‘I really enjoyed my time with Donna Morris. Not only does A Wake of Crows focus on solving the case of the death of a homeless man, but it delves into both Donna’s backstory and her position as a woman of a certain age in what is a changing yet still male dominated environment. She’s a likeable character and her feelings of being torn between being a wife, a mother and her career created a well rounded woman. Strong and determined, yet also vulnerable, she’s very relatable. I especially enjoyed Donna’s backstory which takes the reader to Berlin, prior to the Berlin Wall coming down. A time and place I’ve not read much about in fiction.’ Emma Rowson, The Rabbit Hole Independent Bookshop, Brigg.
Event: Saturday, 18th March, 2023, 3pm Crime panel with Philippa East, Kate Evans, Tom Mead & Nell Pattison, organised by the Rabbit Hole Independent Bookshop, Brigg, Lincolnshire. Tickets are free, but need to be reserved: The Rabbit Hole Brigg
A Dose of Reality I was naïve. I thought getting a traditional publisher would be enough. Trained as a psychotherapeutic counsellor, I know to ask: ‘Enough for whom?’ Enough for me? Enough to prove I am a writer? Enough to prove my writing is good enough to be accepted by the mainstream?
And having my three Donna Morris novels bought by Constable/Little Brown, with the first two published, has been ‘enough’ for all the above.
However, recently I have got stuck in the sticky web of promotion. Why? Because publicity drives sales and sales drive contracts for further books. I have also discovered – in a bizarre Catch 22 way – sales drives publicity. The manager of the local branch of a high street bookshop chain told me I couldn’t have a table display because my sales were too poor (and my book wasn’t humorous). She appeared nonplussed when I pointed out a table display would boost my sales.
Being in touch with other authors, I know I am not alone in the lack of promotion offered my books and the focus on sales. Even the great Val McDermid has said she would not have survived in today’s publishing world, as her first three novels did not sell well.
Number 8 on Damyanti’s list rings particularly true for me at the moment: ‘comparison can be the thief of joy’. Comparison keeps me looped back into questions like: how did they manage that? What am I doing wrong? And it is beginning to drain the joy out of the writing.
So here is something which is completely disconnected from scrabbling for publicity and is wholly to do with joy.
A big thank you to all my blog readers for sticking with me and my ramblings. I wish you all a creative year, finding joy in the precious little things of life.
I am now officially out of contract as I have delivered my third book in the Donna Morris Mysteries series. No Justice will be out in June. A Wake of Crows is currently available in all formats including audio. Drowning Not Waving is already in hardback and ebook and will come out in paperback in May.
I have various proposals with my agent – including further Donna Morris novels – meanwhile I have been writing short stories. The one I am working on at the moment is for the Crime Writers Association Margery Alingham competition. After much prevaricating I have decided to set it in 1930s Scarborough.
I do find novels easier to write than short stories. In my opinion, they are both attempting to seduce a reader into a world created by the writer. Only the short story has a lot less words to do it in. I have said in the past, a short story is like when you are on a bus and you catch a glimpse of people through a lighted window. You are totally absorbed by them for an instant and then you are gone. It is up to you to work out what happened before and after that fleeting engagement.
In her article ‘Story Writer’ (www.theshortstory.org.uk 11.08.06) Jackie Kay writes: ‘What doesn’t happen in a short story is as important as what does. Like pauses in music; it is impossible to think about the short story without also thinking of its mysterious silences.’
She says: ‘A short story is a small moment of belief. Hard, uncompromising, often bleak, the story does not make things easy for the reader. It is a tough form for tough times. If the novel sometimes spoon feeds the reader, the short story asks her to feed herself. A story asks the reader to continue it after it has finished or to begin it before it began. There is space for the reader to come in and imagine and create.’
Writing a fairly traditional crime based short story has the added challenge that I do want to seed clues, misdirect and come to a resolution. The spaces need to be there, but in quite a restricted fashion.
The other project for January is to come up with a marketing plan which I feel I can implement. For the moment this is mostly about talking to other people (mainly other authors) which I am enjoying.
Have you any thoughts on short stories or any writing projects for 2023 you would like to share?
Winter came to Scarborough and it was beautiful, if treacherously icy in places. Midwinter day in some traditions is a moment for inner reflection. It is also another point in the turning of the seasons, a new year if you like, a moment to look back perhaps.
When I consider our human world, it seems to me to be in a mess and it is rapidly messing up the rest of the earth for every thing else. Once in a while, I see, hear or read about people who are trying to do the right thing within their communities with generosity and commitment. However, this same attitude is not reflected by the leaders of most countries and most big business who appear determined to follow the same old discredited path. I hear on the TV ‘experts’ say we have the answers, we still have time to turn round the juggernaut of destruction and despair. I wish I had their faith.
However, if I speak personally, this year has been an exciting one in many ways. A Wake of Crows came out in paperback and Drowning Not Waving in hardback. I delivered No Justice at the beginning of December. This completes the three books I was contracted to produce for Constable/Little Brown. I now have an agent, Anne Williams of the Kate Horden Agency, and together we have been looking to the future. Finger crossed, further Donna Morris books with Constable/Little Brown and maybe other writing opportunities.
I have had a couple of good reviews in national publications. I was on panels for Bloody Scotland in September, for an online discussion of psychology in writing and for Newcastle Noir in December. I had a signing at a local inde bookshop. I have had coverage in the local media and events in Scarborough and York. I have done my best on social media (still not my forte).
When I first got my book deal, I thought whoopee, someone else will be responsible for publicity. I thought (naively as it turns out) that if a publisher brings out a book, it will want to promote the title in order to maximise sales. Unfortunately, I was very wrong. Most of the publicity I have garnered has been through my own efforts. And though I love doing events and having (good) reviews, I find the work required to get them and the knock backs along the way dispiriting and exhausting.
An author who I am coming to know who is a lot more experienced than me said publishers spend 90% of their publicity budget on 10% of their authors and we are in the 90% who get what’s left. How true. Need I mention Richard Osman? The three books in his Thursday Murder Club series have sold over three million copies. The most recent is the fastest-selling adult hardback from a British author since BookScan records began. Why? Because he is known AND still gets the 90% of the publicity budget spent on him. Mslexia (Dec/Jan/Feb 2022/23) mentioned him three times in three different articles and it is supposed to be a journal for women who write.
I am not alone in being exasperated by this aspect of book promotion. Katya Balen won the Carnegie prize in 2022 for her book October, October. She said on the BBC Today programme (15th December 2022): ‘Publishers dedicate a huge amount of publicity and marketing to those big names, to their celebrity authors, getting books out into the public consciousness on train adverts, tube adverts, all the kind of places where people are not expecting to find books, where they kind of seep into people’s lives without them noticing. They dedicate budgets to those authors and other authors aren’t getting it. …brilliant books are being let down by publishers. … Let’s put diverse authors on national radio and national TV and let people make up their own minds about what they want to buy.’
I always thought reviewers would like to find something which no-one else has yet discovered. Apparently not. Most of them want to review what everyone else is talking about. And readers can only read what they know about. Our local Waterstones, after much prompting from me, got in a couple of copies of A Wake of Crows which were hidden somewhere on a shelf not even the assistant could find. Whereas Richard Osman had a table inside the shop and window display. Love them or hate them, my novels are based in this very town and written by a local author.
Looking forward, if I care about my books, which I do, I know I have to gird my loins and be more proactive. I am talking to a social media mentor in January to come up with some new directions on that front. I am talking with other authors in the crime genre to see if we can do things jointly. But if you, dear reader, have any ideas, please don’t be afraid to slip them my way. I would particularly like to do more events, podcasts and have more reviews.
In ‘The Crayon Cure’ by Nicola Masters (Mslexia Dec/Jan/Feb 2022/23) she says that, after finding an agent and getting a book deal: ‘The thing I was not prepared for was how my relationship with writing would change when other people were interested in what I was doing. Suddenly, this thing I did for the sheer fun and love of it, that allowed me to ignore my responsibilities, became, well, my biggest responsibility.’
She suggests doing something creative which does not have the same pressure as producing a novel. For her it is art. For me it is collage, yoga and sea swimming. I can enjoy these activities without worrying about getting any better at them; or whether my sales are going up or down; or I am making a splash on social media.
However, writing consistently saves my sanity and is something I can lose myself in with pure joy. This is as true now as it has ever been. I love creating my characters, my stories and my worlds. I have to hold this in mind when the vagaries of sales and marketing gets me down. My books are out there, a few people know about them, a few people connect with them. This in itself is my midwinter gift.
