In a decrepit English castle, a pair of elderly twins nurse their mad sister, who was never the same again after being jilted during World War II. Also during the war, a thirteen-year-old girl was billeted in the castle in hopes of staying safe from German bombs. Fifty years later, a long-lost letter with the castle as its return address reaches that girl's grown daughter. In its puzzling lines, she begins to unravel her family's secret past.
That's the setup for Australian novelist Kate Morton's new historical mystery The Distant Hours, which she will discuss at Books Inc. (1760 Fourth St., Berkeley) on Monday, December 6.
Like the novel's characters, Morton grew up in a houseful of sisters. "When I was growing up, my sisters and I used to put on concerts," she said. "We made tickets to sell to Mum and Dad by perforating paper with the needle in a foot-operated antique Singer sewing machine."
Believing that her future lay in theater, she completed a Shakespeare course at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art — only to realize that it wasn't acting she loved but the language of the plays. That's when she began writing novels: The House at Riverton was an Australian bestseller in 2007; The Forgotten Garden was a New York Times bestseller last year. Both were named Book of the Year at their respective years' Australian Book Industry Awards.
"Drama training was excellent preparation for writing. I often find myself pulling the facial expressions I'm describing for my characters as I sit at the computer. Not a great look when I'm working in public," Morton confided.
Writing a book takes her about a year. "My favorite part of the process is the beginning, before I even write the first word. ... I spend a lot of time before I start the actual writing dreaming up my characters and plot. I read everything I can get my hands on around the subject so that the world of my story begins to take shape," Morton said.
The House at Riverton twines two stories set 75 years apart: In a stately lakeside home, a young poet commits suicide one night in 1924. In 1999, a very old lady harboring dark secrets is approached by a director who is making a film about the poet's suicide. Dark secrets also limn The Forgotten Garden, in which a woman inherits a Cornish cottage, only to learn harrowing things about its former owners.
"I like to imagine that the story is already out there, that it happened to real people, and it's my job to uncover it rather than to make it up," Morton mused. "I scribble ideas that may come to nothing; I daydream about my characters; I fill my head with the world, atmosphere, aesthetic, music, smells, voices of the story I want to lose myself inside; and then, suddenly, all the disparate jigsaw pieces start to link up." 7 p.m., free. BooksInc.net