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Don’t Quit the Day Job: Nicky Black

Lots of people don’t realise that although you may see work by a certain author on the bookshelves in your favourite shop, many writers still hold down a day job in addition to penning their next novel. In this series, we talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.

I read ‘The Prodigal‘ in 2016 and have since got to know Nicky Black quite well. I’ve hosted her at Noir at the Bar Newcastle a few times as well as spending time with her at Bloody Scotland and Newcastle Noir. I’m really thrilled to have Nicky on the blog to discuss how her work life has influenced her writing. 

Thanks, Nicky, for taking the time to chat to us. 

Vic x

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Since self-publishing The Prodigal in 2015, I’ve met a lot of authors, some of whom write full time, some who don’t and many who dream of it. Now I like my own company, not because I’m the wittiest, most interesting person I know, but because I’m comfortable being on my own, but there’s only so much time I can spend in front of my laptop, in my living room, staring at the ugly plastic vent on my chimney breast wall. My day job serves many purposes – office banter (love it), a sense of achievement, and it pays the bills and it keeps me and my kitties fed.

I’ve had a 30 year career, mostly working either in, or in support of, “poor communities,” – firstly with Save the Children, then in urban regeneration and in the latter five years in welfare to work (I’m not going there…). I’ve seen the best and the worst of these communities, whether Cowgate in Newcastle or Hackney in London. The problems are the same: high crime, poor health, low educational achievement (there’s an actual list), and above all, a labelling of these communities as somehow undeserving and undesirable. There are many undesirables for sure, but where there’s a ying, there’s a yang, and I’ve also met the most passionate, fearsome, committed people who have nothing to their name, but who root for their communities and give them a voice. 

So, whilst The Prodigal and Tommy Collins (out this summer) fall within the crime genre, they aren’t police procedural stories (I leave that to those fabulous authors who can create twisty-turny whodunnits). My interest lies in the impact crime has on individuals, families and whole communities, and how that is dealt with by the authorities and the communities themselves. I’ve heard how the police talk about these estates, and I’ve experienced the disdain residents have for the police – both are valid in their own right. The Prodigal was actually inspired by a conversation with a police officer back in the nineties about informants or “grasses”– who are they? Why do they do it? The answer was that it is generally family members, almost always women, and they do it because they want that person they care about to stop. Pop those facts into a scenario where the grass is a woman, in love with a copper who’s after her criminal husband, and you’ve got drama. 

The housing estate itself where the books are set (the fictional Valley Park) is a key character, and I couldn’t have written it with any authenticity without the experience of working for 20 odd years with local residents, and the professionals who think they know what’s best for them (sometimes they do, I can’t argue with that). Valley Park is a grim place in The Prodigal, and even grimmer in Tommy Collins which is set ten years earlier in 1989 – the height of Thatcherism, unemployment and civil unrest. I’ve actually started to feel quite protective of the place and the pretend people who inhabit it, even the bad ones. It’s like the Mothership – a place you can’t escape. Anyway, I’m looking forward to book three which will bring Valley Park bang up to date, and I can have a pop at Beardy Men and gentrification (is there ever a happy medium?).

I’m out of the poverty game now. I left London in 2016 (I lived there for 14 years), had some time off, and now I’m back working pretty much full time again for a hospice charity (there may well be a future novel in that, who knows?). Now, my writing influences my day job in a way. I write grant applications, and this requires delivering a story with heart, hitting all the right notes that make those funders want to read on and see what they’ll get for their money. They’ve got to believe in what you’re doing and get some satisfaction from investing in you – much like readers, I suppose. I must be doing okay, because in eight months I’ve secured over £200,000, which is about £160,000 more than they’ve had in grants in any one year. I’m quite proud of that! 

It doesn’t leave me much time to write, as I do like to keep my social life active, my house clean and my cupboards stocked. That, coupled with my inability to stick to a plot, means my second book is about a year behind. But I’m getting there. You can be sure it’ll be full of grit, inspired by some of the best and worst people I’ve ever met through my day jobs.