To end this rather rambling post, let me wish everyone a splash of peace and kindness; the space to nourish their creativity; and pleasure in the small things. Onwards to 2023!
Of course, my life has been very different to Una Marson’s, however, the quote above really resonated with me. ‘My writing is my activism.’ Yes it is for me too. I rarely go on marches these days – though I was once tear gassed by the French police on an anti Front National rally. I am involved in various non-governmental organisations, especially ATD Fourth World UK – All Together in Dignity to Overcome Poverty (atd-uk.org), and I give money to others, but my writing is the place where I mainly explore the issues I feel passionate about.
I came to political consciousness through the feminism of the 1980s. The idea that everything is political and the decision not to discuss something is as political as the decision to do so, remains paramount for me. Plus I write what I would want to read. I want to read things which open me to differing worlds and perspectives.
Or do I? Apart from as background for something I am writing, would I want to read a novel from the point of view of someone who supports Nigel Farage?
Apparently we all want to live in an echo chamber these days. And it is true, that I have grown weary of arguments with people who hold views which are completely opposed to mine. In the past, I have found these energy sapping and, quite frankly, a waste of time. How many opinions have I changed? People are as entrenched in their silos as I am. I think maybe only experience changes views. Perhaps if Suella Braverman spent a night in a detention centre, she would behave differently?
However, it’s worth noting, there are studies which show that reading can increase empathy for people who have different life experiences from our own. So hopefully, if I do my research right, my writing could at least have that effect.
Will I lose some readers through revealing my political stance too readily and clearly? Do I care? I’m not sure that I do.
I am delighted to welcome author Julia Stone to my blog. Julia Stone ‘dabbled’ in writing for many years, studying poetry, short stories and script writing. In 2017 she decided to take writing more seriously and applied to Faber Academy where she wrote a draft novel. In 2018 she won the Blue Pencil First Novel award and was offered representation by Madeleine Milburn. After writing her third novel she won a two book deal with Orion Dash. Her debut, HER LITTLE SECRET was published in 2021, and her second psychological suspense novel, THE ACCIDENT, is published October 27th 2022. Available at: https://amzn.to/3Db7jPo
What are you currently working on? Editing the book I wrote at Faber five years ago. It’s a bit of a personal passion project and it’s now on its sixth major rewrite. It’s set in the 1970s/80s and is a story of intense female friendship – far removed from psychological suspense. That said, I have many other writing projects on the go and dip in and out of them as the mood takes me. Currently I’ve started work on four other projects: another psychological suspense novel about an academic who studies memory; early chapters of a fictional memoir; an outline for a dystopian script; and a non-fiction work on the psychology of small day-to-day pleasures (which may morph into an uplit novel…!)
What has inspired the novel you have most recently published? ‘The Accident’ is published October 27th 2022. In 2018 I was regularly driving down the A12 to visit my 100 year old great aunt. I find my creative brain comes into play when on a long car journey and I enjoy developing ideas to see where they end up. The initial prompt for ‘The Accident’ was sparked when I saw a couple kissing on a pedestrian bridge over the dual carriageway. It struck me as a strange place for a romantic cuddle and I pondered why they might be there. The story developed from there – a girl on a bridge; who is she and why is she there? From those simple questions a web of threads spun out and ended up as my novel, ‘The Accident’. But of course, we don’t find out the answers to who and why until the end…
You are psychologist and psychotherapist, how does this help or hinder your writing? It has helped me in two ways: Firstly, to really understand my characters, what makes them tick, how they became who they are, their wants and needs. When an editor suggests a rewrite or change to the plot it enables me to understand what is wrong and to take the essence of what they envisage but to write it in a way that fits with my style and the character’s personality.
Secondly, to manage my own emotional wellbeing throughout the process. As a psychologist, I’m interested in the emotional journey we take as writers as there are huge ups and downs along the way. During the Covid lockdowns I was asked by Faber to be a guest speaker for their Academy students to talk about writers’ wellbeing and it was great to hear they are taking this seriously.
