Where Do The Characters Come From?

Just to start, I have to tell you the Kirkus Reviews, one of the major trade journals in the US, has given The Hocus Girl a starred revew (they also gave one to my last book, The Leaden Heart). you can read the full review here, but this is the final line: “This historical tour de force reminds readers who come for the mystery that life hasn’t changed for the disenfranchised.

I’ll take that.

Meanwhile..

10 years

 

They say that an author draws on people he knows for his characters.

I beg to differ.

I feel that in many cases I simply channel the people who populate my books. But if they have any traits, they’re not from people I know; they’re all small facets of me.

Richard Nottingham, for instance, is a very straight arrow, an utterly honest and upright man. Someone to be admired. He’s who I’d like to be, in an ideal world. The Leeds equivalent of the sheriff from a Western (albeit an old one). Amos Worthy is that creeping darkness in my soul. It’s there, I just need to let it out.

Dan Markham is cooler than I’ll ever be, a man at home in a jazz club or standing up to a criminal. He has style, something I’ve always aspired to but never achieved. Carla, his girlfriend, is the creative spirit I always wished I could be. But I never have quite managed to throw off the shackles of society.

Lottie Armstrong. She’s strength in adversity, someone who doesn’t give up. I suppose in some ways I have that, since I kept on fight to be published and eventually got there. But she’s a woman and that automatically makes her stronger than any man. And revisiting her 20 years later, she’s still got the resilience under all the sorrow. Urban Raven, from The Dead on Leave, has some of the same qualities. But with a crude plastic surgery face, his obstacles are more visible and obvious.

Simon Westow is resourceful, brave, intelligent, a man who’s overcome his past. That’s not me, of course; I’ve been far luckier than that. But I’d like to believe I had to spirit to be able to work my way up. Maybe I would, too. But probably not. Jane…Jane is my real darkness, the side we keep in because that’s what society teaches us. There are times I feel as isolated from the world as her. As an only child I’m good at keeping things inside, at being able to compartmentalise everything in my head. She’s the extreme, with everything coloured by a very deadly nature.

Tom Harper? He’s perhaps as close as I’ve come to a younger me, and his hearing problem certainly mirrors my own

Annabelle? No, Annabelle is channelled. She truly did come out of the ether. But thank God she’s here.

The Ten Year Project

 

It’s hard to believe, but next Spring it’ll be 10 years since my first book set in Leeds was published – The Broken Token, in case you’re curious. There will be a new Tom Harper novel appearing then, the eighth in the series, which will mean I’ve published a total of  22 novels and a collection of short stories set in Leeds in the last decade.

That’s not counting a couple of plays and involvement in the exhibition The Vote Before The Vote, where Annabelle Harper stepped into Leeds history.

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Phew.

I’m going to celebrate it. 10 years is worth celebrating. It took a while to figure out how, though…

It has to be stories. After all, I’m a writer. So from November to next March I will have a short story with one of my Leeds characters each month. I’ll be starting with Dan Markham, taking him into the very beginning of the 1960s, then working my way back through time – Urban Raven, Lottie Armstrong, Tom Harper, Simon Westow, and finishing, quite rightly, with Richard Nottingham.

It’s going to be a challenge. I need to try and capture the essence of each of them, and in some cases it’s been a few years since we met. But I never like to make it easy for myself. I’ve even come up with a logo for everything 10th, just to warn you.

10 years

The Dan Markham story will appear in early November. I hope you’ll like in. In the meantime, you could read the new Simon Westow book, The Hocus Girl. It’s out in the UK in hardback now, and it’ll be available everywhere as an ebook from November 1.

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A Passion For Leeds

Every so often I have to think about the things that make me write.

It’s a compulsion, there’s no doubt about that, and my first novel was published quite late in life (I was 55) that I’ve been filled with a hunger to say all the things I’ve wanted to say in books.

What changed everything for me was writing about Leeds. Leeds as it might once have been. When I began writing novels, I hadn’t loved in Leeds for 30 years. I had no idea what things were like in the day-to-day now. I was back often to see my parents, but I wasn’t here. I couldn’t write about it now and make it feel real.

The history of Leeds had captured me several years before that. I like to think it still does. But that’s what I keep checking it to consider. My next book (The Hocus Girl) has plenty of things from the city’s past: the first steam locomotive able to move heavy loads, Joshua Tetley opening his brewery, and the government using agent provocateurs – something uncovered and written about in a Leeds newspaper. Making history part of a tale is something I relish. I try to bring Leeds alive, to make people feel they were there, walking the streets.

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Joshua Tetley’s Brewery

Next spring, my novel Rusted Souls, the eighth in the Tom Harper series, is centred around the 1908 Suffragette Riot, which actually happened, although it wasn’t a great riot and the Suffragettes weren’t really behind it. My characters are involved in this history. Not in a Zelig way, but because it’s happening around them in Leeds. It’s natural that they’d be involved.

Leeds isn’t London. It doesn’t have that glamour. It doesn’t even have the big history of York. But it’s a city that made its fortune on wool, grew powerful and rich with industry, and saw its fortunes decline with industry began to decline after World War I. These days it’s money is in retail and digital. The thing is, rich or poor, it’s my home. I care about it. I’m proud of it, happy to be from here. If I have a loyalty to any place, it’s Leeds.

