Sheila Bugler grew up in a small town in the west of Ireland. After studying Psychology at University College Galway, she left Ireland and worked in Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland and Argentina. She now lives in Eastbourne with her husband and two children.
Sheila’s first crime novel, Hunting Shadows, was published in 2013 to widespread acclaim and was the first in a series featuring DI Ellen Kelly. The sequel, The Waiting Game, was published in 2014 and a further four Ellen Kelly books are planned. The novels are set amongst the first- and second-generation Irish community in south east London.
Warm welcome back to Words with Jam, Sheila, and congratulations on the publication of your second novel!
Thank you! I’m not sure how different it feels, really. Of course, it is wonderful and exciting to see my books ‘out there’ and I do love it when I get feedback from complete strangers, telling me how much they’ve loved the books.
So in that sense, I do feel like an established author. On the other hand, at the risk of sounding a bit pretentious, I started to feel like a ‘proper’ writer before I was ever published.
I started writing after my second child was born (2006). Like all writers, it took time for me to find my voice and to know what – exactly – I wanted to write about. Once that came together, I really began to believe in myself. I realised this was it: the ‘thing’ I was meant to do with my life. That was the real moment I felt like a ‘proper’ writer.
What have you learned in the journey you’ve taken since the publication of your first book?
Oh… SO much. First, I’ve learned that the hard work and early morning starts and lack of a social life are all worth it. Holding a published copy of a book you’ve written for the first time is a very special moment for every writer.
Second, before my first book was published, I didn’t properly understand what an immense privilege it is to be where I am right now. Being a published author has enriched my life in ways I’d never have expected. I’ve been overwhelmed by the love and support I’ve had from friends and family. I’ve met a huge number of new people and had experiences I’d never have otherwise had: I’ve been on the radio; I’ve given talks at book clubs, to writers’ groups, at literary events; I’ve met lots of new people and made some great new friends; people I haven’t heard from in years have got in touch; I’ve travelled to places I’d never otherwise have visited. It really has been great fun.
Finally, I’ve realised your life doesn’t change just because you’ve had a book published. Yes, it’s a thrill. Yes, I’ve met new people and done new things. Apart from that, life goes on pretty much the same. I still have a family who need looking after. I’m still working. And, of course, there’s always another book to write!
Are you learning more about DI Ellen Kelly as the series progresses? Do you see her character developing differently than you first imagined or has she stuck to type?
Her character is developing more or less as I first imagined but I’m also learning more about her as well. I thought I knew Ellen pretty well from the outset, but like all good relationships, ours is developing and I’m finding out new things about her all the time. I still love her, though, and think she’s the sort of woman I’d like as a friend.
Do you know how many books there will be in the series and how the final one ends?
Yes. I’ve planned six Ellen books. I already know what happens in the final book and I am very clear about Ellen’s journey. I know what happens with her search to find her birth mother, I know how Ellen’s sister really died and I know whether or not Ellen finally finds love again. It’s all there in my head waiting to be put into later books.
Having left The Waiting Game on such a knife edge, are you excited about book three and do you know a title or when it will be out?
I’m very excited about the third book. It’s almost finished and I hope to send it to my agent later this month. The working title is All Things Nice but that is subject to change. My publishers always have a strong opinion on book titles.
The knife edge ending is a difficult act to follow. Like I’ve already said, I know exactly what happens with Ellen and her birth mother. One of the problems I’ve had with all the books is finding enough room in each one to fit that story alongside the ‘main’ story (the crime to be solved).
I can promise readers that the whole backstory about Ellen’s early life will be resolved by the end of book six. But you may not get all the answers in the third book.
Is there anything you know now that you wish you had known right at the start of your journey as a writer, or anything you wish you’d done differently?
Hmm… good question. I maybe wish I’d known how difficult it is! Is there anything I wish I’d done differently? No, not really. Writing keeps me sane. I never, ever take for granted how lucky I am to be doing this, no matter how difficult it is sometimes.
Which crime fiction novel do you wish you had written – and why?
