Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
My guest today is Coco Ihle, whose first novel, She Had to Know, was published in 2011. In an interview, Coco talked about her writing life and the personal story that inspired her novel.
Q: Would you tell us a bit about your book?
A: She Had to Know is about long lost sisters, Arran Hart and Sheena Buchanan, who were separated in early childhood by the divorce of their parents. Arran, who was put up for adoption, discovers her adoption documents after her adoptive parents die, and sets out to find her sister.
Sheena was raised by her paternal grandparents, who were instructed by her often absent father, John Buchanan, never to mention her mother or Arran. Not wanting to rile him by asking questions, Sheena decides not to rock the boat by searching for Arran. After John and his housekeeper mysteriously die, Sheena begins looking for Arran, hoping she will understand why Sheena didn’t begin her search earlier. Later, Sheena’s life is threatened and the reunited sisters try to balance getting acquainted with a race against the menace of a murderer who also appears to be searching for an ancient treasure buried deep in the bowels of Wraithmoor castle.
Q: What inspired you to write the book? What—or—who inspired you to create your protagonist?
A: Two things. The idea of the two sisters searching for one another is actually my own story. I spent over fifty years searching for my sister and found her in 1994. During those years, I’d dreamed of writing a book about it, but when I found her, that cemented my desire. I “interviewed” her to see how much our experiences paralleled and what aspects were different. So, in my book, I have two protagonists who are not exactly me or my sister. They took on a life of their own as I created them, but there are characteristics of each of us in both women.
The other thing that inspired me to write this book was the discovery of my Scottish heritage. I traversed the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland to reconnect with my past, and my son and I bought kilts and bagpipes for the St. Andrews Pipes and Drums band we had joined. Each time we went, we stayed in castles, manor homes, historical places, and collected brochures along the way. I now have shelves of books on Scotland and tons of memories, too.
Q: Aside from your personal experiences and those of your sister, what sort of research did you do for the book?
A: Funny you should ask. I did a tremendous amount of research for the Scottish part of my book, but when it came time to find someone to check the Scottish dialect, I turned to a friend. Dr. Ian Peden is from Sanquar, Scotland, which is near the setting for my story. He is also a world renowned neurosurgeon. When I told him I had written a book and asked for his help, he enthusiastically agreed, assuming I wanted answers for medical questions. After he answered my one medical question, he got a twinkle in his eye and said, “Yer only askin’ me tae speak, aren’t ye?”
Q: What is the most enjoyable aspect of writing for you?
A: Research, I’d say, at least for this book. I love to read about Scotland and the whole of Britain. It was fun developing my characters, too. I dwelt in their world for long periods of time and loved it. Who wouldn’t enjoy living in a castle?!
Q: Is there a particular aspect of writing craft that you enjoy?
A: I’d say the fun of setting the mood. Years ago, I sold bottled water in Florida, before it was popular to drink bottled water. It was kind of like selling snow to a polar bear, so we sales people were instructed to use phrases that conjured pictures—piping hot or ice cold, for example. I found that training useful when trying to create mood in my book. Descriptions like “…antique escritoire, its wood gleaming from centuries of polish.” Or description of a Scottish character, “The dimples in her cheeks deepened as she exhibited tea-stained teeth.” Or, “Massive stone pillars stood like monoliths. Between them, intricate wrought iron gates shadowed black lace patterns on the lawn as the sun cast its late afternoon beams through the ancient ironwork.” I also think the use of Scottish dialect for certain characters enhanced the mood.
Q: How long have you been writing? Is this your first completed book, or do you have some unpublished novels stuck in a closet, as so many writers do?
A: I started writing fiction late in my life. In 1999, and I quickly realized I didn’t know what I was doing. After studying several books on “how to write” and taking seminars, I started She Had to Know. It wasn’t very good, but I kept writing and re-writing. My plan was, this book would be the first in a series and my subject matter had a chronology I had to follow, so I had to get the first book presentable. Many, many re-writes later…
Q: What is your writing routine? Do you fit it in around a day job and family obligations?
A: My first few drafts were written when I was married and had a full time job. I arose early in the morning to get in a couple hours of writing before work and sometimes I wrote in the evenings. Twice a month, I traveled an hour and a half to my writer’s group meetings and always was fired up on my return home, so spent late nights making corrections. This went on for several years. I was blessed to have an understanding husband who was also quite busy.
I retired when I moved to Florida so I finished up on the book and while my agent was shopping it, I wrote a short memoir called "Every Difficulty Along the Way" about my search for my family. The Florida Writers Association had a short story contest, the winners of which would have their stories in the FWA’s first anthology called From Our Family to Yours. My story was one that was selected and that book was published in 2009. So, I actually became published as a short story writer before my book, She Had to Know, came out in April 2011. I also wrote non-fiction articles as a staff writer for an international dance magazine up until recently, when I wasn’t working on the next book in the Arran Hart and Sheena Buchanan series.
Q: How has publication changed your life? Has anything about becoming a published writer surprised you—or disappointed you?
A: Well, now I have no life! (smile) When I started writing, an author went on book tours and signings and met with people and exchanged ideas with them. Now, with the onslaught of the social network boom, I’m more isolated than before. I can’t say I like that. I’m a people person and I really like to interact with readers in person. A good thing about the internet, though, is I’m able to reach a larger demographic than I could have physically.
My sister, who was not terribly fond of reading, largely because of the time element, read my book and loved it. She has now become a reader and has even tried her hand at some writing. She has so many wonderful stories to share and I get great satisfaction in encouraging her.
On a personal note, I’m proud that I persevered through all the years of trials and tribulations to accomplish my goal of writing this book. My friends and many readers have said they are proud of me, too, and that makes me immensely happy.