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When Grace Hansen finds a box belonging to her beloved grandfather, she has no idea it holds the key to his past—and to long-buried family secrets. In the box are his World War I diaries and a cryptic note addressed to her. Determined to solve her grandfather’s puzzle, Grace follows his diary entries across towns and battle sites in northern France, where she becomes increasingly drawn to a charming French man—and suddenly aware that someone is following her…
A few years ago, my husband and I travelled to northern France to visit the battlefields, monuments, cemeteries, and museums dedicated to World War One. We went to Bailleul, Lille, Amiens, Ypres, Mont St. Eloi and other towns and villages, and to memorials at Vimy, Courcelette, Thiepval, the Somme and Passchendaele. We visited the shops, stayed in a former chateau, enjoyed wonderful French cuisine in all manner of restaurants and cafes. Those places and the landscape of the region engaged every sense and, along with the hundreds of pictures taken, have fuelled descriptions of meadows, villages, windows, tastes, gardens, houses, and other parts of my latest novel Time and Regret.
But of most significance to the story is the night we spent at a café in the small town of Honfleur across the mouth of the Seine from Le Havre. Shortly after the waiter poured our first glass of red wine, I wrote a few words in a pocket-sized notebook I had in my purse.
“What are you writing?” my husband said.
“An idea for a story,” I replied.
Refusing to be put off by my cryptic response, he persisted. “What’s the idea?”
“Nothing much. Just thought it might make a good story to have a granddaughter follow the path her grandfather took during World War One in order to find out more about him.”
Ian took on a pensive look and no doubt had another sip of wine. “You could include a mystery,” he said.
Now, you should know that mysteries are my husband’s favourite genre. Indeed, I suspect mysteries represent at least eighty percent of his reading. So I played along.
“What kind of mystery?”
And that was the birth of Time & Regret, as ideas tumbled out and the plot took shape. Needless to say, the bottle of wine was soon empty.
I’d already written two historical novels, but a mystery is a very different beast. Mystery lovers have expectations, specifically the expectation that you will keep them guessing until the last possible moment and equally the expectation that the smart reader should be able to figure it out. They expect clues strategically sprinkled throughout the novel, many red herrings, a few plot twists, and more than one potential culprit. They expect the excitement to build and build, and the protagonist to have his or her own life problems to add depth to the story.
To make matters more complicated, I decided to structure the novel using two time periods: one quasi present day (1991) and the second during World War I which meant I had two main characters to incorporate plus all the expectations of historical fiction fans. I didn’t appreciate how difficult the task would be until I had completed three drafts and the mystery still didn’t hang together or have enough complexity.
My solution was to map the clues and red herrings against the chapters in both timelines. No doubt such a solution will sound obvious to a seasoned mystery writer, however, I thought it was brilliant. This map helped me examine the placement of elements critical to the mystery against the overall story, to create balance in terms of pacing, to add a few twists, and to validate that I hadn’t given too much away too early.
Did it work? Time will tell, however, I can say that several readers have told me they didn’t anticipate the ending or figure out ‘who dunnit’ until the very end.
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