A Conversation with Candace Robb

I feel I’m very fortunate to have become friends with Candace Robb, a novelist who’s had an influence on my work as a mystery writer. I’ve been a huge fan of her Owen Archer novels since I discovered them (they’re set in 14th Century York, but I found them in the library in Seattle). As Emma Campion, she’s written a pair of outstanding historical novels, and A Triple Knot, the newest, is set to be published very soon. Ironically, I did know that she lived in Seattle, too, or that, prior to that, we’d both lived in another city in America. Goes to show, small world. We exchange emails regularly, and when Candace suggested us having a conversation for her blog, I was flattered. The exchange has grown, so we’ve decided to split it between our blogs. This is part two – just follow the link here for part one.

fire in the flint vigil of spies apothecary rose a triple knot

Chris:  How do you think writing backgrounds affect the way we work? For instance, you came to this as an academic. Did you have to force yourself not to put in too much history? And what stylistic changes did you have to make? I came to novels from music journalism and writing quickie unauthorized biographies, where I had to write and research a book in 30 days (much of this was pre-Internet). For both of these, deadlines meant getting it mostly right the first time, and being direct. I’m still that way, I think. I know you revise and revise endlessly. I do more of it, but I try to get the real sense and shape of a book on the first draft.

Candace:  Interesting question! I began my university studies in journalism, then switched to literature after a few years. I’ve taught business, academic, and creative writing, and I worked for over a decade as an editor of scientific research publications at a university. So early on I trained in getting it mostly right the first time. And as an editor I was always up against deadlines. For the first 10 Owen Archer novels and the Margaret Kerr trilogy I was under fairly rigid annual deadlines. I seldom did more than two drafts. I simply didn’t have time. For the Emma Campion books I’ve had more time. It was quite a change to work on The King’s Mistress for four years; I wrote one version in two years for the UK market and then rewrote it for the US and foreign markets because they wanted a shorter book. But I’ve always thought of writing as a process and an exploration. When I reread I find connections and undercurrents that I’ve rushed past, and work on them to deepen the story.

As far as forcing myself not to put in too much history, I haven’t been tempted with the crime novels, but I had a bit of a struggle writing The King’s Mistress and even more working on A Triple Knot. Joan of Kent’s story is so much a part of the beginning of the Hundred Years War, and that can’t be glossed over. Joan’s story was obscured by the historical detail in the first draft. Focus became my mantra in subsequent drafts, paring down to the essential.

Chris: We both have politics in our books. Yours play out more on national stages, both in York and with the Margaret Kerr novels. And even more when you write as Emma Campion. Mine are far more local, since my feeling is that the doings of Parliament and kings would matter little to ordinary people and everyday life in 18th century Leeds. In my new Victorian series, there’s more politics, but it’s the politics of the working man, the strikes. Do you feel that the politics are a vital strand?

Candace: I chose York as the location for the Owen Archers because of its political importance, and Owen’s identity as the Welsh outsider is an integral part of his character and his view of the world. So, too, I chose to lengthen John Thoresby’s term as Lord Chancellor of England in order to play with the politics of the realm. Owen’s return to Wales and his flirtation with Welsh rebels was something I very much wanted to do. And I wrote Margaret’s trilogy to explore the terrible burden of the Scots during their Wars of Independence, how the people suffered. So you might say that politics are my inspiration. Many of my plots grow out of political events.

Chris: What other things play important parts in your books? For me, it’s music. There’s folk music here and there in the Richard Nottingham novels, because it’s what people would have heard. Some of the ballads, people scraping on fiddles, the music of the people. And in my Seattle books, the music is integral to the story, whether it’s the local sound that’s in Emerald City, just before grunge became big, or the country music in West Seattle Blues. I have a novel coming out next January, Dark Briggate Blues, set in Leeds in the ‘50s. It’s noir, really, but jazz runs through it, and Leeds really did have a jazz club then, a place called Studio 20, where the protagonist goes regularly. It’s a way to combine my two passions.

