March 05, 2019

Inspiration in the shelves

Behind the Book by

One wouldn’t automatically assume that inspiration for a devastating crime novel could be found in that safest of places: a bookstore. But Fran Dorricott’s experience as a bookseller provided the key to finishing her first draft, inspiration for her favorite clue and more.

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At the beginning of Fran Dorricott’s debut mystery, a little girl goes missing during a solar eclipse. Sixteen years later, her older sister, Cassie, has returned home, another eclipse is on the way, and another local girl has gone missing. After the Eclipse follows Cassie as she tries to uncover the truth and come to terms with her grief and guilt over the fate of her sister. One wouldn’t automatically assume that inspiration for a devastating crime novel could be found in that safest of places: a bookstore. But Dorricott’s experience as a bookseller provided the key to finishing her first draft, inspiration for her favorite clue and more.

I’ve been a writer for longer than I’ve been a bookseller—but I’ve wanted to be both for as long as I can remember. My local bookshop, which is the one where I now work, was my first memory of seeing a bookshop that looked exactly how I thought a bookshop should look: It’s got three floors, a spiral staircase and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. It’s stunning. And the benefits of working in such a beautiful place aren’t just the aesthetics.

I’d actually been working at Waterstones for less than a month when I wrote the bulk of After the Eclipse. I’d had the idea earlier that year, drafted a little and gotten myself stuck. Then, I had a chance conversation with a customer. She mentioned that she loved reading books that had strong echoes of the past, like those by Elly Griffiths and Kate Ellis—and I agreed. It was then that I realized: I’d been going about my drafting the wrong way, and I knew exactly how to fix it. I finished the rest of my first draft in less than a month.

The amazing benefits of working in a bookshop boil down to three main points: the books, the staff and the customers. Of course, the books must always come first. Honestly, just being around so many books every day makes me a better writer. Reading good books makes me hungry for more—and it drives me to work harder, take bigger risks, be the writer I want to see on those shelves. It’s amazing how being surrounded by thousands of books every day makes me love writing more. People always assume it would feel daunting, but actually it’s inspiring! All those people succeeded in writing a book that somebody loved, even if that somebody wasn’t me. I would find the space on the crime bookshelves in the store where my own name would sit: right between Eva Dolan and Louise Doughty. It was such a boost to realize I could one day do that, too! Plus, one of the biggest perks of being a bookseller is getting sent early review copies of upcoming releases. Checking the post is literally one of the highlights of my working days.

One of the best things about working with books is working with book lovers. It’s a prerequisite for the job! We eat, sleep and breathe books. Probably about half of my conversations on any given day are about books—and not just surface conversations either. Aside from other writers, booksellers are perhaps the best equipped to have a really fun chat with about the complexities of books we’ve loved: plot, character, pacing, etc. It’s really useful to see those things through a professional reader’s eyes, especially a reader who is selling those books on the ground, who knows what’s selling well and what isn’t, and what their regular customers love or hate. One of my colleagues accidentally helped me to come up with one of my favourite pieces of evidence in After the Eclipse—the mermaid mood ring—when we were discussing our favourite clues.

Which brings me to the customers. I love the customers! It goes without saying that booksellers talk about books a lot among themselves. But what about customers? I’ve had some of the best recommendations for books to try from my customers. A lot of my regulars are more than happy to give me wonderful new authors to try, and they often encourage me to read books I never would normally think to choose. One of my favorite recommendations last year was This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay. Not crime at all—not even close! But one of my regulars, who works for the NHS, said they had enjoyed it and was so enthusiastic that I couldn’t not read it. And I loved it.

Plus, customers are often an accidentally brilliant source of inspiration. From the lovely to the wacky to the downright rude, getting to talk to so many different kinds of people every day gives me insight into the world at large. I won’t say I’ve ever murdered one of my customers in one of my books, but I have drawn characteristics from more than just a few. Cassie’s mentor Henry was inspired in part by one of my favorite customers from my first months in the shop—a man in his 70s who walked a few miles into town every week to visit the bookshop and talk about what he was reading.

So beware next time you buy a book. You never know what your bookseller is thinking about. But don’t be afraid to recommend them your latest read—you might make a reading buddy for life.

Fran Dorricott

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