A Walk With My Ancestors

Yesterday I took a walk with my family. To anyone who saw me, I was on my own, but my family was there – the ghosts of my father, my grandparents and great-parents. By the end even my great-great-great grandfather had joined us. They were showing me where they’d lived as I walked through Leeds, from Hunslet over into Cross Green and back down through what used to be called the Bank (properly Richmond Hill) and down to Marsh Lane.
It was a way to connect the threads, but far more, my chance to thank people I’d known and those who were dead long before I was born. They gave me Leeds. They set themselves here, coming down from New Malton back in the 1820s and they stayed.

It’s not a great dynasty. No mayors or distinguished citizens. Just people who got by, probably by the skin of their teeth. But a couple of the places where they lived are still standing. To walk up to these house, to have the voice whispering in my ear: ‘Do you see that room up there? That where me and me brothers all slept. It was freezing at night when we had to go down to the privy’ or ‘It were right there. You should have seen it, lad. A proud place was the Royal.’

Garton Street. East Park Road.
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The small fragment that’s the only remnant of Sussex St.

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The Allied Brewery that fills acres where the Royal Inn (where my maternal great-grandfather was the landlord) once stood on South Accommodation Road. St. Saviour, still there, still in use, where some of my relatives were married.

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And the space on Marsh Lane that was once, long ago, Garland Fold. By the time Isaac Nickson – the first of my family to live in Leeds, bringing his wife and children with him, to work as a butcher – lived there (where the 1841 census places him) the ‘fold’ (once a place for keeping sheep) was slums, one of the worst part of Leeds, where the police were afraid to walk on their own and where, after a heavy rain, the roads were ankle deep in mud and slime used to run down the walls of the cellars where the poor lived.

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And, by some synchronicity, or some guiding hand, or whatever, very close to where I had the home of my character Richard Nottingham, back in the 1730s. A kind of full circle, from my real family to what became my fictional family of sorts.

Completing the circle? I don’t know. But I am certain that this family walk was exactly that. We were never more than 15 minutes’ walk from the centre of Leeds, but it was a journey that managed to take in many lifetimes. It told me stories. It gave me a little more of my own history. I hope I haven’t exorcised them. I want them with me until I become just like them, my invisible family in Leeds.

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.

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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…

The Genesis of Richard Nottingham

As most of you must know by now, the Richard Nottingham series is taking a break. However, Richard certainly isn’t dead and there will be a time when he’ll be ready to whisper some stories in my ear again.

I’ve been thinking about him a little over the last few days, and the way he first came into my life.

Well, perhaps the best way to begin is to say that Richard Nottingham was a real person. At least, a Richard Nottingham was. He was Constable of Leeds from 1717-1737, taking over the post from William Nottingham, who might well have been his father. It was, really, purely ceremonial, and there seem to be very few mentions of him in the records. Quite certainly, he wouldn’t have actively investigated crimes. That would have been left for the night watch, most of whom also served as the Town Waits, or musicians, performing for dances and big occasions. Probably the closest he ever came to a real crime was watching a hanging on Chapeltown Moor.

So yes, I took a few liberties with the truth. No apologies for that. After all, the truth can’t compare with a good tale.

But the first time I wrote about Richard, he wasn’t even the main character in the story. 10 years ago, when I was still living in Seattle, I wrote a novel called The Cloth Searcher. That was an honorary title given to a Leeds merchant – a new one each year – who was responsible for ensuring that the cloth sold and exported in Leeds was of a sufficiently high standard. Given that the place traded on its reputation, quality was important.

In the book, Tom Williamson, a merchant (whom you may recognise from the series) was the Cloth Searcher, and the central character. His wife, Hannah, was an important character, while Richard was relegated to secondary status. And before anyone asks, no, I don’t still have a copy of it.

At that time I was winding down on writing quickie unauthorised biographies (the most embarrassing ones aren’t under my own name), and asked my agent, who only represented non-fiction, if she knew any agent who might be interested. She passed on the name of a British agent who works with several big-name crime writers. To cut a long story short, she read it, and we met when I visited the UK.

She liked my writing, but not the story. Go away and do me something different was the message.

It made sense to have a lawman at the centre of it. Richard Nottingham was fleshed-out, with a wife and two daughters. He also had a past that saw him start off grand, the son of a merchant, then among the poor once his father threw him and his mother art. He’d seen life from both sides, a man who understood and had experience and compassion. He also acquired a deputy, John Sedgwick.

As most detectives in fiction are loners, I wanted Richard to have a family he dearly loved (an idea inspired by Candace Robb’s Owen Archer novels). Not only was it truer to life, it opened up another side to him, and I wanted the people to be as important as the mysteries.

And there was one other rule: just like life, anyone can die. It didn’t matter if they were a central or a minor character, they were all mortal.

I was about ready to let Richard tell his tale.