That passion for the city isn’t the only thing that makes me write – I like to tell a story and crime provides the perfect moral framework for drama and tension, good against evil. I like to create characters. Or perhaps I channel them, I’m not really sure.

As I said, it’s a compulsion. But you know what? I’ll never feel bad for writing about the place I feel in my bones.

An Author’s Distraction

I write. It’s largely how I define myself, it’s what I love to do. My chance to be published arrived when I was 54, and since then I’ve grabbed it with both hands. And until three years ago, I was generally as happy as Larry.

Since then, however, I’ve gone up and down. It’s politics, and I know I’m far from the only one. But I’m lucky, I do have something to take me away from the world and its problems for a while.

My allotment.

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Maybe it sounds silly that a piece of ground 10 metres by 7.5 could bring me so much joy, could lighten the load so much, but it does. I’ve had the allotment for four years now. It came with raspberries, blackberries, redcurrants, rhubarb, and strawberries. It was overgrown and neglected. It needed plenty of work. It was utterly on a whim that I call in a put my name down for one. I didn’t really garden, and flowers had never greatly interested me. But after about twelve months I received a call – was I still interested.

Yes. The romance might not last, but I’d give it a shot.

That first year was mostly about that. I enjoyed the fruit, apart from the currants, which I dug out, and I had chance to clear a little ground a plant a few things. Since then I’ve been watching, listening, reading, learning and experimenting.

The winter days when I can dig in compost and manure and wonderful, as if the year is beginning to wake and I can stretch my muscles after a few months of doing nothing. It’s not nothing, of course – garlic and some onions have gone in during the autumn – but it feels like it.

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I could go on about the things I’ve done but let’s face it, unless planting things is a pleasure for you, then you’ll find it boring. Let’s just say I’ve made some big changes in the last 12 months; well, as big as you can on 170 square metres. And this year I feel I’m utilising every scrap of space. It means I have to tread very carefully to avoid killing plants.

What is growing on the plot? I’m glad you asked…

Onions, garlic, kale, radishes, several types of lettuce, salad leaves. Two varieties of peas, mangetout, runner beans, two varieties of climbing beans. Squash, cucumber, carrots, corn, tomato, green and yellow courgettes. Leeks, spring onions, parsnips, spinach. Rhubarb, plum, tree, strawberries, blueberries, gooseberries, blackcurrants, blackberries, raspberries, dwarf apple tree. And potatoes. Plenty of potatoes. A bit of lavender and rosemary, too, but I don’t really count those.

When I’m there I’m doing what needs to be done, the physical work that requires thought solely about the task at hand. I never consider checking my phone. It only comes out if I want to know the time. In today’s world, that’s freedom of a sort.

I could talk about mindfulness, that trendy word. But instead I’ll simply says that going there (it’s about five minutes’ walk from home, which was part of the appeal) makes me feel better and happier.

And there’s a hug bonus. All that fruit and veg, with things to ear from May onward. From the look of the strawberries, I’m going to be making plenty of jam this year (I know, there’s no need to say a word…).

It’s not something that would be a slave for everyone. It works for me, and that’s fine. So if you ever wonder what I do when I’m not writing books set in Leeds, now you know.

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What People Are Saying About The Leaden Heart (And Some Thoughts Of My Own)

Last night I was in a library talking to people about The Leaden Heart. I was happy to do it – and not just because it’s one of my favourite libraries, the one I used all through my childhood.

I’m proud of it. It’s out there with my name on it. Months of work and thought went into the writing. I want people to read it.

One gentleman said he thought it was the best of my books, with strong parallel stories and very tight plotting. That last bit, if it’s there, is more good luck that planning. I don’t plot. My characters lead the stories. The most I do is nudge them.

This morning I’ve been thinking about what he said. It chimes with the reviews the book has received. I’m gratified. I honestly believe that with The Tin God, my writing moved up a notch. That’s something every writer wants, to make each book better than the last. We learn, we strive to improve. It’s there too in The Hanging Psalm and now this. And having gone through the publisher’s edit for The Hocus Girl, which appears this autumn, I feel it’s also in that.

But I’m glad others see it. More than people may really know.

Thanks to all who’ve read the book. I’d love it if all of you did, whether it’s buying a hardback or ebook. And if you leave a review, may your soul be blessed.

Meanwhile, a look at some of those reviews might sway you.

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The Very First Leeds Novel

I write about Leeds. That’s not a statement to surprise anyone. But I’m not the only person to do that.

Over the last few days I read a book. Nothing unusual there; I devour books. But this one is a bit of a curiosity. Published in 1929, it’s the very first book set in Leeds (as far as I’m aware). That makes it important. Well, a it’s fictionalised Leeds, which is given the name Fleece. The History of Button Hill, written by Gordon Stowell, is set in Chapeltown – the names of all the areas of Leeds are changed – from the mid-1890s, when people moved into the new houses close to Reginald Terrace, through to the middle 1920s (in fact, Back Reginald Terrace was renamed Button Hill in the 1980s in honour of the book).

I’d heard about it for years and I’d expected it to be pretty poor and overly sentimental. But then I found a copy in the library and decided to give it a chance. I was wrong about it. It was stupid of me to judge without looking. Yes, there’s definitely a sentimental side to it, but it’s tempered, especially towards the end. The book doesn’t shy away from the way World War I and that first day of the Somme affected all of Leeds. It’s good, and absolutely believable. And it doesn’t always keep the stuff upper lips.

The book traces an arc over 30 years, with the main character a baby born just after the book opens. His generation, and their parents, are the focus and how the enthusiasm for an area have become diluted, by money, by events. There’s even a very surprising plot twist at the end of the book – but no spoilers.

I know nothing about Stowell, and there’s not a great deal about the man himself online. But he obviously knew Chapeltown, from down around Sheepscar all the way past the Bentham Arms (the Mexborough Arms, or Three Hulats as it is now) through Chapel Allerton (Button Top) around the Gledhows (Gledmere) up to Moortown, Roundhay and Oakwood (Moorhay and Oakhill).

For all the insight, it’s very much of its time, with the touches of casual, thruway anti-Semitism that were so widely accepted then, even in a city with a large Jewish population. And it’s relentlessly middle-class – but then, so were the people who lived in Chapeltown back tin those days. It’s a sobering reminder of just how exclusive the suburb was – and wanted to believe it might remain.

Button Hill

“The prime reason was not the housing of the working class population…For them only too many houses have been provided, street after street of squalid little back-to-back dwellings, with no gardens or yards and little sanitation. The people who were hardest hit were the really nice people, the people with nice ideas and aspirations, who, though not extravagantly rich, had still made a little money for themselves and could afford to send their children to the Grammar school or to the new Modern School. To such as these the new suburb on Button Hill was a godsend.

Builders were turned loose on the estate. It was split into gaping rectangles. Water, gas, and drains were laid. And presently a dozen rows of desirable villa-residences shot up as if by magic, and all the contours of the hill were permanently changed. The old turnpike was cleared away, and the Fleece Tramways Company, extending its track, put on a new service of horse-trams out to the Bentham Arms. Removal vans became a familiar sight up Bathwater Road as the best people in Fleece moved themselves and their furniture to a more worthy setting.

Lord Bentham in his wisdom had decreed that the builders were to restrict themselves to villas of a superior type. Retail shops and licensed premises were barred. From the outset the new suburb could not help but feel itself exclusive and superior. Its modestly imposing homes were manifestly designed with some pretensions to that subtle quality known as “class.”

To call it a garden city suburb would have be an anachronism, but it was the nearest thing to a garden city suburb that the imagination of man had conceived up to that date. It was spacious and leafy. Native trees had been spared wherever possible, and every house possessed its green cutilage, a lawn, and a curly footpath of concrete or imported gravel, to give the illusion of landed proprietorship on a small scale. Moreover, the genuine untouched country was still so near that on summer mornings, as you stood at the bedroom window inserting your tiepin, you could sniff the dew-flavoured hedges and the turned hay, and find it difficult to believe that you were yet within half an hour’s tram-ride of the office……”

When smaller houses are built on the west side of the main road, residents look down on them. The people aren’t quite up to snuff. By within the space of 30 years, Button Hill itself is in the start of a slow decline.

The people themselves are the main focus of the story. What happens to them, where and how they end up – those who don’t die. But behind it all, the character of Button Hill itself remains a constant, even as it’s growing and changing.

The History of Button Hill is an important, and surprisingly readable, Leeds novel that journeys from innocence to experience. It’s vivid, and a moving portrayal of a time, a place, and a generation.

A reminder, if I might, that while my new book, The Leaden Heart,  isn’t set in the desirable suburb of Chapeltown – the focus is on the working-class part of Harehills – it’s out in hardback and ebook and will let you seek what life was like in Leeds in 1899. It’s also a lot easier to find than The History of Button Hill.

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Two Events

I don’t often use the blog to talk about upcoming events, but there are two in the next couple of weeks that are going to be rather special.

My good friend Candace Robb is going to be in England promoting her new book, and we’re doing a couple of evenings together, one in Leeds – where my books are set – and one in York – the setting for her work.

I first came across Candace’s Owen Archer books when I lived in Seattle. They were so convincing that I thought she lived in York, or nearby. I found out just a few years ago that she’s a Seattleite. We were in the same place at the same time and never even knew.

We cover different periods. Hers is the late middle ages, the back end of the 1300s and into 1400. Mine is later. I’m a big fan of her books, I have been since I read the first of them around 20 years ago.

We share the same publisher now, and she’s just put out A Conspiracy Of Wolves, the first Owen Archer book in 10 years. I’ve read it, and it’s excellent.

And my new Tom Harper novel, The Leaden Heart, has very recently been published. Between us, we have a bit to discuss, and the events are a double book launch for us! Buy a copy, get it signed (please)

If you can, I hope you’ll come to the Leeds event (link here) on May 16 in the evening, or the York event, also an evening affair, on the 21st (link here). Both are free, you only need to book a seat.

It would be lovely to see you!

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