in my story.
I’d love to know about your journey to publication. Was it straightforward or do you have a study wallpapered in rejection letters?
Ha! There’s a phenomenon called ‘rejection by silence’. I didn’t know about this till my agent started submitting my manuscript. Some came back, but a lot didn’t. After a while, I realised that this was a rejection – but I suppose you always live in hope that it just hasn’t been read yet. You need nerves of steel. I found the submission process very difficult emotionally – I became obsessed with it, but I was also pregnant and having my baby – so that didn’t help things.
My journey to publication was pretty straightforward in that I got an agent, went through the submission process and was picked up by a publisher. I would say to anyone embarking on this journey; understand that the world of publishing moves very slowly. The whole process can take months and months. It’s actually quite rare to be picked up very quickly. I took my manuscript back in early summer and did a complete rewrite which made it much better. I got signed then very soon after that. Go with your gut. If you don’t think your book is quite right, work to make it better.
What sort of writer are you – the organised type who writes at the same time every day in a zen, colour-coordinated writer’s nest, or a grab-any-napkin notetaker?
I love these descriptions! I’m kind of both. My ideal writing scenario is at my desk, in peace and quiet and hours to fill with just me, writing. The house is clean and organised and I have one of my favourite candles lit. If it’s during the day, I’ll have a cup of tea, if it’s evening, I might have a glass of wine. The reality is that with two small children, my Utopian writing dream doesn’t happen anymore. So I take out the laptop wherever I can and I write when the time becomes free – usually during naptime. I can also write in cafes, blocking out the buzz and the noise. I’ve become less precious about the environment and more about getting the words down, no matter what.
Did you plot December Girl in advance?
Yes. I did an early draft and the first thing I did was to write out the whole book the way I wanted it to happen. I pretty much stuck to this main story line then. If it’s too plotted though, it can be boring to write, so I didn’t know everything that was going to happen in the book. I had to leave room for some inspiration as I wrote. I usually have a start and an ending, and I then have to work out how to get the characters there as I write.
It’s so easy to get bogged down with a first novel and get stuck or lose the faith. Did you have any help with it along the way?
Hmm, yes, I had an assessment with Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin [of Writing.ie and publishing consultancy The Inkwell Group fame] and we discussed the structure of the novel. I found that hugely helpful in the long run as I understood more about what way a book needed to be to sell and to be commercial. I had great support from other writers too – just in their friendship and their belief that I too would get published, and sooner rather than later.
I did lose the faith a few times, but I just gave myself a break and came back to it again, even if it was weeks or months later. I’m a very determined person. You need a bit of grit, I think, if you want to succeed.
What five books do you think everyone should read in their lifetime?
I don’t consider myself very well read, but I would like to be. I wish I could get locked away for a few weeks in a library and have my meals handed in so that I could catch up on all the wonderful pieces of literature there are in the world. The top five books I would recommend reading are: Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor, The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and everyone’s favourite classic, To Kill A Mockingbird.
Although your head is no doubt in a spin promoting the book, I have to ask what you’ve got lined up next? And will it also be historical?
I am really concentrating on marketing December Girl at the moment (marketing is my day job so I love using these skills in book promotion now). But I do have half of my next novel written. It’s another historical fiction book, set in Drogheda, and it tells the tale of a nanny who turns up to work for a family with a very dark secret. Again, the story is based on some true stories I have found in my research. I’m hoping it might be ready by next summer. I also have a sequel in mind for December Girl.
We became aware of one another through the blogging circuit. Would you advise would-be writers to set up blogs? Has it been of any benefit to you? You’ve also done well in short story and play-writing competitions. Again, did they help, for example in acquiring an agent?
I would never recommend setting up a blog for the sake of it – it’s a lot of hard work and you have to really want to do it. I would say if you want to write a novel, then concentrate on that – blogging can be a distraction.
Where I found it really helpful was getting me back into the habit of writing. Blogging led to the desire to write my novel and publish it. I also learned a lot of online marketing skills through blogging: how to run a website, how to engage with readers, how to promote my writing. I’ve also met a ton of interesting people, who I now call friends, through blogging. But I’ve met a lot of friends through writing too.
As for the short story and play competitions – these are invaluable in gaining confidence as a writer. As soon as I started doing well, I realised that maybe I could write a book and get it professionally published. All those small wins or long- and shortlists were like a backbone to what I was trying to do. I don’t know if the blog helped in getting an agent – I think everything is based on your manuscript – but I’m sure it might have helped in some part.
And lastly, people always ask writers what advice they would give to novices starting out. Any words of wisdom on what people should NOT do?
Oh God – I think you learn from your mistakes. It’s all very well me saying don’t do this that or the other – but it is only my experience, and I firmly believe you have to find your own way. I meet a lot of aspiring authors who ask, ‘How did you get it finished? How did you actually write the book?’ I wrote December Girl in nine weeks. I had done a lot of research and attempted a draft of it many months before, so it wasn’t my first attempt, but in the end, it took nine weeks to put down the first proper draft. An average book is 90,000 words. If you write a thousand words a day, you will have it written in three months. That’s the way I thought – this isn’t hard, I just need to be disciplined. If you
break it down into bitesize chunks, it doesn’t seem half as scary. Oh, and watch out for the 30,000 word hump. It gets everyone, apparently. Just write on through it, no matter what.
December Girl is available now. For more interviews and reviews, check out the other stops on the blog tour:
Nicola Cassidy is a writer and lifestyle blogger from Co Louth. She has worked as a journalist, press officer and marketing manager, and has been writing fiction since she was a child.
December Girl is Nicola’s debut novel, and was inspired by the Boyne Valley, where she grew up. Elements of the story are based on true events. It is published by Bombshell Books, a new women’s imprint of crime book publishers Bloodhound Books, this month.