Nicki Thornton ran an independent bookshop with her husband for more than ten years and loves the wonderful alchemy that comes from bringing together authors and readers. Her favourite part of the job was hearing from children about the books they love, including from her own two boys, and this inspired her to start to write. Her dream of seeing her own name on the shelves has come closer with her magical murder mystery “The Last Chance Hotel” winning the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition 2016.
Would you ever feature your family as character inspirations in one of your books?
I think it happens even if you don’t mean it to! As a writer you need to be a good observer and you tend to take in everything around you. Of course it all gets mashed up inside your head and changes again on paper, so it’s not that you are trying very hard to capture one individual. It can even be good therapy writing the baddies.
What made you want to write a magical mystery book?
I think all books should have a little bit of a mystery in them. And I also love books with magic in them. Putting the two together was completely fun (although also incredibly difficult to do). How to make it so that someone magical can’t just very easily get away with murder . . .
Did writing “The Last Chance Hotel” energize you or exhaust you?
I love writing. I love the challenge of taking something inside your head that seems real to you and trying to make it real to readers. I feel really honoured to have the chance to spend my time doing what I love. But I do find writing incredibly difficult and I am never satisfied with the results. I go over things again and again trying to make it better. And of course you work with an editor who is just as keen as you are to make things better. All that hard work and reworking is only worthwhile if you really love doing it.
What made you use Henri’s superstitious beliefs to foreshadow the murder?
Fireflies are a little theme that become more important as the story progresses. When I discovered how many superstitions surrounded them it really helped me with the opening as I was really struggling with it. I thought it would be a good way to foreshadow that the story would be about murder and magic. You don’t discover that very early on in the story and you want readers to stay with you on the promise that what’s going to happen next is going to be fun.
What made you name the hotel “The Last Chance”?
It is partly that for anyone lost in the forest that surrounds the hotel, it is the last chance to find somewhere to stop for the night (and probably the last place you’d want to stop otherwise). But there are other secret reasons for why it was given that name. All I can say is that for someone who once lived there, it was the last chance for them to reform their ways and live a better life J.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before starting a book?
I probably don’t do very much before starting, because the idea always comes first. But once you start researching you get a load more ideas for characters and plot twists and story developments, so it can be quite a dangerous thing. I have a feeling that if I did the research first I’d get overwhelmed with ideas and wouldn’t know where to start.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters?
Understanding their motivations. Trying not to think about any of your characters as ‘minor’ characters, but simply individuals who will have their moment in the story. Every character should want something and this should be the subtext of every scene they are in. Yep, it’s difficult, but it should also be fun thinking it all up and weaving it in.
How do you create select the names of the characters?
I have the most fun with character names. It is a great way to play around with ideas and also to make secondary characters more memorable. In the magical world there are many very ancient families, so I wanted to give most of them very ancient names, so most of the names come from the natural world – plants, animals, minerals even. Although I did find it almost irresistible to give many of them name of poisonous plants because they are such great words (Wintergreen, Nightshade). It’s also fun giving people names that either reflect or are contradictory to their personality. So the Bunn family you might think were rather cosy and nice… I think you should use every opportunity to make writing fun and playful and using language in unexpected ways is great for that.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
I usually start with an idea and play around with that in my head for quite a long time, letting the world, the characters and the story grow. So that when I start to write I have a pretty clear idea of the stepping stones through the story and the actual writing of the very first draft doesn’t take all that long (a few months). But one of the most fun things about writing for me is that all the best ideas come along on the way, so I like to leave time for everything to develop. So in the end, from idea to final draft is a very long process.
If you had one wish but you had to give up something for it, what would you wish for and what would you give up for it?
I think having dreams and wishes is so important and I think reading really helps with that – whether it’s finding a way to cope with a difficult situation or deciding you want to become an explorer – books can give you brilliant insights into different lives and sow all kinds of seeds. So my big wish is that more people would become readers. I think there is only one way wishes come true and that is that you have to make them happen – so I would certainly give up my time to support those libraries and bookshops and people who help us to find the books that will make us readers.
Where can fans of “The Last Chance Hotel” find out more about you and your work?
I am often on Twitter @nicki_thornton, my website has lots of background about books, me and even about fireflies: http://www.nickithornton.co.uk
The Last Chance Hotel is out now, priced £6.99. Get your copy here!