The setting in Identical.

The principle setting for Identical is a rambling, gothic, stately home in the Lake District, with a priest hole in the attic. I imagined the place to be an austere red brick building that would have been constructed in the Elizabethan era around a much older and smaller house. It would have battlements, wings, and a flight of stone steps leading to a huge front door, guarded by a pair of stone lions. I saw it surrounded by gardens that have become an overgrown wilderness from lack of tending, and there’s a fathomless, icy tarn gleaming at the foot of the garden, where my characters swim, despite being banned from doing so by their father. From the top windows of the house, the view would be of wild hills with craggy peaks in the distance.

In the story, the family has long run out of money, is in terrible debt and has sold off much of the land, and all the valuable paintings and furniture. The house is falling to pieces, mouldering, mouse-infested, riddled with wood rot and stinking of damp from a leaking roof and faulty plumbing. Not a comfortable place to live!

While I was looking for inspiration, I researched large houses in the Lake District and northern England. These places have now often been taken over by the National Trust and are open to the public, thereby avoiding the fate of my fictional Hawksmoor, where the owner refuses the idea of turning the family home into entertainment for the public.

Some of the great houses that came closest to my imagined house were Burton Agnes Hall in Yorkshire

and Muncaster Castle in the Lake District The later has the exact background that I’d imagined, with vast hills and beyond that, craggy peaks. I was also fascinated by Harvington Hall. Although not in the right place geographically, it is a grand Catholic house with a fascinating history. And with seven hiding places, it has the most priest holes ever found in one house.


Inspiration behind IDENTICAL

The central setting in Identical is a dilapidated stately home that has been owned by the same Catholic family for generations. The house has a secret priest hole in the attic; a musty, dank space accessed by a swinging beam. This is a place of punishment and terror for the protagonists, Cecily and Alice. But during the sixteenth century, when it was illegal for a Jesuit priest to set foot in England, these cunning hiding places saved many lives.

While I was doing my research for Identical, I became fascinated by the history of priest holes; and as someone who suffers from claustrophobia, I was also horrified by the idea of being shut in one. During the reign of Elizabeth I, a group of men, often led by the local Justice of the peace, would target Catholic houses suspected of harbouring a priest. They arrived with a warrant allowing them to search the house for any fugitives. If any priest or monk was found on the property, the owner would forfeit their home and land, and sometimes their life.

To try and keep their priests safe, wealthy Catholics came up with ingenious ways of concealing them. Priest holes, also known as priest hides, were secret places of concealment built within large houses. These tiny spaces were often made above fireplaces, in cellars, behind staircases or in attics. Inside them, conditions were cramped and dark – and usually boiling in summer and freezing in winter. Some priest holes were as small as 2’7” by 3’9” (like one at Harvington Hall in Worcestershire). The fugitive would have limited food and drink and no sanitation, and they would be forced to remain there for as long as the priest hunters stayed in the house. This could be days, or even weeks. The hunters were always determined to catch their priest. They measured the footprint of the house inside and out and checked to see if they tallied. They tapped on walls to see if they were hollow, pulled up floorboards and stripped back panelling, alert for any sound the priest might inadvertently make.

It must have been terrifying for the hunted priest, and for the family hiding him. If caught, the priest would be imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Some died in the hole, from lack of oxygen or starvation. Sometimes this was because the family had been arrested and taken away – and if, as often happened, the priest hole only opened from the outside, the occupant was effectively sealed up in their own coffin.

Best Books about Love and Paranoia in Cold War Britain and America

I do love compiling lists. And even better when it’s a list of books! So thank you to Shepherd, a great book site which asks authors to compile lists of books that reflect their own interests and passions. It’s worth checking out. To go with my novel How It Ends, set in post-WW2 Britain in the Cold War, I chose novels and books that are also set in this era and that I found helpful or inspiring while writing How It Ends.

Perhaps you’ve read some of these books? I found all of them useful and fascinating.