Thank you for having me Vic, and hello to those of you reading this 😊 *waves* x

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Review: ‘Educated’ by Tara Westover

What is it to be educated? Is it to have spent every day of your life from the age of four until the age of twenty-one in a classroom? Is it the ability to read and write? How about being able to reflect deeply on your own personal experiences? 

Tara Westover was not educated in the way one might expect. She did not have school records. In fact, she didn’t have medical records. Tara Westover didn’t even have a birth certificate – officially, she didn’t exist. Tara grew up in Idaho with a father who didn’t trust in intervention.

From the moment she was born, Tara was to be taught to prepare for the End of Days. Her mother ‘home-schooled’ Tara and some of her siblings while their father proselytised about the dangers posed by doctors, teachers, government and law enforcement.

At the age of sixteen, Tara decided to educate herself. That decision took her to Harvard and then to Cambridge.

Having recently heard Tara talk at Forum Books about her experiences growing up a Mormon with an increasingly radical father and erratic brother, I was moved by the erudite way in which she spoke about her unusual childhood and her decision to make a change in her life.

Educated‘ is a beautifully written memoir. Westover’s prose is almost lyrical, featuring evocative descriptions of the rolling hills. Her gorgeous writing is juxtaposed with the terror I felt when reading about some of the things she had lived through. At times, the events were so out of my sphere of understanding, I had to check online that this was a memoir and not fiction! 

Throughout ‘Educated‘, there is a sense of not quite knowing what will happen next. At times, the tension was almost too much to bear. Westover masterfully allows the reader to tread the fine line she walked on a daily basis. There is also a feeling of sadness and grief that pervades this memoir. Ultimately, though, ‘Educated‘ is a hopeful book about the power of taking control and never giving up. 

Tara Westover is my hero.

Vic x

**The Forgotten Blog Tour** #LoveBooksGroup #BlogTour

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I’m delighted to be taking part in this #LoveBooksGroup blog tour to mark the e-book release of ‘The Forgotten‘ by J.V. Baptie. I was lucky to host J.V. at Noir at the Bar Newcastle earlier this year and the excerpt she read that evening left many of us desperate for more. 

My post today gives you a flavour of the book and of its main character, DS Helen Carter. I hope that you’ll be as intrigued by ‘The Forgotten‘ as I was. 

Vic x

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The Forgotten: Synopsis

In Edinburgh in 1977, newly-promoted but unwelcome Detective Sergeant Helen Carter is tasked with investigating a murder in an abandoned picture house.
The killer has left a clue: the business card of an former cop.
Helen must piece together the case before the bodies mount up around her, and before the killer strikes closer to home…

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About DS Helen Carter
By J.V. Baptie

The Forgotten is a crime fiction thriller set in and around Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland during the 1970s, a fascinating and somewhat overlooked era in Scotland. 
For much of this decade there was rising unemployment, social change, picket lines, crime and murder: plenty of inspiration for any crime novel. Poverty was rife in Scotland on a scale unimaginable today, with many families living in rat-infested one-bedroom tenement slums. Let’s not forget the strikes and the three day week.

It wasn’t all bleak during the 1970s. For my main protagonist, Helen Carter, it’s a time of hope, opportunity and social freedom that earlier generations of women couldn’t have imagined – and Helen wants to live it. Throughout her life she has found herself at the pinnacle of change. She was degree-educated at Glasgow University, played football at the time when the Scottish Women’s Football Association was founded and eventually got to play in the first Women’s League. 

After university, Helen found herself in dead end jobs but, tiring of these, she decided to follow her father’s footsteps into Glasgow City police as a WPC, then gains a promotion afterwards.

Glaswegian Helen is still finding her feet in Edinburgh but on a rare occasion she’s on a day off you might find her shopping in Goldbergs, or meandering along Princes Street, or having a quiet drink in the White Cockade. If there’s a good gig on she’ll be at one of the many dance halls.

