Cathy Ace – Of inspiration and invention – a sense of place

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I don’t think it’s unusual that I was a reader of crime fiction from a very early age. Reveling in the adventures of The Famous Five and Secret Seven or following Nancy Drew up a Hidden Staircase were my happy pastimes from the first day I found the mystery section in Brynhyfryd Library, just along the road from my junior school. Maybe it’s more unusual that I took that passion and have indulged it by creating my own works of criminal fiction.

As a reader, my appreciation of the sometimes subtle differences between reality and fiction developed as the years, and the books, passed. I was happy to suspend my disbelief for the sake of a good story, well told. Now I work hard to ensure my readers are content to do the same: I’ll blithely invent characters, backstories and even the odd cocktail or two (I once invented an entire cult, complete with a preposterous life-philosophy and an irritating mantra) but I am a stickler for facts when it comes to how selected poisons might work, whether an autopsy would be performed under certain circumstances, or how a person might react to an overdose of…oh no, no spoilers! I accept my readers might not all be experts in such matters, but I owe it to them to have thoroughly researched these issues, and more, before I allow them to be woven into my plots. So – how do we authors sometimes smudge the line between fact and fiction to allow for a more satisfying tale to be told? It’s a complex process, and might involve any part of the anatomy of a book, but I’ll focus on one aspect – place.

I’m inspired by places: I enjoy the way culture is expressed with so many, varied facets – art, architecture, local foods and drinks, music, dance, languages, traditions and myths, the rich historical profile of the place in all its glory – so I carry out my research and allow my creative juices to flow over the data using it as a basis, but massaging it to fit the story.

So far my Welsh Canadian criminal psychologist sleuth Cait Morgan has followed in my footsteps to many real places – but I also invent specific locales to allow these closed-circle mysteries to work. In Nice on the Cote d’Azur, I changed the name of the real belle epoque building that was Gestapo HQ during World War II and gave it a fictitious web-like underground wine cellar; in Kelowna, the heart of British Columbia’s wine country, I took readers into “disguised” real homes and restaurants by describing a “Moveable Feast” where characters celebrated around a small town with a secret; Puerto Vallarta is a well-known Mexican holiday destination, but the little municipality of Punta de las Rocas, with its enclave of ex-pats running a tequila producing hacienda, is less renowned, largely because I made it up; Vegas is already unbelievable so I invented a Tsarist-themed casino with a massive Faberge egg-style building at the top of which I perched a private restaurant that could only be reached by a single lift…then I locked down the lift and killed the casino owner on page one! Playing with place is great fun. My biggest challenge so far came when I sent Cait Morgan to a setting close to my original home city of Swansea, where I “built” a Victorian industrialist’s fanciful castle on top of a medieval clifftop stronghold, beside a Roman temple built beneath a prehistoric stone circle. In each instance, the specifics of the setting, as well as the general histories of the wider locales, played a significant role in each book. Indeed, the plots wouldn’t have worked anywhere but those locations, and I tried my best to ensure that a sense of place seeped into every chapter.

My new series, featuring the WISE Enquiries Agency, adopts a different approach; my four strong, female detectives will not sleuth around the world tripping over dead bodies as they go, but will tackle a series of puzzling challenges close to their base, as befitting a group of professional investigators. Their first case brings them to Chellingworth Hall, the ducal seat of the slightly eccentric Twyst family, with the village of Anwen-by-Wye an invigorating walk away. Inventing the entire Chellingworth Estate allows for insights into life in a modern stately home as well as within a small village, which is, of course, hiding some dark secrets. With the eighteenth duke facing financial problems, and net curtains twitching around the village green, everything might seem fictionally familiar and comfortable, but by placing the estate in Powys, Wales, I am able to illuminate real Welsh lifestyles, cultural touchstones and traditions, while showcasing the talents of four women from very different backgrounds, at various life-stages and with their own identities. They bring their Welsh, Irish, Scottish and English heritages into play in subtle ways, and each has differing experiences of the Twyst family, and the Chellingworth Estate. It’s an opportunity for the impact of the specific and general setting to develop with each book, something I am already enjoying.

On one hand I write traditional, puzzle-plot, closed-circle mysteries where a roving sleuth discovers corpses in different parts of the world. On the other, I write more character-driven plots where data is gathered, facts are checked, invoices and contracts drawn up, and the process of investigating is a business. Both rely heavily upon their setting, each in a different way. Peter Sellars said he couldn’t properly portray a character until he got the shoes right – for me, being inspired by a real setting, then inventing the specific locale, allows that sort of insight…then the right characters, plots, puzzles, red herrings and twists fall into place more easily.
Born and raised in Swansea, South Wales, Cathy Ace migrated to Canada in 2000. Having traveled for many years as a marketing trainer and consultant, she now lives in Beautiful British Columbia, where her ever-supportive husband, and two chocolate Labradors, make sure she’s able to work full-time as an author, and enjoy her other passion – gardening. Cathy’s work has appeared on Bestseller Lists, and she won the 2015 Bony Blithe Award for Best Canadian Light Mystery (for the Cait Morgan Mystery The Corpse with the Platinum Hair). For more information about Cathy and her work visit her website: www.cathyace.com

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