Category Archives: Authors

The Intel: Laura Lam

authorphoto01Organised crime, a sinister cult, psychoactive drugs, shared dreaming. Ingredients guaranteed to give any rollercoaster futuristic thriller an extra kick.

In her first mind bending thriller for adults, Laura Lam takes the lid off a supposedly perfect city – and discovers decay and corruption.

False Hearts is set in a near future San Francisco and follows twin sisters who were born conjoined at the heart. They were raised by a cult which banned modern medicine, so had to escape in order to have the surgery to separate them. When one of the twins, Tila, is accused of murder and police suspect involvement with a powerful drug, her sister Taema makes a deal with the authorities to impersonate Tila in order to prove her innocence.

It’s a fascinating premise from a fascinating author. Laura was born in the late eighties and raised near San Francisco, California, by two former Haight-Ashbury hippies. After studying literature and creative writing at university, she relocated to Scotland.

In this terrific intel interview, she talks about her conjoined twin heroines, her counterculture upbringing — and the difference between writing YA and adult thrillers…

False Hearts has been described as Orphan Black meets Inception – tell us about the near future you have created in False Hearts…

It’s set roughly 100 years from now, though I don’t give a specific date. The United States has fractured as a result of tension from climate change reaching a tipping point: Pacifica (California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii), Atlantica (East Coast), the South, and the Great Plains. San Francisco in the future is obsessed with perfection. Everything is transient—ordered from replicators only to be recycled.

People do not age thanks to excellent gene therapy and walk in flesh parlours where they can walk out with a new face. Crime is nearly gone, and anyone who is prone to being a criminal either becomes addicted to the dream drug Zeal, or is frozen in stasis. There’s still underground crime through the mob, called the Ratel. Poverty is almost gone, wars are pretty much a thing of the past. At first glance, it looks perfect, but everything has a price.

Who are Tila and Taema?

Taema and Tila are twins who were born conjoined at the chest with a shared heart. They were raised in a cult called Mana’s Hearth outside of San Francisco, where Muir Woods is now. This cult is cut off from modern society, frozen in 1969 technology. When their shared heart starts to fail, the twins know they need to escape, but the leader of the cult doesn’t want to let them go that easily.

False Hearts features drugs, conjoined twins, shared dreams and cults – what kind of research did you have to do for the book?

I read a lot of nonfiction and watched documentaries on cults and conjoined twins. I also have identical twin nephews (not conjoined), so I observed their relationship to each other. I researched a lot about neuroscience, specifically how memories are formed and how drugs affect the brain. I looked at concepts for futuristic architecture, food production, and tech. Research is one of my favourite aspects of writing, as I end up learning a little about a lot of things.

9781509818075Your own parents were hippies in San Francisco – did your upbringing influence your writing, do you think?

It did, and I see it more now that the book is finished and I’m looking back. My parents both went to art school and encouraged creativity in all forms. We went to the library all the time, spent a lot of time outdoors. They were pretty laidback parents; as long as I told them where I was going and what I was doing, they were usually fine with it. As a result, I didn’t break their trust. Once, my dad said if I ever wanted to try hallucinogenics, he’d get some for me and stay sober and we’d go into the woods and he’d made sure I had a nice trip. I never took him up on it—sort of wish I had now, as it would have been great research.

My brother and I were raised in a religion called Religious Science or Science of Mind, which is like a hippie gnostic branch of Christianity. I went to church camp every summer and winter in the redwoods of California, and it was right out of Mana’s Hearth. Religious Science is nothing like a cult, but I did borrow certain aspects for the cult in False Hearts.

False Hearts is your first books for adults after writing YA – did you approach the writing any differently?

I was able to swear and have more sex and violence on the page, maybe, but otherwise I don’t think my approach was particularly different. The main change is my main characters have more baggage and are more jaded than my teen characters usually are.

How did you start writing?

