The writing community is strong and vast! I first crossed virtual paths with romance author Sara Sartagne, an author in England, thanks to Jeanne Oates Estridge, a Dayton-area author. When I realized Sara had an English Garden Romance series out, I took note! I’m not much of a gardener, but I love the idea of them, I love walking through them, and I love reading about them because they make for fabulous, immersive settings. Sara comes by her interest in gardening honestly (read on to find out more), and it is a passion of hers, just like writing. That passion for stories shows in reviews for all of her books (which includes the Duality Novels). One reader said, “This is a gorgeous book—like honey for the soul,” and another wrote, “My measure of a good book is how I feel about the characters as I read the final page. I didn’t want it to be over— was left wanting to spend more time with the two women of this book.” Those words should be enough to pique your interest, and if they do, head over to her website (scroll to the bottom) and download a free copy of A Bouquet of White Roses, which is a prequel novella to The Garden Plot. I’m sure Sara has a lot more in store for this year, both in terms of gardening and writing, so I’m thankful she took some time to answer a few questions.
Christina: Your first series, the English Garden Romance series, includes romance, of course, and gardens, but you also mention that the books involve environmental concerns too. So I have two questions: What about romance calls to you? And why combine with environmental concerns?
Sara: I can remember finishing my first Mills & Boon at the tender age of 12 and glowing about the happy ending for hours afterwards. I want to create that optimistic, everything-in-its-place feeling for readers—that sense of love conquering all.
The environmental issues facing the world are much less certain of a happy ending, so in many respects, they don’t go together at all! When I named the current series the English Garden Romances, it was just a theme to link the books together.
But over the past couple of years, the garden has played a crucial part in getting me through the pandemic. I think I would have gone stark staring mad if I hadn’t been able to escape to the garden. So my awareness of the environment and the choices we make as humans grew from that sudden understanding of how important gardens and the countryside are to our well-being. It seemed only truthful to reflect this in the books.
The environmental debate is fierce and complex, and I recognize that people often see romance as an escape, so it can be tricky to balance a love story with this issue. Some readers are clearly perplexed that there’s so much gardening in the books, so I’ve obviously not got the balance right for some!
Christina: Of course, we can’t ignore the allure of the garden! What is it about gardens that draws you in? How long have you been gardening? If you could plan the perfect garden, what would it include?
Sara: My grandmother taught me everything I know about gardening—the genes completely missed my mum! I’ve been growing things since I was able to afford my own living space, so from my early 20s. I’m affected by gardens just like my grandmother was—you go out for ‘just’ five minutes and a couple of hours later, you’re heading back, muddy and with broken nails.
As for planning the perfect garden, I’m doing this now after moving from London to Yorkshire. My perfect garden includes as many flowers as I can fit in it.
Christina: What parallels are there between gardening and writing?
Sara: Loads! Having and keeping a garden is just another form of creativity. And despite all your planning, gardening and writing can still throw you the odd curve ball.
For example, a character does or says something that I never planned, giving the book a twist I didn’t see coming, and that surprise is comparable it to a holly seedling springing up in a flower bed from a berry dropped by a bird. They’re equally wonderful.
Christina: You also have another series, the Duality series, which features two connected stories. How did you come up with that idea of connecting two stories? How do you decide which stories to connect? Will readers always be able to see the connection right away, or are some connections more subtle?
Sara: I’ve had the rough plot of The Visitor in my head since I was 21. It came from a line of a poem by Ruthven Todd, called “For My Son”:
O my heart is the unlucky heir of the ages
And my body is unwillingly the secret agent
Of my ancestors…
The idea that we are all hostage to the deeds and histories of those who came before us fascinated me. It created the story of teaching assistant Stacie, and another woman related to her, 400 years previously. The plotting was a complete nightmare! But I’m glad I stuck at it, and The Visitor is one of my best selling books.
What links the stories together can be different—in The Visitor, it was shared history. In The Fern Keepers, it was the theme of control, and a fernery. (See? I can’t escape gardens even in another series! )
In the next book, I’m thinking about women’s ability to choose, probably set in the Regency and contemporary times.
Christina: As far as writing goes, how do you decide on a character? Who they are, what they believe in, what their name is? Have any of your characters surprised you in any way? And what about settings? Your ability to describe a place plunks the reader right there. Does a setting choose you, or do you choose the setting?
Sara: Blimey… so many questions! Thinking about it, I’ve surprised myself by being much more ‘at home’ with my historical characters, less so with the contemporary, which I have to work at. I’m not clear why that should be, other than I feel we wear so many masks in modern life, it can be quite difficult to get to the heart of characters in a contemporary story.
To a certain extent, the setting is chosen by the plot and in the dual timelines, I work very hard at understanding the surroundings and context of my characters. The historical story of The Fern Keepers is set in 1862 and features a Member of Parliament. I spent ages reading about the workings of the Victorian political system just so I could credibly depict James, my heroine’s husband. As a writer, I need to know the detail, but people want to read fiction, not a history book. So I spend ages getting to grips with it all and then have to discard it!
Which might explain why the Duality books take so long to write!
Christina: On your website, you still list yourself as a newbie writer, but you’re making such headway! You have multiple novels, a couple of novellas, and some subscriber content, and you’re making more. Do you think you’ll always feel like a newbie? Does self-doubt ever rear its ugly head, and if so, how do you kick it to the curb?
Sara: Ooh, good catch and a great question. It’s four novels and three novellas now . . . I suppose “newbie” is a substitute for “new to lots of readers.” Will I always feel that way? Probably. As an indie writer without a big advertising budget—or indeed any, to date!—there will always be people who don’t have a clue about my writing.
Self-doubt rears its head often, mostly at the end of the first draft when I wonder why I bothered!
I don’t so much kick it to the curb as grit my teeth and carry on regardless, because I’m a completer-finisher, and NOT completing something would be MORE of a problem than any amount of self-doubt.
Christina: I love your author name, and I’m sort of curious: Why the pen name? How did you decide on this name in particular? Were there any others in the running?
Sara: In “real life” I’m an executive coach, working with senior business people, senior police officers, and UK Government officials. Writing under my real name might have caused me some explaining, particularly any lovemaking scenes!
My author name is an actual name, pulled at random from my partner’s family tree. I just liked it and it’s waaaaay more interesting than my real name!
Christina: What else did you do before entering the writing realm? Do your prior experiences inform your writing at all?
Sara: I’ve worn many coats, professionally. I’ve worked in theatre (backstage and front of house), in arts development, in halls management and in public relations. I think any experience you have creeps into your writing—I can’t imagine being able to divorce it from your writing. I certainly have some theatre experiences that I’m longing to stick in a book!
Christina: I love to look at people’s Instagram posts, and I’m intrigued by a few pictures of tasty cakes and such that you’ve posted. What is your favorite type of cake? Favorite dessert? If given the choice, do you gravitate toward sweet or salty food?
Sara: My waistline would tell you I just like food.
Christina: What’s next for you?
Sara: I’m going to complete the English Garden Romance series and hope to release the fourth book in late 2023. The series was originally only three books, and then unexpectedly it grew to four, so this is definitely the last one. Having said that, I like some of the characters so much, they may pop up again!
Thanks to Sara for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an artist, author, or podcaster who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.