Welcome to Novel Journey, how long did it take you to get published?
Far too long and I must admit to losing heart at times or allowing myself to push it out of my head for other creative and money-earning projects. Then there’s the frustrations of a call from an agent that the editor with a big publisher wanted to do it, followed two days later by another call that the publisher’s Sales Department have decided it wouldn’t fit in with their marketing plans. Or the editor of a somewhat smaller but well-respected publisher saying that, if I could cut it and build in more introspection, they might well be interested. But, by the time that’s done a few months later, the editor’s thinking has changed. Or an editor moves on or the company’s policy changes. The highs and lows of non-publication. Until at last an offer that sticks. It may not be a big publisher but it’s in print and available to readers!
Do you think an author is born or made?
Could I offer a third possibility? That they ‘develop’? There does seem to be a storytelling capability in the human race – it is so widespread and has been with us for so long. Most people I’ve met can do it, even if it is only anecdotes from their own or other people’s lives. But the skill to do it well, to edit and shape so that it doesn’t bore and it does excite, engross, engender emotion and empathy, that is something that can be taught and learned, even if some people appear to be ‘naturals’. I have facilitated writers groups and seen people grow. But by ‘develop’ perhaps I partly mean ‘mature’. I feel a writer does need some life experience to be able to portray convincing characters and create plots and situations with the complexity of real life.
What is the first book you remember reading?
Among my early reading would have been a little magazine called Sunny Stories with tales by British children’s author Enid Blyton. She had two book series that specially hooked me – the Famous Five and the Secret Seven, both about small groups of children who have adventures involving solving a crime of some sort, usually in their village. They certainly held me and I gobbled them up whenever I got my hands on one. That would have been my first experience of crime fiction too.
What book or project is coming out or has come out that you’d like to tell us about?
My first novel Death Comes by Amphora is the first of a series of historical crime novels. It is set in Ancient Athens in 461BC, a crucial year when power was wrested from the aristocrats and the radical democracy established, when Ephialtes the architect of the reforms was assassinated and Kimon the leader of the aristocrats exiled, when Pericles started his rise to power that led to the Golden Age of Athens. So a sizeable social revolution as a dramatic background. The assassination provided one crime to investigate but I felt I needed another murder to motivate my detective. I decided this should be someone new to Athens, so that the reader could discover the city through his eyes. I settled on Lysanias, just 18 and so just reached manhood, brought up in a distant military colony but summoned back by his wealthy uncle to join the family shipbuilding business. However, when he arrives, he finds his uncle killed in an accident that he doesn’t believe is accidental. The ancient duty of vengeance drives him to search for the killer aided by his elderly slave Sindron – I made their relationship a bit fraught to further complicate things. In a society fiercely divided between aristocrats and workers, how could they investigate both? He is now heir to an aristocratic family, so that covered one side, so I had him brought up and trained as an artisan, a carpenter, so he could talk with the other. It gives him divided loyalties and puts him in awkward situations, all adding to the fun. It proves to be a society rife with deceit and deception, so it is no easy task.
The sequel Fraud Under the Akropolis takes place two years later with a series of mysterious accidents delaying completion of the city’s defences, some of them causing death, and undermining the efforts of the radical democrat government. Leading radical Perikles asks Lysanias and Sindron to investigate but Lysanias has personal problems, the city is threatened with invasion and social conflicts and eccentric new characters confuse the situation.
What is the theme of your latest book?
I think it is ‘identity’. Lysanias, my main character, is struggling to find his own identity while never sure what the true identity is of the many lying and deceptive characters he has to deal with while investigating his uncle’s murder. Even his dead uncle seems to have had at least two identities that he presented to different political factions. This study of the nature of identity and the masks we hide behind continues in the sequel Fraud Under the Akropolis.
Any anecdotes about the research or writing of your books?
Tell you what I think is great. When your characters do or say things you hadn’t expected – and they’re right! An example: Lysanias is assisted by his elderly slave Sindron, who has been with the family a long time and prides himself on his honesty. I have him conned by a shipowner into investing some of his master’s money in a cargo. Feeling guilty, it takes him ages to confess what he has done to Lysanias. From all before, I expected Lysanias to tick him off, though I was not sure how severely. But, instead, he laughed. Totally unexpected but so right. He has suddenly, with the death of his uncle, inherited a fortune and his slave is worried about 100 drachmas! So he laughs and tells Sindron that, if he can find any more good investments, he can have a share of the proceeds.
Do you begin writing with a synopsis in hand, or do you write as the ideas come to you?
Strange this. With Death Comes by Amphora, I had my main characters, detectives and suspects, in my head. I knew what scenes would have to happen and in what sequence and a rough outline jotted down. Then I started writing and in a way it seemed to write itself, chapter by chapter, and I gave those chapters in ones and twos as they arrived hot off the keyboard to an agent and a friend to read. This assured me I was on the right track. It wasn’t till I was about halfway through that I attempted a detailed synopsis, under pressure from the agent, who could probably see it in danger of getting too long. This did reveal problems in wrapping up the plot in the context of the big set-piece scenes I had planned but they were solvable.
The sequel has been very different. Though a lot of the content was clear in my head, it has arrived in fairly random scenes from different parts of the story involving a variety of characters, some as fully-written scenes, some as stretches of bald play-like dialogue. Very exciting and dramatic stuff but leaving me with the task of. putting them all in the right order, fleshing them out, making it all work as a whole. Another example of a writer’s peculiar subconscious.
How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?
As I’m located in Ireland, there’s a limited amount of publicity possible from persuading shops, libraries, schools, etc. to allow me to give talks, do readings and signings (though I’ve enjoyed those I have done), so I have been seriously tackling the possibilities opened up by the internet – one of the big advantages authors have now for low-cost promotion.
It starts with joining online fiction chatgroups in the genre you write in – in my case DorothyL, CrimeThruTime and Murder Must Advertise (great for marketing tips and suggestions), contributing from time to time and using them to let readers and writers know about your ventures. Your own website, book trailer and blog come next. Then organizing blog booktours round a range of host blogs. If you’re not naturally a chatterbox with words bubbling out of your head on every topic that might be of interest to readers and take your contributions seriously (as most writers do), quite hard work. But very exciting. As for the social networking of Facebook and Twitter, how do working writers find the time? No-one seems very clear on how and if it converts into sales of books but there seems to be a general belief that it does.
Don’t give up unless it stops being enjoyable.