Tango and Writing

The Dancing Writer –why tango dancing and novel writing go together.


Dancing and writing seem to be the activities of two completely different types of people. And in a way, that’s true.

Here’s me, the novel writer: A figure hunched over my laptop, usually distorting my body into strange angles. After hours of sitting at my desk, I have lost touch with my physical self completely. I’m usually wearing my dog-walking jeans and scruffy top, or even a pair of pyjamas. I don’t look in the mirror, and that’s just as well. I’d see a wild woman with no make-up, hair scrunched up, glasses sliding to the end of her nose, brow furrowed in concentration. If I get hungry, I grab the quickest comfort food, usually coffee and toast and honey.  I type and munch, honey dripping onto the key board. I’m lost in the story, lost in the puzzle of constructing sentences, rearranging words, making a character speak.

After a days’ writing, it would be easy to stay in my head, in a state of body-denial. I could float through domestic demands, cooking on autopilot, walking the dogs in a dream. But the lure of tango stops me. As soon as I think about slipping on my dance shoes and stepping into the music, I snap back into my body.

Here’s me, the tango dancer: my mind empty of words, so that I can focus with every fibre on trying to become the dance. I need strength, balance and co-ordination. My whole body is alert. I listen to the music, to my partner. Nothing else exists.

Dancing and writing have always been my passions: jotting down short stories and poems when I was a child; then working as a journalist before becoming an author. Like lots of young girls, I did weekly ballet lessons. After I moved to London, I booked in for jazz classes at the Pineapple Studios, wearing the obligatory leg warmers, headband, and high-cut leotard. The place was scarily cool; and the routines almost impossible to follow. I found ceroc in my twenties and liked my first taste of partner dancing.  My 30s were a dance desert while I had kids and took a second degree; dancing confined to boogying around the kitchen table on my own, a baby on my hip. Then a new friend and neighbour began to turn up for the school run on a Friday morning with a huge smile on her face. When I asked why, she confided that she went salsa dancing on a Thursday. ‘I’m coming with you next week!’ I responded instantly.

Salsa is everything they say it is – steamy, sexy, sociable. And lots of fun. I was hooked. But it was when I discovered tango that I fell in love.

It’s a beautiful, sensuous dance, full of drama and poetry. And the music is layered, deep, irresistible. Tango is also difficult. The tango scene isn’t as friendly as some other dance scenes. There is a certain amount of elitism. It’s not a dance you can pick up quickly either. It takes years to get any good. You can’t rush, it has to seep into you gradually, so that you understand it instinctively, from the inside. But all of this made sense to me. I’d been writing for years – I knew about patience, about striving and failing and striving again. I knew that anything worth while takes time and a measure of pain.

So although tango requires me to be in my body, and writing requires me to be in my head, I’ve discovered that they make a wonderful combination. Both allow self-expression; both are non-verbal and creative. They come from connection – to music, self, story, another. And perhaps most important of all, they are about living in the moment, because in both cases, you simply can’t allow yourself to be anywhere else. For me, they compliment each other perfectly and bring huge joy.


It’s A Dog’s Life

Blog: It’s A Dog’s Life

Saskia Sarginson


My dogs are part of my writing life. I have two cats as well, but being cats, they come and go as they please. Like furry muses, they slink across my keyboard, wander past my desk with a knowing look, and disappear to do more interesting things. But dogs are different. They are faithful companions.  We have long walks together every morning, whatever the weather. You can’t tell a dog it’s too wet, or you don’t feel like it.  It’s my favourite way to start the day.

