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On The Table Read, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author Karen Hamilton-Viall talks about the inspiration behind her supernatural murder mystery book, The Curious Life Of Ada Baker.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Karen Hamilton-Viall about her life and career, what inspired her to start writing, and the story of her latest book, supernatural murder mystery, The Curious Life Of Ada Baker.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I am Karen Hamilton-Viall, and my novel, The Curious Life of Ada Baker, is released on 27 September 2022. I’m currently a historical interpreter, running history workshops at schools and historic sites. I dress up in historic costume and teach people about the past in fun and hands on ways. That might involve them trying on armour, making flour on a quern, or dressing in historic costume.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
I started writing my first novel, called The Beyond, when I was 19. It was a romantic fantasy novel, about a young woman whose soul is transported to a different world, where she meets and falls for a man who turns out to be a werewolf. It only reached about 30,000 words. There weren’t so many options in those days for publishing a book. I still like pieces of it, but my writing style was very different then.
When did you take a step to start writing?
Almost as soon as I could use a pen, I started writing stories & poems. I wrote a lot of stories about fairies. The fairies always seemed to eat a worrisome amount of food! I still write about food a lot in my writing. One of the ghostly characters in my book, Mrs Entwhistle, was a head cook at a big house a hundred years ago. She trained under the great chefs of her day and even cooked for royalty. Her least favourite sounds are the ping of a microwave and the farty squirt of ketchup bottle.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
I started writing The Curious Life of Ada Baker during the first lockdown. I wasn’t allowed to do my job teaching in schools anymore. I was inspired by my friend Helen JR Bruce, who’d self-published her first novel, to give it a go. It took me about two months to write the first draft. Then I sent it to various friends who were my beta readers. In the autumn of 2020, I sent it off to a copy editor, before trying to find a home for it.
Initially, I tried to find an agent, but one day, I was interviewing a psychic for my blog, who told me to look for a publisher in Cambridge with a K or C name and the person in charge would have a K or C name. I followed his advice and found Cranthorpe Millner and Kirsty! That was in the autumn of 2021. It’s taken another year to get it to the point of publication.
What made you want to write The Curious Life Of Ada Baker?
I’ve always loved ghosts since I was a child, but it was my first experience with a real poltergeist when I was 19 that led to a lifelong fascination. It was the inspiration for the character of Dennis in my novel. It would stomp about our flat and move things. The activity was getting worse, until one day, I decided to chat to it. Acknowledging its existence seemed to quieten it down. It made me think more about ghosts being ordinary people like you and me. I guess the house had once been its home, and it didn’t like a bunch of noisy teens knocking around the place.
What were your biggest challenges with writing The Curious Life Of Ada Baker?
Producing the different drafts. Making sure there were no gaps in the plot. It had quite a few rewrites. My favourite part of the process is the initial writing and the marketing.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
No one person inspired Ada. An idea formed in my head one day for a psychic who could let spirits inhabit her body, so that she could utilise the powers that they had accrued in life. It would almost be like having a superpower. It all grew from that one thought.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
This is a tricky question to answer without giving too much away. I really wanted to keep readers guessing who the murderer was for as long as possible. Hopefully, I’ve done that.
What is the inciting incident of The Curious Life Of Ada Baker?
Ada is reading the local newspaper in her garden, sharing a cup of tea with the ghosts (they don’t like to be left out). Dennis spots a story in the paper about the unsolved murder of local beauty Mary Watts and is convinced that Ada can solve the murder by going for a chat with her spirit. The book starts with her murder in the prologue.
What is the main conflict of The Curious Life Of Ada Baker?
A murder has happened in the sleepy town of Sudfield, Suffolk, which Ada is drawn into solving. She thinks it’ll be a simple case, but it proves to be far more complicated. She must convince a detective of her abilities, avoid the attentions of a sinister stalker, gain the help of a squadron of ghostly spitfire pilots, and try not to get murdered herself.
Did you plot The Curious Life Of Ada Baker in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
A mixture of both. I had a simple plot worked out. Just a paragraph or two for each chapter, but some ideas came as I was writing. The children I teach are always asking me ‘what if?’ questions and I try to think the same way when I write. Some of my favourite parts of the story were late additions.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did The Curious Life Of Ada Baker need?
I had lots of friends and family reading it for me initially, for which I am extremely grateful. They gave brilliant advice. It went through lots of drafts, changing slightly as each new reader made suggestions. I also hired a professional copy editor and proof-reader, so that it was in the best state possible before I sent it to agents and publishers. It was then proofread several times by staff at Cranthorpe Millner.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
It’s a piece of advice I learned from Neil Gaiman. Take time to observe people and the world around you and make a note of it for future stories. Neil calls it his compost heap, where all the different observations mingle together to become new characters. I have always been a people watcher, observing their little quirks with interest, but after listening to Neil’s advice, I started keeping physical lists of people I had met, places I had been, even interesting dreams.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you are planning to write?
I’ve already written a rough first draft for book two in the Ada Baker Mystery series. Its working title is, The Woman in White. Each book will be a standalone story, but some characters will carry through each book. I even have an idea for book three in my head.
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment?
Tremendously. Just finishing writing a novel is a monumental achievement. I told myself, even if I get no further, I’ve written an entire book. Most people never achieve that. Now it’s being published; I’m bubbling over with excitement and can’t wait for you all to read it. I hope you grow to love my characters as much as I do.
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