For example, many of us come to writing from other careers where we had far more agency – often we knew what we needed to do to achieve and had some control over how well we did. In the world of the writer there are so many elements outside our control that it can be quite a shock. Your novel may be fabulous, your cover letter perfect, yet you can’t get an agent’s attention. You get an agent and they ‘love’’ your book but they want you to rewrite the second half – oh, and can you change it from a romance to more of an adventure. You make the edits and the agent pitches it to publishers, but no one is interested as the market has moved towards uplit or there was a similar theme explored by a well-known author last year. And so it goes on…
An approach I use is to think of my goals at three levels: 1) my fantasy dream, 2) an ideal target and 3) the most likely scenario – an achievable positive base point. For example, at my first book signing I set my ‘likely scenario’ at selling one book, so I was thrilled when more people came to talk to me and bought copies.
Another important thing is to try not to take reviews and feedback personally – separate your identity from the novel – they are commenting on the book not on you. Look at reviews of your favourite best seller and you will find a range from 5 to 1 star.
I have heard you talk about the cross-over between therapy and writing/story telling. Can you elaborate on any connections you find? When someone comes for therapy they share their experiences as a story. We tend to think and explain in a causal, sequential way: x caused y which led to z. We include dialogue to bring things to life. We talk about our wants and needs, our hopes and fears. There are highs and lows in emotion. All these are features of story writing.
We all have a personal narrative, a story we tell ourself about our life and who we are, to help us make sense of our experiences. And this informs how we react to events in the here-and-now. One therapeutic technique is to consider whether this version of the story is useful to us in its current form; is there another interpretation of events? Or different language? Maybe it was something we were told by someone else, or it was a reaction to specific experiences and hasn’t been revised as we have grown. Helping people to reframe the way they think of the story, to see the events through a different lense, or to assume another role (survivor rather than victim), can help cause a significant shift in mental wellbeing.
How would you describe your writing process? Although I dip in and out of different writing projects, I am a strong planner and hate wasting time on something that isn’t going to work in the long run. So I plot an outline of the novel to help steer the story line, generally using a simplified version of Save the Cat. (Email me if you’d like a copy of the worksheet I use: Julia@juliastonewriter.com) I was told the first draft is ‘telling yourself the story’ which I’ve found immensely helpful, so I relax into it and don’t worry if I stray from my plan. I also create psychological profiles for my characters and create mood boards of their worlds. This helps as I have Aphantasia – an inability to see things in my mind’s eye – so if I need to describe something in the novel I have a stock of images I can refer to.
What kind of research do you do & how do you go about it? It depends on the book. I will sometimes read related texts, particularly if I am exploring a psychological theme that is well researched, like memory. I also attend relevant talks and listen to podcasts. Most of my ideas for novels don’t require much more than a quick Google search and checking small facts, like how much it cost to make a call from a phone box in the 1970s!
Do you have any crafting tips? When I write a first draft in third person I find it often reads in a stilted ‘Janet and John’ way. One way to avoid this is to write in first person and then change the perspective. This enables you to experience events through the character’s eyes and ears and understand what they are thinking and feeling. This helps make their actions/reactions true to their wants and needs.
There’s a wealth of writing craft information out there. One of the best sites is Emma Darwin’s https://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/ She gives practical advice on so many aspects from how to write a fight scene to pacing, it’s almost a one-stop shop.
The question you wished I’d asked you. Ha – clever! Maybe something about social media for writers and readers. If an author is going to use it properly, it seems to be a daily job and I’m not sure I have that much I wish to say! I’ve mastered Twitter and interact semi-regularly with fellow writers and readers @JulesTake3. Despite attending workshops run by The Society of Authors and being tutored by friends, I struggle with the others. Instagram is designed for visuals, so I largely post images of my ceramics and occasionally a book related photo. Facebook has so far defeated me – I’ve recently signed up but seem to see a lot of videos of guinea pigs and exceptionally well-decorated camper vans! Any advice gratefully received!
Luckily I do understand old-tech and my website can be found at www.JuliaStoneWriter.com where you can find information on both my novels, read past blog posts and sign up for my monthly musings on writing and psychology.
I have been rather overly excited these last few weeks as I have been involved in several literary events.
The first was Bloody Scotland, in Stirling, 15th-18th September. The biggest crime writing event in Scotland, and the biggest I have ever attended. I got to wear one of these for the first time!
It was a whirlwind. I tended to swing between feeling, ‘Yes, I have arrived, this is my tribe’ to feeling small and a fraud. The well known ‘imposter syndrome’. But I got to meet some genuinely lovely people who I hope I will stay in contact with. And my panel went well, ably chaired by Harriet Tyce, with Jane Corry and Trevor Wood either side of me. The audience of about 30 to 40 people were attentive and appreciative.
