We are delighted to welcome Sharon Maas to the blog to talk about her many historical fictions novels set across the globe. Sharon, you’ve traveled all around the world, and your books reflect that!
They’ve taken us from India to South America to Sri Lanka and beyond.
How do you choose the locations for your novels?
Two motivations call me to write a book: love and curiosity.
There are locations that simply sink into my being, become part of me: Guyana, where I grew up, as well as India. It comes naturally to set a novel in a place I love. I also spent a few months in Sri Lanka a few years ago, considering whether to move there upon retirement. I decided against doing so, but nevertheless, I grew to love that country. When it came to writing my fourth WW2 novel, I wanted to set it in Asia. I realised little had been written about what happened in Sri Lanka, known as Ceylon back in the day. That was a natural choice.
Similarly, for my other three WW2 novels, Alsace is a part of France I know and love, as I had a close friend who lived there, and I visited her every summer for many years. I knew that Alsace had been deeply involved in the war, but I knew very little about what actually happened. I wanted to know. So, again: love and curiosity.
Not only have you written about many different countries, you’ve also written about many different time periods. How do you decide which time period to set a novel in?
Again, it is mostly curiosity, as well as exploring a personal connection. I always start with a character, but then the question arises: why did this character become like this? What is the personal history, the family background? How did it all start? These questions force me to go backwards in time to find out. This is how Of Marriageable Age took shape: delving into the family history of a certain character. Same with the Quint Chronicles. I wrote The Small Fortune of Dorothea Q first, which has a young and an old main character. But having written it, I wanted to explore more the background of the old character. Thus I went back and wrote the three novels that led up to this one. It’s about getting the family background straight.
Genealogy is a fascinating subject. Right now, I am digging into my own family background, due to the recent auction of the famous 1 cent Magenta stamp: the rarest stamp in the world. It turns out that my great-great-grandfather, Edmund Dalziel Wight, is the one who initialled it back in the day, and due to those initials (EDW) it became unique. It’s that story that instigated the writing of The Small Fortune of Dorothea Q. So a personal investigation became the motivation for a novel set in the past.
It’s the same with the WW2 novels: I needed to know what went on in the 30s and 40s in Alsace, to make it what it is today.
Many authors pick a time period, research it thoroughly, and continue writing in the same era so they don’t have to start their research over from scratch. But you’ve written about almost every decade in the twentieth century! How do you go about conducting historical research for your books?
I’ve kept my research pretty much contained, centred on the history of three countries/locations I’m close to: Guyana, Asia (India/Sri Lanka) and Alsace (France). Yes, these are very disparate locations, but they fascinate me in equal measure, and I was curious as to what made them what they are today.
I grew up in the second half of the 20th century, so it only seemed natural to explore the preceding decades so as to complete the jigsaw puzzle of “why did all this happen”. It’s quite amusing to me that the 50s and 60s – decades which were formative to me – are now considered historical, vintage! In fact, they are my own personal history.
Do you return to foreign countries when you start writing about them, or do you recreate the setting entirely from memory?
Every time I’ve written a book set in Guyana, India, or Alsace, I have gone back there to immerse myself once again in the atmosphere. For instance, when writing the Quint Chronicles, which are about a sugar-planter family, I made sure to visit a sugar plantation in Guyana so as to get the “feel” of the place.
Sadly, it was not possible to return to India and Sri Lanka for Those I Have Lost (my last novel) due to Covid restrictions, so I was forced to mine my own memory as well as read books. In the end memory worked just fine.
Are there any countries you’re dying to set a novel in but haven’t had the chance yet?
I’m very intrigued by several Asian countries: Singapore, Malaya, Burma. I’ve never been there, apart from an airport stop once in Singapore, and I’d love to write more about those countries. I have touched on them in a couple of books, but nothing more than a few paragraphs or a chapter. Will I ever manage to go there and explore more? We shall see!
What is your writing day like? Do you write early in the morning or after everyone’s gone to sleep? Do you go to a coffee shop to write or do you have a nook in your house? Do you have to balance writing with other obligations, and if so, how do you make it work?
I’m an early morning writer! A long time ago, when my kids were small, I realised that writing during the day brought too many disturbances. I began to get up at 4:30 am to start writing, and that worked so well I continued. At that time not only are there no disturbances but the mind is fresh and clear and creativity flows cleanly.
These days I don’t get up quite so early, but I’m always up and at my laptop at 6 am. I recently moved into a bigger home and at last I have an office of my own.
Writing in the early morning also means there are no other obligations. Once I’ve done my 2000 or so words I’m free for the rest of the day. It was a bit difficult while I still had a job, but I’ve been retired for three years now, so it means my daytime is all my own, no further work required.
