Some characters arrive like a gift chosen by someone who knows you well: wrapped up in gift paper with a bow on top; a complete human being who is already animated, thinking and feeling. All the writer has to do is transcribe them. Others emerge more slowly, stubbornly evading capture until the last possible moment, hiding in the shadows, determined to create more editing work. In my latest book The Stranger, Diana Devlin turned out to be one of these elusive creatures, causing me more than a few headaches once I’d admitted to myself that not only was she wasted as a secondary character but that she really ought to be the main event - the chilly heart of the whole book.

I’d wanted to write a bad girl for a while, one of those women (some) publishers worry about. The ones who aren’t likeable or ‘relatable’ enough to carry the reader through. The sort that inspire disapproving, slightly scandalised reviews on Amazon. I’ve never understood this reluctance. Why do people continue to be seduced by Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which celebrates eighty years in print this year? Is it because of the nameless, deliberately colourless second Mrs de Winter or is it because of the woman the book simply had to be named for? Rebecca de Winter is a lot of things but no one ever said she was nice. Liking a character and being interested and therefore invested in them should not be confused.

So I wanted to write someone with a dash of Rebecca, only my girl was going to be icy blonde to Rebecca’s dark. She was also going to be very much alive. I pictured a Hitchcock blonde, cool and self-possessed, a glamorous alien in a sleepy Cornish village in 1940, inevitably stalked by Trouble with a capital T. Gillian Flynn’s Amy Dunne was also in the inspirational mix, as was Diana Mitford, Becky Sharp and Ballet Shoes’ Pauline Fossil. She was going to be beautiful and charismatic and awful, all at once, recklessly trampling other characters’ sensitivities and spilling their darkest secrets just for larks. She was going to be a weapons-grade bitch that readers would pantomime-hiss at whenever she sashayed into a scene.

the stranger

I’ll always go for dark over light, and messy over nice

This was all well and good and I had great fun writing her until I asked myself the fatal question: why? Why is Diana the way she is? Because there’s always a why. And once I’d glimpsed into Diana’s past and understood what made her the way she was, I knew the fulcrum of the book had shifted and wouldn’t ever go back. The bad girl had become the antiheroine of the story. There would - sigh - be a lot of rewriting.

First I had to scale back the other women in the book, just a touch. It turned out I’d originally been trying to write three stories in one: a romance for Rose, a family mystery about Eleanor and then - for Diana - something rather more psychological. ‘I’m afraid you’ve got to pick one and go with it,’ said my editor, sagely. We both knew there was no choice to make. I’ll always go for dark over light, and messy over nice.

To mark Diana’s new significance, I gave her the only first person perspective in the book and turned these sections into diary entries. This would allow readers to lift a corner of Diana’s breezy, brittle facade and see the damage underneath. Of course, anyone who’s ever kept a diary will know that what gets written down isn’t the whole truth either. All of us are prone to slightly rewriting our lives when we play them back to ourselves - to preserve a little bit of pride, or paint ourselves in a more generous light. Just as we unconsciously delude others about what sort of person we are, so we delude ourselves.

Diana became a mille-feuille of complexity and contradiction which I hope adds up to a whole person. To paraphrase an editorial assistant who read the book after Diana became fully-fledged, you go from wanting to slap her to wanting to be her. You start to veer away from hate towards something like love, or at least understanding. I hope that’s the case anyway. Having found her so nebulous at the start, the threads of her slipping through my fingers until a couple of drafts in, she’s ended up not only being my favourite character, but the most real and affecting too. Even now the book is out and I’ve moved on to the next story, I can still hear her languid voice in my head. I still know exactly the kind of amazingly dull thing she’d dismiss with a roll of her green eyes. She’s in me now, whether I like it or not.

  • The Stranger

  • A top ten Red Magazine book . . .

    Cornwall, 1940.

    In the hushed hours of deepest night a young woman is found washed up on the rocks.

    Was it a tragic accident? Or should the residents of Penhallow have been more careful about whom they invited in?

    In the midst of war three women arrive seeking safety at Penhallow Hall.

    Each is looking to escape her past.

    But one of them is not there by choice.

    As the threat of invasion mounts and the nightly blackouts feel longer and longer, tensions between the close-knit residents rise until dark secrets start to surface.

    And no one can predict what their neighbour is capable of . . .

    In a house full of strangers, who do you trust?

    'A beautiful and intriguing page-turner. Cornwall springs to life in vivid colour' Dinah Jefferies, author of The Sapphire Widow

    'Wonderfully atmospheric and utterly engrossing. I hardly moved until I had read the very last word' AJ Pearce, author of Dear Mrs Bird

  • Buy the book

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