Then a surprise invitation from Philippa East, to be part of an online panel chewing over the Psychological Secrets of Writing. Along with Philippa chairing and me, there were authors Bev Thomas and Julia Stone who are both working psychologists and psychotherapists. The discussion was far ranging and interesting from my point of view, looking at how our psychology/therapy training and experience interweaves with our writing. It is perhaps not surprising that our novels feature therapists. Some of you will know from my self-published novels a counsellor called Hannah. She will make a triumphant return in my third in the Donna Morris series, No Justice (soon to be delivered to the publisher and out next year).
In the same week, I was lucky enough to be invited to do an event at Scarborough library. It was fun to be on my home patch, with people in the audience who I knew. Not all of them were friends and family, though, there were some new readers and I am grateful for that, not to mention the book sales.
And in October, I am making the short journey to York to be part of their Big Read programme.
I do feel dizzy with it all and that means I have less headspace for the creative stuff. But this week I have to centre myself – walking and swimming will help – in order to complete No Justice and work on proposals for the next three Donna Morris mysteries.
Long time subscribers to my blog know that it is very unusual for me to post two weeks in a row, let alone one day after another. But I want to share this exciting news. My interviewee of yesterday, crime writer Philippa East, has invited me onto a virtual panel ‘The Psychological Secrets of Writing’.
Fellow panellists are writers Bev Thomas and Julia Stone, with Philippa hosting. We all have a background in psychology and/or therapy. We will be chatting about the links between psychology and writing, how our day jobs inform our creative work, and how a little expertise in psychology can help with character, plot and engaging with readers. We will also be delighted to answer live questions from the audience.
Today I am delighted to welcome crime writer Philippa East to my blog.
Philippa grew up in Scotland and originally studied Psychology and Philosophy at the University of Oxford. After graduating, she moved to London to train as a Clinical Psychologist and worked in NHS mental health services for over ten years. Philippa now lives in the Lincolnshire countryside with her spouse and cat, and alongside her writing she continues to work as a psychologist and therapist. Her debut novel Little White Lies was long-listed for the Guardian’s “Not-The-Booker” prize and shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger. She has since published two further psychological suspense novels, Safe and Sound and I’ll Never Tell, and is currently working on her fourth. See more at: Amazon/Philippa East
What are you currently working on? I am currently working on my fourth psychological suspense novel, currently titled The Hoax… It features a remote Scottish boarding school, a group of troubled teens, the untimely death of a therapist, and two ex-spouses thrown together to investigate. I’m coming towards the end of the first draft right now, which means the hard work of “making it good” starts soon!
What has inspired the novel you have most recently published? My most recent novel, I’ll Never Tell, had lots of iterations before it fell into its ultimate shape! I think ultimately, it was a combination of two idea kernels. The first was of a couple arriving in a foreign country and having to confront their own marital crises in the process of searching for their missing daughter. I also was fascinated by the question of how a family might function with a child “star” at its centre. And then I thought: what if the child star was the one who had gone missing?
How much do you think fiction intertwines with real life? As a crime/thriller writer, I definitely draw a lot of my story ideas from true crime TV shows and podcasts. I think I write to try and understand people and what makes them “tick”, so although I write fiction, I am definitely always trying to make sense of real life, and the people we encounter in it. Sadly, my novel Safe and Sound was inspired by the real-life story of Joyce Vincent, a charismatic, sociable woman in her thirties whose death went unnoticed for nearly three years. Since I wrote and published Safe and Sound, tragically there have been further similar stories in the news.
You are a working clinical psychologist, how does this help or hinder your writing? I think mostly, it helps it. As therapists, we hear many, many narratives about people’s lives and struggles, and I think this has given me insight into some of the universal themes of the human condition: love, acceptance, belonging, self-esteem and truth. I think it also helps me understand how people generally “tick” – what affects us and how, what motivates or frightens us, and how we relate to other people.
For me, writing is a way to try and understand the world, other people, and myself. I think this drive originally led me into the field of psychology – and now story-telling has become my means to ask and explore those questions. Therapy is so much about empathising with other people – putting yourself in their shoes, with compassion. This is the way I try to relate to my characters too.
