, perhaps one of the foremost contemporary practitioners of the Cosy Mystery …
(Sarah Williams: 'How to Write Crime', published by Constable Robinson)
I am always happy to be interviewed. Here’s a short selection.
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Nicola Slade's “The Dead Queen’s Garden” — December 2013
Nicola Slade had her first short stories published in her early twenties and wrote for children and for women’s magazines for a number of years. As well as writing, Nicola has been a Brown Owl and an antiques dealer. She currently lives in Hampshire with her husband; her three grown-up children live nearby.
Here, Nicola talks about what inspired the story and why location was so very integral to her tale…
If you visit Winchester and go to see the famous Round Table, as you certainly should, you will find an interesting little piece of history by opening a small door inside the echoing Norman Great Hall. Queen Eleanor’s Garden is a recreation of a mediaeval garden of the time of Queen Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III, daughter-in-law of King John. This little garden is planted only with plants that were known in the Middle Ages and tucked into its tiny area are a vine tunnel, a grass seat, a fountain and a little stream, as well as herbs, berries, and early roses. The garden was opened in 1986 by the Queen Mother and it’s an oasis of quiet in a busy city. (For more information, click here).
When I came to think about the third adventure for my resourceful young Victorian widow, Charlotte, the mediaeval garden immediately sprang to mind. It didn’t matter that I was writing about 1858 and the garden was a late twentieth century creation, I could fudge that. However, it really is very small and I needed a much larger space where I could hide a corpse or two. So I did the next best thing: I invented my own version.
Charlotte’s first two adventures took place in spring 1858 and August/September of the same year and, as I didn’t want to leave her too long without being thrown into another perilous situation (I’m all heart), Christmas loomed large – and with it, all the fun of the festive season. Sadly, an unfortunate death in the house meant that the celebrations had to be muted but I had fun with an ill-assorted house party, including two guests in deepest mourning, while Charlotte found herself pursued by a determined widower, and by Florence Nightingale who tempts her with an interesting offer.
A quiet Christmas didn’t give me much scope for jollity, though the book begins with a christening party complete with a wassail bowl, but what I did have fun with was researching the clothes and assorted ailments. Last year I haunted the Oxfam Bookshop in Winchester, wondering whether I could justify spending £40 on a book. I did, of course, and it’s fabulous: ‘English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century’. Every single year is marked by a brief history, but it’s history as reflected in women’s clothing. 1854’s entry is: ‘The Crimean War, beginning in February of that year, influenced the current fashions in characteristic ways…’ (lots of Turkish influences). This is followed by descriptions of cloaks, shawls, bonnets, day dresses, sleeves….
I researched the ailments via ‘The Family Health Book’ which is a little late for my period, at 1892, but covered the topic pretty comprehensively. There’s a scary diagram illustrating the evils of tight-lacing your corset and an endorsement for hearty eating by instancing Goethe whose appetite was ‘immense’ and who lived into his eighties.
An interesting research trip was to The Poison Garden at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland. I was asking about which plants would kill you more effectively when the friend I was with hustled me outside, insisting that the curator was eyeing us suspiciously. Later on, my younger daughter gave me the perfect Mother’s Day present in the shape of ‘The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work & Play’. (She knows how to please her mum, that girl….)
I had an editorial query about the flowers Charlotte finds in the woods on Christmas Day — ‘Primroses? With snow on the ground?’ I happily altered it, realizing that most of the UK is not like this sheltered part of the south, where it’s no novelty to find primroses, violets or even a foolhardy rose out in flower in mid-winter. Snow on the ground on Christmas Day however — well, that’s something I’ve never seen!
It’s an action-packed week for Charlotte, encompassing amusement, fear, annoyance, tragedy, affection, grief and melodrama. The book ends on 1st January 1859 which just so happens to be Charlotte’s twenty-fifth birthday.
— Nicola Slade
‘Get to know Nicola Slade’ by Maria Grace — November 2013
Join me in welcoming Nicola Slade!
Writing is such a challenging endeavor. What got you started on it and what keeps you doing it?
I wrote stories all the time as a child so I never remember a time when there wasn’t a story in my head. As to why I keep doing it, it’s something I have to do – the stories and characters keep nagging until I write about them.
What did you do with your earliest efforts? Did anyone read them? Did you still have them?
The first ‘published’ pieces were poems in the school magazine and they’re probably still around somewhere. My first paid-for work consisted of 3 stories for the children’s page of a women’s magazine, when I was 22.
What made you choose to write in the genres/time periods you write in?