I did just that, after I moved back to England in 2005, and presented her with an early version of The Broken Token. Two days after receiving it, she signed me to the agency roster and set me to work with their in-house editor.

For a few months we worked together, then presented the head of the agency with the book. Two days later she emailed and said they were cutting ties with me. I assume she didn’t like the book. I don’t really know as she never said.

I did approach other agents, but received no encouragement, and the book lay fallow for quite a while until I was in the library and chanced across a novel published by Crème de la Crime. It was historical crime, set in the 18th century, and the publisher was close to me.

It was worth a shot. I sent off the first 10,000 words and a synopsis. And waited. Then there was an email. The publisher wanted to see the rest. Wait again (cue plenty of nail-biting) until there was another email saying they wanted to publish the book.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history. But now you know the genesis of Richard Nottingham.

On Books And Movies.

I’m not much of a movie person. I never have been. Given the choice between a film and a book, I’ll crack the page every time. Of the few movies I really love, only one started out as a book (The Year of Living Dangerously) and the films adds the dimension of sweaty, heady sensuality, plus Linda Grant’s stunning performance.

What prompts this is the fact that I’m re-reading The English Patient. It’s a glorious novel, a worthy winner of the Booker Prize, more than the equal of the rest of Michael Ondaatje’s canon, and I love most of this books. I’ve never seen the film and doubt I ever will. It would become too concrete. I’d hear the voices and see the faces from the movie, rather than the ones the author puts in my head.

There’s real beauty in imagination. It soars, it flies. Movies, at least to me, are too grounded, they have too much gravity to them. They keep me trapped on the screen, I can’t escape. Television does much the same, and is often far more mundane. I prefer things to happen in my head, where I’m an active participant, than to be a consumer.

I’ve been asked more than a few times who I’d like to play the leads if the Richard Nottingham books were filmed for the big or small screen. Apart from the fact that it’s never going to happen, the answer is I simply don’t know. I’m not familiar with actors or actresses. The closest I can come, for the upcoming Gods of Gold, is for Maxine Peake to play Annabelle Atkinson (but that’s not going to happen, either).

Really, no one could match of to those people who populate my mind. Those characters are nebulous. To give them definitive faces and voices would change them forever. Within they freedom of a novel they will be whoever you see them as being.

A New Richard Nottingham Short Story

 

I like working with publishers. The knowledge that someone else, someone in the industry, thinks enough of my work to put their reputation on the line and put it out under their imprint is what every writer desires.

 

I’m proud of all the fiction I’ve put out (hey, I’m even proud of some of the non-fiction and all the music journalism). I want my name on it. But some things don’t fit into any publisher’s niche. A few weeks ago I wrote a short story featuring Richard Nottingham, Constable of Leeds. Those of you who know my work will know him.

 

What to do with it? In the past I’ve made stories available for free. This time, with a longer story, I wanted something a little more. So I decided to publish it for Kindle. Via Twitter and Facebook I know several writers who self-publish. Some of them are excellent writers, the equal of anyone traditionally published; others, less so. But with the rise of the ereader it’s become a very successful medium.

 

For me it’s an experiment. The story keeps the name of Richard Nottingham out there. I hope it’ll please those who like the books and that they’ll buy it and enjoy it. I also hope that some people who’ve never read the novels will take a look, think, hey, that’s pretty good, and want to discover more. Finally, it keeps everything simmering until the UK hardback publication of Fair and Tender Ladies at the end of September (January 2014 for the US and ebook). It may pique a little interest and raise the sales. We do what we can.

 

I priced the story as cheaply as Amazon would seem to allow. But it’s a story, 5,000 words, not a novel. It’s something to pass a few idle minutes, not to take over your life.

 

Have I raised your curiosity? I hope so – that’s the aim of this, after all. It’s 77p (or $1.16 – I asked for 99 cents but it seems to have gone out of my control in the US). You’d spend that much of a bar of chocolate. Much more on a coffee or a cup of tea.

 

Oh, and you can buy it here in the UK.

 

Or here in America.

Thank you for your indulgence. I hope you like it if you buy it.

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A Few Thoughts To End March

March has been an eventful month. Right at the tail end of February At the Dying of the Year came out, the fifth Richard Nottingham mystery, and a book I’m very proud to have written. It cut deep into my soul and drained me emotionally to write it.

Then, for March, my publisher scored a Kindle 100 deal in the US for The Constant Lovers. The upshot is that the book’s been featured on the Kindle 100 page and pushed by Amazon. And, to help, the publisher lowered the prices of the other ebooks in the series. Having kept track during the month (as well as pushed them on Twitter and Facebook – sorry!) it’s definitely had an effect. At one stage three out of the four books were in the Top 20 in the Kindle Historical Mystery section. I know, a small sub-genre, but it made me very, very happy.

As if that wasn’t enough, I finished the rewrite of the sixth Richard Nottingham book, Fair and Tender Ladies, and heard back from the publisher – within 48 hours, no less! – with an acceptance. The result of this is that I’ll end up with four novels out during 2013, a pair of Richard Nottinghams, The Crooked Spire, my medieval book set in Chesterfield, and the one we’re coming to next.

March 29 was the publication day for Emerald City. It’s a very different kind of book for me, and the only one to date that draws on the write what you know theory. It’s set in Seattle, where I lived for 20 years, set in the just pre-grunge (hate that word) music scene, and it’s a murder mystery featuring a music journalist (which I still am, although I’ve never actually murdered anyone. Yet). But it’s the closest to the present day that I’ve come, although the central character is female, a change suggested by the publisher for very practical reasons, as it meant that the excellent Lorelei King could narrate the audiobook, and she does a superb job of it.

There was also a week’s break in Whitby, no snow but a withering wind off the sea for most of the time. Yet it was curiously enjoyable, discovering a church with beautiful medieval wall paintings in Pickering and a day in Durham, where I’d never been before and seeing a Norman cathedral. I’m more familiar with the slightly later elegance of York and Lincoln, so airy and light. By comparison, this seemed somewhat oppressive. The city itself, however, was lovely. And, of course, a walk along the beach to Sandsend and a little time at the abbey.

Now I’m back where I should be, in the Leeds gas strike of 1890, trying to catch murderers and find a missing girl.

To any of you who bought one of these books this month, or at any time, thank you so much. It sounds trite, but I really do appreciate it.

That Rewrite Thing (Thank God)

At the beginning of February my publisher gently but firmly rejected the next Richard Nottingham novel. That happens; it wasn’t what they wanted, not what they thought would sell. And they’re the experts in that area.

Yes, of course my stomach lurched when I got the news. But, really, as a writer you have two choices at that point. Dump the book entirely or listen to what the publisher’s said and rewrite the thing.

I did the latter and you know what? I’m very glad I did. What I’d had before was a very fair tale, a yarn, perfectly fine for what it was but…it didn’t have the emotional depth. That’s probably because its predecessor, At the Dying of the Year, had been so draining to write. I was all emotioned out.

The new version is more of a whodunit, as my publisher wanted. But it’s also more, a deeper, darker book, a real Richard Nottingham book, the mood of melancholy carrying over from the end of the previous volume. I dug deep into myself, and I’m glad I did, glad that I’d been made to do so. It’s a much better book, too, if I do say so myself.

The moral? That out of bad news, something far more worthwhile can grow.

On Monday I sent the new version of Fair and Tender Ladies to my publisher. Today I heard from them. They love it and they’re going to publish it. It’ll be out in September.

What Is Success?

So what is success?

For the month of March, my publisher arranged with Amazon for The Constant Lovers, the third of my Leeds novels, to be part of the Kindle 100 deal in the US. So what, you think? Well, it’s a pretty big deal, as Amazon promotes the books with Tweets, emails, and quite probably several other things.

Does it work? Yes, it certainly does. It’s at a low price ($3.99, so still not a complete giveaway) and with the push behind it, the book’s currently 2,606 in overall Kindle sales and in the Top 20 for historical mysteries. To me, that last figure’s the really important one. It’s like…it’s like having a bestseller. I know, it’s still not going to give me Ian Rankin sales status. But each success is relative.

Merely having a book published was a success. Having a second, even more so, and when that book was named one of the 10 best mysteries of the year, I truly couldn’t believe it. Then, last year, after the audio book of The Broken Token was issued, to have it listed as one of the Independent on Sunday’s audiobooks of the year…that was me floored once more. I was up there with writers like Ian Fleming, J. K. Rowling and Mave Binchy. Big names, household names. I’m still not exactly sure how it all happened, although huge thanks to Stephen Pacey, who did such a wonderful job on the narration.

In fact, it’s perhaps time to give thanks to people who’ve believed, to Lynne Patrick, who took the first chance on me, to Kate Lyall Grant and everyone at Crème de la Crime, to Ali and Lorelei at Creative Content, to the reviewers who’ve liked the books. And to the people who’ve bought them – and seem to still be buying them.

I imagine I’m like most writers- the tales I put down are the ones I’d like to read, the movies that play in my head. When I’m sitting there, getting the words on the computer, I’m doing it because it’s a need, and ultimately for myself. I dig into myself, sometimes down into the parts that might be better left unknown.

But that people are putting their money down to read these words. That’s still the most staggering thing on earth to me. And it’s real success. Thank you all. Truly. And to those of you who’ve written to me to say you’ve enjoyed them, each of you makes my day with an email.

Oh, and I guess I should say this…all the Richard Nottingham ebooks are on sale on both sides of the Atlantic for the rest of March.

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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.