I find that my dog walks are a great time to mull over plot points and work out writing problems. I can sound characters’ voices inside my head or proclaim them out loud. The act of walking for an hour or so helps to get my brain into gear. I arrive home, feed the dogs and make my coffee, and I’m ready to settle at my desk for several hours of work. The dogs follow me up to my room and find comfy places to snooze while I type. Sometimes I have to confess that I am working inside a distinctly doggy aroma, but I don’t mind. And I find their sleep whimpers and paw twitches comforting rather than a distraction. Funnily enough, I can’t bear a person sitting in the same room as me when I’m working, but the dogs don’t impinge on my thoughts, restrict my imagination or irritate me. I hardly notice them when I’m immersed in the story. I think I must be aware of them on a subconscious level though, and their supportive, patient, unquestioning companionship centres me. They only stir when they know it’s time for another walk and supper.

I  don’t write real people into my books, but I’ve put Sacha, my lurcher into Without You, changing his name to Silver. And one of my cats, Tilly, is in my next book, The Stranger. The heroine of The Other Me, Klaudia, desperately wants a pet when she’s a child, but her father won’t let her have one.  I’ve kept cats all my life, but I’ve only had dogs since becoming an adult. I was persuaded to get our first dog, Maisy-the-border-terrier, for the children, but quickly became a dog-lover without the incentive of any extravagant pet-care promises from my kids. I was happy to take on all the responsibility myself. Who couldn’t fall for a dog’s loyalty, unwavering love, joy, sense of fun, bravery and beauty? And they are the best writing companions: accepting my obsessive attachment to my laptop without complaint, listening to me tapping away or reading paragraphs, wagging their tails in encouragement. As far as they are concerned, it’s all five-star material. And when I’m tired or feeling blue, a hug with a dog will always make things seem better.

The Inspiration behind The Other Me

Blog: The Inspiration for The Other Me

Saskia Sarginson


The main inspiration for The Other Me was a deeply personal one –about ten years ago I discovered the identity of my father. By the time I’d tracked him down in France he’d died. I’d missed him by months. But I did meet my half-brother, Vincent, who showed me photographs and was able to fill me in on my family history. To my surprise, I discovered that my father had been Jewish, of Portuguese and Dutch blood. He’d lived in Paris since arriving in the city as a young man. He’d been an artist in the COBRA movement in the early 50’s. He’d always loved horses and dogs and jazz.  It was strange to have these facts about him and to feel a connection through them – I love horses and dogs; my daughters are artists. My son plays jazz piano. These were tangible things that seemed to have come down to me through him.

As a blonde, slightly Scandinavian-looking person, I’d never though that I might have Jewish blood. It made me take a new interest in Jewish culture and religion, and of course, I immediately had a different take on WW2, knowing that some of my relatives would have been caught up in the anti-Semitism and quite possibly died in the Holocaust.

I began to think about the importance of knowing our parents – how our identity hinges on who they are.  Having stories and facts and anecdotes about my father filled a void. As I stared at the black and white photos of him, searching for similarities, I knew that I wanted to write a story about identity, and about the uncertainty that comes from any ambiguity around the question of parentage. I believe that at some level a child will always know if a parent isn’t their biological one. I knew this from personal experience. I’d been brought up by someone that I called ‘Dad.’ Yet I understood deep down, without anyone telling me, that he wasn’t my real father.

I’d already played with this idea in my second novel, Without You. In The Other Me I wanted to develop the idea further and I wanted to add a historical element, because it occurred to me that  I might just as easily have discovered that my father had had links to Nazi Germany, especially with my Saxon colouring. And I asked myself how I’d feel if that was really the case: would I suddenly inherit guilt? Would I become ashamed? Would it change the way I thought about myself?

These were the questions that were in my mind when I began to construct the story of The Other Me.





Answer the following questions:


1. Do you crave being alone all day, locked in a room with laptop and notebook?

2. Are you a dreamer?

3. Do you translate the world through an interior process that results in the written word –  and not any old words. They must be carefully thought through, agonised-over, edited and re-edited many times?

4. Do you like to take long walks by yourself?

5. Do you often talk out loud to yourself – usually telling bits of a story, reading bits of your work or working through dialogue?

