By Dan Levy
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And all things nice
That’s what little girls are made of.
But are they really?
This stanza from the poem (or nursery rhyme), credited to English poet Robert Southey, is a preeminent theme in Sheila Bugler’s third Ellen Kelly novel, ALL THINGS NICE. The book is more than an opportunity to evolve the series protagonist and create something new for fans to devour. For Bugler, it was the chance to explore how individual demons find new life through parenting.
“As a mother myself, I’m only too aware of how easy it is to mess up this important job. I always think loving your children is easy, but being a good parent? That’s the difficult part,” she says.
In an email interview with Bugler for The Big Thrill, we explore how this topic is embodied in the character of Charlotte Gleeson, how protagonist Ellen Kelly grows in her own right, as well as Bugler’s views on writing. Here’s an edited version of that interview:
What drew you to writing thrillers/crime fiction? Is that the same thing that keeps you going today?
I love the genre. And yes, it’s absolutely what keeps me going today. As a writer, the basic structure of a crime novel (there is a mystery which needs to be solved) feels like a good place to explore the issues I am interested in writing about.
What do you like most about series protagonist Ellen Kelly? What has surprised you about her as she has come to life on the page over three novels?
I know so many writers say their characters just “appear” fully formed and that’s sort of what has happened with Ellen. Of course, like all the best characters, it is her flaws that make her most interesting. She can be unforgiving and lives by a moral code that many would find uncomfortable. She thinks death is the only just punishment for certain crimes. She has killed before, and I think she would kill again if she believed it was the right thing to do.
I’m curious about the character of Charlotte Gleeson. How did she get the point in her life where nothing was working?
Writing Charlotte has been such a rewarding experience. She is a flawed and unlikeable character but – Importantly—she is not a bad person. Despite her best efforts, she has become her own worst nightmare—a woman every bit as awful as her own mother. In her own, warped way, Charlotte loves her daughter and part of her journey in this book is realizing just how strong that love really is.
In ALL THINGS NICE, we find Ellen Kelly going from chasing a serial killer to investigating a murder with a seeming “every woman” as the prime suspect. Why?
I am really interested in crime fiction that explores the darker sides of women’s personalities. The title of this novel, ALL THINGS NICE, comes from the nursery rhyme, “What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and all things nice.”
I want to write about female characters (good, bad and somewhere in between) who are nothing like that. So, in that sense, Charlotte (the chief suspect in ALL THINGS NICE) is an “every woman.” She is messy, complicated and flawed—just like the rest of us.
I read that you’re reluctant to do research until your editor reviews the first draft of your manuscript and sends you off to do it. Is that true?
I know many writers like to do extensive research before they start writing and if that works for them, that’s fine. It doesn’t work for me and that can be a problem sometimes. It means I often have to retrospectively do my research to make the procedural side of my novels more plausible.
While I don’t want to overlook ALL THINGS NICE, what do your fans have to look forward to in your next book?
Ah… now this is a bit of a shift. The fourth book (working title Creep) introduces Colin O’Dwyer. Colin is a misfit, a musician, a recovering alcoholic, and the chief suspect in a murder investigation. He is also the older brother of Ellen’s ex-boyfriend. Ellen doesn’t want to think of him as a killer but, with the evidence against him mounting up, she has some very difficult decisions to make.
You’ve lived all over the world. How did those experiences help shape you as a writer and inform your writing?
The one thing I have learned is that people are more or less the same no matter where you go. There are good people, bad people, and all the variations in between. All of us have parents, many of us have children and siblings and friends and extended families. We all love and hate and dream. We’re all pretty amazing.
What’s one piece of advice that has served you well since you started writing? Is it the same advice you’d give to aspiring authors today?
First and foremost, stop procrastinating and start writing. Set yourself a daily word count and stick to it. Get a first draft done as quickly as you can. Crime writer Jax Miller said something recently which has also really stayed with me. She said: you have to make every chapter in your novel as good as the first one.
What is the most frightening thing that has ever happened to you while researching a manuscript?
The most frightening thing for me I realizing how very different the reality of an investigation is compared with the fictionalized versions. Real detective work is grueling and often thankless. Not many people could do that job and keep sane!
Any final thoughts or last comments on being a thriller/crime writer that you’d like to share?
It is an absolutely privilege to be a published writer. I know how lucky I am and I never take it for granted. Writing is hard work but I cannot imagine a life where I’m not doing this.
Sheila Bugler grew up in the west of Ireland. After studying Psychology at university, she left Ireland and worked in Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland and Argentina before finally settling in Eastbourne, where she lives with her husband Sean, and their children, Luke and Ruby.
Sheila is a mentor on the WoMentoring programme and is also a regular contributor to the writing magazine Words With Jam. To learn more, please visit her website.