The Road To Here

Let me begin by saying (once again, probably) that I have a new book coming out at the end of March. It’s called The Leaden Heart, and it’s the seventh Tom Harper novel. Safe to say I plan on giving your details before the publication date, and a video trailer is in the works, too. If you’d care to order it, be aware that amazon is the most expensive site currently. I’d suggest here or here – both significantly cheaper and with free UK delivery. It appears that both companies full their proper taxes in the UK.

the leaden heart revised

That’s the self-promotion out of the way. But with something fresh hurtling down the tracks, I found myself wondering just how did I get here? I don’t like the word journey, but it’s been a long strange trip. I probably wrote my first novel when I was 20, its name long since forgotten. I do remember that it was very heavily influenced by Richard Brautigan and Kurt Vonnegut (well, it was 1974) and not very good. By which, of course, I mean derivative, not as clever as it imagined, and piss-poor.

A couple more fairly mainstream novels arrived after I moved to the US. Both naïve, but I was young, those were different times, and I was learning my craft. And then, a detective novel, set in Cincinnati, where I was living. It received some interest, from a couple of publishers and an agent, who wanted me to rewrite it as a young adult novel, as I recall. But in the end it all went nowhere. I was hugely disappointed, but in retrospect, I’m grateful. While some of the idea and characters were okay, it simply wasn’t a good book. Naivete and a crime novel don’t mix, and I still had plenty of growing up to do, even if I didn’t realise it.

My next book was written in 1992/93. Called Career Opportunities, after the Clash song, and set in the London punk scene of 76-78, with the main character an American student over there study. Audacity on my part. I hadn’t been there at the time. I’d already left England. Hell, I hadn’t really been in London much at all in my life.

I still have the manuscript, I remember the general story. I’ve never dared look at it again. I’m sure it’s cute. And that was the problem. My writing was cute. It told a story. Once in a while it could tell it reasonably well. But it couldn’t pierce to the kernel of truth at the heart of a person or a tale. My friend Thom Atkinson has always been able to do that. He’s simply one of the best short story writers and playwrights I know, and we’ve been close for 35 years. Read a piece of his here and you’ll see what I mean. He has it.

I kept writing, of course, but it was mostly music journalism and quickie unauthorised celebrity biographies. They kept me very busy for a number of years and paid well. Important with a mortgage and a young son. But also great writing discipline. By the time I returned to fiction in 2005 I had a clearer vision, even if I was seeing a much older version of Leeds.

I’d become fascinated by the history of my hometown and started to discover it, as best I could on annual trips which involved walking and buying books, and finding old volumes on eBay. Somehow, in all there, I found my soul, my kernel of truth.

The first book I write set in 1730s Leeds was called The Cloth Searcher and featured cloth merchant Tom Williamson and his wife Hannah. A minor character was the town constable, Richard Nottingham.

The setting, the characters, the writing all had something. Just not quite the right thing, though. An agent liked what I was doing, although not that particular book. Try again, I was told.

I did. But first I thought a while. A crime novel, even one set in Leeds in the 1730s, was going to make more sense when someone from the right side of the law was the main character.

That involved a shift. Richard Nottingham became the protagonist, with his family (Mary, Rose, Emily) fairly central, along with his deputy, John Sedgwick. Poor Tom Williamson found himself on the periphery.

I write the book. In 2010 it was finally published (and the road from writing to that is another story). It was The Broken Token.

It might seem that things really started there. It often seems that way to me. But it was had begun 36 years earlier. Just the blink of an eye, really…

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Of Turnarounds Or Circles…

…or call it just wandering until you end up where you began.

I’ve harped on before about the way I love Leeds, but it wasn’t always that way. At 17 I couldn’t wait to be out of the place. It seemed so small and parochial and I was ready for somewhere – anywhere – different. The fact that I hadn’t explored most of my own city didn’t even occur to me. Like any teenage boy, I was certain, and I knew that my destiny was somewhere greater than Leeds.

In the end I went overseas, 30 years in the US. Life seemed much brighter over there, in brilliant colours until the muted tones of England. It was open and brimming with possibilities. I enjoyed it. I loved much of it. But life is life, with that annoying habit of only being as good as you make it, no matter where you are.

I’m not even sure exactly how or when my real love affair with Leeds began. Not on the first few visits home to see my parents, that’s for sure. It was, maybe, my curiosity about history that had grown, or some stray fact about the place that someone mentioned. Enough for me to pick up a recently-published history of Leeds and take it back to Seattle. That was the kindling that started the blaze, I do know that.

It wasn’t enough for me to move back to Leeds, of course. I had no intention of doing that. I was in Seattle, 5500 miles away, enjoying being near mountains and water, the glorious views and air.

And then I wasn’t any more.

