Sally Harris is a Norwich-based family lawyer and writer. With her second ghost story set in Suffolk available to pre-order, she explains how her work influences her writing – and how the process enables to her ‘escape’ back to her home county
I was born in Suffolk and lived there until I went to university. Before I qualified as a solicitor, I met my husband while working in Norfolk. We have lived in Norwich ever since with our three now grown-up children. I’ve worked in a cake shop; heavenly for someone with a sweet tooth, but surprising how quickly you tire of the cakes! To keep my old banger on the road as a student, I had all sorts of jobs, from waitressing, hotel and bar work, serving in the record department of a music shop and bottle-making in a plastics factory. I was not too keen on the freezing conditions in a meat processing factory!
When I qualified as a solicitor, I was a commercial contract and civil litigator with no desire to do family law work. Occasionally, I covered a colleague’s family law caseload when he was on holiday. He loved certain aspects of the role but not family finance work. I enjoyed the challenge of finding financial settlements for clients, often where income and assets were extremely tight. My caseload of family law work expanded, so by the early 2000s, I worked exclusively in the family courts. It’s often rewarding to work with people at a challenging time in their lives and hopefully make a positive difference.
I have always been a reader and loved stories. I can’t remember when I first seriously considered trying to write. It snuck up on me over many years. By my late 30s, it was a case of how to start. Our youngest child was about two, and I was a busy wife and mother. I was working part-time with little time for myself so signed up for a writing course. The two-hour class on a Wednesday night became the focus of my week. It was then I seriously started considering the possibility of writing a book and having it published.
As for why I write, I love the craft of writing, ideas for a story and plot development, and the frustrations of early drafts that refuse to work until suddenly the fog clears, and the novel emerges from months of planning. And there’s no feeling like holding your book for the first time. I can’t wait to see Seahurst in the flesh!
Once I signed up with my publisher, Salt Publishing, it was an exhilarating and terrifying rollercoaster ride. My learning curve was as steep as it goes, as the publishing industry is entirely different to the legal profession. Salt Publishing are an independent press with a limited budget for marketing, so I swiftly learnt to use social media, which I was surprised to find I enjoyed. First reviews are terrifying, but I was lucky as Haverscroft’s were lovely.
The publication led to radio interviews, bookshop events and magazine articles. Inevitably there is the odd negative review, and any writer knows that it’s impossible to please all the readers all the time. I enjoyed Haverscroft’s publication, and it led to meeting and making new writer friends. I am nervously looking forward to Seahurst’s publication in May.
If I have had a busy week or a stressful day, there is nothing like escaping into my writing. The plot and demands of the characters fill my head, pushing out all thoughts of the day. Seahurst is set on the Suffolk coast, one of my favourite places to spend time, so it was like going there while sitting at home with my laptop. Writing is absorbing for me, and there’s nothing better when I am in the zone.
My work has influenced my writing in all sorts of ways. I’ve witnessed people in stressed and emotional states all my professional career. I also meet a wide range of people from all walks of life. A writer needs characters with depth and personalities that come alive on the page. No novel is likely to entertain if the characters are bland and all the same. Kate Keeling and her family move to Haverscroft House when her marriage with Mark is on the brink of divorce. I wrote about their troubled relationship drawing on the wealth of experience I had gained as a family lawyer. In Seahurst, there are stresses and strains between the characters. Some are romantic relationships, and others are friendships. I have a career that provides endless experience for novel writing in many ways.
Seahurst is a modernist house of glass and steel built on the cliffs overlooking the sea; my dream home in many ways, as I spent much of my childhood on the stretch of coast from Southwold to Dunwich. Suffolk is a county rich in folklore which I have woven into the novel. There are hag stones, references to the lost town of Dunwich and witches all mixed to make a haunting at Seahurst. The main character is leaving an abusive relationship and trying to reconnect with her family. She is desperate to learn more about her father’s apparent suicide and is dismayed to find her brother missing when she arrives in Suffolk from Canada. The characters in Seahurst are haunted by their past as much as by the ghost at Seahurst. Suffolk has inspired writers over the centuries, and it’s easy to see why. The beauty of the flat, desolate landscape, vast skies and the sea generate a natural isolation which lends itself perfectly to gothic literature and ghost stories.
I’ve always loved gothic fiction, ghost stories and dark fiction. The atmosphere and thrill of being chilled by the story pull me in. I’m also interested in history and old buildings. If I visit an old house, I wonder what it was like to live there in its heyday and what the people and their lives must have been like. Suffolk has a long history with old churches, great and small medieval ruins, castles and monasteries, all tropes of spooky or gothic stories. I have set my novels in the present, but there is a connection with the past, as is often the case with gothic fiction.
When writing Haverscroft, I hoped there would be more books. I worried that if I were lucky enough to sign a publishing deal, it would be a two, or three-book deal, and what happens if you can’t deliver under that contract? As it turned out, as Haverscroft was out on submission and signed to Salt Publishing, a new plot was forming in my mind. Evie Meyer was desperately keen to find out all sorts of sinister secrets. I have a day job and family to juggle alongside my writing, but there is a third book. It’s being tricky, throwing tantrums at the moment as it’s at the trying toddler stage, but it will grow up and mature. And after that? More books are coming, and I can’t wait to write them!
Featured image of Sally Harris. All images supplied by Sally Harris