Christina James was born in Spalding, Lincolnshire (UK) and sets her novels in the evocative Fenland countryside of South Lincolnshire. She has worked as a bookseller, researcher and teacher. She has a lifelong fascination with crime fiction and its history. She is a well-established non-fiction writer, under a separate name.
Time to chat with Christina!
What is your latest book?
My latest book is Almost Love; like its predecessor, In the Family, it is set in and around Spalding, a market town in Lincolnshire, England. An elderly and very eminent female archaeologist disappears, leaving nothing to suggest what has happened to her except a grisly smear of blood on the wall of her hall, which turns out not to be hers. Much to his annoyance, DI Yates is assigned to the case, even though he suspects that there is a drugs ring operating in Spalding and he would much prefer to work on catching the drugs traffickers instead. However, it becomes evident that the two cases are linked. The pivotal connection is Alex Tarrant, secretary of the Spalding Archaeological Society, who inadvertently becomes involved in both crimes by embarking upon an ill-judged love affair with a colleague.
I hear you have some very exciting news! Can you share it with us?
My publisher has just been contacted by a television company asking whether it is possible to take out options on both the DI Yates books.
Is your recent book part of a series?
Yes, it is the second in the DI Yates series. I’m now working on the third title.
What are the special challenges in writing a series?
Undoubtedly remembering the attributes you’ve given your characters: their likes and dislikes, quirks and foibles. Readers spot it straight away if you contradict yourself!
What else have you written?
In the Family was my first DI Yates novel. I’ve also written a business handbook and several industry reports. I’m a frequent contributor to newsletters , magazines and journals and I try to write for my blog as often as possible – if not daily, then at least several times a week.
What part of writing a novel do you enjoy the most? The least?
I enjoy all of it, but perhaps writing the opening chapter of a new book is best of all. It gives a feeling of great adventure, of entering uncharted territory.
Some authors, like me, always write scenes in order. But I know some people write scenes out of order. How about you?
I don’t write scenes in order: I tend to write clusters of chapters about the same set of characters – i.e., those that feature in the main plot – followed by clusters of chapters about characters mainly in the sub-plot. But I consider this to be a bad habit. For a crime writer, particularly, this approach can sometimes cause errors in plot development, so I have to check the sequence of events in my books very carefully when I’ve completed the first draft. I’m trying to cultivate what I consider the better practice of writing in order.
Is it important for you to know the ending of a book before you write it? The title?
I think that it’s difficult to begin work on a crime novel before you have a pretty clear idea of the plot, including the ending, though you may tweak it during the course of writing. The titles of both the DI Yates novels came to me quite early on, but not before I’d started writing.
Some writers edit excessively as they write; others wait until a novel is finished to do the bulk of the editing. How about you?
I wouldn’t say that I edit ‘excessively’, but I’m a firm believer in revision as an essential part of the writing process. I revise each chapter immediately after I’ve written it, then groups of chapters every hundred pages or so. Finally, I revise the whole first draft from beginning to end after it is completed.
After working for a very long time on a novel, many authors get to a point where they lose their objectivity and feel unable to judge their own work. Has this ever happened to you? If so, what have you done about it?
I think that I’m quite a harsh self-critic. As someone who’s worked in the book industry for many years, I have a lot of experience of spotting ‘good’ and ‘bad’ books. However, I very much value the opinion of others. Both my editor and my publisher are kind enough to offer me advice, which I often take, and I’m always grateful for the reviews that I receive from readers. I take these into account when working on the next book.
How important is the choosing of character names to you?
I think characters’ names in novels, and also the names of places, are very important indeed. I think carefully about naming my characters and usually like the names that I have given them, though, bizarrely I sometimes get the name slightly wrong when I am writing – I might change Lyle to Kyle, for example. I’ve met other writers who also make this mistake – apparently it’s quite common. I did once change a character’s name after the book was in proof, but because it was too similar to the name of a real person – the character wasn’t based on that person, but I didn’t want to risk causing offence. In In the Family, I used three names that are very similar – Doris, Dorothy and Doreen. Some readers said that they found this confusing, so I shall take care not to do it again.
Have you ever wished that you could bring a character to life? If so, which one and why?
I’d like to meet Peter Prance (from In the Family). He is outrageously camp and I think would be a very entertaining dinner companion. And I’d like Alex Tarrant, from Almost Love, as a friend.
Do you have any advice for first-time authors?
Revise, revise, revise. Be sure that the MS that you send to publishers is as good as you can make it: check like a hawk for inconsistencies. Get all the verbs in the right tense: if you’re unsure, ask someone reliable to check for you. Write regularly – if you can’t manage daily, at least several times a week. Have faith in yourself as a writer. Most writers, even well-known ones, receive rejections, so don’t give up.
Can you tell us about your road to publication?
I’ve written several ‘literary’ novels. I’ve tried to get only one of these published. I sent it to Liz Calder, an editor well-known in the UK, who told me that I could write, but that my work was not commercial enough. I myself also thought that my plot construction could be stronger. I thought that if I moved to crime writing, I might be able to address both of these issues.I asked my publisher, whom I knew because we’d both worked in a user group together, to mentor me while I was writing In the Family. He agreed to do this, but it was not a foregone conclusion that he would like the book. Fortunately, he did like it, and made me an offer for it.
Please, tell us about your experiences with social media. What are your favorite and least-favorite parts of it?
I very much enjoy writing the blog, and it gives me a thrill when people post comments on it, opening dialogue. I like connecting with other writers and readers through Twitter and Facebook and appreciate the feeling of community that this gives; real conversational engagement is worth a lot – the lively banter is as enjoyable as when meeting people in the flesh. I’ve also received some good tips and some very generous reviews… and had a lot of fun! It saddens me when writers are unkind to each other, or display obvious signs of jealousy. I don’t think that there is any place for unpleasant comment in social media. If I don’t like a writer’s work, or feel offended by a comment on social media, my policy is not to comment. I love to use the social media to celebrate the great work of others and to share the tweets and posts that have real quality.
What do you like best about the books you read? What do you like least?
I read so many books that this is a tough question! What unites all the books that I like, whether fiction or non-fiction, is the quality of the writing. In crime fiction, I particularly value good plot construction, realistic characterization and skilful psychological portrayal. I dislike plots that stretch credibility and clichéd protagonists (especially the stereotypical detective, the jaded middle-aged semi-alcoholic man with a string of broken relationships behind him and nothing to look forward to except his obsession with his work).
How much research was involved in writing your book? How did you go about it?
I carried out quite a lot of research for Almost Love. I now have quite an extensive collection of local history books about South Lincolnshire, and consulted these. I also checked (using libraries and the Internet) that the archaeological details in the book were accurate. I read about the archaeological digs that took place in Scotland before the Second World War, and about Norway’s part in the war. I checked that it would have been possible for a ‘Northern Rosetta’ stone to have been discovered, even though, to my knowledge, such a stone does not exist; and I established that it would have been possible for an eminent archaeologist to have travelled from Scotland to Norway on a troopship.
Do you allow others to read your work in progress, or do you keep it a secret until you’ve finished your first draft? Can you elaborate?
I don’t usually let anyone see my work until the first draft is completed. Although I value the opinion of others, particularly that of my husband and my publisher, I’m wary about letting them see my work too early – I feel as if showing people the writing when it is still work-in-progress saps its energy, somehow. That sounds a bit superstitious, I know!
If you were to write a non-fiction book, what might it be about?
I’d like to write a historical biography.
What have you done to market your novel and what did you find the most effective? The least effective?
Appearing at events in bookshops and libraries has undoubtedly been the most effective way of promoting Almost Love, along with maintaining the blog, which has a page dedicated to the DI Yates books, but I rarely use the blog posts to promote my books. I simply try to write posts that I hope people will want to read. I really don’t see the point of repetitive plugs of your own books on Twitter, though it’s fair enough to draw attention to particular events, highlights or successes related to them. I do my best to be inventive in the way I tweet, whether about my own books or those of others. Promotion should be engaging and fun… for both the author and the people who read it!
Having our work out there to be judged by strangers is often daunting for writers. Do you have any tips on handling a negative review?
I think all feedback should be respected and learnt from, not brooded upon.
Are you an early bird writer or night owl? And do you have any must-haves like coffee, chocolates, wine, music or something else?
I like to write early in the morning when I can. I drink coffee in the mornings, tea in the afternoons. I never eat when I’m writing, or drink wine – I think the effect of the latter might be disastrous! Wine is for unwinding when the day’s writing is done. I prefer to work in a silent room (though I have on occasion been quite productive on trains).
We all know the old saying; you can’t judge a book by its cover. This is true. However, how much importance do you place on your book cover design?
I think cover design is very important indeed. Fortunately, Chris Hamilton-Emery, my publisher, is a trained artist and a very distinguished cover designer.
Every day brings forth new changes and shifts in the world of publishing. Any predictions about the future?
I think that e-book sales will level off. Even readers who buy e-books will continue to buy print books as well.
What’s your favorite comfort food? Least favorite food?
I like bread, especially if it’s home-made; I do make ours regularly – it’s wholemeal. Although I’m not a vegetarian, I’m not big on meat. I dislike anything that’s made with offal.
What are the most important traits you look for in a friend?
Honesty, loyalty and genuine concern for others.
If you could have one skill that you don’t currently have, what would it be?
I’d like to be much better at Maths than I am.
What’s your favorite film of all time?
That’s hard, because they do tend to date, but I love those that are beautifully filmed and The English Patient is one such, as well as being quite faithful to the book.
I re-read lots of books, but the one I come back to again and again is Jane Austen’s Emma.
What simple pleasure makes you smile?
Walking our English Pointer dog in beautiful countryside.
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