In my post a few weeks ago on the conventions in mystery, I mentioned a fascinating book that breaks many of them, When the Clocks Stopped by M.L. Eaton. This mystical mystery takes place in the village of Rype-on Marsh in the south of England. Lawyer Hazel Dawkins is anticipating some peaceful time off before the birth of her first child. When she agrees to a little part-time work, she finds herself drawn into troubling events in the lives of her clients—and in the past. The distant past. Mysteriously, she encounters Annie, a woman who lived more than two centuries ago when Rype-on Marsh was a violent place, dominated by gangs of smugglers. With multiple layers of both time and crime, it’s an amazing and original tale. I’m happy to have Marion Eaton as my guest today. In late April we’ll be doing a ten-day sale and a three-book give-away together with a third mystical mystery author, the innovative Australian writer Virginia King. We’ve enjoyed each other’s work and are excited to introduce our readers to books we think they’ll also enjoy.
Retired from legal practice and semi-retired from holistic therapy—although she still teaches Reiki and other workshops—Marion lives close to the sea in the beautiful East Sussex countryside with a long-suffering husband, a lazy saluki and an urge to write into the small hours.
MLE: Thanks so much for your interest in my book and particularly for thinking up all these wonderful questions. I‘m really looking forward to answering them, so I’m going to dive straight in ….
AF: Your book is historical at two levels, being set in 1976 and slipping in time to 1747. To what extent is it based on real historical events?
MLE: I had to smile when I read this … because I remember many events of 1976 perfectly and it doesn’t seem like a historical period. But, of course it is!
I think perhaps it is best for me to come clean from the start. The book was originally going to be a memoir of the first year when I set up in practice on my own account as a country solicitor (attorney). I’m sure you can guess the date? 1976. I had written a few chapters— very badly and in very stilted language, because after all, I was a lawyer— when I suddenly found myself writing something far more exciting and definitely inaccurate. Not a memoir at all. I stopped and thought about it for a minute or two and then decided that I might as well enjoy myself. Who would be interested in the memoir of a country solicitor, anyway? But hidden away in my memory were a lot of interesting stories that I had encountered around that time. It seemed second nature to stitch them into the story. So the short answer is yes, the story is based on real historical events of 1976. Later, when Annie came into the story, she arrived complete with her own personality and history. It was then that I had to do considerable research to check that the background and events surrounding her in 1747 were as accurate as possible.
AF: I like the fact that the mysterious phenomena in your book happen to people who have no expectation of them, no belief that such things are possible or that time is anything but a linear march. Have you ever had even a hint of this kind of mystical experience? If not, what’s the origin of this aspect of the story?
MLE: When I was a child, my mother used to tell me stories of when she was a little girl. Many of them had to do with her experience of ghosts and other psychic phenomena. I always longed to have similar experiences but I was a sensible, pragmatic child and despite all my efforts nothing similar ever seemed to happen to me. Until, one day I was looking over a house … and the rest is in the story!
AF: Did you set out to write a murder-less mystery? There’s crime and deception in your book, but this isn’t the standard whodunit. How conscious were you of breaking some of the conventions of the mystery genre, while keeping others?
MLE: To be honest, I didn’t actually give much thought to genre when I was writing the book. As I’ve mentioned, I was writing for the sheer joy of writing and the mystery evolved naturally. I suppose that as a lawyer it was my bread-and-butter work to solve problems and difficulties so that was a good starting point. The book had to be interesting for me, as well as for my readers. But in the end I had little choice: my characters fleshed themselves out and made their own decisions about the story!
AF: Tell me about your research concerning the eighteenth century smugglers. Did you do it in the Romney Marsh area? How did you go about reconstructing the speech of the time and place? Is Annie’s role in the Owlers unusual?
MLE: I still live near Romney Marsh. This part of Britain (Kent and East Sussex) is wreathed in history and we are fortunate in having great local museums and local history societies, all of which were very helpful both in giving information and pointing me in the direction of contemporary accounts and records of smugglers.
I have always been fascinated by local and family history and my forebears have lived in this part of the world for generations, so I was brought up on tales from the past. Being close to the continent of Europe, for hundreds of years smuggling was a way of life for many people in this area. (Indeed, only yesterday, there was an item on the news about the foiling of a smuggling gang at Dover, very close to the Marsh).