I’ve wanted to write as soon as I learned it was an actually a job people did. I started writing a terrible (TERRIBLE) book when I was fifteen about fairies and cat people, then sort of put it aside. In my undergraduate degree, I studied English and Creative Writing, so that forced me to actually finish things and put it out for critique. I seriously started writing for publication at the tail end of 2009, after I moved from California to Scotland, and just kept at it. I had my first break with Pantomime, my intersex magic circus book, through Angry Robot’s open door in 2012.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

You can’t control anything but the words. You can’t control if your book sells or what the advance is. You can’t control a lot of aspects about the marketing. You can’t control if something sells in translation or gets a film option. You can’t control how many bookstores the book will get into, or how many people pick it up and buy it. Literally all you can do is keep your head down, write the best books you can, and always try to improve.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

Robin Hobb is my favourite author—her prose, her world building, and the way her characters get under your skin is incredible. If you haven’t read her, start with Assassin’s Apprentice. She’s also just a really lovely person and very supportive of new writers. I also really admire Margaret Atwood (amazing prose in varied genres), Tana French (excellent crime), Neal Stephenson (for worldbuilding), Patrick Ness (so clever), and countless others.

Give me some advice about writing…

Put your butt in a chair and your hands on a keyboard, and figure out what works for you. No two writers will have the same process or approach writing the same way. Everyone will have their own career path. The most important thing is to work at it regularly—not necessarily every day, but regularly enough you’re producing and finishing stuff at a rate you’re happy with. Be really stubborn—that’s a good character trait in writing.

What’s next for you?

I’ve False Hearts out in June, and then the paperback re-releases of Pantomime and Shadowplay near the end of the year. The third book, Masquerade, will finally be out in March 2017, and then right after that I have my next thriller, Shattered Minds, out in June 2017. After that, who knows? I’m writing other things, but what happens with them is out of my hands!

***

False Hearts by Laura Lam is published by Pan Macmillan and is available now in hardback, priced at £12.99.

Guest Post: Siobhan MacDonald

twisted-river-canelo-crop-smallSome of the best crime fiction is about what happens when you step out of your door and into another person’s space, into their personal domain. Because, as we all know, in crime fiction other people are trouble.

And let’s face it, we expose ourselves to a lot of Stranger Danger, these days. Airbnb, house-sitting and holiday swaps — we’ve never had so many opportunities to step into the shoes of other people, to discover the dark secrets of other families.

Siobhan MacDonald’s novel Twisted River, published by Canelo, is about just that: what happens when two families swap lives.

Kate and Mannix O’Brian live in a lovely Limerick house they can barely afford. Their autistic son is being bullied and their daughter Izzy is desperately trying to protect him. When Kate spots a gorgeous New York flat on a home-exchange website, she is convinced her luck is about to change…

Hazel and Oscar Harvey and their two children live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Though they seem successful on the surface, Hazel’s mysterious bruises and Oscar’s secrets tell another story. With Hazel keen to revisit her native Limerick, the house swap seems almost too perfect.

When Oscar discovers the body of a woman in the boot of his hosts’ car, he realises this will be anything but a perfect break. And the body is just the beginning.

Irish writer Siobhan’s debut novel is inspired by her own experiences of holidays gone wrong. In this fascinating guest post, she talks about how entering someone else’s space can have dangerous consequences…

Siobhan_author_photoIsn’t it ironic that adults are so often at pains to warn children of the hazards of speaking to strangers and yet so many are heedless of their own advice?

“Never talk to strangers,” “Never get into a car with a stranger”, “Never take sweets from a stranger” – all warnings given to children. At the time of writing, ‘The Guardian’ is reporting multiple sightings of strangers stopping to offer lifts to children on their way to schools in Southwest London. Parents have been alerted to caution their children about this alarming activity.

However, that same advice doled out to children is often ignored by the adult community. There was a time when on-line dating was regarded as the preserve of the desperate and bewildered. Not so now – it’s commonplace with many happily using such services.

A number of years ago a journalist friend joined a dating site as a research exercise. Despite professing online to being unattached, most of the men she encountered were married. Hardly a crime, but it does go to show how people misrepresent themselves and their intentions online.

Sadly, in the past few years there have been a number of high profile incidents involving young women coming into contact with predatory strangers in nightclubs, only to meet their end after a single brief encounter. All the more tragic as nightclubs should be places where people can relax and have fun. Precisely too why such strangers prowl here, seeking out those who’ve let their guard down.

In one tragic case in Ireland, one such woman was killed in a hotel bedroom by a man -who unknown to her – was out on bail for violent offences. She’d met him in a nightclub earlier.

There is also the recent tragic story of the student nurse who became separated from her friends in a nightclub only to fall foul of the deadly intentions of a stranger who lured her to her death.

Stranger-danger is not confined to unusual situations. Indeed, malign intent often lurks behind a comfortable and familiar façade. Our guard drops and we relax when a situation seems familiar and unthreatening. Antennae are dulled and warning signs are missed.

A teacher friend recently recounted how to her shame, she blatantly ignored the advice she regularly metes out to the children in her care. As she went jogging in a familiar neighbourhood, an elderly man flagged her down on the pavement. He said his wife had recently died and he had a problem with his washing machine. He reckoned a sock was stuck in the filter and his hands were too large to release it. Would she take a look?

Although it was an unusual request, she felt sorry for the bereaved man and thought of the good Samaritan. As the door shut behind her, she felt a shudder of unease. The road had been quiet and no-one had seen her enter the house.

The elderly man had been right. There was indeed a sock stuck in the filter that she managed to free. As she handed it to him, he remarked how he’d been watching her from an upstairs window as she jogged down the road, and thought she looked like a person with small hands. Following that remark came noises from upstairs. “That’s my son getting up,” said the man. “Like the side of a house, he is. His hands would never do. I’ll call him down to meet you.”

Instantly, she regretted her decision and thought how foolish she’d been. Tripping over piles of laundry in the hallway, she made for the front-door, rushing past the man who she’d assumed was living alone.

Out on the street, she thought to how she’d scold any child in her class were they to do anything similar. It was a seemingly innocent request but it only struck her afterwards how differently things could have turned out.

Whether it’s the pub, the nightclub, online, the daily train commute, or even in what may be a familiar neighbourhood, we should heed the sage advice we give to children – strangers should be treated with caution.

***

Twisted River is published by Canelo in ebook, priced at £1.99.

 

The Intel: John Sweeney

 

John SweeneySo you know John Sweeney. He’s the award-winning investigative reporter guy on the telly. He’s seen a lot of stuff, been to a lot of dangerous places. John’s work has taken him around the globe covering conflict – from Russia, to the Ukraine, to undercover investigations in North Korea and Chechnya.

And – guess what – he’s a hell of a writer, too. His first Joe Tiplady thriller Cold is published today by Thomas And Mercer, and it’s a corker.

Tiplady is a man with a dark past. A sardonic Irishman with a love of his dog and his whiskey, Joe has a burning desire for truth and unwavering compassion for those in need — and he’ll play by his own rules to see justice served.

In Cold, a chain of events is in motion that will make him a priceless target. A retired Soviet general hunts for his missing daughter after a series of brutal murders. A ruthless assassin loses something so precious he will do anything to get it back. And in the shadow of them all lies Zoba, strongman ruler of Russia and puppet-master of the world’s darkest operatives.

Sweeney is an engaging fellow and in this fantastic intel interview he gives us the lowdown on his mysterious protag, his romantic first novel and the Cold Road To Hell.

Tell us about Joe Tiplady…

Joe Tiplady was an IRA bomb-maker sent to a terrorist camp in North Korea to learn how to better kill the British. Once there, he realised the ordinary people were brainwashed and, in turn, he came to realise that he, too, had been brainwashed by the IRA. Joe’s based on an actual IRA man I met in Belfast, whose trip to North Korea was the start of his divorce from violent Irish republican nationalism. The name, by the way, comes from a great friend of my son’s who died at the age of 25 by a heart attack. His family said: ‘let our hero be your hero.’

 In Cold, Joe becomes the target for a dangerous assassin – what kind of murky goings-on does he get himself involved in?

That’s a tricky question without giving too much of the plot away. Suffice to say his dog Reilly vanishes, then he accidentally sees it again and it hurries back to him. But the consequences are that suddenly all hell breaks loose. Why? Well, read the book. It’s not a whodunit but a whydunnit.

Your first novel Elephant Moon was a romantic fiction – why the change of pace?

True, Elephant Moon did hit number one on amazon.co.uk’s historical romance section, hugely to my shame. I never saw myself as king of the bodice-rippers. Moon is set in Burma in 1942. There are many bleak, historically accurate scenes in it and although it has a central love story, I don’t think of Moon as romance. But I did want to write a classic spy thriller and that’s Cold. To be honest, I love telling stories. I don’t really care about the genre: the story is the pan-galactic ruler.

COLD Cover ImageA few years ago, in the post-Soviet world, critics were proclaiming that the thriller was dead, but the world seems a more dangerous place than ever – is it difficult to keep up with the ever-changing political climate?

Difficult? You’re telling me. In my head I have a Joe Tiplady trilogy, Cold Road to Hell. I’m writing the second, Road, now and it’s inspired by the war in Syria and ISIS. It’s soooooooooooo hard to keep up with the inhumanity spewing out of Raqqa. At the same time, as a journalist I can’t go to ISIS-stan because they might kidnap me and weaponise me against my own society. As a thriller writer I can go there inside my head and take the reader with me and that’s incredibly exciting.

As a BBC journalist you’ve reported on a number of tyrannies – where are some of the most-dangerous places you’d like to take Joe?

In Cold, Joe crosses the Atlantic – but not by flying, less the people after him find him. In Road, Joe goes to Syria. In Hell, to North Korea.

How did you start writing?

At school. I’ve never stopped.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

Having faith in yourself. I’ve written seven non-fiction books but novels are harder. It took me more than a decade to write Elephant Moon. It started selling very slowly, through word of mouth, and now it’s sold more than 150,000. Writing a story, a book is like planting a tree or having a child: you plant something living in the world and that is smashing.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

Raymond Chandler – crisp writing on a corrupt LA; Seamus Heaney – magical lyricism about Irish soil and humanity; and L Ron Hubbard for his pan-galactic insights. One of these replies is a joke.

Give me some advice about writing…

Try and write one thousand words a day. When a new character turns up, describe him. If you’re writing a thriller, end every chapter on a cliff edge.

What’s next for you and Joe?

Road, then Hell, and then I will have trilogy, Cold Road to Hell.

 ***

Cold by John Sweeney is out today, 1st July, published by Thomas and Mercer at £8.99.

 

The Two O’Clock Boy is coming…

If there’s one thing we’ve learned this week, ladies and gentlemen, it’s that change is inevitable.

Thing is, Crime Thriller Fella has got a few more things up his sleeve, but between you and me the long-term prognosis is, frankly, not very encouraging. He’s reviewed a few books, he’s done a few intel interviews, spoke about himself in the third person in a highly-affected way and filled his site with as much filler as is decent.

Yonks ago he mentioned he had a book deal, and then it all went silent — because there was work to do. But there’s a cover now, and it’s a cracker. You can see it in the wonderful gif below. The Two O’Clock Boy, the first of a series featuring North London coppers DI Ray Drake and DS Flick Crowley, is coming on November 17, 2016, published by Sphere Books.

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At some point, Crime Thriller Fella will cease to be. He will an ex-blogger. There will be a website markhillauthor.com – you can find a better shot of the cover and a synopsis of the book there already, should you want to do the business with the mouse – and you’ll find all the content here over there, and more. There’ll be a bit of a blogging aspect on occasion, yes, but you’ll also find news and events and covers and stuff about Drake and Crowley. You know, it’ll be a proper author site, sort of thing.

So I’m giving you fair warning. Crime Thriller Fella is not long for this world.

But, don’t worry, you’re in safe hands, you’ll have me instead.

My name is Mark Hill, and I’m an author. Pleased to meet you.

The Intel: Stephen Booth

9780316743297 (532x800)A sense of place is as important in crime novels as the characters, and the extraordinary landscape of the Peak District permeates every sentence of Stephen Booth’s hugely-popular Cooper and Fry series. In the latest, Secrets Of Death, Booth writes about a bizarre string of suicides in the area.

When Roger Farrell is found dead by his own hand in a car overlooking the beautiful Heeley Bank, he is the latest in a long line of people who have come to the Peak District to die. Although DI Ben Cooper is reluctant to use the phrase ‘suicide tourism’, he is aware that the rate of suicides in the area is sharply increasing. And a number of them, like Farrell, are in possession of a business card that simply says The Secrets Of Death.

Is somebody ‘managing’ these suicides? And how would Cooper even define this crime? Unfortunately, the one survivor is refusing to cooperate with the police, and leads are thin on the ground. The answer may lie with Cooper’s prickly former colleague Diane Fry, who had been about to arrest Roger Farrell before his death. Can the two of them find whoever is coordinating the suicides before more people die?

Secrets Of Death is the 16th in this incredibly popular series of crime novels. Booth is a generous and engaging interviewee, and in this fascinating intel he tells us about the evolution of his characters, about ‘suicide tourism’ and his beloved Peak District — and something of an expert on the subject, he reveals the secret personalities of goats…

Tell us about Ben Cooper and Diane Fry…

I conceived these two characters as young and junior police detectives, in a reaction to all the middle-aged alcoholic loners I was reading about in crime fiction back in the 1990s. Ben Cooper is the local boy who grew in the Peak District and knows everyone. He’s from a farming family and has a real love for the area and its way of life. Diane is the outsider, a city girl and completely out of her element in a rural setting. She’s rather a damaged person who’s developed a protective shell because of what’s happened to her in the past. Ben is a character everyone loves because he has such humanity and compassion. The relationship between the two characters started off quite badly in the first book, ‘Black Dog’, and has become more and more complex ever since.

How have the characters changed since the series began?

Ben Cooper was very young and immature in the early books. But he made the break from his family and moved away from the farm, and we’ve watched him steadily mature over the course of the series. He’s been through a major personal trauma, and he’s also been promoted a couple of times so he’s now a detective inspector with responsibilities for his team. Diane Fry seemed like a high flier in the beginning and was very ambitious. But she was distracted from her ambitions (largely by her unpredictable sister Angie), and one day she realised Cooper was leaving her behind. To some extent, they’ve gone separate ways, but they both remain very conflicted over their relationship.

Secrets of Death tackles the subject of ‘suicide tourism’ – what is that?

Many people have a favourite location they like to spend time in. One day, I was looking at some benches installed at a Peak District viewpoint overlooking a stunning landscape. Each one had a plaque commemorating a deceased person who was said to have loved that particular spot. It occurred to me that if you’d decided to take your own life and you were planning it carefully, as some people do, you might choose to do it at your favourite spot and spend the last moments of your life looking at that spectacular view. That’s how I came up with the concept of ‘suicide tourism’. Ben Cooper and his team from Edendale CID are faced with a spate of such suicides. They don’t know where the next dead body will turn up, though it’s bound to be at a tourist hotspot. It isn’t doing the tourism industry much good! And of course there’s the question of whether one of those deaths wasn’t actually a suicide at all…

9780751559989How much does the mysterious character of the Peak District permeate your books?

I think of the Peak District as beautiful but dangerous. It was the perfect setting for the type of book I wanted to create. I was interested in writing about a rural area, but giving my books a darker feel and dealing with serious contemporary subjects. I recall a line from a Sherlock Holmes story, in which Holmes tells Dr Watson: “There is more evil in the smiling and beautiful countryside than in the vilest alleys of London”. That pretty much sums up the idea. The Peak District is full of wonderfully atmospheric locations, along with thousands of years of history and all the legends and folklore that go with it.

I was intrigued by the two distinct geological halves of the Peak District, known as the White Peak and Dark Peak, which are very different in character. The white and dark seemed to me to symbolise good and evil, right there in the landscape. This is also one of the most visited national parks in the world because of the cities all around it, creating conflict between millions of visitors and the people who actually live and work there. Sometimes the landscape plays a physical role in my books. The hills can be very dangerous, and people sometimes disappear or meet an unexplained death. In one book, Dead and Buried, the backdrop is of raging moorland fires, which is almost like a vision of Hell.

What are your favourite locations for your novels?

There are so many fascinating and quirky places in the Peak District. One Last Breath is set around one of the my favourite locations, the small town of Castleton. It’s in limestone country and sits on top of thirteen miles of caverns, some of which are open to the public. Frankly, there’s nothing more frightening than a deep, narrow cave in complete darkness! And there are some very creepy stories about the Peak Cavern system. I also think of the ‘plague village’ of Eyam, which features in The Kill Call. It’s become a macabre tourist attraction, with people going to look at plaques listing the names of people who died there from an outbreak of bubonic plague. They even sell souvenir plastic rats in the visitor centre!

You breed pedigree dairy goats – – what kind of personalities do goats have?

Sadly, we no longer have the goats, though we did breed them for a number of years. I always found them fascinating animals. They’re very intelligent and independent-minded (unlike sheep), and they have a wicked sense of humour. They relate to people very well, and our goats always loved being taken to shows, where they had a wonderful time showing off to the public. Remarkably, they’re also more productive than cows, size for size, and their milk is much better for people who can’t take cows’ milk. I do miss not having them any more!

How did you start writing?

I started writing stories when I was very young – pretty much as soon as I could read, I think. I went on to produce my first novel when I was 12 years old. I’m sure it was quite a short novel, and it was about astronauts landing on a planet and meeting aliens (well, it was the 1960s!). But from the moment I finished it, I knew that was what I wanted to do when I grew up. Obviously, you can’t just leave school and become a novelist, so I figured out the way to earn a living by writing was to be a newspaper journalist. I did that for a long time, but I gave it up and I’ve made my living from writing crime novels for the past 16 years or so. So I suppose I’ve always been a writer.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

Taking criticism is hard for a lot of writers. But I learned about it very early on. I’ve got an older brother, who read that first novel I wrote when I was 12 – and he was so disparaging about it that he remains the worst critic I’ve ever head! But I wasn’t discouraged by his harsh comments. And I think it was great experience for me to learn about taking criticism at such an early age. It doesn’t bother me now.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

There are many of them. I was a huge fan of crime fiction as a reader before I started writing the Cooper & Fry series. One of my great heroes was Ruth Rendell, who was capable of subverting the conventions of the genre. She was constantly able to come up with something new and exciting right to the end. I thought Reginald Hill was a great writer too, and I also like John Harvey, Peter Robinson – in fact anything with a really strong, believable central character.

Give me some advice about writing…

Read a lot, keep writing – and never stop!

What’s next for you?

I’m starting work on a new Cooper & Fry novel, which will be the 17th in the series. But I don’t have a title yet!

***

Secrets Of Death is out right now, published by Sphere in hardback.

The Intel: Susanna Gregory

9780099443513Susanna Gregory fans are in heaven right now. Last week saw the publication of two Matthew Bartholomew novels. A Grave Concern was published in hardback and A Poisonous Plot in paperback. By my reckoning, that’s her 21st and 22nd books in the series.

Set in the aftermath of the Great Plague in 14th Century Cambridge — a time of great social unrest among the devastated population – her protag Matthew Bartholomew is a fictional physician. He’s the master at the College of Michaelhouse at the University of Cambridge, where he teaches medicine. In A Poisonous Plot, he takes on an arrogant physician as a mysterious contagion afflicts Cambridge, and in A Grave Concern, the election of a new chancellor at the college gets very nasty indeed.

A former policewoman in Leeds, Susanna pursued a career in academia which, she says, exposed her to the political manoeuvring, infighting, and eccentricity that fuelled her writing. Susanna is also the creator of the Thomas Chaloner series of mysteries set in Restoration London.

Crime Thriller Fella is delighted Susanna has agreed to give us the intel on Bartholomew, the plague and the perennial allure of medieval murder…

Tell us about Matthew Bartholomew…

Bartholomew is a physician living in Cambridge in the mid-fourteenth century. He’s also a Fellow of Michaelhouse, which was one of eight Colleges in the University at the time.

How has the character developed since you began writing about him?

That’s hard to say without re-reading the first book! However, he’s twelve years older than when he started, and I’ve tried to make him learn from his mistakes. He’s certainly more cautious about leaping into danger now he’s no longer quite so young (well, aren’t we all?). At the beginning, I had him as something of a maverick in the medical world, with wild theories about hygiene and surgery. He still holds those opinions, but is now far more cautious about expressing them, and even acknowledges that astrology may have its place in a patient’s mental wellbeing. I hope he’s older, wiser and more mature, but I really think that’s for the reader to decide.

9780751549799The series is based in the aftermath of the Great Plague – what kind of a society was it?

