Clare Chase: How I Wrote A Stranger’s House
How I wrote A Stranger’s House
by Clare Chase
The Initial idea
I got the idea for the novel from snooping round other people’s homes! I became fascinated by the clues you can pick up about a person’s character and life, just by looking at their belongings, and the way they organise their stuff (or don’t).
I liked the idea of my main character, Ruby, suddenly finding herself immersed in a stranger’s life, occupying their home in their absence. So I had to think of a reason for her to be in their house. And then I imagined what conclusions she might draw about the absent owner from what he’d left behind, and what his story might be.
So A Stranger’s House starts with Ruby finding herself homeless, and forced to take on a house-sitting job to keep a roof over her head. Escaping from recent upset of her own, she winds up in an unsettling situation, where all the evidence around her signals trouble.
Way before I started drafting the novel, a questioning process began, sparked by my initial idea. Why would Ruby find herself homeless? What had happened in her recent past? How might she come by the house-sitting job? Why had the owner gone away? What clues had he left behind? And how might his behaviour end up putting Ruby in harm’s way?
I spent weeks mulling over these sorts of queries, teasing out all the possible answers, and seeing which might provide the most gripping start to the mystery. I made lots of random notes I never re-read. Somehow, the process helped me crystallise my ideas.
At that point, other characters got pulled into the mix too. I knew Ruby would gradually find out about the house-owner’s contacts: staff, family members and girlfriends. By degrees, the way in which things might play out, and the motives for the crimes in the book came to the fore.
Once my ideas were well advanced, I recorded a proper outline of my story in Excel. I like to use a spreadsheet so I can keep track of the word count later in the process. This type of planning also gives me an idea of whether my novel will be roughly the right length for a standard paperback (around 90 – 100,000 words). I also use Microsoft’s OneNote to save images from the web when I’m researching, and sometimes to plot out sections of the novel, once I get to that stage. You can type in plot developments and drag them around on the page – like a sort of digital post-it note – which I find useful.
My first book, You Think You Know Me, was set mainly in London, where I went to university, but I chose to set A Stranger’s House in my home city of Cambridge. It’s the perfect backdrop for crime fiction partly, I think, because of its size. It’s a smaller city than Oxford, and all its inequalities, contrasts and contradictions are very concentrated. My own street, for example, is home at one end to an academic who’s regularly on TV, and at the other to a squat. And it’s not a long road. You get choirs singing madrigals by the river whilst drunks deal drugs on the commons. Cambridge’s size means secrets travel fast, too. There are all sorts of connections you might not expect. Gossip exchanged at a college dinner might well be overheard by the casual waiting staff, who are often drawn from the local sixth form colleges. Lots of people are employed by the university in all sorts of capacities, and it sometimes feels as though everyone knows everyone else.
I’m a sucker for crime fiction series, one of my favourites at the moment being Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway novels. As I was writing A Stranger’s House, the other main character that evolved alongside Ruby was Nate Bastable, who owns the house-sitting business she starts working for.
He’s an ex-private investigator, with a secret in his past, and issues that couldn’t be resolved in this book, so I was keen to put him and Ruby into a sequel. I’ve written this, and it’s with my publisher. Meanwhile, I’ve got hooked, and am working on a third mystery featuring the pair.
A Stranger’s House was published by Choc Lit in February 2016, digital first, £1.99.
Clare Chase writes women sleuth mysteries set in London and Cambridge. She fell in love with the capital as a student, living in the rather cushy surroundings of Hampstead. After graduating in English Literature, she moved to Cambridge and has stayed there ever since. She’s fascinated by the city’s contrasts and contradictions, which feed into her writing. She’s worked in diverse settings – from the 800-year-old university to one of the local prisons – and lived everywhere from the house of a lord to a slug-infested flat. The terrace she now occupies, with her husband and teenage daughters, presents a good happy medium. On Twitter, she’s @ClareChase_
Photo: Punting at Clare Bridge: A Stranger’s House is set in Cambridge, in high summer