How would you describe your writing process? Um… messy! (Despite being a very organised person generally in life.) I generally will spend a number of months exploring an idea and working it into a rough outline, before I start writing. These days, I steer clear of formal outlines (which tend to lead me down the wrong track) and I just make loose notes in a notebook to steer me along the right story track. I will then do a VERY messy first draft of about 80k words, writing about 2,000 words a day. I don’t edit as I go, and I write in a VERY undisciplined way. I will then usually spend another 2-3 months working through a number of further drafts to sort everything out before showing it to my editor. After which, I’m likely to go through at least another three drafts.
What helps you to write/what gets in the way? Since becoming a professional author (wow, that’s weird to say!), I’ve learnt to keep a clear separation between my creative processes as a writer, and the business of publishing, promotion, etc. Too much focus on sales, reviews, the market, etc can really create a lot of instability and self-doubt which is fatal to creativity! On a more practical level, I treat writing as a job (which, um, it now is!), meaning I prioritise it and carve out time for it every week. Having author friends to chat to and share ideas with is also essential. As you’ll see from the dedication and acknowledgements for I’ll Never Tell, my fellow authors have been an invaluable source of support along the way.
What kind of research do you do & how do you go about it? Mainly using Google! With the sorts of books I write, there isn’t usually too much research required, and most things I need to know I can find on the Internet. Occasionally, I will put a shout-out on Twitter for someone who knows about something more niche that I need help with. I generally focus on telling my story first, in the way that works for me, and do my fact-checking later, otherwise I think I would get too restricted by the facts and feel unable to keep the plot going. I have to give a shout-out here to my friend Stuart Gibbon, a retired Police Detective who has helped me hugely to get any police-procedural parts right in my books.
Do you have any crafting tips, eg to do with writing dialogue, for scene setting, plot or pacing?
There are five key craft elements that I would say all writers should aim to grasp, practise and master. These are: # show vs tell # point of view (POV) # psychic distance # the “five commandments of story telling” (the art of structure) # story genre (NB: this is different to marketing / publishing genres!)
You write crime novels which are stand alones. Have you ever thought about writing a series? What do you think are the pros/cons of writing stand alones rather than a series? I tend to think of my books as standing “one step to the side of a crime”, rather than traditional crime novels. As a result, I’ve tended to write stand-alone books that often focus on interpersonal relationships and the emotional fall-out of extreme events as much as solving a mystery. For me, story-telling is about a character’s journey though challenge, conflict, “death” and “rebirth” (the classic “Hero’s Journey”). For me, the story naturally concludes once the protagonist has completed this cycle of growth. I can imagine that in some ways it is “easier” to write a series, in that you generally have your setting, characters, etc. ready and waiting for you at the start of each book. However, I think I’d feel too “hemmed in”, since I do like the flexibility of being able to explore brand-new characters, themes and set-ups each time – even if it means starting from scratch with each book!
Could you say something of your publishing journey and your experience? I began writing ‘seriously’ about 12 years ago, with a terrible novel that I never finished or showed anyone, but which made me fall in love with writing. I then wrote short stories for many years, which was a great way to practise my craft and learn what it takes to get published. In 2015, I left my full-time NHS job to work part time as a private psychologist, and began another novel. After slogging through 12 drafts (yes, 12), an agent at the York Festival of Writing showed some interest. She read the full MS and then suggested I re-write the whole thing. The thing is, she was totally right. So I re-wrote it – cue another 12+ drafts! – and (thankfully!) the agent took me. This ultimately became Little White Lies, which subsequently sold at auction to HQ/HarperCollins. Somehow, I have since completed two further novels, and have a fourth in the pipeline!
The question you wished I’d asked you. Oo, I’m not sure! I’ll take this opportunity to say do come and say hi to me on Twitter (@philippa_east), which is where I’m regularly hanging out. I love chatting to readers, writers and all book-ish people, so I’ll be happy to hear from you. Obviously you can keep updated on my book news there, and I also post about upcoming author events I am doing (online and in person), in case you’d ever like to join in on that. You’ll also get to know my cat Mimi who regularly appears in my posts!
Attending events – especially those where a certain amount of networking and putting myself out there is required – is not without its anxieties. Then Covid added its own peculiar menace to being around people. I have to admit, therefore, it was with some trepidation that I set off for Harrogate and Theakston’s Crime Writing Festival on Saturday.