I was back in England to stay. A number of factors that don’t quite matter here, but I was living on the edge of the Peak District and loving the area. By then I was already writing about Leeds, a novel that was rejected, but with some positive thoughts, enough to get me started on The Broken Token – although the journey that had to publication was long and tortuous. I was back in Leeds very regularly to visit my mother. But no thoughts of returning permanently, especially after she died. At that point I felt I had no tie with the place beyond my writing.

Yes, well.

I’d never imagined the past could exert such a big pull. turns out I was wrong. I published more books set in Leeds, kept returning for events and suddenly I understood how good it would be to be in Leeds all the time. I felt like a politician doing a U-turn. But if it works for them…

Now it’s been almost two years since the return and it was right. My partner loves it here as much as I do, maybe even more, as so many of the things in Leeds are still discoveries to her. My joy isn’t in the comfort of the place, or the arms of my own past around me. It’s being able to touch history. My family’s history, the city’s history. To feel, maybe for the first time, completely grounded.

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.

Asking Your Indulgence

Forgive me. I hope you’ll indulge me for a minute or two. On Friday my publisher forward me a review of my new novel, Fair and Tender Ladies, from Publishers Weekly, a journal aimed at the publishing trade, including most bookseller and libraries, in the US.

The review itself (more of that at the end) was gratifying. But what lifted my heart more than anything was the fact that all six of the Richard Nottingham novels have received starred reviews there. I’d never expected that. No writer does. We sit at the computer and do our best, day after day and hope someone gets it. That’s all we can do.

I was lucky. Finally Lynne Patrick, then the publisher of Crème de la Crime and now my editor and friend, liked The Broken Token and too a chance of putting it out. Then Severn House, which bought the imprint, kept publishing the books.

Now I have this body of work, and these reviews. I sometimes used to scoff at people who were humbled by praise. Not anymore. I feel humbled myself and not quite sure how it all happened.

Oh, the review…

“Effective portrayals of brutality and genuine emotion and loss distinguish Nickson’s well-crafted sixth Richard Nottingham novel (after 2013’s At the Dying of the Year). In 1734, Nottingham, Constable of the City of Leeds, carries out his duties despite his wife’s devastating death. His hopes for fulfillment now lie with his grown daughter, Emily, who has opened her own school for the poor, and who is seriously involved with Rob Lister, one of Nottingham’s assistants. He fears for Emily’s safety after vandals attack her school. Meanwhile, several people die unnaturally, including Jem Carter, a man who was searching for his 16-year-old sister. In addition, a former crime lord returns to town, and Nottingham again has to navigate a prickly relationship with his bosses. The author’s willingness to shake up the status quo marks this as one of the best historical series set in the first half of the 18th century.”

Thank you.

In Praise Of The Editor

I try to avoid writing about writing. After all, what the hell do I know? And what works for me might not work for anyone else. But I do know one thing. While the act of writing might be a solitary occupation, bringing that writing to the printed page is a team effort.

A good editor makes a huge difference.

I’ve been lucky, I’ve had several. There was the guy in charge of The Rocket who offered me tips and chances 20 years ago before unleashing me on an unsuspecting Pacific Northwest. For his own safety, it’s better to leave him nameless, although I feel indebted to him.

In the late 1990s, well established, with well over a dozen non-fiction titles under my belt, as well as regular appearances in music magazines and on local National Public Radio, I began writing for a website called Sonicnet. It doesn’t exist any more – MTV bought it and I’ve no idea what happened after that. It was a music news site. I was a freelancer in the amorphous ‘World Music’ section, and it was demanding, writing and researching stories five days a week, tracking people down, interviewing first and second sources.

With my experience, I felt pretty confident when I turned in my first story. It came back torn apart by the editor. At first I felt affronted. I knew how to write, I’d been doing it a while. But he worked with me. Once I’d stopped raising my hackles in defence, I read, listened – and learned. Over the course of a year or more, he improved my writing 100 per cent. Again, I’m hugely grateful.

Starting review for national NPR in 2000, my producer was a perfectionist. I voice the script I write, and she’d have me going over it time after spending, spending up to an hour for what was little more than two minutes of text. But it helped me not only be better on air, but (hopefully) as a writer. I learned to write for voice, not for the page.

And then there’s Lynne Patrick, the editor of my novels. I’ve been lucky, and had the same one from The Broken Token to the about-to-be-published Fair and Tender Ladies (not that this is an ad, you understand). She’s become a friend, but also one who knows my writing and can call me on things I’ve missed. I almost always accept the changes she suggests, and they make the book better. I’ve even dedicated this book to her, for all she’s done to improve my writing.

She’s the direct link. But not to forget commissioning editors (the people who say ‘Yes, we’ll have that” – extremely important, the publishers themselves, designers and proofreaders. They all deserve their plaudits. Yet this one goes out in praise of editors. Thank you.

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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