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About J.V. Baptie,
Author of The Forgotten.

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J.V. Baptie graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2017 with an MA in Creative Writing. When she’s not writing, she is also an actress and has appeared in a variety of children’s shows and stage plays. You can find out more about her on Twitter and Facebook.

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Paul Harrison

Lots of people don’t realise that although you may see work by a certain author on the bookshelves in your favourite shop, many writers still hold down a day job in addition to penning their next novel. In this series, we talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.

It’s my privilege to welcome Paul Harrison to the blog today to talk about how his work in the criminal justice system has influenced his writing. If Paul’s post catches your interest, drop him a tweet or look him up on Facebook

Vic x

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Thanks for inviting me to speak on the blog. For me, bloggers are one of the most influential part of being a writer these days, so I’m well chuffed to be here talking about my previous life. I’ve been called Britain’s Mindhunter by the world’s media, because of my work with serial killers. However, I much prefer to be Paul Harrison, not some media invention.

When I joined the police service back in the late 1970’s, never, did I anticipate that my working life would be so exciting and filled with mainly positives, there have been a few negatives, but I’ve learned from those. Anyone who believes the British police force is behind its global counterparts, is wrong. I have over a century of policing within the family tree, my grandfather, father, myself and currently my son have been so employed. Even my great grandfather was so employed. Back in Victorian times he was probably the first criminal profiler in history. He’d hang about with criminals and felons and draw up social profiles on the in an attempt to understand who likely victims were likely to be, then he’d sell that intelligence on to the police. He was a big writer and storyteller, so his genes have definitely been passed down to me.

My own police career lasted over three decades and I was fortunate to serve in just about all the specialised fields I aimed for: Dog Handler, Firearms Officer on Special Escort Duties, Promotion, Intelligence Officer and of course, much later, my association with the FBI and profiling. I worked hard to get where I wanted to be, and advise everyone, no matter what they are doing to follow their dreams.

I began writing during my police career, mainly true crime books but the odd football book also crept into print too. These were the days before e-books so it was traditional publishing only, it was difficult trying to sell manuscripts to publishers and hold down a regular job.  I was lucky, I guess, and managed to get seven books published during my time in the police.

When I retired from the job I went to work with the Judiciary at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. What an eye-opener that was! Seeing the criminal justice system from the other side, was shocking. Needless to say, I often questioned judgments and tariffs handed down to serious (vile) offenders. I didn’t last long, and I moved on after a couple of years. I took up work in the voluntary sector, helping child victims and survivors of sexual harm. The scale of the matter was shocking and I set up my own service, called SAM (Systematic Abuse of Males) as a signposting agency directing victims to services in their area. As a result of this I was awarded the Outstanding Individual of the Year Award for my voluntary work in this arena.

All the time I was writing, more true crime and finally I went full time, and have moved onto novels. I’m so proud to be part of the Urbane Books team and have just signed a contract with them that I hope will last several years. Of all the publishers I’ve worked with in my time as a writer, covering thirty four books, Urbane Books stand out head and shoulders above the rest for their care and attention to detail. They like great writers, but are focused on producing quality books for the reader. 

Over the years, I’ve met some of the world’s worst killers, looked evil in the eye and confronted it. Nerve wracking stuff, however, let me tell you, there’s nothing more worrying than waiting for a publisher’s response to a book submission.

Writing has been incredibly cathartic for me, as is the sense of support that runs throughout most of the crime writing community. There’s a lot more books in me yet, and my fictional detective, Will Scott (named after my grandfather) will go on to endure many more adventures.

Getting to Know You: David Ahern

I’m here to introduce readers of the blog to writer to David Ahern, author of the Madam Tulip Mysteries. I hope you enjoy learning about David and his work and find some of his advice helpful. 

Thanks to David for sparing some time to chat to us.

Vic x

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Tell us about your books.
The Madam Tulip Mysteries follow a young actress who moonlights as a fortune teller at celebrity events. Fortune tellers get told the most surprising things. But where you have money and secrets you’ll soon have trouble and crime. 

