Q&A with Simone St. James, Author of The Broken Girls

When plotting your books, do you take inspiration from established ghost stories and particular events or weave the story from whole cloth?

I make them up! The Broken Girls, for example, started with an idea of a body found in a well. I wanted to know who she was and how she got there, and the story just took off from there. I am never short of stories in my head.

Of your heroines thus far, who is your personal favorite and why?

Oh, that’s a tough one. I dearly love Jo Manders in Lost Among the Living, partly because I adore Alex so much, and she is so perfect for him. I think if I had to pick one, it would be Jo, followed by Kitty Weekes in Silence for the Dead. Kitty had a lot of backbone, and she wasn’t always sweetness and light. I liked that about her.

What first sparked your interest in the supernatural?

Stealing my first Stephen King book from my older brother’s bookshelf. I was 11 or 12—entirely too young to read Stephen King, which is why I grew up to be a warped writer! I think that first book was Christine, though I stole and read all of his others as fast as I could. To this day, I never miss a King book.

Your stories have such evocative settings and a real sense of place—do you ever travel to locations for research? Do you lean toward heavy research prior to writing, or do you prefer to fill in gaps as you go? 

I don’t travel to my settings for research—I rely on history books, novels, and diaries from the period as well as newspapers and magazines from the time. I do a few weeks of research on the main points, and then I dive into the story to see where I want it to go. As I write, I continue to research because research never fails to give me wonderful character and story ideas. So the writing of the book is always split between writing and reading.

In your previous novels, the setting has always been post-WWI England. With The Broken Girls, you’ve moved to Vermont and see-saw between the 1950’s and 2014. Was there a specific motivation for this or just a desire to try something new?

It was mostly a desire to write something new, honestly. I wrote five books set in 1920’s England, and while I loved writing them, I never intended to write about one period for the rest of my life. I wanted to flex my writing muscles and write something set in the USA—something that had two timelines, one of them contemporary. Creatively, I wanted a new goal and a new challenge while still writing a Simone St. James book. I got my wish!

Every genre has its pros and cons. What’s the best thing about writing historical fiction, and what’s the worst or hardest thing?

Good question! The best thing is the lack of technology because you can’t resolve a plot point with a simple text or cell phone call. Your characters can’t just Google things. That means you get to send them out the door talking to people, and it’s always good when your characters are in motion, having adventures instead of sitting in a chair. (Though, of course, a master writer can make excellent suspense out of someone sitting in a chair!)

The worst thing is probably the email I get about once per year from readers declaring that having my heroine go to bed with my hero is historically inaccurate. It isn’t. Aside from the fact that the human race has been reproducing for centuries and counting, sex before marriage has been pretty common in every era—you only have to look at illegitimate birth stats to see it. It’s also puzzling because my characters are always in love and committed by that point, and Alex and Jo, in fact, got married. But the idea that I put that kind of thing in my books tends to ruffle the odd reader’s feathers.

What truly scares you?

Everything! I honestly have an overactive imagination. I can’t do dark alleys or empty basements. I used a barn in The Haunting of Maddy Clare because there was an abandoned barn near my house that gave me the outright willies. Unexplained noises, dark woods … you name it. I used an empty countryside in The Other Side of Midnight because I find the empty countryside creepy. I figure if something scares me, there’s a chance it will scare a reader!

I was a bookseller for Barnes & Nobles for nearly a decade, and I regularly recommended your novels to customers and book clubs. As a long-time fan, I just wanted to thank you for crafting such layered novels brimming with so many of my favorite things: ghosts, romance, Gothic atmosphere, societal commentary, mystery … I rabidly anticipate every book and sing your praises whenever I can.

Thank you, Angie! This kind of compliment makes my day. I’m always so horribly nervous about my books, and I love to hear when a reader has loved them!

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