So many! I am an avid reader of crime fiction and am amazed at the sheer range and quantity of talented authors writing in this genre. Of course, as someone with a particular interest in flawed female characters, I’d love to have written any one of Gillian Flynn’s marvellous novels. Or anything by Megan Abbott – I am a huge fan of her work. I recently read This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash and was in awe for days afterwards. It’s a stunning novel. Tana French’s latest The Secret Place is another brilliant piece of crime fiction. If I could ever write a book that compares to any of those authors, I’d be really happy.
A lot of your story involves the nitty gritty procedures of police work. How do you handle research?
I don’t really enjoy the research part of crime writing. I have stories banging around inside my head, demanding to be written. For me, research gets in the way of writing. What usually happens is this: I get my story written, it goes to my agent first and then my publisher. Everyone seems pretty happy with it until Rachel Pierce, my lovely editor, gets involved. She is always quick to point out that I have failed terribly on the nitty gritty procedural side of things.
At that point, I take another look, realise she is right and go about fixing things as best I can. I use the internet a lot and, from time to time, I’ve sent emails to different police stations asking for their advice on particular issues. I also hope that immersing myself in the world of crime fiction (books and TV) might rub off a little bit.
Who is your favourite of your own characters – and why?
Monica Telford in The Waiting Game. I really have no idea where Monica came from. She arrived in my head fully formed and I’ve had more fun writing her than any other character I’ve written.
I’ve been asked a lot about Monica by people who’ve read the book. The two most frequent questions I’m asked are: is she based on anyone and will she appear in any further books? The answer to the second question is: I don’t know. She’s such a strong presence I can see her demanding to come back at some stage. I always give the same answer to the first question: I couldn’t possibly say!
There’s a character called Charlotte Gleeson in the new novel and I like her a lot too. Like Monica, she’s terribly flawed but for very different reasons. She’s a failed mother with a drink problem trying desperately to hold onto her crumbling marriage. I’m looking forward to seeing what people think of her.
Like a lot of crime writers, I had a very happy childhood. I have no idea what draws me to explore the darker sides of the human psyche but I am endlessly fascinated by it.
Do you think you may ever step away from crime fiction one day and write in a different genre? If so, what would you like to write and why?
I can’t ever see myself writing a novel that isn’t crime fiction at some level. I do dabble with short stories, however, and – apart from one – the stories I’ve written so far are not crime fiction. Although they do all have a darkly damaged woman at the heart of each one…
What books are in your ‘to-be-read’ pile at the moment?
So much! Home by Marilynne Robinson, another Wiley Cash novel, anything I haven’t yet read by Denise Mina, Seamus Heaney poetry, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, are a few that are currently sitting in my to-be-read pile.
What three pieces of advice would you offer to up-and-coming writers today?
--Set yourself a daily word count and stick to it. No matter what.
--Write every day. Don’t use a job or kids or anything else as an excuse. If you try hard enough, you can find the time to do this. I wrote my first novel by getting up at five o’clock each morning. It was hell, but I did it.
--Do listen to feedback from people you respect. No matter how much raw talent you have, you can always do better. If people don’t like what you’re writing, listen to them, take their feedback on board and use it to improve your writing.
--Read On Writing by Stephen King and How to Write a Novel by John Braine. They’re the two best books you’ll ever read about the craft of writing.
--Read widely. You can’t be a good writer unless you’re a good reader.
--Don’t give up. Overnight success is an illusion. Keep going, keep writing no matter how many rejections and setbacks you get.
Can you tell us your future writing plans?
So many plans, so little time…
There will definitely be two further Ellen books. The third is almost written and I’ll be starting the fourth one straight after that. I have the first six books already mapped out so, fingers crossed, someone will also want to publish the final two. After that, who knows?
As well as the Ellen series, I’ve written two stand-alone crime novels and I’m putting together ideas for a new crime series too, set on the south coast. I’ve got some ideas for YA crime novels too.
The problem for me is a head bursting with ideas and no time to get them all down on paper. I’m dreaming of the day that will change and I’ll be able to write full time. It may never happen but I have to believe it will. For now, at least!