Well, I’m honoured indeed to have been asked to Lisette’s Writers’ Chateau, where the dishy gardener is only too keen to show me his beds. Lisette also has a Bentley: he has the most amazing eyes and barks a formidable welcome, whilst Le Chat, the resident feline, takes her eau with delicacy and purrs as if I’ve been a lifelong friend. The châtelaine herself, of course, presides over all guests with the genteel refinement of the hostess of a superior literary salon, but then, you knew that!
She has asked me to talk about my writing of crime mysteries and I hope that what I have to say will be of interest to all visitors to the Chateau.
First, may I say that there are horses for courses and crime novels for crime addicts; I’ve read enough gruesome gore and nasty noir to confirm me in my belief that there is a limit to how much of that I and others can take and I set out to write for an audience which, like myself, prefers depiction of the psychology of the criminal mind to the painting of horror and the painstaking attention to police procedures. I wanted to develop character and use dialogue to point up the interest of interactions between people and, most of all, I sought to avoid stereotyping both detectives and villains.
In the world of my books, things are not cut and dried, nor necessarily tidily rounded off with everything sorted and satisfying. Life just isn’t like that. In a series, there are definitely some aspects that will be pursued in subsequent stories, but I still aim to make the books stand alone and have their own individuality, regardless of the presence of the same police personnel. So, readers of DI Yates know that I’ve used first person as well as third person narratives in two of the books, whilst in the other I’ve ‘got inside’ the head of one central character. I’ve also depicted different kinds of people to provide at least a sense of the human tapestry of the society of South Lincolnshire. As for the police themselves, I like to focus on different members of Tim Yates’ team; it’s interesting that Juliet has an enthusiastic following amongst my readership, some of whom were disappointed that I did not develop her much in the first novel, In the Family. Sausage Hall may go some way to address that.
I’m often asked about how I plot my books and this is a matter of huge importance to me, as my early unpublished work definitely needed the rigour of tight plotting. I try to fit plot design into our annual holiday, when I can escape from the interruptions, non-stop emails and telephone calls that my work-a-day existence always throws up. I have to spend time on clear thinking and working out how the layers of action will be interleaved and how to prevent the reader from guessing the outcome too soon. I’ve said many times that I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to writing, as, so far, I haven’t written chronologically and that has meant it’s all been much harder to control the detail and the connections. However, I’m always very much aware of the total concept, to deviate from which would of necessity mean significant changes to the entire narrative.
Readers seem to like my use of language and to enjoy the dialogue, so I try to include plenty of that, enjoying the cut and thrust of conversation, especially when I can create humour in the relationships between the police officers, for I know that what one reader has described as ‘zesty banter’ is often the way by which those hard-pressed men and women cope with the stresses of their jobs. Character voice is always important and quite a challenge when it is to be sustained from one book to the next – I’m acutely aware that readers pick up on inconsistencies and I have to revisit previous stories to check up on my accuracy.
I can’t avoid giving my work what some readers have remarked on as a ‘literary’ quality. As long as it doesn’t lead me into dense passages of purple prose, my style does lend itself to touches of irony, subtleties of meaning and elements of theme and symbol that help to tie the narrative together. I don’t want to have the sequence of events dictate the terms of the books, for events themselves, though of course important, are not my prime concern.
I’ve been delighted to have built up an enthusiastic following. I started out as an author and, although most people now know that I am the commissioning crime editor for Salt Publishing, I wanted to be read for my writing alone, not because I might be ‘useful’! For one thing, I think it’s vital that an editor has credibility; after all, making judgements on others’ work is difficult enough as everyone is sensitive to criticism. Having myself ‘been through’ the harsh experiences of those who try to get published is very helpful in handling difficult moments with authors… and there are plenty of those. I also wanted to establish relationships with virtual friends on the social networks as a writer, not an editor, and I’m so lucky to have formed many of those with people around the world. They are an enduring and reliable support; I enjoy interacting with them and doing my best with what time allows to support them in their writing endeavours. I’m thrilled when they achieve success. And my blog is my writer’s showcase; I aim to make every post as perfect as I can, as well as to convey aspects of my own character and opinions. Though I’ve never said this before, there’s a reference on the blog’s author page to those see-through police boards that appear on TV crime programmes and I set out from the beginning to provide over the entirety of the posts little clues to me and my real life that regular readers could, if they bothered to do so, use to form a complete picture of Linda Bennett, as well as Christina James.
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.