Personal experiences

Pinter’s Plea for Peace

Dr Frances Pinter

It may seem strange to publish a piece on peace (if you’ll forgive the wordplay!) to celebrate Crime Reading Month. However, taking the big picture approach, the worst murders are committed during wars – as the conflict in Ukraine has demonstrated yet again. Wartime atrocities emphasise that peace is vital and, as Dr Pinter says, generations who have grown up knowing only peace lose – dangerously awareness of the calamity of war. On the smaller canvas, classic crime fiction always ends with a denouement in which normality is restored – as peace follows war.

Dr Frances Pinter, who is currently Executive Chair of the Central European University Press [CEUP], is probably best known by readers of this blog for her outstanding – and continuing work to promote Open Access models that work for academics, readers, librarians and publishers equally. Frances is passionate about achieving the fair dissemination of knowledge and equally committed to working towards world peace, and particularly the maintenance of peace in Europe. These two ambitions are, of course, not unrelated.

When Frances was writing her PhD in the early 1970s, she came into contact not just with academics but also with practitioners in the study of conflict and research into peace. These were very new academic disciplines. Frances, who was totally committed to the concepts, found herself meeting all kinds of unusual academics. She understood that there was not sufficient understanding of the processes that needed to be worked through to achieve the satisfactory resolution of conflict – something she learnt while studying the conflict in Northern Ireland for her PhD which included pub crawls with the IRA. As a result of many studies that she and others later published, we now have a corpus of vital information on the subject – although politicians are not good at deploying it.

Frances founded her own publishing company at the young age of twenty-three. This happened by accident: she was still working on her PhD when she “ran into someone whom I thought would write a wonderful book and decided to try my hand at publishing”.

Although for a short time she subsequently took a job as an academic, she carried on with the publishing and loved the whole process. She also decided that she would make a much better publisher than an academic, but if she wanted to expand her publishing activities and therefore leave academia, she “needed to find a way to have enough money to eat”. Her solution was to take out a mortgage, buy a large house in Oxford and fill it with tenants. It was a period of high inflation, so she was able to keep on borrowing against the increasing value of the property and use the money to invest in the new publishing company, which was originally called Frances Pinter Publications and then simply Pinter Publishers. She gave the company her name because she wouldn’t then have to carry out a search to see if another company was using the name she chose – which would have incurred an unnecessary expense. She became a successful medium-sized Social Sciences and Humanities publisher.

The company was twenty-one years old when George Soros invited Frances to work for his foundation. He had contacted her to suggest that it would be a good idea for the Social Science and Humanities classics of the West to be translated into all the languages of the post-Communist countries; and could she do it? Although Frances saw instantly that this would change her whole life, she accepted the offer and sold Pinter Publications.

Working from Budapest for the Open Society Foundation, she began the translation programme. This turned out to be just part of the work required. Soon she had set up the Centre for Publishing Development, whose mission was to help the new private publishing sector that was emerging in thirty post-Communist countries. She visited all the countries that were being supported and worked in all of them. Budapest acted as the hub for the programme; each country had a publishing officer and Frances worked through them. She ceased working full-time for the Foundation at the turn of the millennium, but continued in her capacity as adviser for a few years afterwards.

All these activities were either directly or indirectly focused on peace. Frances says her family history – some were victims of the Nazis in the second world war – has played its part in her recognition of the most profound importance of peace. Sometimes this made her prescient. She knew when she was working in Eastern Europe in the ‘90s that some of the West’s approaches to bringing ‘democracy and capitalism’ to the East would backfire. Former Communist states were presented with an ideal, but the reality they observed – generated by hubris and hypocrisy – was far different and generated an enormous amount of resentment. “We were rich and they were poor and much that has happened since stems from this. It pained me terribly – I could see the parallels with the resentment felt in Germany after World War I that led to the rise of Hitler. It got worse after the financial crash of 2008. Transitional and developing countries suffered far more than we did.”

Like Frances, I was the child of the generation that was shaken by the Second World War and vowed it would never happen again. She observes that, inevitably perhaps, we were followed by a generation of Europeans who didn’t think about it so much. “Suddenly, people ARE thinking. Now is one of the saddest periods of my life – to see what we were building in the West unravel.” In this, she includes Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. During the referendum, she reminded British politicians that, fundamentally, the EU was a peace project, created to maintain peace in Europe. Every politician under the age of sixty-five scoffed at the idea that Europe might engage in another war. “They knew the facts but didn’t feel the weight of them. Now they bloody well should. Europe has been deeply destabilised because so many people didn’t understand.” She feels that pro-Brexit comments are frivolous. Britain has weakened its power to promote peace in Europe by standing outside the EU.

Frances visited Kiev a few times in the 1990s, during the period in which Judith Heneghan’s novel Snegurochka is set. One of her abiding memories is the very keen desire of the Ukrainian people to have the books she was offering them translated into Ukrainian, even though everybody could read Russian.

