Meet prolific crime writer, J.C. Briggs!

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Welcome to my website, Jean!

Your international career, before becoming a prolific author, was as an English and Drama teacher. Can you tell us something about this fascinating part of your life and how you came to be working in the Far East?

I went to teach in Hong Kong because of two love affairs – one that had ended and one that was beginning. The one that ended was painful and I wanted a fresh start; the one that was beginning led me to Hong Kong, but, alas, the person concerned was posted to America and that was the end of that. However, I loved the new school, made many friends, and met my husband so Hong Kong has a special place in my life, though I have not been back for many years and will probably never return.

 

Do you think that your previous involvement in drama has enabled you to deepen the characterisation and events within your novels?

I think reading made me a writer, and teaching English and Drama, too. Everything you have ever read feeds your imagination and contributes to your experience and understanding.

 

In 2012 retirement coincided with the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth. This sparked the idea of creating a detective series featuring Charles Dickens. How daunting was this once you had made the decision to commit to writing the series?

I didn’t think about a series. I just had the idea for a detective story – I’d always wanted to write one and when I read about Dickens’s founding of The Home for Fallen Women, the idea came to me about a murder there. The first book sparked the second. At this stage I was thrilled to find that I could do it and it wasn’t until I embarked on a third that I realised what a hazardous undertaking it was – to have the nerve – cheek, even, to use Charles Dickens as a detective, but it was too late, the first one was published. No one seemed to object so I have carried on to write eight so far – number six has just been published by the wonderful Sapere books.

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You obviously had an in depth knowledge of the author’s work, but how much further did you need to delve into his life and writings to really feel you understood the man?

I read as many of the biographies as I could – I knew the facts must be right. The most important resource to stimulate my imagination is the letters – 14,000 of them in the Pilgrim edition, and these give me Dickens’s voice as well as facts about his life, opinions he held, and his attitudes to the issues of his day and to the people he knew. The speeches are very useful, too, as is Household Words for which there is an on-line edition. If I get stuck, lack inspiration, or generally feel I can’t get on with a book, I read his, and very often a quotation or incident sets me off again.

 

What was the most surprising aspect of his amazing life that you discovered?

His boundless energy – it is astonishing how much he did, not only as an author, but as a journalist, editing Household Words and writing numerous articles for it, making speeches, presiding over philanthropic enterprises, directing and acting, writing all those letters, walking as many as 17 miles a day, dining out, and having a wife and family of nine children. There were actually ten, but Dora died as a baby.

 

Were you surprised when you realised that Charles Dickens had generously supported The Home for Fallen Women? Do you think he was ahead of his time in understanding some of the social issues impoverishing women?

I was surprised to read about The Home for Fallen Women. It was an extraordinary thing for an author to do. What concerned him was the grim cycle of criminality – created by poverty – imprisonment followed by further crime because there was very little provision for women who went into prison. There has been some comment on his arranging for the young women to emigrate, but Dickens knew that they had to escape their past lives and start again.

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Have you had a strong response to your series from Dickens’ fans?

Yes I have. The most touching comment was ‘Charles Dickens would be proud of you.’ I’m not sure about that, but people do say that they have gone on to read Dickens again or for the first time because they’ve liked what they’ve read in my books and that is really pleasing – for a former English teacher.

 

Charles Dickens travelled widely giving readings. Do you intend to include various settings as the series continues, although mainly set in London?

I love the London setting – all gaslight, fog and dark alleys, made for murder. I did venture to Manchester in the third book. As luck would have it for Dickens, Superintendent Jones happened to be visiting Manchester at the same time. They went to Paris in the second book and Dickens was in Venice at the beginning of number five. The question set me thinking, though, about a country setting – a Chesney Wold sort of setting appeals, a large and gloomy house with wastes of empty rooms.

 

He was interested in ghosts, supernatural entities, mesmerism and séances as were many in the Victorian era. Would you ever attend such an event to try to make contact with the soul of the man himself? If so, is there a question you would love to pose to him?

He was very sceptical about séances or table-rapping as it was called. I don’t think I’d dare to try to make contact. Suppose he hated the idea of becoming a character in a book!

At Midnight In Venice

It is well documented that his marriage and his parenting skills were perhaps lacking by today’s expectations, but he had many dimensions and seems to have been gifted in other areas of his life. How much do you think his experience of Marshalsea debtors’ prison in his younger life affected his outlook upon the shortcomings of society and fuelled his drive to try and help educate people about these issues?

The number of prisons which appear in his works testify to the deep and enduring impression made by his father’s imprisonment in the Marshalsea. It was a scar on his heart and I do think it heightened his sympathy for the poor, especially children who were born into the most abject poverty and received no education. He supported the Ragged School Movement, the Foundling Hospital and various other charities for orphaned and abandoned children. He sponsored a shoe-black boy who was a Ragged School pupil, and there are many, many instances of private charitable acts. It was as if he felt that he would have been one of them had the family’s fortunes not improved.

 

Has your investigative Charles Dickens been compared to the fictional Sherlock Holmes? If so do you see them as very different characters or similar and in what ways?

I haven’t seen any comment about Sherlock Holmes. I think Dickens’s approach to the investigations is more intuitive and emotional than Holmes’s, though Dickens was said to be incredibly observant. His eyes missed nothing and he had a very exact memory for detail – useful traits for a detective. Holmes seems more ‘scientific’ to me and rather bloodless at times.

 

How careful/respectful are you of what he does within the fiction so that the reader who is not aware of the real man’s life is given a distorted reflection of the man he actually was?

I do try to be very careful about my portrayal of Dickens. As I said before, the facts must be right, but it is in the gaps where the historical novelist can invent something that might have happened in that space. A good example is my Manchester story. Dickens did go to Manchester with his amateur theatrical group and they performed a play by Bulwer-Lytton. I invented another occasion and included a different play by Bulwer-Lytton – a play that Dickens admired. I invented the murder, of course, and I chose a different theatre in Manchester, one which had been demolished, but I was astonished to find that there had been an accidental shooting in that very theatre and the property manager had been tried for manslaughter.
As to my version of Dickens, there have been comments that it is rather too fond a picture, but I have based it on my reading of him, and I do think his relationship with Superintendent Jones would be rather different from other relationships, and I do try to hint at his faults and his growing dissatisfaction in his marriage. Claire Tomalin says ‘everyone finds their own version of Charles Dickens’ and Charles Dickens, the detective is mine. I wanted to be true to the character of Dickens as I discovered him in his own works, his letters, his speeches, and the biographies. There is a very amusing – and rather prescient – quotation from Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest: ‘I am not in favour of this modern mania for turning bad people into good people at a moment’s notice…’ I’m saying the opposite – I am not in favour of turning good people into bad people, so I am careful. There is a danger that when a writer presents a famous figure in a very unflattering light, or even invents incidents in which the person, say, turns to crime or deviancy that is then believed by the general reader who may not have an academic knowledge. In the end, though, the detective story sets out to entertain so I really don’t think it is my place to invent a Dickens who is wicked, or criminal, or deviant.

 

The books are intriguing detective novels in their own right, but are also layered so that Dickensian references and threads are woven throughout. Do you consciously add these in or does it happen organically as you have absorbed so much research about the man, his life, his letters, novels and the reports about events he held?

I think the references to his life and works do come naturally now as I have read so much, though I still have to check the facts and dates.

 

Would your ideal dream to be to see your series televised? If so, who do you think would do the part justice?

It would be amazing to see the stories televised – what a dream! I saw Ralph Fiennes as Dickens in The Invisible Woman – he’ll do very nicely, thank you.

 

Who has inspired you the most in your work and your life?

My husband whom I miss every single day.

 

How have you stayed fit in mind and body throughout lockdown and these challenging times.

Gardening and walking about the country lanes to keep fit in body, and writing a new book, finding a new story for Dickens and Jones.

 

What is next for J C Briggs?

I have just signed a new contract with Sapere for two more Dickens books which are finished. I’ve started another, and I am contemplating a new series with a female protagonist. I’ve started writing fragments, but there’s no discernible plot yet, which is something of a problem. I hope one will emerge.