I currently write two cozy mystery series, one is contemporary and the other is set in the 1850s which is a period I love, a time of so many innovations. I’m passionate about history and fortunate enough to live in an area of great historical interest. I was brought up on Victorian novels and have a large collection of them.
What do you enjoy most in the writing process? What parts of it do you really dislike?
I love it when the writing flows and you come out of a trance to find you’ve written several thousand words and they’re not all rubbish! I find the promotion side of the business difficult; writers tend to be shy and introverted so it’s hard to push one’s work.
If you write in multiple genres how do you make the switch from one to the other? Do you find it a welcome change, crazy-making or a little of both?
It doesn’t seem to bother me and I can switch quite easily.
Historical fiction takes a lot of research. What is the most memorable or interesting thing you’ve learned along the way?
That timbers from the USS Chesapeake were used in the framework of a mill about 20 miles from my home. The ship was captured by the British in the War of 1812 and when it was eventually broken up, the timbers were sold off. You can still see them today!
What do you do to keep all your research information and plot ideas organized and accessible?
Er, I’m not very tidy so I have piles of paper on my desk, as well as hundreds of books on shelves all round the study.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
Don’t try to write against what comes naturally. There will always be something that turns up in your writing so don’t try to suppress it. With me, it’s the humour. It bubbles up irrepressibly so I just let it take me where it wants to go.
Tell us a little about your current project.
My 5th novel, A CROWDED COFFIN, published 31st January 2013, is the second in my contemporary cozy series featuring recently retired teacher, Harriet Quigley and her clergyman cousin, Sam Hathaway. This one has lots of history and is set (as are all my books) in and around the historic city of Winchester, ancient capital of England. There’s a death in the Cathedral that sets the cat among the pigeons.
What’s up next for you?
I have two books out this year. September sees the publication of my third Victorian cozy, The Dead Queen’s Garden, set at Christmas 1859. This features my feisty young Australian widow, Charlotte Richmond, who just can’t avoid stumbling over the occasional corpse! Lots of fun, lots of history, plenty of melodrama and in the finale Charlotte uses the most bizarre weapon ever to fend off a murderer!
A Crowded Coffin is available from Amazon and other internet booksellers, as well as the publisher, Robert Hale Ltd www.halebooks.com This publisher sells mainly to libraries and only does hardbacks so I like to encourage readers also to request my books from their local public library. (Of course, I’m happy if they buy them too!)
The first in my contemporary series, Murder Fortissimo, is now available on Amazon.com as a Harlequin Worldwide Mystery Library paperback.
Stevie Carroll interviews the Deadly Dames — October 2013
The Deadly Dames are a group of cosy crime authors: Charlie Cochrane, Joan Moules, Eileen Robertson, Nicola Slade and Carol Westron and they love to talk about crime fiction. I caught up with the five of them, plus honorary ‘Dame for the Day’ Leigh Russell, at the Havant Literary Festival on the 6th of October.
Stevie:Which Dame are you (Sporty, Scary, Ginger, Baby, Posh or something else)?
Charlie: I suppose technically I’m Baby, although I think Joan should be that because she
has such a young girl’s face. I’ll be sporty, for the obvious reason that I can’t resist watching or listening to sport whenever I can.
Joan: Dizzy Dame (that’s what my husband calls us, the Dizzy Dames!).
Eileen: Scary Dame.
Nicola: I’d like to be Scary Dame.
Carol: As the bossy moderator I guess I’d be Scary Dame.
Leigh: I’m a Scary Dame!
(That's a lot of Scary Dames there!)
Stevie:What’s your sub-genre (in 3 words if possible)?
Charlie: Cosy Edwardian gay.
Joan: Mystery Romantic Fiction.
Eileen: Comedy crime.
Nicola: Mystery with history.
Carol: Contemporary police procedural.
(And a wide variety of sub-genres for you all to choose from!)
Stevie: What’s your latest release? What’s it about?
Charlie: Lessons for Suspicious Minds, which is an Edwardian country house type of mystery
with my sleuths, Jonty Stewart and Orlando Coppersmith, having two mysterious suicides-which-might-just-be-murders
to look into. The twists in the tale don’t just come in the storyline — my amateur detectives are both fellows
of an august Cambridge college, and madly in love with each other. Not easy in an age when their love dare not speak its name.
Joan: Turn of the Tide, which is about surrogacy: Tim is easy-going and contented but Katie refuses to be thwarted in her desire to move up in the world. Her drastic solution to finding money to fund the first steps on the property ladder though rebounds on her with devastating effects. Meanwhile Gordon and Maureen move to the affluent area of the South Coast town with their small baby when Gordon’s firm relocates from London.