On a positive note, Frances believes that the current generation of young adults is again engaged in searching for profound truths. Recently, in Vienna, she met a colleague of Linda Kinstler, a young American journalist who has written a book entitled Come to this Court and Cry. The book describes Kinstler’s quest to establish whether her Latvian grandfather was really working for the Nazis or the Russians. “The truth is shrouded in secrecy, but all the time she is digging into it.” Truth leads to peace.

Murder in Horncastle and Mablethorpe

Conviviality in the very friendly library at Horncastle!

Yesterday was an exciting day for me. It involved a very early start – in perfect early summer daylight, the gentle sunshine gradually getting stronger – as I travelled to the first two of the four library talks I have been invited to give in Lincolnshire to celebrate Crime Reading Month.

The first was scheduled to take place at the library in Horncastle, which is a fine old market town of brick, mellow stone and painted rendered buildings.

Post Office building, complete with guerrilla knitting!

It was also my first visit there. It was market day – I love Lincolnshire markets! – and I had time to buy new potatoes (‘Boston potatoes’), the rich local soil still clinging to them, and some strawberries.

Buying potatoes: “You want washed or dirty? Dirty? Help yourself.” Lol.

The event was very ably hosted by Helen, the library manager, and Donna and Hannah, two of the library’s librarians.

Helen, Donna and Hannah: In amongst and engaged with everyone.

All were wonderfully hospitable and knowledgeable about the history of the town and famous people who have lived there: I discovered, for example, that the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson was born at Somersby, near the town. The audience – some of them members of the library’s book club – was also formidably knowledgeable, as well as being avid crime fiction readers. After the formal part of the talk, the discussion ranged far and wide. Over tea and biscuits, we managed to talk about local murders, discrimination against women, why I use a pseudonym, local tycoons and local customs – including an explanation of the fascinating ‘ran-tanning’, something I had never come across before, even though I am Lincolnshire born and bred. It was an ancient practice adopted by the neighbours of a wife-beater, who would surround his house and make a racket by beating on pots, pans and farm implements until he treated his wife with more respect. If he transgressed again, the process was repeated: an early version of Neighbourhood Watch and vigilantism combined which was probably more effective than calling the police today. It might be worth a revival.

I stayed talking with the Horncastle audience for so long that I only just made it to Mablethorpe for the afternoon event.

The light and airy new Mablethorpe Library.

Kathy, Manager of the recently built and very well-stocked library, and her colleagues had gathered an impressive audience which consisted of local people across the age range, including several children.

An animated and warm welcome from Kathy.

Once more, there was a lively discussion which covered many topics –  again accompanied by tea and biscuits – after the main talk. This audience was interested in the process of writing, how to get published and how authors exercise their rights over the more unusual outputs of publishing – films, TV scripts, audio etc.

They particularly wanted to know whether, if I sold the film rights to my books, I would let the film company alter the characters and the endings of the books. (My answer was a resounding ‘No!’ 😉) They said they had often been disappointed when they’d watched films of books they had read, only to discover that the script writer had “mucked about” with the author’s story.

One of the young women present and two of the children were aspiring writers who wanted to know how to get their work noticed. One of the children had already won a writing competition. Ebony, her sister, presented me with a tiny, fluffy feather, which I have carefully brought home. I think it is beautiful. I suggested that they should start a blog and post on it often, sometimes supporting other writers, attend festivals, book themselves into author surgeries at events and, above all, exercise patience, courage and self-belief! Regular readers of this June CRM series will see that I have ‘borrowed’ many of these tips from others who have contributed to it.

For this series of Lincolnshire talks I have carried out some research to find an unsolved murder which took place in each of the towns in which I am speaking. As I still have two more talks to go – I am at Long Sutton library next Monday (13th June) and at Sleaford library on Friday 17th June I won’t today bomb the blog by introducing a spoiler that tells more. I shall, however, write a post about these murders – some of them very unusual – when the talks have all been delivered.

Huge thanks to Helen, Donna and Hannah and Kathy and her team for all the work they put into making these talks a success and for their magnificent hospitality. Massive thanks also to all the members of the two marvellous audiences. I hope that some of you will find this post, read it and like it – and that we may meet again. Kathy has already expressed enthusiasm for my suggestion of including a writers’ workshop next time I come.  So, two more exceptional library teams that are awe-inspiring in their people skills, organisational flair and warmth of personality. Well done, Lincolnshire!

And a very special thank you to Ebony. I shall treasure the feather!

Author friendships and a fine novel: The Physics of Grief

One of the best things about being a writer is the unexpected opportunities you get to meet and correspond with other writers. I use the word ‘meet’ in its widest (post-COVID) sense, which may mean Zoom or Teams meetings, webinars or online chat as well as face-to-face encounters.

I first met Mickey J Corrigan digitally – we have never met in person – in my capacity as an editor for Salt Publishing in 2016. Mickey, an American author, had written a book entitled Project XX, subsequently published by Salt in 2017. I was privileged to edit it – the book required minimal alteration from me – and the long email correspondence that ensued – and continues – has mainly been about sharing our ideas and experiences as writers. Project XX is an incisive satire about America’s gun culture, high school shootings and materialism. Sadly, it is as relevant today as it was when it was first published, as the recent Texas school massacre shows.

