Here is an excerpt from my upcoming novel The Birds Began to Sing. This scene takes place in chapter 5, after aspiring writer Alice Darnell is offered the chance to enter a mysterious writing competition by her new agent, Isaac King.
“Isaac sat at his desk and indicated for Alice to sit on the chair opposite.
‘Alice, thank you for coming in today. Before I proceed, I’m afraid I have to ask you to sign this non-disclosure agreement. Everything we discuss today must be considered confidential until it is officially announced to the press.’
‘I understand,’ said Alice.
Isaac handed Alice a piece of paper which she read hurriedly. It seemed to be a standard non-disclosure contract, explaining that the business they were about to discuss was not to be revealed to any journalists and so forth. Alice wondered what all the secrecy was about and why a simple competition would be considered newsworthy. This wasn’t going to be televised surely? She hoped she hadn’t got herself into some kind of reality television programme for wannabe writers.
After signing the paper, Isaac began to explain in more detail about the competition.
‘Alice, I take it you have heard of Sasha Hawkins?’
‘She was our most lucrative client. Her death was a tremendous blow both to this agency and to Ravenhead Publishing.’
‘I can imagine.’
Sasha Hawkins had died just over a year ago in a car accident somewhere in the West Country. Alice remembered when this tragedy had been splashed all over the news. It had come as a huge shock, as Sasha Hawkins had been the most popular bestselling author of recent years, but had died aged just 30. She had sold her first book at 22, and had published at least one book per year since, churning out some of the most widely read and enjoyed thrillers of the last two decades. Alice had read several of her novels, and had recently even re-read some, as research during the composition of Deceitful and Wicked.
‘When she died, Sasha had almost finished her latest book, but it needed a final act to resolve the story,’ Isaac explained.
‘And now there’s to be a competition for someone to write the ending,’ said Alice.
‘Precisely. Elliot Farnham, CEO of Ravenhead, has promised the winner will get their own book published, plus obviously the Sasha Hawkins book with their new ending attached.’
‘What’s the book about?’
‘I am not allowed to tell you that yet.’
‘There are some very clear rules that have been laid out for this competition. If you wish to enter, you are not allowed to question them, but you must obey them completely and to the letter.’
Alice listened, intrigued.
‘The first of these rules is that the unfinished Sasha Hawkins manuscript will only be given to competitors under very specific circumstances. Namely, all competitors must stay as guests in the Hawkins family estate – Blackwood House on the edge of Dartmoor. Here they will have two weeks to read the book and write the ending of their choice. The best ending will be picked, and the competition will be over.’
‘Can’t you even tell me the title?’
‘The manuscript is untitled at this point.’
‘So, we have to stay at Blackwood House for two weeks, read the story and write our ending. Wow. Sounds a bit odd.’
‘Odd or not, those are the rules. Throughout the two week period of the competition, you are not permitted to leave Blackwood House or its grounds, for any reason whatsoever. If you do, you will be disqualified.’
‘What if there’s an emergency, like a family member dies or something?’
‘If you leave the grounds, you will be disqualified.’
‘That hardly seems fair.’
‘Nevertheless, those are the rules.’
‘What if you finish the ending before the two weeks are up?’
‘Then you can explore the extensive grounds to your heart’s content, or partake in any of the indoor entertainments that will be laid on for guests, but you cannot leave until the deadline expires, or you will be disqualified.’
‘Any other rules I need to know?’
‘Yes. You are not permitted any contact with the outside world for the two week duration. That includes phones, internet access and anything of that nature.’
‘But if we are supposed to write an ending, we might need to do research.’
‘You will have access to a very extensive library within Blackwood House, which should fulfil any such needs. All research will have to be done the old-fashioned way, with real books.’
‘That’s fine by me,’ said Alice. ‘I always prefer to do that anyway. The internet and portable reading devices are all very well, but I’d rather feel and turn physical pages. Anything else I need to know rule-wise?’
‘You can receive written messages from outside, but you are not allowed to respond to them. Anything you suddenly and legitimately require, such as medication, will be sent for and delivered by courier. There will be an on site doctor, but if anyone gets seriously ill they will have to withdraw from the competition. Obviously all expenses will be covered, and food will be laid on.’
Alice sat silently for a moment, taking in what she had heard. It all sounded utterly baffling, but also fascinating. Why were the publishers going to such extraordinary lengths to set up this competition? Why not simply commission a writer to finish the unpublished Sasha Hawkins book? It would cost a lot less, and would still be a guaranteed bestseller.
‘I’ll have to book the time off work,’ Alice said presently. ‘Can you give me the exact dates?’
‘Not yet,’ said Isaac. ‘But it will almost certainly take place in the first two weeks of December.’
‘That shouldn’t be a problem. What is Blackwood House like?’
‘It’s a large mansion situated at the edges of Dartmoor around Okehampton. The family have maintained it for centuries, although the Blackwood family name disappeared around 1870, as Lord Sebastian Blackwood had no sons. However his daughter Catherine married into another substantial family fortune when she wed James Hawkins, the Earl of Somerset. He moved into Blackwood House, and since that time there has always been a Hawkins in residence.
‘Blackwood House was originally built in medieval times, before being knocked down and almost completely rebuilt in the seventeenth century. It has been meticulously restored over the centuries. The estate does look beautiful, but it also has a slightly sinister reputation. Some even claimed to have seen ghosts within its walls.’
‘A haunted house?’
‘I don’t believe in such things. But there have been alleged sightings of ghostly apparitions. Its spooky reputation probably appealed to Sasha Hawkins given her penchant for the macabre. No doubt that was why she chose to stay there with her parents rather than move out. Perhaps she thought she could contact the ghosts herself, or at the very least be inspired by her surroundings. The Hawkins family didn’t think they needed all that space for themselves though, and the estate is very expensive to maintain. That’s why they opened the house to the public and only live in one small wing.’”
Here’s the blurb from the back of the novel:
When aspiring novelist Alice Darnell enters a competition to write the ending for an unfinished manuscript by late, world famous author Sasha Hawkins, it appears she might have her big break at last.
However, upon arrival at Sasha’s former home – the sinister Blackwood House – Alice is unsettled by peculiar competition rules, mysterious dreams and inexplicable ghostly visions. She begins to question her sanity as she is drawn into a terrifying web of deceit, revenge and murder.
The Birds Began to Sing is released on the 27th of October in various downloadable formats. It can be pre-ordered from Amazon (click link below).
Print copies will be available from the 2nd of November.