Eileen: We’ll Be Watching You, which is based on Aesop’s Fables, and the story of ‘Cry Wolf’. When Neighbourhood-Watch-obsessed Christine sees a supermarket robbery, no one will believe her.
Nicola: Forthcoming (31st Dec 2013) is The Dead Queen’s Garden, the third in the Charlotte Richmond series and set in 1858; the young widow, Charlotte, has lately found herself tripping over the occasional corpse, but surely the festive season, beginning with a christening party, can’t present the same hazard? There are some strange incidents and a death, apparently from natural causes, that leaves Charlotte puzzled and anxious over questions that seem to have no answers. Over Christmas, she manages to learn a surprising amount about mediaeval gardening, some unusual and unpleasant ailments, London property values, and how to conduct a rat-hunt. To cap it all, Boxing Day finds the resourceful Charlotte in a garden dedicated to a long-dead queen, fighting for her life and armed only with what is possibly the least likely weapon ever.Carol: The Terminal Velocity of Cats, in which archaeologist turned Scene of Crimes Officer, Mia Trent, is summoned by Detective Inspector Oliver Sutton to examine a pit of bones that have been turned up by a digger on a building site. Amongst numerous cat bones, there is a human body, and the skull has modern dentistry. Newly arrived in the area, Sutton is hampered by resentment and obstruction from most of the C.I.D. team, but Mia likes him. Together they solve the crime that led to the body in the pit of bones, but Mia’s presence at the crime scene has attracted the attention of a relentless and vicious killer and soon she is in danger of becoming his next victim.Leigh: Cold Sacrifice, which is the first in the Ian Peterson series, a spin-off from the Geraldine Steel series: When three dead bodies are discovered in quick succession, DS Ian Peterson becomes too busy with a complex murder investigation to worry about his deteriorating marriage. From middle class housewife to prostitute, there seems to be nothing to link the victims, and no clue to the killer’s identity. Meanwhile Stop Dead, released June 2013, is the 6th book in the bestselling Geraldine Steel series: when a businessman is murdered, the police suspect his glamorous wife and her lover. Then the victim’s business partner suffers the same gruesome fate. The only clue is samples of DNA that lead to two women: one dead, the other in prison.
(More titles for the Wish List? Incidentally, Women and Words regulars, Geraldine’s sergeant in London is a lesbian, first appearing in Death Bed. Maybe she’ll get a spin-off series eventually too.)
Stevie:If you could take two of your characters anywhere, where would you go, who would you take and who would you absolutely not tell your travel plans to?
Charlie: Jonty Stewart (from the Cambridge books) and Rory Carter, my very well bred werewolf
(from Wolves of the West). Both of them men you could depend on in any situation and who’d be excellent company. We’d
go to Jersey (old not New) of course, for the beaches and the castles and the excellent restaurants. I wouldn’t tell
my weresloth character (from ‘Sollicito’ in Lashing of Sauce) as he’d come along and shift into sloth guise. That would
either be endearing or totally revolting depending on the slothy things he’d be doing at the time.
Joan: Annie and Johnny from my book Tin Hats and Gas Masks. Where – On a cruise or to the seaside (they could argue it out between them). I’d definitely not take Annie’s mum.
Eileen: I’d take Christine and Harry off to New Zealand, but I certainly wouldn’t tell Alun.
Nicola: I’d take my two protagonists, Charlotte Richmond (the Victorian widow) and Harriet Quigley (a contemporary former headteacher) to a fabulous hotel where we’d have great food and drink and talk non-stop. I’d have to hope they managed not to trip over any corpses while we were there. Far too many unreliable characters to choose from when it comes to not telling!
Carol: I’d take Mia and Oliver Sutton to a Greek island, which would be fun for an archaeologist, and maroon them in a small village together so that they could sort out how they felt about each other away from the speculative eyes of their colleagues. I definitely wouldn’t tell D.C. Liz Murphy or D.S. Dave Bycroft, who’d use their knowledge to make trouble.
Leigh: I would go to a Greek island with my protagonists Geraldine Steel and Ian Peterson and spend time really getting to know them both. I wouldn’t tell anyone!
[Some more great stories in the making there?]
The Deadly Dames are happy to give talks to writers’ groups, libraries, bookshops and any group that loves to read or talk about mysteries. They can be contacted via Mystery People (www.mysterypeople.co.uk). Not sure whether they’ll cross the Atlantic to talk to you, but you never know…
[I'd recommend you go and see them separately or as a group, because they're all jolly entertaining.]