This single-sentence blurb describes it so eloquently that, although I can’t remember who wrote it, I am certain it must have been Mickey: “A darkly humorous story of girls on the rampage that will grip you by the throat and won’t let go until you gasp for breath on the final page.”

The main purpose of this post is not to review Project XX, however. Instead – with permission – it is primarily a page-long quotation from Mickey’s The Physics of Grief, a crime noir novel which is sadly no longer in print. Another powerful satire on the American way of life, it describes the career of Seymour Allan, a man in late middle age who is offered the job of professional griever by the mysterious Raymond C. Dasher. Seymour embarks on the strange occupation of being paid to ‘mourn’ at the wakes and funerals of some very unpopular people. He cares for a dying criminal who tries to murder him; he attends unorthodox funerals in the Florida Everglades that are probably illegal; he encounters trigger-happy gangsters and an alligator and meets Yvonne, a sexy redhead mourning her mobster boyfriend.

The Physics of Grief is beautifully written, quirky, erudite – though it wears its learning lightly – and profoundly funny. If you are a publisher and think it may appeal, please contact me and I will put you in touch with Mickey.

There were seven of us not counting the one in drag. Together but with much difficulty we managed to lift, shove and roll the massive body into the deep and muddy hole. After he had landed – with a resounding splat – we high-fived each other. It took us another hour to fill in the hole and pack down the wet dirt. Finally we covered the fresh grave with branches and brush, leaves and acorns, pebbles and small rocks, until the burial area blended in nicely with the surrounding environment.

Very much a natural burial. Except for the fact the gravediggers were most likely murderers, and the body that of a murder victim.

Also, in this case, there was no marker. Obviously, no one would be coming here to mourn their loss. Their very big loss.

As we worked, the night had closed in around us. The hum of mosquitos had died down and the crickets were singing from the trees while tiny bats swooped overhead. An arc of juvenile egrets swept upwards with a whoosh and flew off together. The moon rose in a silver sliver and bright stars popped out across the black sky.

The men talked among themselves, joking around and laughing. When I finished up I stood off to the side, scratching my bug bites while they smoked cigarettes and chatted. I tuned them out. I didn’t want to know. All I wanted was to get away from them in one piece. But I was afraid to leave. What if they didn’t let me go? What if they saw me as an outsider, a witness to their crime?

I needn’t have worried. My friend in drag pointed to me and reminded his peers, “This guy’s on the clock. He’s gotta go.”

All the men shook my sore hand and a few slugged me on my sore shoulders. They were dirty, sweaty, rough-looking gangsters, but okay guys.

My guide and I retraced our steps over the trail to the lot. We halted once to allow a hunching bobcat to scurry past, a fresh-killed rabbit in its mouth. Barred owls swooped down, capturing rodents in the tall prairie grass. The hooting of great horned owls, their deadliest enemies, was seriously creepy.

When we arrived back at the well-lit parking area I still felt nervous. I headed for the SUV, hoping my new mobster pal wouldn’t shoot me in the back before I reached the safety it offered.

He didn’t. He did call out to me, however. “Hey! Aren’t you gonna ask me?”

When I turned around, he was standing with his hands on his hips, head cocked to the side. The wig hair shone a brilliant gold in the light of the street-lamp overhead.

Did he want me to ask him who the dead guy was? How he’d died? If they’d murdered him? Why they were allowing me to leave after witnessing what they’d done?

My legs felt weak and I stuttered for a few seconds before he interrupted me.

“I’m transitioning, bro. But it’s early yet. I got a long ways to go.”

All rights reserved © Mickey J Corrigan 2021

Three great librarians and what makes them tick

The lovely Gainsborough Library

This month I shall be lucky enough to give talks at four Lincolnshire libraries: Horncastle, Mablethorpe, Long Sutton and Sleaford. The first two are on Thursday. In the first instance they were arranged by Lynne Kershaw, who has welcomed me to Gainsborough Library several times. When I was last there I asked Lynne and her colleagues to describe what it means to be a librarian.

On 24th May, it was my privilege to be invited to give a talk on crime fiction at Gainsborough Library in North Lincolnshire. I had visited the library before and was looking forward to the warm welcome that the librarians, Lynne, Fabi and Jill, always provide.

A relaxed interview with librarians Fabi and Jill

Between them they have devoted fifty-one years to the library (Lynne has worked there for twenty-six years, Fabi for nineteen and Jill, seven). I asked them what inspires them. What makes them so committed to their jobs?

They said they love reading and books, being with people and helping those who use the library. They are much more than advisers about and dispensers of books: their patrons confide in them and often need their support to help sort out problems.

“There’s a lady who’s been using the library for a long time who told us she had been bereaved. She was very lonely and needed to get more activities into her life. We put her in touch with people who could help her. Now the only free day she has is Tuesday.”

These librarians are particularly devoted to helping children. “We want to inspire people to read. It’s a real joy when children want to come in and choose books to read. There are still many families who have no books at home.”

The library has set up a writing group of a special kind. Led by a journalist, it aims to provide therapy for people who are depressed or suffering from a disability. And many people who visit the library regularly come to use the computers. Being able to access computers has become a crucial element of all library services since applications for government benefits switched to online. Often people who are entitled to benefits don’t have computers of their own and, quite frequently as a result, they don’t know how to use them. The librarians have had some training in assisting with this, but the technology is always changing and it’s sometimes hard to keep up with it. A ‘computer buddy’ therefore offers sessions in the library on Mondays and Tuesdays. The library is made available to other groups and societies who want to use it, too.

Lynne, who is the library manager, said that her mum used to bring her to Gainsborough Library when she was very small – she thinks from the age of seven. Recalling what the library was like then, she remembers that all the books were catalogued in card index files and there was always an old bloke smoking a pipe who had come in to read the newspapers. (The library has kept its collection of old newspapers.) After she left school, she worked in a bank; then, when she had her first child, she looked for a job in the library and has been working there ever since.

Lynne, Gainsborough Library Manager

They organise as many events as they can cope with. ‘My’ event was obviously about crime fiction. Many events are intended to keep children reading: they were preparing for a sequence of Platinum Jubilee events when I was there. They will also launch a Summer Reading Challenge, which will last for six weeks. A separate event is planned for each week and children are encouraged to read six books in the period. Each time they read two books, they receive a prize, and a certificate when the challenge finishes.

Despite all this activity – and very hard work – the librarians say that it is sometimes difficult to explain how librarians and libraries add value. They are continually having to justify their existence to the government and others who scrutinise the (relatively modest) costs of running a public library service. “It’s hard to define qualitative work.”

As an author, I can say librarians have certainly added shed loads of value for me – and, I’m sure, for other authors, too. It’s not just the joy of being welcomed to a place where my novels are really appreciated or the buzz of being invited to talk about writing – though both are of course important – it’s achieving the holy grail of being able to interact with readers in the flesh, of having the chance to ask them what they like to read, who their favourite authors are and what they think of individual books. In my experience, readers pull no punches – but they are also amazingly generous. The amount of time they are prepared to spend on reading my books and afterwards thinking and talking about them is truly humbling. It may sound trite to say it, but readers are the lifeblood of writing; and authors would attract far fewer readers if librarians did not devote every day to promoting their books.

Making crime fiction happen: the Marketing Manager’s story

Hannah Deuce is the Marketing and PR Manager for Bloodhound Books.  In this post she tells her story.

“I love the variety involved in my work. My role embraces marketing as well as PR and publicity, which means no two days are the same! My key responsibilities include the creation and execution of marketing campaigns for all the books published by Bloodhound. This means designing the graphics for publicity, gathering reviewer quotes for marketing materials, generating digital advertising campaigns and reporting on the data gathered so that we can do the very best for our authors.

“I am one of the main points of contact for Bloodhound authors. I work with press outlets as the opportunities arise and oversee brand management for Bloodhound. The marketing side of my work is highly strategic, whilst the PR and publicity require creativity and the ability to act quickly. 

“After gaining a Masters degree in History from Goldsmiths, University of London, I worked for PR companies and at magazines. These jobs gave me invaluable experience of the broader PR and marketing landscape. Next I studied for a Masters degree in Publishing at City, University of London, to hone my understanding of the industry and help me break into what I knew was a highly competitive job market. It was then I fell in love with the complexity and creativity of marketing and PR. I was lucky enough to be appointed Marketing Executive at Hachette UK, based in London. I learned so much there and became even more passionate about my work, but at the same time grew weary with big city life. A few years working in central London is enough for anyone! So I applied for posts with independent publishing houses that weren’t based in London, which led me to Bloodhound’s door!

“While I was studying for my Masters degree, I supported myself financially by running my own business. I offered my services as a digital marketing manager for companies working in the creative space (e.g., photographers and makeup brands). During this time I developed my own distinctive take on digital promotion, utilising cross-channel attribution (this means cross-referencing social media channels to complement each another) to create effective promotional opportunities. I brought this experience to Hachette and developed it further, so that when I moved to Bloodhound I was able to merge my own methods with the Bloodhound team’s existing frameworks and knowledge to create the publicity techniques we use today. 

“Bloodhound is perceived to be a specialist in the crime and thriller genres. However, we also publish historical fiction, women’s fiction and, occasionally, so-called ‘chick lit’. I love the variety of what we publish and feel that it provides me and consequently Bloodhound authors with an advantage, as I am able to recognise trends developing across different genres in both the UK and USA. I can then adapt my work and techniques accordingly. 

“Though all Bloodhound crime authors may be working in same genre, I believe that every book we publish should be treated individually. We design separate marketing and publicity campaigns for them, adapting reader targets, visuals and the language we use to maximise the opportunities offered by the storyline and author’s style for each one. We therefore create a bespoke package for every book to help it to achieve its full potential. 

“My advice to new authors would be, first of all, to build a social media presence. Even if technology isn’t your best friend, social media is here to stay. Platforms may evolve and change, but the best thing you can do is establish an author profile online by setting up a blog or website, and then create pages on the key social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter and maybe Instagram). When you have done this, continue to update them regularly with news about your books, any events you’re attending, what you’re working on, etc. Don’t be afraid to have fun while you’re doing it: social media is designed to have a casual feel, so post what you think you yourself would like to see or read, update your accounts regularly and let your readers engage with you directly. 

“I am an insatiable reader myself, and enjoy books from multiple genres, written by authors from all walks of life. I love a book with a twist that I can’t guess, or an ending I didn’t see coming! I don’t really have any favourite authors within the crime genre as I read so widely, but if pressed I would say my all-time favourite author is Kate Mosse. I would read her grocery lists!

“I live in a village on the outskirts of Cambridge with my partner Jon. My favourite way to pass time when I’m not working or reading is to train with my horse, Vince, a Danish Warmblood Dressage horse who has been with me since he was a youngster. He and I now compete nationwide, riding at national level, and we enjoy nothing more than just relaxing in the yard together.

“To anyone who is looking for a job like mine, I would say don’t give up! But be aware that it is possible to over-romanticise working in the publishing industry. People thinking working among stacks of books every day must be heavenly (it is, but it has its white-water rafting days, too!). Roll up your sleeves and keep applying for jobs, as no one simply walks into this industry. I sent off more than 100 job applications before I got my first job in publishing, so keep trying, even if you don’t get an acknowledgement after you’ve put your all into applying. Keep your CV up to date and do things which make you stand out – for example, run a book blog or book Instagram account; take a short course in creative writing to help understand authors better, or a Masters if you have the resources to do it. Network at every opportunity and build your LinkedIn contacts, keep up-to-date with books in the charts and make sure you understand the unique characteristics displayed by different publishing houses. Finally – and I would say this, wouldn’t I?! – consider working at an indie publishing house rather than one of the ‘big five’: we’re a lot more fun and you will learn so much! 

I’ve certainly benefited from Hannah’s expertise!

The author’s journey: Fraser Massey, established journalist and aspiring crime writer

Fraser Massey

Fraser Massey has recently completed Whitechapel Messiah, a crime thriller yet to find a publisher. Written in the first person, it’s about an ambitious news reporter who needs to learn that there are grim consequences for not telling the whole truth when writing headline-grabbing front page stories. The protagonist’s misrepresentation of what happened in a street battle between police and protestors in Whitechapel, where a woman died while being arrested, provokes further riots across the country causing widescale destruction and more deaths. To try to put things right, he investigates the reasons for the woman’s death and finds himself infiltrating a sinister religious cult who believe they’ve found the new Messiah.

Fraser is a journalist by profession. He studied Communications at the University of Sunderland and has worked for several regional and national newspapers, including stints as a feature writer for The Times and as a showbiz reporter on the Daily Mirror, as well as writing a weekly column for three years on the Radio Times. He loves books and says his flat is groaning at the seams. His favourite bookshop is Goldsboro Books in London’s Covent Garden.

Because he wanted to try to write fiction, Fraser enrolled in a course run by the Guardian with the strap line ‘Learn to write a crime novel in a weekend’. He says that, unsurprisingly, he didn’t achieve this improbable feat, but the course gave him a taste for learning more, so he studied on the MA in Creative Writing course offered by City University in London. To gain the award he had to write a whole novel. This was his first attempt at completing a full-length work of fiction and it was proficient enough not only to qualify for the MA but also to attract the attention of several agents.

But none followed up on their initial interest. A slush-pile reader for one agency later explained to him that his choice of genre for that book – it was a western – probably counted against him. “Westerns are so notoriously difficult to sell in Britain that most bookshops don’t even have a shelf displaying them,” he was told.

To avoid making the same mistake twice, he enrolled on a short course run by Curtis Brown, the well-known literary agency, hoping to learn how to write a more commercially appealing novel. It was while there he began writing Whitechapel Messiah.

While the book was still in its early stages, an early draft of it was shortlisted for the Capital Crime Festival New Voices award, although on the night the prizes were handed out it was pipped at the post.

Encouraged by this near success, Fraser decided that entering competitions were the way forward if he wanted to get noticed as a writer (which is how I came into contact with him – I have run several Nanowrimo competitions on behalf of publishers).

Challenged on the value of creative writing courses – opinion on these seems to be polarised, with some people thinking they are indispensable and others disliking them – Fraser says they have been useful to him. They have taught him how to read books as a writer, to learn from other authors. At present, he is reading the works of female writers, to study how they describe women – and men, too. Reading other novelists – he reads at least one book a week – has also helped him to write dialogue. For the City course, he was given a book to study and a number to call to interview the author – and he got Lee Child! He says Child was very helpful – although he did tell him to abandon the creative writing course and “learn how to do it yourself” (much to the annoyance of the tutor!).

As I am familiar with Fraser’s writing, I offered the criticism that sometimes the prose is surprisingly inaccurate for someone who has earned their living from writing. He agreed and said that one of the hazards of journalism is that the journalist gets the story down as quickly as possible and then passes it to a sub-editor for polishing. He has therefore developed a few bad habits that he is now trying to eradicate.

Fraser has many tips to offer other would-be crime writers. Here are his top 5:

  • Join a writers’ group. It’s good to have people around you to offer advice when you run into problems; and anyway writing is otherwise too solitary an occupation.
  • Focus on structure. If your plot doesn’t run smoothly, you run the risk of readers’ getting bored and giving up on your book. As Mickey Spillane said, “Nobody reads a book to get to the middle.”
  • Find regular time in your day to devote to writing. This includes time to revise what you’ve written today and to think about what you’re going to write tomorrow.
  • The crime novelist Claire McGowan taught me: “Premise (the fundamental idea behind your plot and its unique selling point) is the most important thing in publishing today.” I won’t even start writing another book until I’ve worked out a cracking premise first.
  • Writing a good synopsis is one of the most daunting tasks. Next time, I’m going to map out the synopsis before I sit down to write a word of chapter one.

This is all great advice. Each one of these tips involves exercising good discipline as a writer. It’s easy to jump too soon into the actual writing: as Fraser says, “Writing is the bit I enjoy most, so I don’t want to be distracted by having to worry whether my plot works when I’m immersing myself in the narrative voice.”

If you are a publisher and interested in taking a look at Fraser’s novel, please contact me at christina.james.writer@gmail.com .

Tomorrow the post will be by rights expert Lynette Owen, on how authors should approach copyright.

National Crime Reading Month and www.christinajamesblog.com

The Crime Writers Association (CWA) and the Reading Agency have built on their brilliant lockdown idea of designating June as Crime Reading Month (CRM). This June, crime writing of all kinds will be celebrated in bookshops, schools, libraries and museums and at special events. CWA members are all encouraged to engage in some kind of activity to celebrate crime writing and reading, however small – it could be something as simple as encouraging a local library or bookshop to mount a crime fiction display – or large – the festivities culminate with the announcement of this year’s Daggers Award winners. More information about individual activities and events can be found at Events – National Crime Reading Month. It is worth checking this site every day, as exciting new projects are continually being added.

I think CRM is a very exciting concept and I am planning to participate by offering a new blog post every day during June on some aspect of crime writing, reading or publishing. Most of the posts will take the form of interviews with people prominent in these areas and I have many great interviews already lined up: for example, with Richard Reynolds, the doyen of booksellers specialising in crime fiction; Dea Parkin, the secretary of the CWA; and Lynette Owen, the distinguished editor of Clark’s Publishing Agreements, as well as authors, book lovers, bloggers, librarians, publishers, policemen and more booksellers. I have been invited to take part in several events myself and shall be covering these, too. There are still a few spaces left in the latter half of the month, so, if you would like to take part in an interview for the blog, please let me know.

I’ll write one or two posts about certain aspects of my writing. Questions that I have been asked are: ‘Why do your books describe the towns and villages of Lincolnshire as they were when you were growing up, even though the novels themselves are set in the present?’ and ‘What is the fascination that Lincolnshire still holds for you as an author, when you say you moved away many years ago?’

I’ll pick up on this later in the sequence. In the meantime, I do hope you will find time to follow the posts and enjoy them. The series will begin tomorrow with the Richard Reynolds interview. Why have I started with a bookseller? The post itself explains.

The Sandringham Mystery: launched at two stellar events

The Sandringham Mystery was published by Bloodhound Books on April 19th, just after the Easter break. The Bloodhound jacket is brilliant – I’m delighted with both it and the support I’m getting from the Bloodhound team. They even sent me an inscribed mug to celebrate the publication date – a first in my experience!

I feel extremely privileged to have been invited to speak at two events very shortly after the book came out. First was the Deepings Literature Festival, where I gave a talk in the Oddfellows Hall at Market Deeping on April 29th to a very lively and engaging audience. I was so happy to be able to speak at the festival at last – I had been scheduled to make my debut there in 2020, but COVID intervened. Astonishingly, since I grew up in Spalding, which is only twelve miles away, I’d never been to Market Deeping before. (I know Deeping St Nicholas well – my great aunt lived there – and I visited Deeping St James as a child – with my father, whose job included dropping in on sugar beet farmers.)

I know of several Oddfellows Halls in Lincolnshire and, as the name has always intrigued me, I looked it up. The name ‘Oddfellows’ was first used in the early eighteenth century, but their practices were much older – the movement derived from the mediaeval guilds and there are even some suggestions that its roots lay in ancient Rome. The Oddfellows were – are? – akin to the Masons, but the two groups have always preserved distinct identities. They were/are certainly not peculiar to or especially relevant to Lincolnshire (though someone no doubt will correct me on this!) and, since they seem in the past to have had strong links to Roman Catholicism – they were keen supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie – their strong Lincolnshire associations are surprising. The county is more renowned for its championship of Wesleyanism than Catholicism.

The Oddfellows Hall in Market Deeping turned out to be a very hospitable place. I was grateful that so many people chose to attend the event – the hall was packed – and to stay behind to talk to me afterwards. Huge thanks to Linda Hill and Jenny Spratt for organising and promoting it.

A warm welcome from Linda Hill at the Deepings Literature Festival
Jenny Spratt, always supportive of the DI Yates novels

Five days later I was welcomed to the library at Papworth Everard, where I was honoured to take part in the first author event there since the COVID lockdowns of March 2020. This was attended by another large and lively audience, including at least two fellow authors. We managed to discuss many topics, including the relevance of government crime statistics, the importance of place in crime fiction, how to plan a novel and how authors use real crime stories for inspiration while at the same time being careful not to cause distress by depicting the real-life victims. Huge thanks again to Nicola and Terri, who put in an enormous amount of work to make this a success.

It is great to be back on the author circuit again. I’m certain that many other authors feel the same. This will be the best year we’ve had since 2019 – the magic created, as always, by wonderful readers and audiences. I’m hoping to take part in many more events as the spring turns into summer. If you are running a library, a festival or a bookshop and think I can make an interesting contribution, please do let me know.

The Sandringham Mystery and some personal memories of places and people with a part to play in its creation

When I was a child, the motor car was the ultimate status symbol. Families aspired to own one and felt they had ‘arrived’ when the car did, however shabby or humble it might be.

Our next-door neighbours, Harry and Eileen Daff, were the first in our street to bring home a car. Theirs was a forties Morris with running boards which looked as if it belonged on a film set, but that made it yet more glamorous in the eyes of the local children. The Daffs went out for Sunday afternoon rides in their car. Mrs Daff – ‘Auntie Eileen’ – was always promising to take me, too, but the invitation never materialised.

My father acquired our first car about three years afterwards, when I was nine. It was a two-door Ford Popular which we nicknamed ‘Hetty’. I can remember the registration number: it was HDO 734. Hetty, like the Daffs’ Morris, was not only second-hand but practically vintage. My father had saved hard to afford her and had still needed a loan from my miserly – but loaded – Great Uncle David to complete the purchase.

Great Uncle David lived – indeed, spent his every waking moment – working in the convenience shop in Westlode Street which he had inherited from his parents despite being their youngest son, presumably because he had scoliosis and was considered ‘delicate’. My paternal grandmother kept house for him. They were only a short bike ride away.

My mother’s mother, however, was the paid companion of a very old lady and lived in Sutterton, nine miles distant, which meant that in pre-Hetty days visits had to be accomplished by bus. It was usually she who visited us, invariably spending the morning of her day off shopping in Spalding and then walking to ours for lunch. Post-Hetty, we were able to make more frequent visits to Sutterton. However, I was still sometimes allowed to travel there alone on the bus. It was nearly always on a damp, foggy day when the sun never broke through the Fenland mists.

The house she lived in was the house I have called Sausage Hall in The Sandringham Mystery. It was a big, gloomy red-brick house in considerable need of repair. Sometimes she occupied the breakfast room when she had visitors, but her natural habitat was the kitchen with its adjoining scullery, in both of which roaring fires were kept burning night and day throughout the winter months. The kitchen fire had a built-in oven in which she would bake perfect cakes. Lunch would be tinned tomato soup and bread, followed by a big hunk of cake. Cherry cake was my favourite.

Her employer’s name was Mrs James. My grandmother always referred to her as ‘the old girl’. Mrs James’s first name was Florence and she was one of a large family of sisters, the Hoyles, who had been brought up in Spalding in extreme poverty. One of the sisters still lived in what could only be described as a hovel in Water Lane and occasionally, after one of my visits to Sutterton, I would be sent round with cake or chicken. Miss Hoyle never invited me in. She would open the door a few inches, her sallow face and thin grey hair barely distinguishable from the shadows of the lightless cavern behind her, and reach out a scrawny hand to take what I had brought, barely muttering her thanks before she shut the door again.

My grandmother, also the eldest of a large family of sisters, despised the Hoyles. Mrs James was not exempt. My grandmother’s father had been a farm manager, employed by a local magnate. He was a respectable, hard-working man of some substance in the community, unlike the allegedly feckless Mr Hoyle. According to my grandmother, Florence had ensnared Mr James with her pretty face, but that did not excuse her humble beginnings.

Florence, long widowed, had taken to her bed, for no other apparent reason than that she was tired of the effort of getting up every day. My grandmother delivered all her meals to her bedroom and sometimes sat there with her. When I visited I was expected to call in to see her before my departure. I never knew what to say. She would extend a plump, soft white hand from beneath the bedclothes and offer it to me. I’d shake it solemnly. Once, when I’d been reading a Regency novel, I held it to my lips and kissed it. She was momentarily surprised – I saw the gleam of interest in her eyes before her spirit died again.

Mrs James’s sons, both middle-aged gentlemen farmers, also performed duty visits. My grandmother and I were expected to call them ‘Mr Gordon’ and ‘Mr Jack’. In The Sandringham Mystery, Kevan de Vries, head of the de Vries empire, has his staff call him ‘Mr Kevan’. I lifted the idea from my experience of the two James brothers. I was about nine when I met them and could identify condescension when I encountered it.

Hetty broadened our horizons immeasurably. Instead of going out for bike rides at weekends, we drove to local beauty spots – Bourne Woods, the river at Wansford, Barnack – and sometimes on nice days even further afield, to Hunstanton, Skegness and Sandringham.

Sandringham, the Queen’s Norfolk estate, consists of many acres of forest, most of which were already open to the public, though the house itself wasn’t. It was possible to visit the church. Both local people and visitors would wait outside the wall beyond the churchyard for glimpses of the royal family when they were in residence. I saw Princess Margaret once. She had the most astonishing violet-blue eyes.

I associate Sandringham particularly with the clear bright cold of Easter holidays and the drowsy late-summer warmth of blackberrying. The blackberries there were enormous and my brother and I would scratch the skin on our arms to ribbons trying to reach the best ones. Parts of the woods were deciduous, but the blackberries seemed to flourish in the areas where the pine trees grew, planted in squares and divided up by trails (‘rides’).  When I was writing The Sandringham Mystery, I remembered vividly a clearing in the woods that had been made by the crossroads of two trails. In the novel, it is here that the body of a young girl is discovered, the start of a police investigation that not only reveals why she was murdered, but also uncovers some other terrible murders that took place in the past, in Sausage Hall itself. The Sandringham Mystery is published by Bloodhound Books today. I hope you will enjoy it.

Fact and fiction; fiction and fact – and ‘faction’ and ethics!

I spent the weekend reading a novel (no, not the one above, which I’ll mention later) that described a series of events with which I am personally familiar, although they happened more than ten years ago and my role at the time was very much that of bystander – I didn’t know most of the facts until some years later. I emphasise the word ‘facts’ – I’m not talking about a lookalike situation here. I didn’t know there would be any kind of personal connection when I bought the book. It is by an author whose work I have read before – mainly in the form of journalism – and I was curious to know how she had shaped up as a novelist.

As I embarked on the novel and the narrative unfolded, I was stunned to realise that this was an undisguised account of those very events. The only subterfuge the author had used was to give the main characters different names – though names very much in keeping with the originals.  She didn’t, for example, rename a Charles ‘Sidney’ or a Joanna ‘Edith’.

The novel tells the story of a love triangle. The three protagonists are a married couple and the man’s colleague, with whom he embarks upon an affair. Nothing special about that – it’s one of the oldest plots in the world. Think Jacob, Leah and Rachel or Guinevere, Arthur and Lancelot. Think The English Patient. This novel’s uniqueness lies in the detail: the venue and circumstances of the lovers’ first tryst, the man’s family situation, the place to which he takes his by-now mistress for a holiday, his death by suicide. Yes, indeed – the man commits suicide, unable to extricate himself from the mess which he has made of his life. And my point is: none of this is fiction.

Let me wind back to my own very tangential participation in this tale. I have never met the author, who is the mistress in the triangle. I have also never met the wife. As far as I know, neither is aware of my existence. I knew the husband as a professional acquaintance during the last months of his life – although of course neither he nor I knew that they were. I had just set up a new freelance business and I was working on a project with him. Out of the blue, his PA called me and told me he had “died suddenly”. I didn’t know it was suicide until some years later, when I worked on another project with another of his former colleagues, who had by now moved to a different company. We talked about his death and she described to me more of the details that led up to it.

As a result, and belatedly, I am much more clued up now about the course of events than I was immediately after they took place; and what strikes me very forcefully is that most of what I have just read in this ‘novel’ is not fiction at all. Except for the passages that conjecture what the main actors were feeling (including the wife, who, unsurprisingly, is not portrayed with much sympathy until the end), it is a blow-by-blow, more or less verbatim account of what actually happened. It may very well have been cathartic – and even lucrative – for the author, but what about the emotions it will have triggered in the other players in the story, particularly the wife? How could she have felt when she realised the hugely distressing events that had changed her life forever had been dragged into service as ‘fiction’? What about the two sons, now young men, who were teenagers at the time?

I have asked these questions rhetorically, but I am genuinely interested to know what others think. I am aware that authors have sometimes been taken to court for writing about characters who bear too close a resemblance – or even the same name – as someone who exists. For example, the first printing of Richard Adams’ The Girl in a Swing (great novel if you don’t know it) was recalled after an acquaintance of his objected to his use of her name and he had to change the name. Conversely, I know some authors make fictional use of their own experiences but relate them to characters who are quite different from the originals. None of my own characters is recognisable as an individual who truly exists, though I have observed and written about unusual characteristics in people I know to make my characters more interesting.

When does something billed as fiction actually become ‘faction’ – and how much should an author be allowed to get away with, not just legally, but also morally speaking?

I have chosen not to name the title of the novel I’ve been discussing here or identify its author. I do not want to add more oxygen to the publicity it has already received. I don’t wish to sound sanctimonious, but reading this book has made me feel very uncomfortable indeed.

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