I have no doubt that, then as now, it was a raw and violent occupation and there were many criminal gangs involved, but over the centuries it has become as romanticized as Robin Hood. Smugglers called themselves ‘Gentlemen Free Traders’ and at one time in the eighteenth century practically the whole local community was involved one way or the other. It was the ‘Preventatives’—Government enforcement officers—who were seen as ‘the baddies’.
It was Annie herself who spoke to me of her role in the Owlers, but from the accounts and tales of the rival gangs of smugglers it is clear that women were often involved. Although most acted as signalers, lookouts and scouts, there were others who worked alongside their men in landing smuggled goods from the boats.
On a personal note, I remember my own grandfather telling me how his father would sometimes warn him that he might hear unusual sounds in the night and if he did, to stay in his bed and put his head under the pillow. And always, the next morning there would be strange horses in the stable in place of their own horses. But beneath a stack of hay would be found a small barrel of brandy or a bolt of silk cloth. The horses would be returned a day or two later, when the other horses would also be returned to their owners.
I was lucky to have contemporary records to help me with reconstructing the speech of the time, and also to recall the local Kentish accent that surrounded me in my childhood. It’s rather sad that such accents are now fast disappearing from common use, but some of the older people in the area still speak in the same way.
AF: The village life and scenery is beautifully portrayed, with vivid details of the buildings and gardens. I’ve never been to a small English village but your book made me feels as if I had. The architecture in Rype-on-Marsh is integral to the plot. How did you work this in? I’m curious to know if there are places that served as models, or this was a blend of reality and invention.
MLE: I’m thrilled that you were able to identify with the area and town in When the Clocks Stopped. To me, as to many others who live there, Romney Marsh has its own very distinct identity—almost its own character—and there’s no doubt at all in my mind that the town on which I based Rype-in-the-Marsh also has its own personality. Both the Marsh and the town feel to me to be a huge part of the story, as well as the history that surrounds them. I did embroider details onto the fabric of the town, the most significant being the King’s Ditch, but most of the description of the town and its building and streets are accurate enough to be recognizable to local people. There really are dikes crisscrossing the Marsh as well as secret passages centering on the church.
AF: You had a lot of choices in how you could have told this story. It could have been third person, past tense all the way, in both time periods. You could have told the story in 1976 entirely as a simple crime mystery without the time slips, and there still would have been a good plot. How did you go about making all these choices, using the various voices and points of view? Why present tense for the glimpses of the past?
MLE: I didn’t seem to have a choice while I was writing. It seemed important to write in the first person, partly for immediacy and partly because of the limitations of doing so which meant that my protagonist, Hazel, was often baffled by what was going on. I felt her confusion added to the mystery.
Then, gradually, the layers of the past rose up like a miasma from the earth and I realized that there was another interweaving story begging to be told. Annie spoke to me in poetic language, closely linked as she is to Nature and the Earth. I felt I needed some way of emphasizing the differences and similarities between my two women protagonists, but wasn’t quite sure how this could be done. In the end, I simply listened to Annie’s voice—and the present tense flowed from my pen, mostly because the past seemed co-existent with the present. To me, it was as though the dramatic events of the past had stamped themselves on the fabric of time, eternally interwoven with the current time, ever present, ever available to those who listen. I hope the use of the present tense helps to convey a little of this feeling to my readers.
AF: The legal detail was intriguing. I enjoyed learning about special Will paper and the origin of the term “red tape” as well as seeing how Hazel’s work as a solicitor brings her so naturally into the center of the mystery. What’s your background in law? Is this the type of work you did? What’s the most colorful story that you can share from your legal work?
MLE: I’m glad you found the legal detail intriguing. I hoped it would be interesting and entertaining as well as helping to convey the way that Hazel has been taught to think and act.
I qualified as a solicitor in 1973 and, as I have mentioned already, set up my own practice on Romney Marsh in 1976. Law and legal practice in England and Wales have changed so much with the coming of computers and the internet that I wanted to preserve a little of its uniqueness for future generations. I also wanted to correct the current myth about lawyers generally: that they are all in it for money. I know many solicitors for whom the most important consideration is their clients’ welfare.
