Wednesday, 4 December 2013
Author interview: Janet O’Kane
1. What first drew you towards crime fiction?
Once upon a time there wasn’t such a thing as YA fiction. You were expected to progress from Enid Blyton and other children’s writers to whatever you found on the school reading list and at home. I must have been a disappointment to Dad: not only did I not want to play football, he couldn’t interest me in his books about military history either. On the other hand, as soon as Mum judged me ready for Agatha Christie, I became immersed in crime fiction and haven’t looked back. At that time, the so-called Queens of Crime (Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Allingham) reigned supreme. The genre has become a lot broader since, but it still delivers what I look for in books: great stories. So when I decided to write a novel, what else would I write?
2. Who are your favourite crime fiction authors and why do you like their stories?
Over the past couple of years I’ve noticed a shift in how I read crime fiction. Instead of avidly devouring every book by a small range of authors, I now read work by a wider spread of authors, especially debut novels. This probably started while I was trying to go down the traditional agent/publisher route and hoped to discover what, if anything, those novels had in common. The two established writers who appear most frequently on my bookshelves are Robert Goddard and Christopher Brookmyre. Goddard is a supreme storyteller, getting his main characters into fixes from which it seems impossible to escape, yet they do. I also enjoy the historical aspects of his novels. Brookmyre brilliantly combines crime with the blackest of humour, sending up everything from fake psychics to the Scottish Government.
3. If you could meet a character from any crime fiction book, who would it be and why?
I still have a soft spot for Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel, who is far more uncouth in the novels than he is portrayed by Warren Clarke in the TV adaptation. But he makes me laugh as well as being far cleverer than people realise.
4. No Stranger to Death is your first novel. What can readers expect?
As I discovered when the time came to upload it to Amazon, my novel doesn’t fit neatly into a category. Yes, it revolves around murder and other crimes, but although the police are involved, they play a minor part, and my main character is Zoe Moreland, a recently widowed GP. It’s set in the Scottish Borders, which is very rural, but while the goings-on Zoe gets caught up in are far from the ‘cosy’ world of Christie’s Miss Marple, they’re maybe not dark enough to qualify as ‘tartan noir’. So perhaps I’ve just invented a new crime sub-genre: tartan cosy! Suffice to say, I’ve written the sort of book I like to read, with a twisty-turny plot, lots of interesting characters, and several shocks at the end.
5. Tell us more about your main character...
Doctor Zoe Moreland is a loner – although she would describe herself as independent – and her only companion is Mac, a crossbreed dog she unintentionally adopted. She has moved to the Borders to start a new life, not realising a village is the last place to go if you’re trying to keep a secret. I wanted to make her as unlike myself as possible, so although she’s emotionally reserved she is a sporty, physically adventurous type. She also has long, thick hair, which I’ve always wished for! By contrast, Zoe’s new friend Kate Mackenzie, a deaf genealogist who comes from a long line of Borders farmers, is an extrovert, forever trying to persuade Zoe to be more outgoing and trusting of people. It was fun writing about two such disparate characters and I like Kate so much that she gets her own plotline in Book 2.
6. You live in the Scottish Borders. How much of an influence were your surroundings when writing No Stranger to Death?
After living up here for 21 years (I’m originally from Dorset) I can’t imagine being anywhere else, so maybe I took the easy way out by setting my book here too. However, No Stranger to Death would be a very different novel if Zoe had relocated anywhere else, as her new surroundings shape the events she gets caught up in. For example, walking her dog in a city may have exposed her to some types of crime but probably not finding a body in the remains of a Guy Fawkes bonfire.
While writing the book I discovered a strange thing: I had no shortage of plot ideas or characters, but I could not describe places and buildings without actually seeing them. Looking at photographs on the internet can be useful, but I got into the habit of visiting locations, which in turn provided yet more storylines. Going to Kelso to research Zoe’s visit to her favourite coffee shop (in real life it’s actually a tiny Boots) gave me the idea for a revelation on the very last page of the book, and a trip to a graveyard supplied the scene when her car goes out of control in the snow.
7. I love researching oddities for my writing. What research did you do for your novel?
Again, much research can be done without leaving the comfort of one’s home thanks to the internet, but I don’t think you can beat talking to people to find out the really interesting stuff. I call this the ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ principle. Speaking with someone to check a few facts can lead to them sharing things you hadn’t even asked about, small details which give your writing veracity. For example, because Kate Mackenzie is a genealogist, I met up with a real one in Berwick, and learnt that Kate would probably keep an acrylic magnifying dome on her desk, to help with reading copies of old documents. When we discussed the sort of people who ask her to draw up their family trees, she said many of her American clients are far keener for her to find them Scots ancestors than English ones. It would have taken an awful lot of googling to discover that!
8. Can you describe your writing routine?
I’m lucky in that I no longer have to juggle writing with a job outside the home, but I do help my husband run his business, so I can’t ignore the phone if it rings because it could be a potential customer. And we don’t have children, although my day is organised around caring for our two dogs who wake me at 5am most mornings. I can’t possibly write that early, but it gives me time to read and plan my day, and catch up with Twitter and Facebook. I aim to be at my desk by 9am and write for two or three hours, morning and afternoon. When I’m writing something new I try not to keep going back and editing, but plough on and finish. I’m a reluctant pantser: I wish I could plot an entire book before sitting down and typing it, but I can’t. Instead, I plan a few chapters ahead, write them, then plan a bit more.
9. What made you decide to self-publish No Stranger to Death?
Having seen two friends, Mel Sherratt and Peter Flannery, self-publish very successfully, I always had it at the back of my mind as an option. Weirdly enough, a rejection from an agent decided me. Not because she hated my novel but because she took the trouble to phone me to say she really liked it and but didn’t think she could sell it because it was too ‘mid-list’ for a publisher to take on in the current climate. That was the validation I needed, the reassurance that I had written, in her words, ‘a very good book’.
I have a marketing background, so that aspect of self-publishing didn’t overly worry me, but I knew I had to make my book as good as it could possibly be, for it to stand any chance of selling more than a handful of copies. That’s why I invested in a bespoke cover by a professional designer, Kim McGillivray, and also paid to have it edited by Caroline Smailes at BubbleCow. One of the best bits of advice I’ve had came from Peter Flannery, who said on the day I pressed the ‘Publish’ button: ‘Remember this is only the beginning of the process’. It’s still very early days, but I was delighted when No Stranger to Death reached the dizzy height of number 17 in Amazon’s Scottish Crime Fiction on Kindle a couple of days after its release.
10. What advice would you give to other authors who are thinking of self-publishing?
I don’t think I’ve been at this long enough to say anything other than suggest they do their homework first. There’s lots of information available now, online and in print. And get to know others who’ve gone down that route, see how they approached it. But remember: There are no hard and fast rules in self-publishing, which makes it both scary and exciting!
Thank you, Janet!
No Stranger to Death
Some secrets can be deadly . . .
The featureless corpse lay like a grotesque department-store mannequin, elbows and knees flexed, fists clenched. Wisps of smoke rose from its still-burning torso.
Recently-widowed GP Zoe Moreland really wishes she’d chosen another route to walk her dog on November 6th. Had they gone away from the village, Mac could not have led her to the body lying in the remains of a Guy Fawkes bonfire.
Zoe’s move from an English city to the Scottish Borders was meant to be a fresh start among strangers unaware of her past. Instead, she is thrust into the limelight by her grisly discovery and gets caught up in the resulting murder investigation. Then someone else dies unexpectedly and Zoe herself narrowly escapes death.
Determined not to become the killer’s next victim, she digs beneath the tranquil surface of the close knit community to find out who is committing these horrible acts. But uncovering other people’s secrets puts Zoe in even more danger . . .
Buy the book: Amazon
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I love the idea of 'tartan cosy', and the evocative cover art is so enticing. As for the blurb - what a great start to a novel! Am looking forward to finding out more.