Candace: I love how music runs through your books, how your language sings. As for me, I suppose the overarching interest is all aspects of medieval culture—music, clothing, drama, literature, ballads. And gardening, particularly medicinal gardens. So Lucie Wilton has a remarkable apothecary’s garden. Falconry. York and Yorkshire—I fell passionately in love with York and the surrounding countryside on my first visit and my love has only grown stronger with familiarity. That goes for Wales as well. A fascination with folk traditions that embrace the magical and the inexplicable.

Chris: I already knew York well when I first came across your books, and your love for it was obvious. But you seemed to steeped in it that I believed you lived there. And you really do bring 14th Century York alive so well, to the point where the reader can taste and smell it. Like my books about Leeds – and also Seattle – they seem like love letters to the place, truly immersive experiences.

Chris:  What made you become Emma Campion for the non-mystery novels? (as a confession, for some of my more teen-oriented quickie bios, I adopted the nom de plume of Anna Louise Golden. I imagine myself sitting in gingham and writing!)

Candace:  Gingham? Really? Hah! Emma Campion exists solely because the marketing department at Century, my British publisher, wanted a way to distinguish the mainstream historicals from the historical crime novels. I had fun coming up with the name and practicing a new signature. But Candace and Emma both write in leggings and baggy sweaters.

Chris: I know you’ve started work on a new Owen Archer novel, which will please many people. What else is in the future? The return of Margaret Kerr?

Candace:  Yes, I’m working on Owen Archer #11, A Rumor of Wolves. Then Emma wants to complete Joan of Kent’s story with The Hero’s Wife (title subject to change) and to give Queen Isabella her own book, tentatively titled Birthright. Isabella intrigues me—or, er, Emma, so she—no, we want to tease her out, find her passion. I have Owen Archer #12 in mind, the return of a popular character in the series. And then there’s something at the back of my mind, a concept and a few characters who are haunting me. The woman is much like Maggie Kerr, but I’m trying not to pin anything down, just jotting down impressions, not struggling to understand….

What’s in the future for you, Chris? Will you bring back my favorite sleuth, Richard Nottingham? How about John the carpenter from The Crooked Spire?

Chris: It was my publisher’s decision to end the Richard Nottingham series, but they specifically said they didn’t want him dead (which, with my track record, was probably a good order to give). I do believe that Richard and I have unfinished business, and there are wheels slowly turning in the back on my mind. So he’ll be back, sooner or later. As to John the carpenter, I did start a second book with him, but it wasn’t working. Again, I have some ideas, so when the time is right, there’s a good chance he’ll see the light of day once more.

Right now, I’m working on a standalone set in Leeds in 1971, currently called Sympathy for the Devils, set in the period when Britain went decimal and leading up to the Stones playing Leeds University (which was a great gig). It’s still a crime novel, but a little different – so far, anyway. I’m also finishing revisions on The Golem of Leeds, the sequel to Gods of Gold. At the start of next week I’ll be sending it to my publisher, so it’s fingers crossed that they want to put it out. Next January there’s another Leeds standalone, Dark Briggate Blues, coming out. That one’s set in 1954, the year I was born, and it’s ‘50s British noir – plenty of jazz in there, as Leeds had a jazz club at the time, a place called Studio 20. It wasn’t intended to be a noir, more an exploration of the ‘50s, but like all books, it took on its own tone…

Finally, I’d recommend A Triple Knot to anyone who likes historical fiction. It’s the start of the tale of Joan of Kent, and it’s a superb read (I’ve been lucky enough to have already devoured it – you won’t be disappointed). And if you haven’t yet discovered the Owen Archer and Margaret Kerr novels, you have a treat in store.