All I can say is that most of the incidents in the book are based on true stories.
AF: I’m pretty sure this is the only book I’ve ever read in which the protagonist is very, very pregnant. Her condition affected everything, and yet didn’t stop her from anything. This is another writing choice I’d like to know more about.
MLE: I was very pregnant when I set up my first practice—the circumstances of which were very similar to those surrounding Hazel, and so it was a ready-made opening to the story, explaining why Hazel became involved with all the events that took place around her.
As the book evolved, I thought about changing this, but by then I had found out how much the pregnancy helped in underlining the difference of my main protagonist from all the usual heroes and heroines in other legal thrillers. I wanted a character who was obviously different, very much a woman in a man’s world, who managed to solve a crime by non-contentious means. Basically she would be an ordinary person in an ordinary town to whom completely unexpected things happen. I feel the pregnancy makes her vulnerable but also gives her an edge. She is determined but protective. She has a reason to be emotional and weak sometimes. There is the frisson of double jeopardy. Above all it makes her ultra-feminine.
AF: Hazel’s dog Poppadum is an important character. Is she based on a real dog that you know? (Your bio says you live with a lazy Saluki, and Poppadum is far from lazy.)
MLE: Poppadum was the very first dog who was truly mine, an unforgettable, wonderful, unique character. She just had to be in the story and I had to use her real name. As you’ve guessed, she was a treasured member of our family. My elder daughter even learned to stand by using Poppadum’s fur to pull herself upright, and then to walk by hanging onto the dog’s tail. Poppadum and she adored each other.
AF: If one were to go to Romney Marsh as a tourist, what would you suggest they see and do?
MLE: Oh there is so much! From Roman Castles to deserted churches sitting alone in the middle of fields; from beautiful wild beaches to the cobbled streets of the ancient Cinqueport towns of Hythe, New Romney, and Rye; from small towns and villages with country pubs where you can eat before a roaring open fire in the winter, or sit surrounded by flowers in a summer garden, to long hikes with gorgeous views along the cliffs of the Saxon Shore; from the strange neighbours of a bird sanctuary, lighthouse and nuclear power station at Greatstone, to soft sandy beaches with drifts of wildflowers, to the huge amazing Victorian follies built at Littlestone; from a miniature public railway to small fishing boats drawn up on the beach and shacks offering fresh fish for sale. There are fields of flowering bulbs in spring, an airport, museums of country life, thick squat Martello towers and boats for hire on the Military Canal, built as a defence against a possible invasion by Napoleon. Ice cream and fish and chips are available everywhere to enjoy in a bracing sea breeze or in the warmth of the summer sun. But for the perfect experience there is nothing better than a full English tea served at Deblyn’s Tea Room on New Romney High Street. Real leaf tea in a teapot or freshly ground coffee, home-made scones, jam and cream, tiny savoury sandwiches, and huge slices of delicious home-made cakes, all served on bone china. Enjoy it in the bower of flowers they call a garden or the cosy beamed front room of the old house that fronts the High Street. Bliss!
AF: What’s your next project?
MLE: My next project is the third in the Mysterious Marsh Series. Its working title is ‘When the Earth Cracked’. I recently discovered a Roman Altar hidden away in the tower of a church on the edge of Romney Marsh so I am going to have to work that into a book sometime. It might be this one, but it might not …
I’ve also been writing a semi-autobiographical series of novellas (The Faraway Lands Series) requested by my daughters about my childhood travels in the 1950s—which are truly historical now. I’m pleased that the first two in the series have been popular, although they’re very different from my Mysterious Marsh Series.
And also on my to-do list:
- A 1930s Love Story
- A WWII adventure story
- A Book of Angel Meditations
AF: Thank you so much for taking time for all these questions.
MLE: No, it is I who should thank you, Amber. It’s been lovely to talk to you and very kind of you to give time and space to this interview. I particularly appreciate it because I love your books and can’t wait to finish the Mae Martin series. On the other hand, I don’t want to as I’ve become very fond of her! You’ll just have to keep writing …
AF: I will. You won’t run out of my books. And from the length of your to-do list, I can happily predict I won’t run out of your books either.
M.L. Eaton’s web site: http://www.marioneaton.com
Her books are available in e-book and paperback:
My post on conventions in mystery: