An Interview with Alison Joseph

Alison Joseph portrait

Photo by:  Hugo Glendinning

I am delighted to welcome Crime Writers’ Association Chair, Alison Joseph, as my guest this month. 

Alison is a prolific author of crime novels as well as a radio dramatist skilfully adapting such works as Georges Simenons’ Maigret for the listening audience.

Welcome, Alison.

Have you had a love of books and story-telling from a young age?

Absolutely. I began to write stories almost as soon as I knew what writing was. And I was an obsessive reader too.  I was quite a sensitive child, and sometimes real life was somehow too big, or too chaotic, perhaps,  so finding I could take refuge in fiction was a huge relief. Not that I had an unhappy childhood, though – it was more my own response to it.

Your career began in local radio before making documentaries for Channel 4. When did you decide to branch out and become an author?

I loved being a radio presenter, in Leeds. And then, back in London, I got into making films. Documentaries is only another kind of story-telling, really. I made a series about women and religion for Channel 4, presented by Helen Mirren, and at that time my first child was about a year old, and I’d just tuck him under my arm and bring him on the shoot with me – in fact I have a lovely photo of him and Helen gazing rather adoringly at each other. But as he got older and then I had two more children, the logistics of freelance directing and childcare just got too much for me. As I said, I’d always written, and it just seemed to be the right time to start to take it seriously as a career.

What appealed to you about the crime genre?

I rather tumbled into it. I was lucky, that my first few short stories got published – they were mostly romances for women’s magazines. But I started hatching a plot to write a detective nun, and my then agent was extremely encouraging about it, so I wrote the first Sister Agnes story chapter by chapter, sending it to her. And it got snapped up straight away, and I started on the second. But even then I had no idea how much I would love being a crime writer, and how a properly structured, page-turning story was the thing I really aspired to do.

The Sister Agnes Mystery series has an independent, compassionate and frequently challenged protagonist at its core. Did you set out to explore issues of faith, science and life as the character develops through the cases she solves?

Again, those themes grew with time. The idea of a detective nun to start with was a kind of literary device – I wanted a female detective who was single and who would stay that way, but I didn’t want anyone hard-edged, and I didn’t at that time want to write a policewoman. Sister Agnes is white, half-French but very English, a contemporary nun, working in an open order, and as I wrote more of her I realised how she can quite realistically be in a position to know more than the police, for example, she works in a hostel for homeless people in South London. It’s difficult to write a believable amateur detective in these times of expert policing, so an amateur detective has to have access to places that the police can’t necessarily uncover with any ease.aj-act

And then, of course, there’s the dilemma of having a character who believes in a benign God constantly being brought face to face with the worst that one human being can do to another. Again, this has become a rich seam in the novels, her religious doubt in the face of suffering, and the way her own faith is tested by the criminality she encounters.

The novels have a very different setting, giving each book a fresh appeal. Did you plan out the whole series beforehand or do you move Agnes on one book at a time?

I don’t plan anything. Although, I have got a bit more orderly in my plot structuring as I’ve got better at it. My early plot structures were completely chaotic and often re-written madly as a result. But I have certain obsessions which I constantly circle in my work, and having a continuous character has been a great gift in exploring them. So, for example, The Dying Light is about family secrets emerging. It’s set against the background of the building of the Jubilee Line extension – I got to go down into the tunnels while they were being built, which was fantastic. And the Night Watch is about gambling and chance and the mathematics of probability. And A Violent Act is all about creationism and Darwinism.

Last year Dying to Know was released. What appealed to you about Detective Inspector Berenice Killick?

Berenice is a policewoman, a mixed-race Yorkshirewoman. I had got to the point where I wanted to write more realistically. If you’re a copper then you really are dealing with murder, whereas if you’re a nun, even on the mean streets of Bermondsey, it’s not going to be that normal to have to solve a crime.  Dying to Know  is a police procedural about particle physics. I invented a physics lab in Kent, on the marshlands of the south coast there, and the story starts when it looks as if there is a serial killer targeting the lab. I got to visit the Large Hadron Collider at CERN for it, which was one of the most compellingly interesting days of my life.dtk200

What is the most challenging aspect of adapting someone else’s work for radio?

The thing about writing a radio play is that it’s all about speech. But in a way, so is crime writing. It’s about what people say – whether they tell the truth, whether they’re telling lies, whether they choose to say nothing at all. So my own radio plays, although most of them aren’t crime stories, still have a mystery about them, I hope.  My adaptations have been more to do with crime, for example, the Maigret stories by Simenon which I absolutely loved doing. I love working with actors too – there’s a magic about seeing someone find the potential in a line of dialogue.

You have been chair of the CWA for nearly two years, What major changes have you seen in that time and how exciting do you see the future of crime writing?

It’s been a great privilege to be Chair. It’s a role I give up this April. The single most important thing I’ve witnessed in my time as Chair has been the centrality of the crime and thriller story to our culture. It’s quite wonderful, really, how readers and viewers take the detective story to their hearts. It’s not surprising, though – a well-told story that is about important issues of criminality and morality is always going to have a huge following.

The other important issues I’ve seen are to do with publishing, and the business of it. Our genre remains buoyant, but of course there are concerns about the market’s greater reliance on bestsellers, and the sustainability of the business model of publishers selling to bookshops and bookshops selling to readers. There are so many fractures in that model, to do with on-line selling in particular. On the other hand, those fractures are opening up new markets, in terms of e-books and self-publishing, that weren’t there before.

What is next for Alison Joseph?

I have just started doing a series of novellas featuring Agatha Christie as a detective. The first one is called Murder Will Out. I was reluctant at first, as she’s real, of course, and I wasn’t sure it would be possible. But it’s been hugely enjoyable, firstly to write in that era (the first one is set in 1923) and secondly to structure a story around the tension between what’s real and what’s made up. And, thirdly, to aspire to Dame Agatha’s mastery of the crime story.mwo200

I’m also planning the next Sister Agnes story, and the next D I Berenice Killick story too, and I’ve got another, male, detective, waiting in the wings. I seem to have created these demanding characters who are very keen to get on with the next chapter in their lives. I guess I’m just lucky that I haven’t yet run out of ideas.

Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer my questions and share your writing experience and your love of the crime genre with us.

More from Alison:

Love a mystery?

If you want to take a few hours out to relax and lose yourself in a mystery, then why not meet Nicholas Penn in Dead to Sin – A Penn Mystery Book 1?


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Dead to Sin

Nicholas Penn is summoned to Gorebeck Gaol to visit a man accused of murder. Having been found holding the body of the last victim in his arms, his plight seems sealed. Nicholas is torn between a sense of duty and his feelings of hurt and disgust when being in the presence of the accused. The tables turn abruptly, and Nicholas becomes the incarcerated. Duped and incensed, he swears to find the man, Wilson, before another victim dies.

A Valentine’s Day special interview with Cindy Nord!

Cindy Nord - Professional ImageI am delighted to welcome my special guest this month, bestselling Historical Romance author, Cindy Nord.

Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview and share your experiences with us.

What inspired your love of books, or the desire to be a story-teller/writer yourself?

Coming from a family of educators, I’ve always been encouraged to read.  I devoured books by the dozens.  From classics to childhood favorites, books expanded my world. As I grew older, I also grew to love history, with a specific focus on the Victorian era.  I read my first romance, and fell in love with the genre. I enjoyed the details of history sprinkled throughout the storyline, coupled with an unrestrained romantic entanglement. Because of this combination, I felt moved to put pen to paper and craft my own love story.

NO GREATER GLORY cover

What characteristics do you think are essential in a hero or heroine?

I want my hero to be strong, involved and engaged. A man who transforms compassion into heroic action with a unique leadership ability that separates him from the rest of the pack. Of course, he’s not perfect, he does have his weaknesses, AND, ultimately, it will be the heroine who helps him overcome those internal conflicts and imperfections. Likewise, I want my heroine to have a resourceful and internal focus that becomes challenged when she meets her hero. She must have a resilient sense of purpose with an unfulfilled need that even she doesn’t know she has. And, in turn, the hero, at first overwhelming and unwanted, eventually fills this void inside her heart. Of course, the romance wrapped around these two individuals is the catalyst that spurs them onward to completing their tumultuous journey to happily-ever-after.

Reliable research is essential to historical authors, but when did you first become involved in Civil War re-enactments?

As a Victorian lecturer and historian, I appreciate the details that breathe a character to life upon the pages. Wonderful tidbits that immerse the reader fully into the time period.  And my experience in re-enacting only helped solidify this knowledge. Many years ago, when I began writing my first novel, I read in the newspaper that they were having a Civil War living history weekend at our local university. Holy Toledo! I couldn’t believe that they actually did this sort of thing.  Here was American history brought to life. The acrid aroma of campfires. The thundering gallop of cavalry horses. Women clad in Victorian gowns sashaying across a lawn. All the things that I was writing about at the time. Indeed, I was swept straight back into the nineteenth century, and fell head-over-heels in love with this whole new experience. Immediately, I threw myself into the hobby.  I even ended up meeting my future husband on the battlefield.  Although we no longer re-enact now, I’ll forevermore cherish those years spent living in the time period I love so well.

What can your readers expect from a Cindy Nord novel?

Passion. Emotion. Conflict. Indeed, an accurate, historical immersion. All those things plus an ardent romance filled with sensations that tug at a readers’ heartstrings. Getting my characters to ‘The End’ is a hard won journey, for sure. And the greatest test of success for any writer is when their readers make the trip through their novels and never want the love story to end.

In your fascinating career to date, what memorable moments stand out?

Oh my, such a great question. Let’s see… I’ll begin with being a Romance Writers of America National Golden heart finalist with No Greater Glory which started this whole incredible journey, signing with my fabulous literary agent, Louise Fury of the Jenny Bent Agency in New York City, the day my first box of books arrived from my publisher, being a USA Today Lifeblog ‘Recommended Read’ author, having my Civil War romance novel used as a supplemental read in a well-known university history class, receiving a stellar review by the Library Journal (buying bible for all libraries in the U.S., Canada & the U.K.), my first invitation to be a keynote speaker at an RWA affiliated chapter, and having my very first book signing at Barnes & Noble…these, and so many more, have truly brought me untold joy.

With Open Arms (USE)

Do you have a very organized day, or do you write around ‘life’, but to set targets?

Balancing my time and attention between writing, social media, my family and my friends is always a difficult task. I try to set up a schedule with mornings spent on the internet and my social media sites, with my afternoons devoted to writing. In the evening, my husband listens as I read what I’ve written for the day.  This is a routine that works well for me. I’m what they call a ‘pantser’ (writing without an outline), and must completely finish each chapter before moving on to the next. I wouldn’t advise anyone else to follow this writing style, so say the ‘plot-first’ experts, but it does seem to work for me.

Writing books involves long hours working at a computer. What do you do to keep healthy and active?

I thoroughly love to ‘water walk’ at the gym, plus I walk my two shelties daily around our neighbourhood. I also enjoy working in the garden, as well as bicycling with my husband. We are both passionate followers of an ‘organic’ lifestyle, along with nutraceutical supplementation.

Along with other writers, I understand that you contributed to an anthology for ‘Women in Need’. Could you tell us something about this work and the charity?

I was invited by writer-extraordinaire, Hope Tarr, to be part of her project entitled, “Scribbling Women and the Real-Life Romance Heroes Who Love Them” non-fiction anthology where I joined several New York Times & other romance fiction writers.  Each real-life story in this body of work details how we writers met, wed and love—and are loved and supported by—our spouses and life partners. All proceeds from this literary compilation go directly to Women In Need, a New York City women’s shelter for abused females & their children. I am so honoured to have been asked to participate. Happily Ever After isn’t only the stuff of romance novels and fairy tales.

What single piece of advice would you give to any, as yet, unpublished author?

Never, ever, ever give up on your dream. And since we’re going to dream anyway…DREAM BIG!

What is next for Cindy?

I am putting the finishing touches on AN UNLIKELY HERO, the third book in my four-book The Cutteridge Series. I anticipate this love story debuting Spring, 2016.  I’ve also been invited to host one of the ten coveted ‘opening night’ tables at the 2015 Romantic Times Booklovers Convention in Dallas in May.  I’m also doing several book signings, as well as guest interviews for television stations. Plus, lecturing on Victorian fashions at several locations across the Midwest.

More from Cindy:

Abigail Moor – The Cruck Inn

Abigail Moor KEC_1Abigail has to flee her home to escape from a forced marriage. This love story wrapped around an adventure takes the heroine away from the comfortable country manor house which has always been her home, onto the wilds of the North Yorkshire moors, to the beauty of the ancient city of York. From here she must seek refuge in the busy seaport of Whitby to discover who she really is.

She embraces her destiny and, accompanied by her maid, makes for The Cruck Inn, a coaching inn, on the moor road where her quest begins. Here, Abigail has her first experience of what the real world is like beyond her sheltered life Beckton Manor. The Cruck Inn was named after the design of the North Yorkshire cruck-built buildings. Spout House is an excellent example of an early inn which still exists in Bilsdale. I visited it when researching the area and was amazed at how well it was preserved. It is literally like taking a step back in time. Abigail Moor: The Darkest Dawn is available at Amazon and Smashwords.

Here are some photos I took of the amazing time capsule that is Spout House.

 

The future of romance with Pia Fenton

I would like to welcome back Pia Fenton to my blog (Christina Courtenay) who has been the RNA Chair for nearly two years.

Hi Pia!

NEC front LatestAs Valentine’s Day approaches can you share with us some of the major changes you have seen in the last couple of years within the world of romance?

I don’t think the world of romance has changed very much, but rather the publishing industry as a whole.  With the advent of ebooks and ereaders (and especially the Kindle which had a massive impact the year it was first launched in the UK), the way people read books has changed enormously in a very short space of time.  Things seem to have settled down a bit now though and paperbacks are holding their own, which is great (I love proper books myself!), but I think ebooks have given both readers and authors more freedom to read/write what they like.

As for the books themselves, the popularity of certain sub-genres come and go, but editors and agents are always saying they’re just looking for really good stories.  I think that if a story is gripping enough, it doesn’t matter what it’s about – good story-telling is key.

Are you excited about the future of romance as a genre?

Yes, I think it’s going from strength to strength.  The RNA commissioned some research into sales and trends recently, and it showed that figures for romantic fiction are going up year by year, which is fantastic.  People will always want love in their lives and I’m sure they will continue to want to read about it too.

You have branched into the Young Adult market. Could you share with us the inspiration for this exciting new venture?

I discovered a while back that I love reading YA fiction – it’s an amazing sub-genre where imagination seems to have no bounds.  Then I went to a high school reunion and it really made me think about my own teenage years, both all the fun I had and the angst that comes with being that age.  I attended an American high school for three years, which was a bit of a culture clash to begin with and it occurred to me that it would be fun to write a series of books with UK heroines and US heroes and so the Northbrooke High series was born.  I have now self-published the second book in the series, New England Crush.

What is next for Pia/Christina?

I have just finished edits for the third book in my Japanese trilogy – sequel to The Scarlet Kimono and The Gilded Fan – which is due out in paperback in August this year.  I’ve also started work on a new time slip novel, which is based on the final few months of the English civil war.  I love that period in history and was inspired to write about it as there are several ruined castles, destroyed during that time, near where I live. (Both these books are for adults, not YA).

More from Pia:

For the love of baking!

The Baker’s Apprentice is now available to download in eBook format for all eBook readers at a special price of $1.50 from Smashwords!

I love baking because it sparks memories of time spent in a warm kitchen with my mother and aunty, chatting and laughing as we enjoyed eating some of the results of our labour. From a young age I would bake the basics for the house: cakes, scones, puddings and pies. The smell of freshly made bread or scones return me to part of my childhood that will forever bring a burst of nostalgic warmth on a cold winter’s day.

A friend commented that among my titles, which focus on my North Yorkshire villages in the early nineteenth century, I had not based one around a bakery. Not everyone had their own oven, so the village bakery traditionally played an important part of village life. One comment sparked an idea and Molly Mason sprang to mind; an impetuous heroine who does not lack the courage to leave the home she dislikes, but has not the foresight to realise the hard work behind the ‘cosy’ surroundings she imagines sharing when helping her friend who runs the village bakery.

Often in life we see our own problems and look at the greener grass growing elsewhere without considering the effort that is needed to sustain the lawn.

TBA KECThe Baker’s Apprentice is set in a fictitious North Yorkshire market town that pops up in many of my titles called Gorebeck. In this story it is in a state of transition as newer Georgian terrace houses line a road replacing the older timber and cottage buildings. Some people will always welcome change seeing it as an opportunity, or others as a threat – they crave the familiar and as the old saying goes ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’. It is at a crossroads for routes north to Newcastle, south to York, east to Whitby and west to Harrogate.

I will talk more about Gorebeck in future as I look at asylums, churches, market towns, inns, new and old money, mills and coaching routes in future posts.

In this story, Molly Mason carries hatred in her heart, convinced her father was murdered or driven to an early grave and seeks to escape from his wife and discover the truth. Sometimes though the truth is not what we want to hear.

An Interview with Ian Skillicorn

Ian SkillicornWhat better way to usher in the New Year than to share an inspiring interview with Ian Skillicorn who is a very talented and successful writer, publisher, speaker, director, voiceover artist, translator and producer.

Welcome to my blog, Ian! I hope I have not omitted any of the many hats that you wear within your fascinating career.

Thanks for having me! Well, those are all of the various hats I’ve worn over a twenty-five year career to date, but fortunately I haven’t had to wear all of them at the same time!

You obviously have a natural love of language: written and audio, both in English and translation. When and where did this love of words and story-telling begin?

From a very early age. My parents are (and grandparents were) great readers, and so there were always lots of books around the place. The weekly visit to the library was really important in introducing me to a variety of authors, and firing my imagination. At weekends my parents took us to museums, art galleries and historic sites around the country, which gave me a lasting appreciation of art and history, and all sorts of stories about people through the ages. I also had a couple of very supportive English teachers at secondary school who encouraged my own writing efforts. I recently discovered that one of them is a friend of one of my authors, and we have since been in touch, which was lovely.

Did your early career, working for a national magazine in Milan, give you the exposure to the industry that you needed to realise your own literary ambitions and projects?

Not directly, to be honest. I came back from Italy with six years’ solid work experience but at that time, in the 1990s, I think people were expected to follow a much more rigid career path than they are nowadays. I had never worked in the UK, and although I wanted to get into publishing, I found I was over-qualified for some jobs, but didn’t have the relevant experience in this country for others. I ended up taking what was for me the obvious easy route – becoming a freelance translator. It was something I had enjoyed doing in Italy, but literary translation work in the UK was hard to come by, so I went into translating for businesses. It wasn’t really what I wanted to do, but I suppose I was lucky I had it to fall back on. The upside was that being freelance meant I had the flexibility to work on developing my own projects as well. It took many years of working seven days a week, doing lots of projects for free, financing some myself, and numerous false starts before I was finally able to give up the day job. Now I do work in publishing again, with my own imprint, and in the end I was the one who gave me a job!

That has to be one of the main benefits of being self-employed.

Hardacre by CL SkeltonIn 2006 you founded www.shortstoryradio.com. How passionate are you about broadening the market for short story writers?

Very. Short Story Radio was one of those projects I developed in my own time, and initially at my own expense. I often read comments online and in print from creative people who say they refuse ever to work for free, but I don’t completely subscribe to that view. Even if you are passionate about your craft and believe in yourself, in the early days of your career sometimes the only way to get noticed is by creating your own opportunities. Through working on Short Story Radio I learned that there was an appetite for short stories in English not only in this country, but around the world. I met many talented writers and actors, some of whom are now good friends, and realised how difficult it was for short story writers to find paying outlets for their work. After a while I applied for a grant from Arts Council England. My application was successful and that support from ACE financed work for a lot of writers, actors and technicians, and raised the profile of Short Story Radio and its content. It was also a very important morale boost for me, and the start of building up an audio production business which led to many interesting commissions over a number of years. For most of the Short Story Radio writers it was their first experience of being broadcast, and a number have gone on to have successful writing careers.

Do you see a growing trend for shorter fiction evolving both through audio (The Story Player) and eBooks?

I do. However, I think enthusiasm for the short story among readers hasn’t yet caught up with the form’s popularity among writers. It’s often said that the short story is perfect for today’s busy, time-poor lives, but hearing that always makes me cringe. Good writing should be savoured no matter what the length, not because it is “convenient”. I don’t like the idea of a short story being considered the literary equivalent of “wash and go”. That said, I’m sure that new technologies will present all sorts of opportunities for creating, selling and experiencing short stories. We’re only just at the beginning.

Do You Take This Man by Sophie King coverYour connection with short fiction was further strengthened when you founded National Short Story Week in 2010, which has best-selling author Katie Fforde as its patron. What would you say is the essence of a good short story?

That’s a tough question! I suppose it depends on the opinion of the individual reader and their tastes. Personally, I enjoy stories which manage to say something about the human condition, and which I can relate to even if my life is nothing like those of the protagonists. I think that’s why the stories of authors such as Saki and Katherine Mansfield, mostly written more than 100 years ago, are still fresh and relevant today. Their themes are timeless and universal.

If I could just say something about National Short Story Week. One of the best outcomes, which wasn’t actually an original aim, has been the enthusiasm and involvement of schools and their pupils, librarians and teachers. The National Short Story Week Young Writer competition, for year 7 and 8 pupils, is now in its fourth year and going from strength to strength. I can highly recommend the anthology of last year’s winning stories – The Mistake. It reached Number 51 on Amazon’s book charts last November, and has raised funds for Teenage Cancer Trust. The children’s creativity, imagination and use of language are very impressive. If we are serious about championing the short story form, surely the best way to do this is to get people interested in writing and reading short stories from an early age.

The Property of a Gentleman cover artworkThat is excellent and inspiring for the future.

In 2012 you created your own publishing imprint Corazon Books (I love the tag line: Great stories with heart!). It was launched with a novel by bestselling author Sophie King. However, you have just published an out of print title The Property of a Gentleman by Catherine Gaskin who died in 2009. What inspired you about Catherine’s work and do you intend to publish more of her titles?

I was very lucky to launch my business with a title by Sophie King, who is a great writer (and whose work inspired the Corazon tag line!) and a lovely person. I have been familiar with Catherine Gaskin’s work since I was young, when my mother and grandmothers were reading her novels. Although I knew and loved the books, I didn’t know much about the author before I published The Property of a Gentleman. I have since done some research on her life, and was fascinated to discover she wrote her first book, which became a bestseller, while still at school! I have received many nice comments from readers since Corazon Books started reissuing her novels, and it has been very gratifying to see The Property of a Gentleman back in the bestsellers charts both in the UK and Australia. Corazon Books has also recently published Sara Dane, which is probably Catherine Gaskin’s best known work. The Lynmara Legacy is out in February 2015, and will be followed by Promises in the spring.

I heard you speak at three events last year: Society of Author’s day event in Bristol, R.N.A. conference and at the H.N.S workshop. You inspire, entertain and inform people especially about eBooks. How do you view the major changes happening within this very new industry today impacting upon what for decades has been a very set publishing industry in the future?

Thank you, that’s very nice of you to say so. I really enjoy talking at conferences and giving workshops. When so much of the average working day can be spent in front of a pc screen, it’s a good opportunity to get out there and meet like-minded people, and to share ideas and experiences. Obviously we are living through a period of huge technological change, in many aspects of our lives. The publishing industry is clearly going through a major transformation and as such there will be winners and losers. I think it’s too early to say who will be the winners and who the losers. You have to be able and willing to reappraise and adapt quickly.

What is next for Ian?

I’m very excited about the books lined up for publication by Corazon Books this year, which include a number of novels by new talents and other projects I can’t talk about just yet. Plans for National Short Story Week 2015 and the Young Writer competition are already under way. I’m looking forward to doing more ebook workshops for the Society of Authors in March, and at Sheffield Hallam University in April. I also have a long list of ideas I want to pursue, which are currently at different stages of development!

Thank you for taking the time to share your work and experience with us and every best wish for your continued success with all your projects in 2015.

Thank you very much for having me on your blog Valerie, I’ve enjoyed it. Best wishes to you, and for your writing, and to all of your readers too.

More From Ian: