My Books, My Rules

It’s about 16 years since I wrote my first published novel, The Broken Token – it took a while to find someone willing to put it out. But for some reason, I’ve remembered that I created a set of rules for myself back then. I’d read plenty of crime novels and I was tired of the loner, heavy drinking detective, and so much that went along with it.

My main character would be married. Most are. Since then, only one of my protagonists hasn’t been married on quickly on the way there. I wasn’t trying to be different, simply to reflect life. And most have had happy marriages, with or without children.

I decided that anyone could die. Again, it was simply life. People die at all ages, for all manner of reasons. Within the business of enforcing the law, there’s always a greater chance of violence. I kept that rule throughout the Richard Nottingham series (and one death brought quite a few variations on “you bastard”). I ditched it for the Tom Harper books, because conditions and life expectancy had improved in a century and a half, although things do happen, like Billy Reed’s heart attack. And the main characters have stayed alive (so far) in the Simon Westow series. I’ll say nothing else about that.

The characters have lives outside their work. We all do, and they’re often more important than anything else. They round out the people, make them human and three-dimensional. Know that and you know them and you’re even more willing to follow them.

The reader has to feel they’ve walked through the place, and experienced that time. All the sighs and smalls and noise. It needs to be alive to be convincing. It’s one reason that most of my books are set in Leeds. It’s the place I feel, that I know through the soles of my shoes. I can sense the different periods of history, like seeing through different layers of time. I can touch them, taste them. All I do is write down that move in my head, including the descriptions of the where and when.

History is important, but it’s more the local than national effect. As we grow into the 20th century, that changes, but as a rule of thumb it’s true. People cared about what affected them directly. How they lived, conditions of houses, money in their pocket. A writer needs to know their history. But to be convincing, it needs to be worn lightly. Woven into the fabric of the story so it falls gently on a reader’s shoulders. No information dumps.

Create people that readers care about. Even the second character need three dimensions. Cardboard doesn’t work.

I still try to live by all of those. But – and it’s a very big but – there also has to be a good, powerful story that will engage people. That’s at the heart of it all.

I try, but it’s only you, the readers, who can say if I succeed.

To finish, please indulge me while I ask a favour. My most recent novel, The Blood Covenant, has had the types of reviews a writer can only dream about. The one coming in September, which isn’t far away now, is very good, the 10th Tom Harper novel. Yes, I’d love for you to buy them. Ideally from an independent bookshop, but outlets like Speedy Hen and the Hive in the UK have excellent prices and free postage. Like everyone, though, I know we’re all squeezed and books are a luxury. If you can’t afford it, please order from your local library. If they don’t have it, they will get it in. If every library system in the UK, US, Canada, Australia and NZ ordered copies of both, it would be handsome sales figures. And it would be on the shelves for everyone to read.

Even if you can afford, please consider the library request – that way it’s there for others.

Thank you.

If you have some time to spare – quite a bit of time – I was interviewed for the Working House podcast. You can listen here.

An Interview, Teaching, A Book

10 years

February has barely begun, but it feels like a flying start.

I’ll begin with the teaching. I’m involved in the Leeds Year of Reading, and proud to be part of it. Because of that, yesterday I went in and taught two writing workshops to students at my old school. Truthfully, it felt as if I’d achieved one of my ambitions. My day there was long ago, but I received an excellent education, and some of the English teachers were among the first to encourage my writing. This is some small way I can give something back and I greatly enjoyed it, even if I’m not one of nature’s teachers.

Secondly, the interview. It’s with Mystery People. You can read online here, but i’m also posting it in full here. It’s quite lengthy and conducted by the woman who first publishe me – she put out The Broken Token 10 long years ago.

And that leads on to the book. As I’ve said (often), The Molten City comes out at the end of March. And that month will also see The Broken Token available in print again, after so long as just an ebook or audiobook.


And the 10th anniversary celebrations are just beginning!

The Return Of The Broken Token


10 years

Next spring marks the 10th anniversary of the publication of my first novel, The Broken Token (I’m pretty certain that the launch took place on May 10 – in Leeds, of course). I’d certainly never imagined all the things that have happened since, and all the book that have come out. At that time, I was working on the second in the series.

My small publisher sold out to a larger independent publisher later that year, and they understandably didn’t want the back catalogue, so physical copies of the book quickly vanished.

Thanks to Creative Content, it’s been available ever since as an ebook and an award-winning audiobook, named one of the Independent on Sunday’s 10 Best Audiobooks of 2012.

And now, to make the tenth anniversary, it’s coming back into print as a paperback. Creative Content approached me, and I’m very happy to continue our partnership. It’ll be a trade paperback, priced at £9.99, and should be available from February. Richard Nottingham will be back!

However, I do still have one mint copy of the original paperback, which I’ll be giving away in a contest next spring. That’s real collector’s value. I’m serious; someone on Amazon is offering a new copy for £161. You’ll need to stay turned to find out all the details.

Meanwhile, here’s the cover of the new paperback:


How Do I Rate My Books?

As you hopefully know, I have a new book coming out next week (it called The Hanging Psalm, in case you weren’t aware). Take a big breath time, it’s the start of a new series, and my publisher has just accepted the follow-up, which will be appearing in a year’s time (I know, it’s hard to think that far in advance).

When something like that happens, though, I tend to look at those titles on my bookshelf with my name on them and have a think about them. It’s very rare for me to go back and re-read any. Certainly not for pleasure; I might have forgotten the details of the plots, but not the months of work that went into each one. If you’re a writer, by the time you’ve written something, revised it, gone through the publisher’s edits and then the proofs, you’re pretty much sick of seeing it.

But I have a surprising number of books out there. Quite often it astonishes me, makes me wonder just how that happened. And it makes me wonder what I think of them in retrospect. So, it’s time for an honest assessment.


I started out with the Richard Nottingham books. The Broken Token took several years to see the light of day. It was finished in 2006 and finally appeared four years later. In my memory, it’s curiously poetic, as is most of the series, a style that seemed to fit the character and the times – Leeds in the 1730s, for those who don’t know. Cold Cruel Winter was named one of the Mysteries of the Year by Library Journal, something that floored me. It’s a book that came from a single fact – the trial transcripts of executed men were sometimes bound in their skin. What crime writer wouldn’t relish doing something with that? And it was where I began to explore the grey area between right and wrong. The third book, The Constant Lovers, has its points, but taking Richard out of Leeds, even if it’s just into the surrounding villages, was probably a misstep. It diffused the focus. Leeds, tight and dense, is his milieu, and he’s been back in there ever since. The standout in the series for me, though, will always be At the Dying of the Year. It was the hardest to write, the one that cut deepest into me and left me depressed for a while afterwards. But the emotions are very raw and real on every page. Even thinking about it now, I can still feel them. Returning to Richard after a few years with Free from All Danger felt like a homecoming of sorts. I’d originally intended eight books in the series. That was number seven, but it left him at the end with some share of happiness, and God knows he deserves that.

I do have a soft spot for the pair of novels featuring Lottie Armstrong (Modern Crimes and The Year of the Gun). She’s so vibrant and alive, both as a young woman and in her forties. It’s impossible not to like her. The problem is that I painted myself into a corner; it’s impossible to ever bring her back, although she seems quite happy to leave things as they are. In different ways, I’m hugely proud of them both, and particularly of Lottie. I still feel she might pop in for a cup of tea and a natter.

The Dan Markham books (Dark Briggate Blues and The New Eastgate Swing) book came after re-reading Chandler once again and wondering what a private detective novel set in the North of England would be like. I found my answers. The original is the better book, harder and more real, and it spawned a play, to my astonishment. The second certainly isn’t bad, but it doesn’t quite catch the pizazz of the first.

Then there are the anomalies – a three-book series set in medieval Chesterfield. The first came as a literal flash on inspiration, the others were harder work, and the difference shows. I lived down by there for a few years, I like the town itself and I think that shows. There’s also a pair of books set in Seattle in the 1980s and ‘90s that hardly anyone knows about – they’re only available on ebook and audiobook. But I spent twenty years in that city, a big chunk of my life, and I loved it. I was involved in music as a journalist (still am, to a small degree), and the novels, still crime, are part of that passion. You know what? I still really believe in them. They’re pretty accurate snapshots of a time and place, and the scenes that developed in the town – the way music itself was a village in a booming city.

The Dead on Leave, with Leeds in the 1930s of the Depression, was a book born out of anger at the politics around and how they seem to be a rehash of that period. It’s a one-off, it has to be, but I do like it a lot – more time might change my view, but honestly, I hope not.

And that brings me to Tom and Annabelle Harper. I’m not quite sure why, but I feel that they’re maybe my biggest achievement to date. That’s a surprise to me, given that I swore I’d never write a book set in Victorian times. Yet, in some ways they feel like the most satisfying. More complex, yet even more character-driven. And I think someone like Annabelle is the biggest gift anyone can be given. She’s not the focus of the novels, but she walks right off the page, into life. I didn’t create here – she was there, waiting for me. And what feel like the best books in the series are the ones that involve her more, in an organic way: Skin Like Silver and The Tin God. Not every book works as well as I’d hoped; in Two Bronze Pennies I don’t think I achieved what I set out to do. My ambition was greater than my skill. But maybe I’m getting there. The next book in the series, The Leaden Heart, takes place in 1899, the close of a century, and I feel I’m starting to do all my characters real justice. I’m currently working on one set in 1908, so the 20th century is already here, and I still want to take them to the end of World War I, a natural closing point for the series. I feel that I’m creating not only good crime novels, and I strive to make each one quite different, but also a portrait of a family in changing times – and also a more complete picture of Leeds.

And that’s always been the subtext, although it took me a long time to realise it. Leeds is the constant, the character always in the background, changing its shape and its character a little in each era. And I’m trying to portray that, to take the readers there, on its streets, with their smells and noises. I’m hoping to have a novel set in every decade from 1890s-1950s (maybe even the ‘60s, if inspiration arrives), to show how the place changed.

In a way, the nearest I’ve come to running after the character that is Leeds and its essence is a collection of short stories, Leeds, the Biography, even if I didn’t realise it at the time. It’s based on anecdotes, snippets of history, and folk tales, and runs from 360 CE to 1963. For the most part, they’re light tales. But one has resonance – Little Alice Musgrove. That still stands as a good story (you can probably find it online)

But with The Hanging Psalm, out next week, I’m going back to an unexplored place, Leeds in the 1820s, when the Industrial Revolution was still quite new. The Regency, although there’s very little gentility to it; better to describe it as Regency Noir. The book is still too fresh for me to asses it fairly. But I do know how electric it felt to write. So I’m hopeful it will stand the test of time in my mind…and in the meantime, I hope you’ll buy it (definitely buy it if you can!) or borrow it from the library and enjoy it.

Hanging Psalm revised

That’s Somethin’ Else

A little less than five years has passed since Creme de la Crime took a chance on me and published the first Richard Nottingham book, The Broken Token. Someone believe in my writing enough to put an entire novel in print and get it out there. It’s impossible to describe how it felt at the launch in May 2010. Proud doesn’t come close. My only regret was that my parents weren’t alive to see it.

Now, in little less than a month I have another new book out, and there have been a fair few in between. Since I was given that first opportunity, I grasped it hard, and I’m immensely grateful that people what to publish and to read what I write.

I write every day. Every single day of the year. It’s what I do. I’m many things, as we all are, but writer is very close to the top, if not right at the peak. I love to write. It’s a pleasure. It’s an honour. I still do a fair bit of writing about music, my avocation, but the focus is on the novels.

Overnight success is rarely that. Writing is a craft to be mastered, and that takes time. We never master it, not really. We just keep trying. I know I am. I attempt new things. Some work, some don’t. And I keep trying to gain readers, one by one, and hang on to those who like my work.

Bit by bit, I try to move ahead. I’ll never be a bestseller. I’ll never win the Nobel Prize for Literature (my hope when I was in my teen and foolish). I’ve found what I do and it took long enough. But the movement is there and in the last 12 months it seems to have been a giant stride, first with Gods of Gold, then with Dark Briggate Blues. Lovely reviews, press coverage, plenty of people at the launches and events I’ve done. That’s incredibly heartening.

Both books are up for the CWA Historical Dagger. I may win, I may not – there are plenty of betters writers out there. Dark Briggate Blues is up for a Regional Read.

I’m lucky, I have publishers who believe in me. I’m not lost somewhere in the mid-list of some publishing giant. I can phone the publishers I deal with and talk to them. They do all they can to push the books with excellent publicists. I’m proud of everything I’ve put out. I’ve made many wonderful friends and had their support and had the chance to know and befriend writers who’ve influenced me. That’s pretty amazing to me.

But today, today felt like a quantum leap. I had to go into Waterstones in Leeds – the local branch of a national chain where I held the launch for Dark Briggate Blues and recently did a signing. My books weren’t on the shelf. No, the manager told me, and showed me. One is displayed on a table. And then he showed me something else. My books have their own table in the crime section, because they’re selling so well. Only two of them at present, because the third they stock is currently sold out. And they’ll be getting in the hardback of Two Bronze Pennies when it’s published.

I was amazed. In fact, I walked out without taking a picture of it. A few steps before I realised my stupidity and walked back in. Success isn’t a fortune in money. This is what it looks like. And thank you all.

Wastones table