6. Do you feel sick at the thought of delivering a public speech?

7. Would you describe yourself as one or more of the following: mad/crazy/mixed-up/emotionally unstable/anti-social/neurotic?


Chances are that if you are an author you’ll have answered ‘yes’ to some of them. I put an affirmative by every one. So when I was offered a publishing deal I thought that meant that I could be that person – ‘the author’ – and not have to apologise for it. ‘Yes, I officially write for a career. Yes, I’m a neurotic hermit, but it’s expected of me.’ Break out the champagne.


Except, from the moment my first proof arrived in the publisher’s office, my lovely hard-working PR wanted me to start talking, aloud and in public.  All I wanted to do was stay home, gloat over the physical reality of my shiny novel and begin the next one. But suddenly I was supposed to go out there, into the public eye and be sane, capable, sociable, personable. Radio interviews. Author events. Talking on a panel of other writers. Being a hermit was not an option.


I used to work in a job that involved talking in public. So I’d had some  experience of doing it. But that was a long time ago, and I’d never really learnt how to conquer my nerves. Now, years and years later, after locking myself in solitary confinement to concentrate on fiction writing, I’d even lost the ability to make small-talk. Sometimes, going into a shop and asking for a pint of milk could seem like a challenge too far.


But I realised that I couldn’t allow my nerves to ruin opportunities to promote myself and my books. The ivory tower dream just isn’t realistic. Writers need to be good at social media, and they need to be able to stand up in front of people and talk. Of course, I’m generalising here, because some writers are brilliant speakers, some are absolute naturals at wooing an audience and coming up with clever, lyrical speeches at the drop of a hat. But many struggle with it. And for those who are more like me, here are some of the tricks and techniques that I have found helpful. And the thing is, when I’ve managed it, and the event is over, I actually feel quite euphoric. I’m not sure if that’s just relief, or the effect of holding my breath…I suspect that it’s a rush of adrenalin from facing my fears. Whatever the cause, it feels good.


*Humanise your audience. Some people say it helps to imagine their audience without clothes – perhaps as a reminder that the sea of faces before them are actually individuals with faults, fears and dreams. An audience is made up of people. They are not there to see you fail. In fact, they want you to succeed. Plato said that we should be kind, because everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle.  I find it’s helpful to think of that.

* Prepare. Always prepare properly. If you are talking with someone else or on a panel of authors, find out who they are and what they write. Read their books. If there’s an angle to the talk, then research the subject, memorise some interesting facts and quotes.

* There are some questions that get asked a lot. ‘What is your book about?’ comes up time after time.  Work out a short, possibly amusing way of describing your novel. Learn it. Have it ready. There will be other questions that relate specifically to you or your book.

* De-stress beforehand. Go for a run, meditate, do an exercise class – whatever it takes to make you feel better, relaxed and more in control.

* Breath. Learn how to breath correctly. Use your diaphragm. When nerves kick in, it’s easy to deprive yourself of oxygen by shallow breathing, or even holding your breath.

* Hydrate. Have a bottle or glass of water on hand. Dry mouths are part of public speaking.

* Pace it. Don’t rush. Take your time. Talk slowly. Take pauses. Remember to aim for the people at the back – don’t mumble, speak up and speak out.

* Practise talking and video yourself. Analyse your technique. Common habits to watch: fidgeting, swaying, looking down, repeating certain phrases or saying ‘um’ too much.

* Use reminder notes. Lots of people swear by having reminder notes. They will make you feel safer, even if you don’t need them. But keep them short and simple.

* Be yourself. Dress in a way that makes you feel comfortable. Show your personality. Don’t try and be someone else. People have come to listen to YOU.

* If delivering an hour’s talk feels too intimidating, there are other ways of presenting yourself and your book. I find that being interviewed is easier. I can talk more naturally if it feels like a conversation, and it can be reassuring to have someone else up on the stage with you.

