An Interview with Carola Dunn, author

Although Carola Dunn has lived in the US for 50 years, most of her 60+ books are set in her native England. The twenty-three Daisy Dalrymple mysteries take place in the 1920s and the Cornish mysteries around 1970. Carola’s books have been translated into Norwegian, Polish, Hungarian, French, German, Spanish, Czech, Russian, Hebrew, and possibly some other languages she’s forgotten. After too many years under a Southern Californian sun, which turned her red hair blond, she now lives in Oregon.

Welcome Carola and thank you for sharing your insights and experience with us today.

James:                          When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

Carola:                          Never.  I disliked writing at school, though I was always good at it. I wrote my first book because my (ex) husband wanted me to get a “proper” job. We’d moved around a lot and I’d had lots of part-time and temp jobs. When we settled down, he thought it was time I decided on a career. However, he’d been telling me for years that I ought to write a book, because I spent so much time reading. So, to postpone the job search, I sat down and started writing. That was in 1979.

James:                          What motivated you to become a writer?

Carola:                          I was lucky enough to sell my first manuscript, a Regency.  I enjoyed writing it and I made a bit of money, so rather than go looking for an office job, I wrote another.

James:                          How many hours a week do you commit to your craft?

Carola:                          That’s impossible to say. All my books are historical, so they all require a lot of historical research. Almost all are set in England, so I travel to insure accuracy in the settings. I probably spend as much time on research as actually writing but I don’t keep track of hours.

James:                          What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Carola:                          I still read a lot. I work in the garden, walk the dog, listen to classical music and play a bit.              

James:                          Are you a full-time or part-time writer?  How does that affect your writing?

Carola:                          I started out part-time but I’ve been full time since I got divorced and had to make a living at it—more than full-time for the first three years. I was writing four books a year for two publishers, Regencies, fortunately, which are easier than mysteries. It was when both of them stopped publishing Regencies that I started the Daisy Dalrymple mystery series.

Writing full-time means that I don’t have so many things competing for my attention and energy. Even when I’m not actually writing, thinking about my current project is never time wasted.

James:                          What are some day jobs that you have held?  If any of them impacted your writing, share an example.

Carola:          I had a great variety of part-time and temporary jobs before I started writing. A sample: childcare, secretary, bookkeeper, market research, construction (from foundation to roof), drawing building plans, home aide. Later, during the period when I was writing four books a year, I also had a couple of part-time jobs. One was data entry for a home inspection company—more interesting than you might think as the inspectors had curious ideas about filling in their forms which I had to translate into the standard language required, proofreading/copy-editing academic books, and writing definitions for a dictionary of science and technology—I drew the line at physics but tackled most other subjects!

I’d say the greatest impact on my writing was that I met a wide variety of people. I don’t normally put real people in my books but I’ve never had much difficulty creating characters.

James:                          Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre?  If you write more than one, how do you balance them?

Carola:                          By the late 1970s, I had reread Georgette Heyer’s Regencies so many times I pretty much knew what was coming on the next page. I went looking for other Regency authors. Some of those I read were so very bad that I thought if they could get published, so could I. I loved the Regency period, so when I decided to write a book, that was where I focussed.

As the Regency was paying my bills, although I sometimes felt it would be nice to try other genres, it was safer to stick with what I knew would be published. Then BOTH my publishers, within 6 months of each other, closed down their Regency lines. I was forced to try something else and, having always enjoyed mysteries/crime fiction, I turned to that genre. As with Regencies, I was lucky enough to sell my first effort.

James:                          Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?

Carola:                          The only “secret” I can think of is that I quite often use quotations, usually in the mouths of my characters. For readers unfamiliar with the works quoted from, I suppose they are usually passed over without further thought. If you don’t know the Mikado, for instance, “merely corroborative detail intended to add verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative” could be regarded as a sort of secret.

James:                          What is the source of your inspiration?

Carola:                          There is no single source. I take ideas where I find them.

James:                          Where do your characters come from?

Carola:          Mostly my head, mingling traits of people I’ve met and people I’ve read about. A few times I’ve been asked to create characters based on real people who have donated to a cause to get their or their loved ones name used in one of my books. Occasionally I’ve used real historical characters, particularly in the Regencies, always doing my best to make them as close to the original as I can. 