What inspired them?
Actors are wonderful people, dedicated to their art but who have a hard time making a living.  What do you do to pay the rent if you act and you’re a teeny bit psychic?

Where do you get your ideas from?
Staring into space, mostly. If I stare for long enough, ideas will come just so I can get something to eat.

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Do you have a favourite story / character / scene you’ve written?
All of the Madam Tulip books have hilarious scenes between Derry’s divorced parents, her Irish artist father and her stupendously successful American art dealer mother.  Readers love them, and I do too.

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
Both. A bit of plotting and bit of pantsing. I write character-driven stories, so I have to let the characters take me where they want to go.  On the other hand, a mystery has to be cleverly put together, so you need to plan.

Can you read when you’re working on a piece of writing?
Not fiction, but I devour non-fiction. 

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who it was from?
My mother (who is a wonderful actress and writer) said: ‘Apply seat of pants to seat of chair.’ It works.

What can readers expect from your books?
The most believable heroine out there, lots of laughs and page-turning tension.  

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
Learn to punctuate fluently.  You won’t believe the freedom it will give you.

What do you like and dislike about writing?
Love making myself laugh out loud (or blub). Hate being stuck at a desk.

Are you writing anything at the moment?
Madam Tulip Book #4.

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
Seeing the galley proof for the first time.

Review: ‘The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae’ by Stephanie Butland

For many people, including me, a stand-out read of 2017 was ‘Lost For Words‘ by Stephanie Butland so it was with excitable trepidation that I began reading ‘The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae‘.

I needn’t have worried. Stephanie’s latest novel surpassed my expectations – I did not want to stop reading this heart-warming tale of Ailsa Rae, a young woman who, following a lifetime of illness, has to learn a new way of navigating her way through the world while struggling with grief and survivor’s guilt.

Once again, Stephanie Butland has created inimitable characters that I’d happily be friends with. One of Butland’s skills is to make her characters rounded, creating light and shade in both the narrative and within the characters.

Ailsa, in particular, seems completely real to me. After suffering from a heart condition since birth, Ailsa finally undergoes a heart transplant and afterwards feels somewhat lost – her identity no longer revolves around being ill, but she’s not sure what it should revolved around. Despite her apparently hard exterior, it was lovely to peel back Ailsa’s layers and see a more vulnerable side to her. Stephanie Butland really seems to have a talent for creating seemingly tough characters with soft centres.

It was easy for me to fall into this story, I was totally invested in the characters – Seb was particularly appealing to me. The once-close relationship between Ailsa and her mum is portrayed sensitively and realistically as both mother and daughter struggle to come to terms with their new roles.

I felt that having a novel revolving around organ donation was a bold move and it absolutely works. The amount of research undertaken by Butland shows but it’s the human element of this story that makes it utterly compelling.

Although it’s an enjoyable read, ‘The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae‘ has a very important message behind it – the incredible difference organ donation can make to someone when your organs are no longer of use to you.

Vic x

**Friends and Traitors Blog Tour** Getting to Know John Lawton.

Today it’s my pleasure to welcome John Lawton to the blog. His latest novel ‘Friends and Traitors‘ is available now. 

Many thanks to John for taking the time to answer my questions today.

Vic x

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Tell us about your books, what inspired them?
I really don’t know. I’ve written most of my life. Certainly since 1957 when I first encountered Shakespeare’s history plays. And in the years that followed, since you can’t imitate Shakespeare’s dialogue unless you’re Tom Stoppard (and whoever watched or read him for his plots?), I came under the influence of writers who were writing stunning dialogue. My first sight of a Pinter play about three years later is still vivid.

Peter Cook’s EL Wisty monologues were compulsive and when the Dagenham Dialogues with Dudley Moore came along … well, I think I learnt as much from them as I did from Pinter. The really odd thing is the switch from writing drama to writing novels, which happened about 1983 … cause? … failure. Wasn’t getting anywhere as a playwright. That said, much of what I write, certainly in earlier drafts, strikes me as reading like a two-hander play. That’s how most of my books begin  … two voices talking in my head.