Crikey! Books have been written on this, so it’s hard to answer in a couple of paragraphs! But briefly, was the plague a good thing or a bad one? The jury is out, as academics have made good arguments for both sides of the debate, based on their assessments of the contemporary written evidence.

On the one hand, there had been a huge population increase just before the plague, and there were reports of famine, particularly when poor harvests failed to supply towns and cities with food. Lots of communities were being founded on scrubby land, because all the fertile areas were already taken. So the plague eliminated between a third and half the population, meaning there was more good land for the survivors. There was a shortage of manual labourers after the plague, too, which meant that peasants had their wealthy landlords over a barrel. Standards of living rose for the next twenty years — until the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 brought matters to a head, and reversed the trend.

On the other hand, whole communities were wiped out permanently, and there was a terrible fear that it would happen again. People’s faith in God and the Church wavered, especially as the plague took plenty of priests — the Dominicans in Cambridge, who bravely tended the sick and dying, were all but wiped out. If priests weren’t safe, then who was? There can have been very few people who didn’t suffer loss of loved ones, so the aftermath must have been socially and psychologically devastating.

What can we learn from the 14th Century – are there any similarities with our own?

Thankfully, not many! Medicine has improved somewhat, and so has hygiene. Our houses have heating, drains and running water, and buying a loaf of bread from a shop is a lot easier than growing your own grain, getting it milled, making dough, then taking it to a baker to get it cooked. Then there are the little things. In the fourteenth century, when the Sun went down, it was dark. Candles were expensive (and most of them smoked horribly), so winter nights were probably long and tiresome. There were no street lights to see you home from the tavern, and the roads were treacherously uneven. People were thus very much aware of the phases of the Moon — today, not many folk notice it at all, unless it’s particularly bright or unusually coloured — and the seasons. We get strawberries all year round, but they had them in the summer. Of course, they probably tasted a lot better then …

In all, it’s a lot better to be alive now than then, and while I occasionally think I’d like to be transported back there to see it for myself, I wouldn’t go unless I was assured that I could come back again!

Can we learn anything from the fourteenth century? I’m sure we could learn lots, but the main thing for me is the pace of life. It was slower then, with less dashing about. That isn’t a bad thing.

The series is set in the College of Michaelhouse at the University of Cambridge – why is academia such a ripe territory for murder?

Perhaps because there’s nothing more deadly than an intelligent person with time on his hands and a grudge.

How did you start writing?

It was one summer in the dim and distant past, when my husband had gone to Canada on an archaeological dig. I found myself with a few relatively quiet weeks, and so just decided to put fingers to keyboard. I wrote A Plague on Both your Houses, because I was interested in medieval Cambridge, and the College that no longer exists. I enjoyed writing it so much that I wrote another two books in the same series. It was a lot of fun.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

That bad reviews can be hurtful. You just have to tell yourself that they’re only the opinion of one person, and then think about the many charming, friendly and encouraging messages you’ve had through the years from readers. After all, they are the ones whose opinions really count.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

There are so many — all my fellow Medieval Murderers for a start. Mike Jecks, Bernard Knight, Ian Morson, Chris Sansom, Karen Maitland and Philip Gooden are passionate about what they do, and they are all painstaking with the details of their research. I’ve learned a lot from them.

I also love Patrick O’Brien. Someone once told me that his books were “Jane Austen at sea”. What more could a reader ask for?

Unknown.jpegGive me some advice about writing…

There’s no such thing as writers’ block. If you feel uninspired, write through it — just get something, anything, down on the screen. It may be rubbish that you later delete, but it will get you over the hump and move you on with the story.

The other thing I would say is that you should write for yourself. Write want you want to write, not what you feel the publisher, agent, reader or reviewer would like. It’s just more enjoyable that way, and a good editor will always help you to smooth out any problems afterwards.

What’s next for you?

Today? A nice cup of coffee in the garden in company with my beloved chickens. There’s something incredibly relaxing about watching Ethel and her flock going about their daily round of scratching, sunbathing, taking dust baths and hunting for worms. I often get ideas for books when I’m sitting doing nothing with them. It’s like having my batteries recharged.

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A Grave Concern in hardback and A Poisonous Plot in paperback, are available right now, published by Sphere.