James:                          What advice would you give to a writer whose manuscript has been rejected several times and told he or she will never make it as a writer?

Carola:                          Becoming a published writer requires three qualities: luck, talent, and persistence. You can get away with two of the three, but the only one you control is persistence.

James:                          What is the most important tip you can share with other writers?

Carola:                         As Somerset Maugham said, there are three rules to writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

In other words, don’t let anyone put your writing into a straitjacket.

James:                          What was one challenge you had to overcome to become an author?

Carola:                         Not having a typewriter. And once I got hold of one, constantly typing off the end of the line and/or bottom of the page.

James:                          How did you overcome that challenge?

Carola:                         After the 5th book, I bought a computer. 10 MB  hard drive, 5 1/4” floppy drive, 256K RAM, dot matrix printer. It was bliss!

James:                          What question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has? Write it out here, and then answer it.

Carola:                          After 40 years and 60+ books, I doubt whether any questions from readers remain unasked.  What I’d really like to hear is: “This is the BBC; are TV rights to your series available?” My answer: “Yes.”

James:                          Pick one excerpt from one of your books you would like to share with readers.

Carola:                         From The Corpse at the Crystal Palace:

The “ladies’ conveniences” were a reminder that high society as well as hoi polloi had once frequented the Crystal Palace. The walls were hygienic white tile but the hand-basins were marble and the screen concealing the lavatories was mahogany. The doors to the cubicles, wide enough to accommodate crinolines and bustles, were also mahogany, with frosted glass panels. They swung inwards, a luxurious waste of space the average modern public convenience couldn’t afford. Daisy walked along the row at a distance that allowed her to read the vacant/engaged signs without, she hoped, looking nosy if anyone came in.

All read “vacant” except the farthest from the entrance. She moved closer and said in a low but urgent voice, “Mrs. Gilpin? Are you there?”

No answer. No sound but the gurgling of plumbing.

The doors were pretty solid, made to muffle indelicate sounds emitted by Victorian ladies. Daisy took another step forward. She was about to speak when she noticed that the door wasn’t properly closed. Though the latch was turned to “occupied,” the bolt was resting against the jamb, not in its socket, leaving the door just a crack ajar.

“Mrs. Gilpin?” Pause. “Is anyone there?” Still no response.

Daisy’s suppressed irritation gave way to alarm. Slowly she pushed the door a few inches, till she saw a corner of striped skirt.

“Nanny!”

No indignant squawk followed her intrusion so she swung the door all the way open.

The figure sat on the old-fashioned bench seat, slumped against the wall in the corner of the cubicle, her cape crumpled about her. Her face was half-hidden by her hat, and the light was poor, just what the mirrors in the room beyond reflected through the doorway. Daisy could see, however, that the hat was not Mrs. Gilpin’s. It appeared to have been knocked forward when she fell backwards, disarranging her hair. Or rather, the poor woman appeared to be wearing a wig. The hat was attached by a pearl-headed hat-pin, so when the hat slipped it took the wig with it, exposing her ear and the side of her neck above the collar of her dress.

And that was the best place to check her pulse, as she was wearing tight gloves that looked difficult to take off. Daisy stripped off her own right glove and pressed two fingers to a likely spot on the nurse’s pale neck.

The skin was warm, but she couldn’t find a pulse. Either the woman was dead, or Daisy was touching the wrong place. She was not very good at finding pulses, even her own. She shifted her fingertips. Still nothing.

Whether the nurse was dead or just ill, she would have to be moved. She was too hefty for Daisy to shift her singlehanded, not to mention that the floor of the ladies room hardly seemed a suitable place to lay her. The dim attendant wouldn’t be much help. Tom Tring was the person she needed.

Especially if the nurse was dead. She hadn’t stirred since Daisy’s arrival on the scene.

In the meantime, where was Nanny Gilpin? If she hadn’t gone astray, Daisy wouldn’t have found herself unwillingly involved with this stranger.

In which case the unfortunate woman might have remained undiscovered for hours.

Stepping out of the cubicle, Daisy sighed. On the whole, she couldn’t regret having turned up, since her arrival might save a life. However, she could imagine all too easily what Alec would say if she once again inadvertently got herself mixed up in a suspicious death.