What’s your revision process like? How many drafts do you go through before you’re ready to show the work to your agent/editor?
In the last few years I’ve written my first draft fairly quickly and to deadline. I send it off immediately, without even reading through it again myself. So I get feedback on the very first draft.
Tell us a little about your path to publication. How did you get your very first book deal?
Oh, that’s a story! I started writing fiction very late in life. I had written one novel which a UK agent had taken on, but she couldn’t sell it even after several revisions. After a year I gave up and wrote another one; this time, the words just flowed and it felt special. I sent it to a manuscript editing service for feedback. After one revision, the editor there loved it so much she sent it straight to an agent she knew, who happened to be with a leading UK agency. The book went to auction, was won by HarperCollins, and also got a few translation deals. That was Of Marriageable Age, my breakthrough book.
What advice do you have for aspiring novelists, especially ones interested in writing about countries other than the UK?
For me, the main thing has been “don’t give up”. Keep at it, keep the faith. This can be difficult for books set in non-traditional locations, especially in places as little known as Guyana. But my whole motivation came from the fact that Guyana IS my background and that’s where my best stories will always be set. This gives them authentic backbone, and that’s what kept me going. If a story is authentic, that is, it comes from the heart rather from the head, it will have legs and a destiny of its own. I always knew that, which is why I have a couple of books I wrote fifteen, twenty years ago and which are simply waiting for their time. Just this week, one of those was accepted for publication next year; this after years and years of rejection. That’s what I mean with keeping the faith.
Can you tell us anything about your next writing project?
At the moment, I’m not writing anything new. The next novel is already written – as expressed in my last comment – so it will be revised and polished and brought up to scratch, and I’m immensely looking forward to that process. It’s a fictional re-telling of the 1978 Jonestown tragedy in which almost a thousand people lost their lives in a so-called mass suicide in Guyana.
But was it really suicide? The novel is told from the perspective of an outsider, a young Guyanese journalist who is spending time in the vicinity. Spooky and blood-curdling noises in the night — screams, gunshots, children crying — echoing above the trees make her curious about the gated community in the middle of the remote rainforest. She decides to investigate, and finally infiltrates the cult and tries to stop the carnage and perhaps save a few lives. It’s a tightrope walk through the domain of a psychopath. My very first thriller!
I actually lived once in the area where this took place, and I really look forward to seeing this book in print. I think it’s a story that needs telling – the power of cult leaders to convince a gullible crowd is as strong as ever, and we must learn to be vigilant and filter truth from lies.
About Sharon Maas
Sharon Maas was born in Georgetown, Guyana, in 1951. She was educated in England, Guyana, and, later, Germany. After leaving school, she worked as a reporter with the Guyana Graphic in Georgetown and later wrote feature articles for the Sunday Chronicle as a staff journalist. Sharon has always had a great sense of adventure and curiosity about the world we live in, and Guyana could not hold her for long. In 1971 she set off on a year-long backpacking trip around South America, followed by an overland trek to South India, where she spent two years in an ashram. She lived in Germany for 43 years and has now settled in Ireland. She is the author of The Violin Maker’s Daughter, Of Marriageable Age, Her Darkest Hour, and many other novels.
About Those I Have Lost
1940. When Rosie loses her mother and is sent to Sri Lanka to live with her mother’s friend Silvia and her three sons, her world changes in a heartbeat. As she is absorbed into the bosom of a noisy family, with boys she loves like brothers, she begins to feel at home.
But the war in Europe is heading for Asia. Searching for comfort from the bleak news and the bombings, Rosie meets a heroic soldier on leave, and falls in love for the first time. Yet the war will not stop for passion; he must move on, and she must say goodbye, knowing she might never see him again.
Meanwhile, one by one, the men she considers brothers leave to fight for their island paradise. As she waits in anguish for letters that never come, tortured by stories of torpedoed ships and massacres of innocent families, she realises that she, too, must do her bit.
Rosie volunteers to work in military intelligence, keeping secrets that will help those she loves and protect her island home. But then two telegrams arrive with the chilling words ‘missing believed captured’ and ‘missing believed dead’. Who of those that she loves will survive the devastating war, and who will she lose?
Sharon was talking to Victoria Chatfield.
Victoria Chatfield originally hails from New York where she worked as a social media manager in the fashion industry. While she started out as a ghostwriter for magazine editors, she’s now a member of the NWS, writing romantic suspense and psychological thrillers. (She loves the really bad boys.) Find her on Facebook and Twitter at @vavazquezwrites.