Today I have a talented guest! Delphine Woods comes to us from the UK where she spends her free time reading mysteries and thrillers in her home office, surrounded by beautiful books and notepads, with her dog by her side. Woods holds a degree in creative writing from the Open University and is determined to bring her own gothic mystery and thriller novels to readers.
If you check out her website she has even made a “starter library” for potential readers, which I think is a really clever way to introduce people to her work. So, let’s talk about these novels.
Q: Gothic novels are some of my favorites, and you have written quite a few of them, but for those of us who don’t know gothic novels, how would you describe them?
A: Encyclopaedia Britannica sums it up nicely and rather vaguely as fiction having a ‘prevailing atmosphere of mystery and terror’. That’s a great umbrella definition for the many forms of gothic fiction in the world, including mine.
Classically, there are recurring features like crumbling ruins, paranormal elements (ghosts, monsters, vampires), love and obsession, madness, dreams/nightmares, a damsel in distress, dreary or dangerous weather, and of course, death and decay.
Although my books feature many of these elements, the main thing for me is the gothic atmosphere. It is somehow beautifully terrifying.
In Woman on Ward 13, the real gothic atmosphere is created in the 1900 storyline, which takes place in a Victorian private madhouse. The house itself is beautiful, the landscape is rural and picturesque, but delve a little deeper, and really, it’s all just a façade for something altogether more sinister.
Q: Your upcoming work, Woman on Ward 13, is a time slip gothic novel. What is the best and also the most tricky part about writing a time slip novel?
A: It is quite a hard process altogether. I have structured it so that the mystery takes place in 1900, and in 1957 the character Iris is trying to solve it. Therefore, I wrote the 1900 timeline first. I then wrote Iris’s story around it.
You generally feel like you’re juggling everything in your head. It’s difficult enough to write a mystery (knowing where to place the red herrings, the missing information, etc.) and trying to do it with 2 timelines is a real challenge. I find it best to write it all down so it’s out of my head and on the page, then I can fine tune and ensure everything makes sense in the editing phase.
Having said that, the dual timelines allow some themes to really shine. For example, the inequality of the sexes is strong in Woman on Ward 13, and I show how women have been oppressed for decades and centuries. I believe it highlights how we still have some way to go on that issue.
Q: What lengths did you have to go through to research the psychiatric ward, and how did it affect your outlook (if it did)?
A: As with all my novels, I try to research to the best of my ability, and then use poetic licence. I have read countless books (including other historical fiction featuring asylums) and used as many internet resources as possible.
There’s a fantastic online museum, the Glenside Museum, which has information about Bristol’s old lunatic asylum. It has so many blog posts about life in an asylum, including some reports and diary entries from the inhabitants. I visited another museum in Worcester which featured objects from Powick Asylum, including a record book which stated who was in the asylum and for what reasons. The attendant’s handbook which I mention in the book is real and can be viewed online.
By that time in history, many of the deplorable madhouses of the 18th century had gone, and wealthy patients were being looked after in the large state-managed county asylums as private patients. However, some of these madhouses did continue into the 20th century, so I reasoned The Basildon Retreat could be plausible. What they get up to in the madhouse has its roots in fact, but I have embellished aspects to compliment the storyline.
It was actually more difficult to research psychiatric wards in the 1950s than in Victorian times. My Ward 13 is directly inspired by the videos of Powick Hospital’s Ward F13, which you can find on YouTube and which proved invaluable to this book.
For most people, the idea of a Victorian asylum is horrifying. For some, it undoubtedly was. However, through my research, I discovered unusually caring aspects of the system. Whilst abuse did go on, by the end of the century there was very little restraint used, and most of the time it was used only for the patient’s welfare. Those attendants found guilty of abuse would usually be sacked immediately. For the very poorest in society, it could be a place of refuge, where you could eat a proper meal for the first time in months, where you were essentially cared for because you had no one else to do so.
On the other hand, it was a tool of oppression for both men and women. It could be wielded by those who sought money, advancement, or an easier life.
As with anything, asylums and mental hospitals (and those who lived and worked in them) are never purely good or purely evil. They are firmly in the grey zone.
Q: What inspired you to write this novel?
A: The idea for this novel originally began when I was studying for an MA in Creative Writing. Back then, it had 4 main characters and storylines! I soon realised it needed cutting down.
It was a while ago, but I believe it was initially sparked by a short scene about a middle-class woman in the 1950s visiting her doctor, desperately trying to hold it together while she suffers with post-natal depression. This character no longer features in Woman on Ward 13, but she inspired the character of Mrs Leverton, and Mrs Leverton’s story is what the whole book hinges on.
Q: Do you recall any interesting/awkward/funny/intense moments while researching or writing any of your work?
A: It’s hard to say without giving away any of the crucial plot elements.
I would say the most intense, interesting and harrowing part of my research was watching the Powick Hospital videos. Most of the time, historical research is limited to books or recreations. Here, you see the real people and their real treatment. How they have been left, how they spend their days staring at walls in a urine-smelling room, how the rest of the world is getting on without them. Even the ward doctor called Ward F13 ‘the bin’.
It was also bitter-sweet to write about the dogs in the book – all the Annies. They are inspired by my own dog Annie, who died after a 3-year battle with lymphoma. It was a joy to recreate her as the obedient, loyal friend, who provided hope and relief in otherwise desperate situations. Pet owners will understand the depth of such relationships.
Q: Tell us something about one of your main characters that makes her unique.
A: Iris Lowe is one of those plain, good-hearted people. I don’t write many like that! She honestly wants to help others, in any way she can. At the same time, she’s not faultless, and she’s not a sickeningly sweet goody-two-shoes. She makes mistakes. She upsets those she loves. She is ambitious. She is a woman who wants more and better, for herself and everyone else. She wants equality, the truth, and justice.
She is a fighter.
And even when things are terrible, she manages to pull through, to find a glimmer of hope, and to provide comfort however she can.
Q: What do you do in your spare time?
A: I try to do things that get me away from the desk, so there’s lots of lovely countryside walks with my dog. I started practising yoga four years ago and now I can’t be without it; I try to do something every day, even though that’s not always possible. If you haven’t already, you should check out Yoga with Adrienne – just the sound of her voice immediately calms me. I’m really getting into gardening now too, and we’re currently growing over 12 different vegetables which is so rewarding. Of course, I read a lot (some of my favourite authors are Sarah Waters, Eve Chase, and Laura Purcell), and I adore a thrilling drama box set such as The Alienist or Mindhunter.
Thank you for answering my questions! It has been great getting to know your work and I’m looking forward to your novel’s release!
For everyone interested in what sounds like an amazing new novel releasing in July, here is the description of Woman on Ward 13:
‘The first thing they question is your memory. You must hold on to it, at any cost.’
Asylum attendant, Katy Owen, hates the isolation, the bars on the windows, and the way the mad women watch her. She should not believe their delusional tales, but when her charge talks of murder, she is drawn into a story of tragedy and conspiracy that threatens her own sanity.
Iris Lowe is a nurse on the infamous psychiatric ward 13. After one patient receives her first visitor in over 50 years, Iris suspects there might be more to her story than meets the eye.
As she battles against buried secrets, Iris unearths harrowing and heart-wrenching atrocities that span almost a century.
But is it too late to serve justice?
Woman on Ward 13 is a captivating gothic time-slip novel, the first in the new series, The Iris Lowe Mysteries.