A taste for dialogue, a course in Russian at University, reading Gorky Park, watching Ian McEwan’s The Imitation Game (not the recent film of the same name) all fuelled the plot line that became my first Troy novel.

Where do you get your ideas from?
Dunno where they come from, but I know where they arrive. Usually in trains, and almost as often out walking. I do a lot of walking.

Do you have a favourite story / character / scene you’ve written?
I think my favourite scene might be towards the end of A Little White Death, when Tara Ffitch takes about a page to slam the morality that put her in court. I stand by every word of that. And I’m quite partial to the scene in Friends and Traitors when Guy Burgess rattles off the list of things he misses in his Russian exile. My favourite characters would be among the minor figures … Fish Wally in two or three novels, and Swift Eddie in most of them — a part I wrote hoping Warren Clarke would play him one day.

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
Not sure I quite understand the question, but I usually have a plot fully worked out in my head before I write a word. Only book I’ve ever plotted on paper was Black Out.

Can you read when you’re working on a piece of writing?
Yes. But not books by anyone doing what I’m doing.

I spent last autumn on a Mick Herron binge, and I think I’ve just begun a Timothy Hallinan binge. Neither of them write historicals.

I keep picking up and putting down Illusions Perdues. I think I might have to wait for a new, better translation, but if that theory works why do I have six different translations of Ovid?

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who it was from?
“Write a book a year and take control of your life” – Gore Vidal. Somewhere I still have the letter.

I’ve never been able to do that of course. Come to think of it, I turned down a book-a-year offer from Penguin ages ago. I’m a fan of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series which appears very regularly and I don’t know how he does it. My ‘mentor’ Ariana Franklin got up to a book a year in her seventies, but I honestly think it was exhausting for her. With hindsight I wish she’d slowed down. So good advice as yet unheeded.

What can readers expect from your books?
Writer vanity prompts me to say that I hope I can shatter expectations with the odd surprise, but a running character creates expectations otherwise she/he would be rather inconsistent. So expect politics, romance, a touch of mayhem. Do not expect a who-dunnit, as my books can bang on for another fifty pages after the who of dunnit is obvious. I cannot change Troy’s character, he will change only as the time-setting of the novels change (and I’ve never liked the idea of fiction existing outside of time …  Troy ages and hence changes) but I quite deliberately move the locations around. Black Out is set entirely in London, with Old Flames I went rural and in Friends & Traitors has a lengthy continental journey before settling back in London.

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
Yep. Abandon all social media. Leave it to Trump, he’s welcome to it. I am looking forward to his ‘Twitts from Prison’. Shut down your twitt and bookface accounts, resign from your readers & writers group, bin your iphone, stop talking about writing and write.

If anyone asks why they haven’t seen much of you lately tell them you’ve been studying for the civil service entry exam and are hoping for a job with the ministry of [fill in blank as appropriate]. My usual choice is the ‘White Fish Authority.’ Such a wonderful name for a government ministry, alas it shut up shop in 1981. I wonder if there was ever a ‘Chips and Mushy Peas Marketing Board’?

What do you like and dislike about writing?
Like … the doing of it. One of the best narcotics around and it’s free.

Dislike … promoting a book. Best regarded as a necessary evil. I hate being photographed. (Sorry, Ali Karim.)

Are you writing anything at the moment?
Yep. Third book in the Wilderness trilogy. And another game of with Zoë Sharp. All done by email as we live in different countries.

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
Dunno. I live by writing, which I consider most fortunate, but to say my moment was the first time I received a fat cheque would be both crass and untrue. I’m not interested in prizes, the gongs and daggers, and winning one didn’t engage with me much. I think it has to be ‘finishing-summat-that-had-me really-foxed’  … which has happened from time to time, but I’m not saying which book or books it was.