* Use the power of positivity. Don’t shrink from talking in public. Instead, make a conscious effort to embrace it, embrace the opportunity it offers. Enjoy yourself!



Why I’m Not A Natural At Social Media

Saskia Sarginson


Signing your first book deal? Better get blogging.


Pretty much the first words that I heard after I’d secured that elusive book deal were – are you on social media?  My muttered response was, ‘um, no.’


Wrong answer.


Three years later, and here I am with a Twitter account, a Facebook author page, and my own website. So how come I’m still finding it all a bit of a struggle? There must be reasons for my reluctance to join the rest of the world’s outpouring of Tweets, blogs and posts… Pondering those reasons gave me an ‘aha’ moment: I could write a blog about why I’m useless at social media!  The ‘aha’ moment was immediately followed by a realisation: if I was going to be honest about it, this blog would reveal more about me than I’d originally intended – would, in fact, expose some embarrassing faults and weaknesses. A little like a naked Selfie. (Without taking any clothes off.)


So, taking a deep breath, here are my excuses/reasons:


  1. My main problem is, I come from a family that didn’t send Round Robins with the Christmas cards. In fact, it was considered rude to talk about yourself, unless asked specific questions, like ‘have you washed your hands?’ Underplaying it was more than a game, it was a way of life. Personal successes and achievements were met by other members of the family with mockery or blank stares. I remember vividly when doing my English Literature degree, phoning my mother to tell her that I’d got my first First in an essay. ‘Well done, darling!’ She exclaimed. ‘Thank you!’ I breathed, relieved that she’d taken it so well. ‘Oh, not you,’ she replied breezily. ‘I was talking to Isabel. She’s just used her potty.’ (My mother was doing a spot of babysitting for my sister’s daughter at the time.) It wasn’t that my mother didn’t love me. She was proud of me. She just never actually said the words out loud. After all, God forbid that you ever got above yourself. And that’s my first problem. Too much enforced humility = a self-promotion no-hoper.
  2. Fear of failure: I admit it, my first bad on-line reader review had me reeling. I’d known plenty of rejection on the path to getting published. I had agents’ and publishers’ carefully worded, or not-so-carefully-worded letters telling me that they weren’t interested. Some of them never bothered to get back to me at all. After a while I became inured to it. But sending my novel out into the word was like letting go of my child’s hand on their first day at big school. Would the other kids be cruel? Would the teachers understand them? I felt helpless, vulnerable and protective. So that first bad review was a punch in the face. It hurt. Now I’ve learnt not to avidly read every review of my work, especially not on social media sites. I’m an expert at letting my eyes glaze over as they slide across anything with less than three stars. And that same fear of failure also inhibits me from posting things on my Facebook author page – for the simple if pathetic reason that I hate the fact that I have to undergo the popularity test. I just want to post news, I don’t want to be judged for it. The truth is, that when someone presses, or doesn’t press, the ‘like’ icon, in my head, they’re liking, or not liking, ME.
  3. Wit – or the lack of it. I wish I were as funny as Dorothy Parker or Oscar Wilde: clever, slick, timely phrases dripping from my fingertips into my Tweets and posts. But I’m not.
  4. Time – and the lack of it. Some of my favourite Tweets and posts have links to brilliant articles or blogs. Occasionally I have time to read them. But not often enough. How do people have the minutes in their days to read enough stuff to actually digest it, filter it and select for their social media sites? This question wakes me up at night. It’s perplexing. But I’ve learnt to cheat at this. If I do manage to read something that I like, I re-tweet. It took me a while to work that out. Sad, I know. But like I told you, I’m not a natural at this.
  5. But I am learning. For example, I mentioned Oscar Wilde. As well as re-Tweeting, you can of course borrow witticisms from others. ‘I am not young enough to know everything.’ (Wilde) So I’ll find the time to read posted articles, maybe some with advice about how to be effective on social media; after all, ‘you can never be overdressed or overeducated.’