Luckily this year the sessions were in a large airy marquee and eating and drinking could be done outdoors, which allayed some of the fears. And I was able to meet with a couple of authors who I already knew, so that also helped.
I enjoyed the sessions I attended. ‘Experts Chortling’ brought together some of my favourites: (Baroness) Sue Black and Carla Valentine with psychologist Emma Kavanagh. They were joined by former police detective Graham Bartlett. As well as being a wellspring of interesting information, they were all very funny too.
By the time I got to the book shop Sue Black’s books had sold out. I am not surprised. She manages to make the business of death and the dead fascinating and entertaining without ever losing respect for those who have died. Plus, if you are a newbie crime writer, along with Unnatural Causes by Dr Richard Shepherd, Black’s books, interviews and documentaries are gold dust.
During the panel, Emma Kavanagh said crime writers were too often drawn to featuring characters traumatised by their pasts. What is more remarkable in reality, Kavanagh suggests, are the number of people who fall apart after trauma, and then show resilience, recovery and growth. It got me wondering where this might fit into a crime story.
The other afternoon session I went to was a discussion of the ‘future of the police procedural’. The panel was: AA Dhand; Jane Casey; Parker Bilal and Adam Lebor. All were clear on the duty of the crime writer to tackle difficult issues in a responsible way. Casey suggested crime authors are the ‘Rapid reaction squad of the literary world’ developing stories around current debates quicker than other writers.
Lebor said (as I have done in the past) that there are far too many young women who end up dead in the crime fiction genre. His series is set in Hungary and has a detective from the gypsy community (apparently ‘gypsy’ is the term used by the peoples themselves in this country). It has plenty of scope for exploring the lives of refugees, as well as the prejudices against the Roma.
They all characterised their protagonists as ‘lone wolfs’, especially AA Dhand’s Harry Virdee who the author likened to a gothic comic book hero (not my taste at all and I realised why I had never taken to his books). With my Donna Morris mysteries, I have gone in the other direction. Donna is definitely not a maverick and she needs the team, just as they need her (though she struggles to properly comprehend this). The relationships between the police officers are something which has been praised by some readers. I hoping the future of the police procedural includes space for a team player.
After paying £4.35 for a cup of tea (yes!!) and spending more than I would care to mention on books, I wended my way home. A shout out to Northern and Transpennine Express whose staff were friendly and whose trains were on time, comfortable, clean and not too busy.
Have any of you some good memories of literary festivals you would like to share?
Saturday 2nd July, 2022, 2pm-3pm, I will be doing a signing at Mrs Lofthouse’s Emporium, Queen Street, Scarborough. Come along for a chat, I would love to see you.
Saturday September 17th, 2022, crime festival Bloody Scotland 10:30am-11:30am, I will be appearing on a panel entitled ‘Secrets and Lies’ https://bloodyscotland.com/ to book tickets.
Thursday 20th October, 2022 part of the Big Read, York 7pm-9pm, I will be interviewed & giving a reading at York Explore https://exploreyork.org.uk/
Does the reader have to like the protagonist?
I have recently been given some feedback on the first of my Donna Morris novels, A Wake of Crows: the reader enjoyed the novel but didn’t like the main character. Unfortunately, this was passed onto me second hand, so I couldn’t probe further, but it got me thinking – should I be creating a likeable protagonist?
In fact, this question has followed me around for some time. I self-published three crime novels 2013 to 2015 with a main character called Hannah. More than one person told me she was unlikeable. She was going through a hard time and we were inside her head which got pretty dark at times. Yet her experience mirrored mine in many ways. After a friend waxed lyrical about just how unpleasant Hannah was, I did wonder whether they knew me at all or whether I was just very good at dissembling.
In crafting Donna, I made a conscious effort to create her more agreeable. She is not as ‘abrasive’ as Hannah was, Donna is kinder, she is not as intense.
Of course, not every reader is going to like every character. However, I did start considering whether this idea of being likeable or not stems from my protagonist being female? Are male detectives in crime novels expected to be amenable? How about Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Colin Dexter’s Morse and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock. Or even Christie’s Poirot? Though in each case there is a more charming side-kick who is, perhaps, the one readers actually relate to.
There has been a long tradition in crime writing of the detective being flawed in some way. I think Donna is less flawed and generally more genial than some, but maybe she (like many women) just has to be ‘nice’?
Do you have to like the protagonist to enjoy the read?