We’d both love to hear your comments, so feel free…

We All Love Leeds

Later this year we’re moving to Leeds. Or in my case, back to Leeds. It’s where I began, so, the best part of 40 years after leaving, I’m completing the circle. Of course, it’s a very different city to the one I left on January 3, 1976. Back then it still had one foot resolutely in the 1950s. Now it’s a shiny beast with its face turned to the future.


I write about Leeds, even though I haven’t lived there in a long, long time. Of course, I’m there often these days, and not just for house hunting. Even when living abroad I went back quite regularly to see my parents and spend time in the place. It’s somewhere I know in my bones and over the years I’ve come to understand how much it’s a part of me. It never seemed liked that back when I was a teenager. I couldn’t wait to get away, first to Birmingham, then to America, to discover those new frontiers. And even when I lived there, I never really explored the place. I didn’t have a car, my friends lived close by. Beyond the city centre and where I lived (Chapel Allerton, Hyde Park, Headingley) there was no need to go further – and I didn’t have the curiosity.


My love affair with Leeds began when I was living in Seattle. Always a history buff, on a visit home – home! – I picked up a history of Leeds and was fascinated by what I read. That led me to more books – thank you eBay and retailers of the Internet – and more hunting around on my trips home.


Home – because that was what it was just beginning to feel like. But when I came back to England I didn’t move there. My mother was still alive and to live pretty close to her when I was in my fifties just seemed wrong. I’d go far more regularly than before, though. And along the way, I started writing novels that were set in Leeds.


That was when I began to understand just how deep Leeds was within me. I felt it in a way I could never quite feel anywhere else. Some part of me loved Leeds. That seemed odd. As someone who’d grown up in England but essentially come of age in America I’d seen myself as a permanent outsider, a man without a country. I was still that – I’m no patriotic Englishman, by any means – but I had a loyalty to place, somewhere that meant something to me.


And the more I’ve delved into Leeds history, the deeper the city’s claws have entered me and the greater the desire to return has grown. I’ve been away, I’ve experienced other cultures, I’ve had my horizons widened in a way that would never have happened otherwise. But it’s time. Last year, when I half-jokingly suggested to my partner that we move to Leeds, the idea took root with her, too (her daughter’s lived there for 12 years). So this summer the house goes on the market and that idle glancing at houses will take on a more desperate, darker tinge.


We all love Leeds – of course we do! – and I’m ready to go home.

Yes, It’s Victorian (Part 2)

Last time I put up the beginning of a Victorian novel I’m working on. Here – hopefully for your pleasure – is a bit more. The last I’ll be putting online, because a) I’m still writing the book, and b) because I want some to publish it, which won’t happen if I give it all away here. So, please, let me know what you think:



In the end he was five minutes late, dashing along Boar Lane, past Holy Trinity Church to meet her in front of the Grand Pygmalion. Sergeant Tollman had wanted a quick word that stretched out to ten minutes, then a detective constable needed a piece of advice until he’d been forced to run the whole way.

            “I’m sorry,” he said, gasping for breath. She stood with her back to one of the grand glass windows, the shade od a wide hat hiding her expression.

            “I don’t know, it could mean the engagement’s off. I can’t have a man who’s never on time.” He looked up quickly. But Annabelle Atkinson was smiling, her eyes playful. “You’re going to have to do better than this, Tom Harper.”

            “I…” he began, and she laughed.

            “Oh give over, you daft ha’porth. It took me six months to get you to propose. I’m used to you being late, I’m not doing to drop you now.” She leaned forward and kissed his cheek. “If you want to make yourself useful you can carry these.”

            “Six packages?” Harper asked. “What have you been doing, buying half of Leeds?”

            “Just things a girl needs when she’s going to be wed. I could have waited for you before I started shopping, if you’d rather.”

            “No,” he replied hastily. “It’s fine.” He’d been in the Pygmalion when it opened. Four floors of draperies, parasols and sailor suits, and more assistants than he could shake a stick at. Nothing to interest him at all.

            “Come on, then, we’d better get a move on. It’s Saturday and I said I’d help out tonight. We’ll be packed and I want a bite of something first.” She waited until he had all the packages and set off along the street, her arm through his.

            He saw men glancing at her. She had that kind of face. Not beautiful, no Jenny Lind or Lily Langtry, but she possessed a quality that drew the eyes. The first time he’d seen her he’d been like that himself, staring for a second before turning away, then looking again and again until she’d stopped in front of him and boldly asked if he liked what he saw.

            She’d been collecting glasses in the Victoria down in Sheepscar, an old apron covering her dress and her sleeves rolled up. At first he thought she must be a serving girl with a brass mouth. Then, as he sat and watched her over another pint, he noticed the rest of the staff defer to the woman. He’d still been there when she poured herself a glass of gin and sat down next to him.

            “I’m surprised those eyes of yours haven’t popped out on stalks yet,” she told him. “You’ve been looking that hard you must have seen through to me garters.” She leaned close enough for him to smell her perfume and whispered. “They’re blue, by the way.”

            For the first time in years, Tom Harper blushed. She laughed.

            “Aye, I thought that’d shut you up. I’m Annabelle. Mrs. Atkinson.” She extended a hand and he shook it, feeling the calluses of hard work on her palms. But no ring. “He’s dead, love,” she explained. “Three year back. Left me this place.”

            She’d started as a servant when she was fifteen, after a spell in the mills. The landlord had taken a shine to her, and she’d liked him. One thing had led to another and they’d married. She’d been eighteen, he was fifty. After eight years together, he’d died.

            “Woke up and he were cold,” she said, toying with the empty glass. “Heart gave out in the night, they said. And before you ask, I were happy with him. Everyone thought I’d sell up once he was gone but I couldn’t see the sense. We were making money. So I took it over. Not bad for a lass who grew up on the Bank, is it?” She gave him a quick smile.

            “I’m impressed,” he said.

            “So what brings a bobby in here?” Annabelle asked bluntly. “Something I should worry about?”

            “How did you know?”

            She gave him a withering look.

            “If I can’t spot a policeman by now I might as well give up the keys. You’re not in uniform. Off duty, are you?”

            “I’m a detective. Inspector.”

            “That’s posh. Got a name?”

            “Tom. Tom Harper.”

            He’d come back the next night, then the next, and soon they’d started walking out together. Shows at Swan’s and the Grand, walks up to Roundhay Park on a Sunday for the band concerts. Slowly, as the romance began to bloom, he’d learned more about her. She didn’t just own the pub, she also had a pair of bakeries, one just up Meanwood Road near the chemical works and the foundry, the other on Skinner Lane for the trade from the building yards. Now she employed people to do all the baking but in the early days she’d been up at four every morning to take care of everything herself.


“You’re off with the fairies again,” she said, nudging against him.

            “Just thinking.”

            “You’re always thinking.” She smiled and shook her head. “Be careful, you’ll wear out your brain.”

            They were strolling out along North Street, through the Leylands, the sun pleasant. Omnibuses passed them with the click of hooves and the rhythmic turn of the wheels, a few empty carts heading back to the stables, but the area was quiet. There’d be little noise before sunset, he thought. All the Jews would be at home for the Sabbath. He’d grown up less than a stone’s throw away, over on Noble Street, all sharp cobbles and grimy brick back-to-backs, like every other road he’d known; nothing noble about it at all. Back then there’d been no more than a handful of Jewish families around, curiosities all of them with strange names like Cohen and Zermansky. The woman all had dark, fearful eyes and the men wore their full beards long, coming out with torrents of words in a language he didn’t understand. Twenty years on and the Leylands was full of them, working every hour God sent, sewing clothes in their sweatshops. He’d be willing to bet there was more Yiddish spoken round here these days than English.

            “What do you want to do tomorrow, Tom?” Annabelle asked.

            He shrugged; he hadn’t even given the next day a thought, although it was the only one they could spend together.

            “The Park?” he suggested.

            “Aye, if it stays like this.”

            “I’m off Monday, too. Until the evening.” He hesitated. “After that I might not be around for a few days.”

            “The gas?”


            “You just look after yourself. I’m not dragging a corpse to the register office come August.”

            “I’ll be fine, don’t you worry.”

            “Anyone hurts you they’ll have to deal with me,” she warned and he believed her. If that didn’t make him safe, nothing would.


He was back in his lodgings by ten and in bed by half past. In the morning he’d write to his sisters and tell them he was getting married. Then there’d be the visits as they swooped in from Bramley, Otley and Chapel Allerton to inspect the bride. But he’d worry about that when it happened.

            The banging woke him from a dream that vanished like smoke as he opened his eyes. He struggled into his dressing gown and opened the door. Mrs. Gibson, his landlady, wide-eyed and shocked at the disturbance, stood here, a policeman with a long face  behind her.

            “I let him in, Mr. Harper. He says he’s a policeman.”

            “He is, Mrs, Gibson. Don’t worry.” What else would he be, Harper thought irritably, wandering round in uniform in the middle of the night?

            She scurried away. He waited until he heard her door close and said,

            “What is it?”

            “You wanted to know about Col Parkinson, sir.”

            “Has he tried to flit?”

            “No,” the constable answered slowly. “He’s dead.”

The Crooked Spire

A few weeks ago, some of you might have noticed me announce on Facebook and Twitter that I’ve signed a contract for a new book, The Crooked Spire. Technically, I’m awaiting the contract from the publisher, but my agent has ironed out the details and it’s a done deal.

People outside North Derbyshire or South Yorkshire might not be aware of exactly what the Crooked Spire is. It’s St. Mary’s Church in Chesterfield and yes, the spire is crooked. Built right around 1360, with the spire added just after – around 1361 – it’s reputed to be the largest church in Derbyshire, and quite beautiful. Yes, the spire is crooked (Google it), and the supposed reason is that unseasoned, green timber was used in its construction. However, there’s no mention of it twisting for a few centuries after so, in many ways, it’s anyone’s guess, and these days it’s all covered in lead so it’s impossible to see. You can go up to the base of the spire and look out over the town – a great view – and see just how the spire leans. What’s possibly worrying is that the only thing holding the spire in place on the tower is its own weight.

There are other folk tales as to how the spire ended up so twisted, one involving the devil landing on it, although my favourite is that a virgin was marrying in the church and the spire was so astonished that a virgin could be found in Chesterfield that it twisted to look and couldn’t twist back.

For four-and-a-half years after moving back to England I lived in Dronfield, a small town just six miles from Chesterfield. It’s the place where I did my shopping, where I’d wander the market – the market square is the same one laid out in 1265 – and through the cramped streets that make up the Shambles, where the butchers had their shops. It’s a place that’s held on to much of its history.

The Black Death tore Europe apart from 1348-50. Estimates are that around one-third of the population died, although it’s impossible to be certain. What we do know is that it upset the social order and sparked the end of feudal society, creating more freedom. It makes for an interesting back from John the Carpenter – this is an era just before established surnames – a young worker in wood, originally from Leeds, orphaned when young, his only heirlooms a bag of tools and a rare ability to sense the wood, to be able to make things from it. He arrives in Chesterfield, having fled York and work on the Minster there. It’s a time when a skilled man can find a job anywhere, with nothing to tie him down and reasonable wages.

It’s a murder mystery. The master carpenter is found dead at the top of the church tower and, as a stranger, John is immediately suspect. He has to prove his innocence and find out exactly who’s responsible. At the same time, against his plans, he begins to find he’s growing attached to some people in the town and wanting to stay…

And that’s pretty much all I’m going to say. There’s no set date for publication, although autumn looks likely for The Crooked Spire. When I know more I’ll pass it on…