Susan Finlay’s "Meet the Author" — September 2013
Hi, Nicola! Welcome to Susan Finlay Writes blog site. Can you tell us a bit about your background as a writer?
I’ve been writing stories as long as I could read. When I was about 23, I had some children’s short stories published in the children’s page of a national magazine in the UK, then there was a gap while I married and had a family, until I wrote children’s stories for a while. Back in the 90s I wrote short stories for several women’s magazines and finally had my first novel, a romantic comedy, Scuba Dancing, accepted. It was published in 2005.
Your contemporary mystery novel, A Crowded Coffin, the second in a series, was published in January, 2013, by Robert Hale Publishers, Ltd. What is the book about?
This is the second in my contemporary cozy series featuring Harriet Quigley, a recently retired headmistress. It’s set in and around the historic city of Winchester, in the south of England. Harriet’s best friend, her cousin the Reverend Sam Hathaway, find themselves caught up in a treasure hunt that goes wrong. The book is packed with history, Saxon jewels, Roman ruins, sinister goings-on, a missing man, etc., and Harriet finds herself trapped somewhere very nasty indeed.
Your mystery novel, Murder Fortissimo, the first in your contemporary series, was published in 2012. Can you tell us about the book?
Harriet Quigley has recently retired from her teaching career and needs a small operation. She sees no reason why anyone else should know so she secretly books herself into a very upmarket establishment where older guests can convalesce in comfort. Unfortunately one of the other guests is very unpleasant and soon people are looking very worried whenever she corners them. A concert brings a bizarre and messy death and Harriet is the only person who believes it was no accident…
You wrote a series of Victorian mysteries—the Charlotte Richmond Investigates series. Can you tell us about them? Will you write any more books in the series?
There are two books already published, Murder Most Welcome and Death is the Cure, with a third, The Dead Queen’s Garden, due out 31st December 2013. This series features a young Australian widow, Charlotte Richmond, who arrives in the south of England to live with her wealthy in-laws. The year is 1858 and Charlotte is determined to settle down, having been only to thankful that her monstrous husband is dead — or is he?
The second Charlotte book, Death is the Cure, sees Charlotte set off to the famous spa city of Bath in search of a cure for her ailing friend. They stay in a guest house full of invalids and soon Charlotte is to be found tripping over a corpse and finding herself in danger. Lots of Jane Austen references in this one!
The forthcoming, The Dead Queen’s Garden, finds Charlotte visiting a recreation of a mediaeval garden and finding something scary in there! Florence Nightingale has a walk-on part too.
Do you do much research for your historical mysteries? Why do you write historicals? Do you prefer Victorian mysteries or contemporary mysteries?
My research is varied. I have a vast collection of Victorian novels which are great for social and domestic detail, as well as getting into the rhythms of speech so that the dialogue has an authentic ring. I set the books in Winchester because it’s an ancient and beautiful city, with the added bonus that I live only about six miles away! This is great for research trips. The second book, Death is the Cure, is set in Bath, a city I often visit, so it was a great pleasure to do research there.
On balance I prefer the historical mysteries because I have a passion for history anyway; the other bonus when writing these mysteries is that you don’t need to worry about forensics, DNA, fingerprints, etc.!
Would you give us a brief excerpt from one of your books?
I always have a cast list at the beginning of the books, usually with a humorous description of each character, to give the reader a taste of what is to come. I then have a short prologue:
MURDER MOST WELCOME
LATE SPRING 1858
in the South of England
As she laid out the body, Charlotte Richmond made two surprising discoveries.
The first of these led her to suspect that the man on the bed had been murdered. By whom, she had not the slightest notion. To whom she was profoundly grateful.
The second discovery confirmed what she had known all along, that the deceased — late and far from lamented — had not possessed the habits of a gentleman.
As this was the second time in less than a year that he had apparently been murdered Charlotte felt she might be forgiven for not falling into a paroxysm of grief; indeed, strong hysterics might, she considered, be a more appropriate reaction.
Hysterics not being in her nature she merely veiled his face decently with a linen cloth and wondered what to do with the object she had so surprisingly encountered. ‘Well, well, well,’ she murmured. ‘Here you are, dead again, I see. I wonder what is to become of me now?’
Do you have a favorite review of any of your books?
My contemporary cozies have been compared with the Mrs. Malory books by Hazel Holt, which is great and my Victorian sleuth, Charlotte, has been described as ‘a more modern and resourceful Lizzy Bennet, used to living by her wits and with perhaps more than a touch of the Heyer heroines, too.’
Probably the best review though, is this one from the Historical Novel Review: ‘Her husband’s apparent death in India came as a welcome relief to Charlotte and she hopes to settle down to a quiet life in an English village after her own rather shady upbringing. When her husband returns unexpectedly he puts the house in an uproar. It is when he is murdered for a second time that the fun starts and Charlotte’s own past threatens to catch up with her. Villains and fainting Victorian ladies — this book has it all. Nicola Slade’s attention to period detail and fast action with a mix of romance makes this a worthy successor to those 19th century sensation novelists. It is a well-paced and witty read from start to finish, and one of the most entertaining books I have ever read.’
What books or authors have most influenced you in your own writing? Do you have a mentor?
I don’t have a mentor but I do have a couple of honest readers who tell me what does and doesn’t work. As for influences, I’m a great fan of the classic cozy mystery writers, particularly Margery Allingham as well as the zany mysteries by Charlotte Macleod. I collect books by Victorian bestseller Charlotte M Yonge, as well as mid-20th century author Angela Thirkell, but I have fairly eclectic tastes and also have all Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.
If you could meet any book character, who would it be, and what would you do with them?
That’s a tricky one! I’d love to meet Emma’s Mr. Knightley, but on balance I think it would have to be Felix Underwood, the hero of Pillars of the House, by Charlotte Yonge, published in 1873. At the age of 16 he’s left in charge of a family of 12 siblings when his clergyman father dies and Felix manages to be an entirely human ‘goodie’ and I love him dearly. He’d probably like a visit to some cathedrals and to a variety of newspaper offices as he’s a chorister and a newspaper editor!
What is your favorite or least favorite part of writing?
I’m not comfortable with all the self-promotion that is an inevitable part of the process for all authors these days, even when traditionally published. My publisher, Robert Hale Ltd, is one of the last remaining, long-established, independent family firms in the UK.
Please list any websites or social media links for yourself or your book. Thanks!
My books are now all available as ebooks from Amazon et al.
Blog: I’d love to have some more cozy mystery lovers join me, just press the Follow button [at] Nicola Slade’s Winchester Histories & Mysteries
Eight is Enough Q&A with Sarah-Jane Lehoux — June 2011
1. Do you have any unusual habits that either aid or detract from your writing?
I’m very easily distracted — (oh look at that shiny thing!) so a phone call to ask me out for coffee or lunch or just to hang out will nearly always find me picking up my car keys and out the door.
2. When you finish a new writing project, who is the first person you share it with?
My husband — I tell him it’s done, but he doesn’t read fiction so I then get on to two other people: my younger daughter, Olivia, as she is my first reader and fiercest critic, and a writing friend, Linda Gruchy, who is brilliant at spotting plot holes and inconsistencies.
3. When asked when they first discovered their love for writing, most people will say their childhood. So I won’t waste your time by asking something I already pretty much know the answer to. What I want to know is when you decided to go pro, instead of just writing as a hobby.
Although my first short stories for children were published in my early twenties it was another twenty years before I started getting short stories regularly accepted by women’s magazines. I did have a book for children accepted in the mid-seventies but the publisher changed direction and my book was never published. My first novel, Scuba Dancing, a romantic comedy, was published when I was 62.
4. Please share the best backhanded compliment you’ve ever received about your writing.
“It’s actually not bad,” — from a friend’s husband! Plus another, sweet one, by my elder daughter, Amelia, about my first novel, Scuba Dancing, a romantic comedy: “I loved it and got so deeply into it I forgot it was written by my mum!”
5. Name one (or more) pet peeves you have about other people’s writing. For example, I can’t stand when eyes are referred to as orbs.
I am irritated by novels written in the present tense; I rarely find it works for me.
6. Everyone has bad writing days (or weeks, or months). What do you do when you start to hate everything that you’ve written?
(See Question 1): I go out with friends or spend ages pottering round the shops. My best friend and I can spend a whole day without buying anything other than coffee — we call it research! This usually works well as my subconscious is working away on its own and I’m ready to start afresh.
7. If you could meet your characters in real life, do you think you’d get along with them?
As I’m now writing cozy murders there are one or two characters I think I’d prefer not to meet, but most of them would be fun, particularly the heroine of my Victorian series, Charlotte Richmond, as she’s an unusual and very engaging young woman, with a wicked sense of humour.
8. What is one mistake you’ve made while trying to market yourself and your book(s)? Conversely, what’s one bit of promotion you’ve done that worked out better than expected?
I was too shy to organise a book launch for my first novel and have regretted it since. The best thing has been contacting my local radio station and getting the brilliant Breakfast Show host on my side, so that he interviews me for regular updates on my publishing progress.
Last but not least, in three hundred words or less, please pimp your latest project.
When newly retired headmistress, Harriet Quigley, needs a good rest and somewhere comfortable to recover from a hospital stay, she believes Firstone Grange will be the ideal place. Upmarket and luxurious, and perfectly run by a competent and understanding Matron, Firstone Grange seems wonderful but there’s a serpent in this Paradise and Harriet soon realises that some of the residents are very frightened. When a particularly horrific death occurs, and Harriet finds herself at risk, she calls on her clergyman cousin, the Revd Sam Hathaway, and together they attempt to discover the truth.
Reviews have called it “witty and amusing”, and “a murder mystery in the true spirit of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple,” along with the comment, ”one of the best villainesses ever written; I would say she even beats Cruella de Vil!”
It’s a traditional cozy but with a sharp edge and a lot of underlying humour, so if that appeals, and you like the idea of eccentric characters, a gruesome and inventive murder, and the odd snippet of history thrown in, Murder Fortissimo is for you. This is the first of what I hope will be a new series with the second one hopefully coming along next year.
As another reader put it, “It’s Miss Marple with balls!”
Interview Spring 2011 edition “There’s More to Life…” (Hampshire)
Nicola Slade, has been writing all her life, and having her short stories accepted by national magazines, but it wasn’t till six years ago that her first novel, Scuba Dancing, was published. Since then, Nicola, from Chandlers Ford, has had three further novels published: Murder Most Welcome, Death is the Cure, and Murder Fortissimo.
Nicola says that although her first novel was a romantic comedy, she believes she was always going to write mysteries. “I was brought up on Miss Marple and Miss Silver,” she says. “Along with Margery Allingham’s detective, Albert Campion, and Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, they have always been part of my life, so I usually head for the Crime shelves in libraries and bookshops.”
Nicola says she writes the kind of mystery she loves to read herself — what the Americans call ‘cosy’ crime. This means that a reader can be reasonably sure that the last chapter will bring some kind of retribution and punishment for the murderer, so that Good triumphs over Evil. The convention also means that the victim is not usually a very sympathetic person, so although the murder can be brutal and the story quite dark in many ways, readers can be confident that they won’t find it all too harrowing. Besides this, Nicola says that cosy crime novels rarely tend to feature explicit sex or bad language, and there is little gratuitous violence, hence the ‘cosy’ description.
As well as devouring crime stories, Nicola was brought up with a passion for history. “My mother and grandmother were voracious readers, particularly of historical novels,” she says, “and they passed this on to me, so I think it was inevitable that I’ve ended up combining the two passions by writing mystery novels set in the 1850s.”
Nicola was brought up in Poole, Dorset and moved to Middlesex when she married her husband, Morley, a computer scientist. Since then they have lived in Surrey and in Egypt, until moving to Chandlers Ford in 1981, with their three children who all went to Thornden School. They now have eight young grandchildren, five of whom live locally. As well as writing, Nicola is a founder member of Brushstrokes art group, based in Otterbourne; she has had her paintings exhibited at the Southampton Art Gallery and at Mottisfont Abbey, as well as at other local exhibitions.
Nicola’s first two Victorian mystery novels, Murder Most Welcome and Death is the Cure, have received glowing reviews and she is currently writing a third in the series, all of which have a local setting — in this case, a fictitious version of Otterbourne. Her newest book, Murder Fortissimo, (published 31st January 2011 by Robert Hale Ltd), is set in the present day and Nicola hopes it will be the first of a new series. Nicola says she wanted to write a traditional country house murder but felt it would be out of touch with present-day lifestyles. Instead, she has written a modern twist on the genre, setting her story in a very upmarket retirement home for convalescent and short-stay guests, all of whom arrive with some very dark secrets indeed.
An Interview at “Uniquely Priya” — March 2010
1) Would you please share something about yourself?
I live right on the south coast of England, halfway between the great cruise liner port of Southampton and Winchester, the former capital of Saxon England. It’s a lovely part of the world with the sea less than 10 miles away, and the ancient New Forest, haunt of kings for a 1000 years, even closer. I’ve married a long time to a lovely engineer and our three children are grown up and married and they’ve provided us with 8 wonderful small grandchildren.
2) What are your favourite pastimes?
Well obviously I love reading and writing, and I spend a lot of time with the family, but apart from that I’m passionate about history and my husband and I like to arrange our holidays so that we can visit interesting historical sites. For a few years my best friend and I had a stall at several antiques fairs, specializing in old glass and china, as well as other pretty bits and pieces. It was great fun and we learned a lot, but we both have grandchildren who take up more of our time now, so we gave it up. There’s the writing too, and I also like to paint. On my website there are some examples of my artwork.
3) Did you always want to become a writer? How did you get into writing?
Yes I did. I think I was about six when I realized that books come out of people’s heads and decided that I would do that too! My first stories were published when I was about 23, for a children’s page in a weekly magazine for women, and after that I wrote more children’s stories until I moved into writing for women’s magazines.
4) Which are your most favourite books, which left an impression on you?
I have so many favourite books and so many that influenced me, we’d need a day to talk, I should think! I was lucky in that my mother and grandmother adored reading so I read what they read, including a lot of Victorian novels, including those by Charlotte M Yonge, who was a best-seller in her day. After that there were the schoolgirl stories: Elsie Oxenham, Elinor Brent-Dyer, moving on to Georgette Heyer. Since then there must have been hundreds, but I particularly love the books of Angela Thirkell who died in the early 1960s, and I’m also very fond of the mystery writers: Margery Allingham, Dorothy L Sayers, Patricia Wentworth, Charlotte MacLeod. Modern favourites are Terry Pratchett’s books, Lindsey Davis’s Roman detective, Falco, and dozens of others.
5) Short stories or novels — what do you enjoy writing more?
Novels, every time. Short stories can be fun, but I prefer to have time to get to know my characters really well.
6) Do you see yourself writing only for a particular genre or do you wish to experiment?
I would never be too dogmatic about it, but I like cozy crime novels — where the victim is usually someone nasty and the reader can trust the author to make sure the baddies get what they deserve! My first novel was a romantic comedy but the subsequent ones are Victorian mysteries. I have another — modern day — cozy crime that I hope will be accepted. If it is, I’d like to have two mystery series and switch between them.
7) Tell us about the books you’ve authored. What are they based on?
My first novel, Scuba Dancing, is a romantic comedy about an unusual singles group, aged between mid-thirties to mid-eighties. They get together, initially to combat loneliness, then decide to start fundraising for a particular project. The story is about what the project is and how it all works out. My books always tend to be quite funny, but there’s always a serious foundation to them.
8 ) What piece of your writing is your favourite — short story or book? Why is it special to you?
My own favourite piece of work is one of the stories on my website, The Tower Room. This was a very early acceptance by a women’s magazine, and is what convinced me I had the talent to carry on. What makes it special is that I sat down at the keyboard without a thought in my head and suddenly there it was. Not the whole story, but the setting and the bare bones. This rarely happens but when it does, it’s magic.
My favourite book by anyone else is The Pillars of the House, by Charlotte M Yonge, published in the early 1870s. I love it dearly.
9) What inspired you to write each of your three books?
It happens when a character or an idea moves into my head and gives me no peace until I explore it.
Scuba Dancing was triggered by reports of widespread loneliness in the elderly, but the story snowballed once I started writing it.
Murder Most Welcome came about because a young woman called Charlotte Richmond turned up in my head and bullied me into telling her story.
Death is the Cure is the second in what I hope will be a series about this same young woman and, without giving the story away, I knew I wanted to incorporate a famous historical mystery.
10) Are you working on any book/story at the moment? Would you like to tell us about the same?
I’m currently working on the third Charlotte Richmond story, tentatively titled: The Dead Queen’s Garden. I’m very fond of Charlotte and have plenty of ideas for more mysteries she can stumble upon. This one involves finding out about how they gardened in the 1300s and the inspiration comes from a beautiful replica garden planted in Winchester. You should be able to find it here.
My fictional garden is not the same, but that’s where the idea came from.
11) Your short stories all have a Victorian touch to them…
I can’t help it! As I said, I have a passionate interest in history and I think it was inevitable that I would set books and stories in former times. (Actually, most of my published short stories were modern ones though.)
12) What is the best thing about writing as a profession, according to you?
Not having to get dressed up and go out, I should think! I don’t write fullndash;time — it’s not my way, and I believe you need to be really living your life rather than just writing about it. But holding in your hands a book you wrote yourself, is a wonderful feeling. ******************************************
Lastly, Ms. Slade says, “Thank you so much for getting me to do this: it’s not often one actually sits down and really thinks about Why did you do this? Why that?”
Thanks a lot, Ms. Slade. It was delightful interacting with you!!
An Interview by Fiona Jamieson — January 2010
Q: When did you first start writing fiction?
A: When I was about 6! First submission (at age 22) was to the Children’s page of People’s Friend (the Scottish magazine for women). They bought three children’s stories, about a mermaid, and paid me £2 each story.
Q: Did you ever get rejection slips? If so, how did you deal with the negative aspects of this?
A: I could paper an entire house with rejection slips if I’d kept them! Dealing with rejection never gets easier and my usual reaction is: disbelief, anger, tears, glass of whisky or cup of tea according to how important the submission was to me. Eventually I pick myself up and if there were comments along with the rejection I’ll take note of them and try again. Sometimes though, it’s time to shove the work in a deep, dark drawer.
Q: What are you working on at the moment?
A: I’m a little way into my third Victorian mystery featuring young widow, Charlotte Richmond.
Q: How do you approach the writing of a new novel? What research is involved and does it take long to decide on the plot?
A: Because I’m currently writing a series I have a few main characters established and it’s a question of wondering what Charlotte is up to next. The research always starts with a rereading of my collection of Victorian novels to get myself in the mood and to tune in to the rhythms of speech.
Q: Do you struggle sometimes to find ideas? If so, what do you do to get past that point?
A: Often! Sometimes I’ll do what I call “putting one word in front of another”, in other words forcing myself to write something — anything — just to fill the page. This usually works eventually and if I’m lucky the characters take over and tell the story.
Q: As a professional writer how do you set about planning your time? How much time do you spend actually writing? What other related tasks apart from the writing do you have to do?
A: I’m a very undisciplined writer, I procrastinate all the time. My best time for writing is in the middle of the day up to about tea time and I write in bursts of energy when the spirit moves me. Or when I’m forcing myself to write!
Q: What made you decide to write period murder stories after your first novel was published?
A: I’d already written two murder stories set in Hampshire but they had failed to find a publisher so I was interested in crime writing. I also have a passionate interest in history and love the combination of the two disciplines.
Q: What inspires you?
A: It varies. The book I’m working on at the moment was inspired by a mediaeval garden attached to the Great Hall in Winchester.
Q: Do you find it difficult to buckle down and get writing or do the words flow easily as soon as you get going?
A: I’ve said earlier that I’m a procrastinator but sometimes the words just pour out; other times they plod one at a time and very slowly.
Q: Who would you like to include in an Oscars list of those who have been your help and support to get to where you are?
A: In chronological order: my mother, my grandmother, my husband, my best friend, my younger daughter, both my publishers and my agent — and the tiny online writing group (Scribblers Inc) that I belong to.
Q: Do you have any favourite authors?
A: Dozens! 19th century: Jane Austen, Charlotte Yonge, Mrs Henry Wood. 20th C: school story authors ie what are called Old Girls books, Angela Thirkell, Georgette Heyer, Margery Allingham, Patricia Wentworth, Barbara Michaels, Charlotte Macleod, Ellis Peters, Lindsey Davis, Terry Pratchett — I could go on and on!
Q: Do you envy any other published writers?
A: I’ve been published by reputable but small and independent publishers which has been great — but that means small budgets. It would be fun to be splashed all over the media!
Q: Do you find inspiration in those around you or do you go farther afield for your ideas?
A: Bit of both.
Q: Do you think enough attention is paid in education to the craft of creative writing?
A: I think it’s more important to concentrate on the basics of English grammar and sentence construction at school level. Learning the techniques of creative writing is something that can come later.
Q: Do you think that the ability to write stories is within all of us? Do you think that by learning the tools of the trade anyone can become a better writer and finally maybe get published?
A: I think all aspiring writers can benefit enormously from learning writing techniques but no, I don’t think everyone is born with the ability to write stories. And to be honest, there are plenty of people who have no desire to do so!
Q: What do you think makes a good writer?
A: I don’t know but finding your own particular voice is a big part of it.
Q: How would you encourage other aspiring writers?
A: Just sit down and write something! Don’t worry about it, just write and when you’re ready to show someone what you’ve written find an honest critic (not a friend who will lavish praise on you) but someone who will tell you truthfully what they think. Try submitting to an editor (competition, magazine or publisher) and most important of all, take note of what they say about your work and act on the criticisms. Perseverance and determination are the attributes a writer needs most of all.