Tracy Darnton's new tense YA page-turner, Ready or Not, follows a group of teenagers meeting for the first time since one of the group went missing last summer.
Tracy studied law at Camridge and worked as a solicitor and a law lecturer. In 2016 she decided to take a different path and graduated from the Bath Spa MA Writing for Young People. She won the Stripes YA Short Story Prize in 2016, run in partnership with The Bookseller's YA Book Prize. Her story, The Letter, was published with some of the top UKYA authors' work in I'll Be Home for Christmas. The Truth About Lies was her debut novel. Tracy lives in Bath.
Ready Or Not (Little Tiger Press)
We spoke with author Tracy Darnton about her new YA psychological thriller, Ready Or Not, which explores what happens to a group of teenagers when a game goes wrong, and one of them disappears...
Tracy Darnton tells us more in this video and Q&A, looking at themes of privilege, toxic friendships and the psychology of her characters, as well as what inspires her stories:
Q&A with Tracy Darnton
1. What drew you into writing for teen and YA readers, and what kinds of novels do you write?
There are lots of good reasons to write for teen and YA readers. Firstly, it's full of all the big themes and ideas which appeals to me. You can embrace the kind of interesting structures I enjoy to tell your story. I tend to use more than one timeline for the reader to piece together. Ready or Not, for instance, also has Millie's letters to Kat, newspaper articles and police interview transcripts weaving through the narrative. I also love writing main characters who are challenging and complex; luckily teen and YA is the natural home for them.
Best of all, there's so much more engagement with your readership. I particularly love going along to YA book clubs in schools or libraries. And I can't wait to be part of YALC again this summer. I've missed it!
I'm aiming to write intelligent thrillers that live in the reader's head long after closing the book. I've always loved puzzles, escape rooms and a dash of Scandi-noir, so I'm definitely drawn to intricate plots and working out who to trust. I enjoy laying down clues and red herrings and my favourite part of the book to write is usually the ending.
2. Where and when do you do your best writing?
I wish I knew! I still don't have a routine. I'm not one of those writers who writes every day - I just feel guilty about not writing every day! I work best with a definite deadline otherwise I tend to fiddle-faddle (technical term!) and procrastinate. Being away from home and not distracted by work and domestic chores would be my ideal. I need to clear my headspace and then work in a concentrated way for a few days.
3. Can you tell us about your latest novel, Ready or Not?
I'd love to. I'm so excited about this one. Ready or Not is a thriller about the disappearance of a teenage girl called Kat during a game of hide-and-seek on holiday in Cornwall. The same group of three families have gone away together for years so the kids have grown up together, but cracks are appearing in their friendships. One year on, struggling to come to terms with Kat's disappearance, the remaining teens return to Cornwall for closure. Secrets begin to be revealed…
It's a coming-of-age story full of people playing games. It deals with obsession, toxic friendships and privilege.
4. What gave you the first idea for the story? And do real stories help inspire ideas?
This story started with a very strong image in my head of a girl standing by a tree counting aloud with her eyes covered. I just knew that when she opened her eyes she couldn't find everyone. And the story grew from that idea.
I gave it the Ready or Not title, wrote the strapline 'People don't just disappear, do they?' which is now on the cover, and headed off. Often publishers change titles but Ready or Not stuck.
Although Ready or Not wasn't based on a real story, I've given it a bit of a 'true crime' feel by including newspaper articles and interview transcripts.
5. How do your novels usually begin? Do you start with your characters, a plot or the setting?
So far, they've all evolved differently. I never plan out a novel. The voice and psychology of the character who's telling the story is definitely important to me in working out the story. In Ready or Not I was building it around Millie.
In The Truth About Lies, the main character was a girl who could remember everything and I was really intrigued by what that would do to someone. Could she forgive if she couldn't forget?
In The Rules I loved writing Amber, a spiky but vulnerable main character, who grew up in a household constantly preparing for disaster. Again, it was the psychological aspect that really appealed to me and helped me to develop the plotting.
As for the next one, I wish I could be more of a planner but I'll see what happens…
6. Do you always know how they will end?
I like to write with the sense of an ending from the very beginning. I might not know exactly how to get to that ending but I'll always write a last paragraph or two as soon as I've written the opening. Of course, I can change it if I want to, but, in fact, Millie's last section in Ready or Not is barely changed from when I first wrote it.
7. Ready or Not is structured around a game of hide and seek - what gave you the idea for that motif?
The strong starting image led me in that direction - but it's also perfect for a book where everybody is hiding something. Creek House is the ideal place to play it and I liked that Millie was often literally hiding and seeing or overhearing things she didn't quite understand. The reader is seeking too - for the truth.
8. Who did you find the most intriguing character in Ready or Not to write?
Millie. She's complex. She doesn't pick up on all the signals and clues that the reader will about what's happening. It was fun for me to see inside her head by writing her letters to Kat.
9. How tricky was it to navigate Millie's gradual realisation that she views the holidays at Creek House quite differently from the other teenagers there?
The timelines and letters create a tangled web but there are moments when you see the innocence or naivety of Millie very starkly. Her family isn't as well off as the other two - I wanted to show how the other teens take for granted their privilege in having such a beautiful holiday home, and their other trips abroad. I used how Millie signs her letters to get a feel for her changing emotions towards Kat.
10. Creek House, where the families stay for the holidays, sounds wonderful - did a particular place help inspire it?
I was writing this book in lockdown. My previous book The Rules (ironically about preparing for disaster!) was launched in my 'bunker' basement by me alone in a plastic poncho with baked beans and toilet rolls as the guests. So when I was writing Ready or Not, I was definitely craving the outdoors, freedom and holidays. I wanted the book to have young people hanging out together in the sunshine and having parties. I needed the characters to be able to go paddle-boarding, sit in the pub garden, and be planning carefree overseas travel. I set Ready or Not before 2020 to avoid the pandemic entirely.
My setting was based on the Roseland Peninsula, Helford and Fal rivers where, over the years, we've had so many lovely family holidays. We stayed there again in a National Trust holiday cottage when lockdown was lifted. I spent hours walking the creeks and getting inspiration for Creek House. I saw some very lovely homes to base it on and I also had in mind one of my favourite places to visit - Greenway in Devon, Agatha Christie's beautiful house on the river Dart. I could move right in there immediately. It has a lovely feeling to it and beautiful views down to the estuary - and a boathouse.
11. What are you writing currently?
I have started something new but I'm having a bit of a breather after a tricky couple of years so there will be a bit of a wait for the next one. I do have some picture books in the pipeline by way of a complete change.
12. What do you do to relax when you're not at your desk?
I love to read, hang out in bookshops and catch up with friends. But I'm also mad keen on board games - I've slotted quite a few into Ready or Not.