Thank you for your time and patience answering my questions in such an inspiring way and every continued success with your fascinating books.

Meet historical fiction author, Elizabeth Bailey

I am really delighted to invite my fellow Sapere Books author, Elizabeth Bailey, as my guest this month.

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Welcome, Elizabeth!

My first question has to be where did your love of storytelling and writing begin?

My father read to us and my older sister made up stories for my brother and me, thus fostering an early interest in literature. I can’t remember when stories were not part of my life. Difficult to recall when I began to write them. In school, for festivals, and for pleasure.

My first fairy tale featured a hero who had to rid the lake of a plague of giant spiders in order to win the princess – hence romance. But the darker side was there too in an epic tragi-poem of a sailor who murders the mermaid who loves him. Shades of the future there?

There is a touch of horror in there for me too – spiders!

Do you find switching between the two very different genres of romance and crime keeps your writing fresh?

To be honest, I don’t switch much. I’m either writing romances one after another, or mysteries ditto, whatever happens to be driving the bread and butter. I contributed to anthologies with five other authors, producing a string of Regencies which became the Brides by Chance Regency Adventures. My Lady Fan mysteries had languished when I lost my first publisher. When Sapere picked them up, I began a feverish assault on those and haven’t swapped back yet. I write the occasional snippet of something completely different when the mood strikes.

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You touch on the paranormal in some novels, is this an area of research that you find fascinating?

I am absolutely sold on the supernatural. Powers above the norm, which I believe we all possess if we can access them. Telepathy is everywhere. You think of someone out of the blue and then they ring you up. Magic. Saying which, I was hooked on the Harry Potter series and I’m a sucker for fairy tales. As for past lives, we have all lived many times before. Far too much proof for doubt. One of my paranormals is based on an incident from one of my own past lives. I have no truck with the prevalent one-life belief!

That is fascinating. I admire your certainty.

In the ‘Lady Fan Series’ your protagonist is a woman who has to overstep the conventions of a lady in her day. This is a difficult challenge for an author and is a factor I also try to balance. How do you enable her to complete her investigations in a credible way for the period?

This is why I gave her Lord Francis. He is both husband and champion, her protector, and he can go where Ottilia can’t. If she does venture where ladies don’t, she is always accompanied by a stout male guardian – Francis or her Barbadian steward. Nevertheless, she still gets into dangerous situations. Her medical lore is gained from helping her brother doctor Patrick, with whom she lived for years before her launch into solving murders.

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Her background is “the middling sort” – genteel but not moving in the first circles. She observes the aristocratic milieu she is now in with an outsider’s eye, and she is free of the shibboleths governing the behaviour of ladies in that strata. That’s why she oversteps the bounds of convention, relying on her status for impunity. She has married into the elite where eccentricity is tolerated. In other words, she gets away with it!

Writing a series with recurring characters means that they have to continue to grow and develop with each new novel. How do you keep track of their biographies so that this development is consistent?

Wow, I have no idea! Every story has its own “bible” with cast, places, etc and snippets of potential plot, all of which I add to as I go along. The basics are copied into the new bible for a new book. If I’m missing one, I get it from an old bible. I probably ought to keep a spreadsheet, but I know I’d never manage to keep it up! I’ve always written this way – a cast/plot document and a text document, plus research docs, discarded text in a temp doc in case I need to retrieve it.

How I keep track is a mystery, but I do. So far. The characters who keep coming back are a fistful really. When other family members intrude, it’s usually in a minor way and about the only thing I have to figure out is how old they are now. Francis and Ottilia have developed without much help from me. They evolve story by story. I do enjoy their relationship. They have their ups and downs, but I find readers are engaged by their enduring love story.

When I began the series, I determined to marry them off after the first book because a personal bugbear of mine is those off/on romances that persist through a whole series. Why can’t they just get it together? Instead, I decided to give each story a secondary romance, but in the event, it turned out my hero and heroine are still very much the romantic couple in every story. I didn’t plan it. They just are, those two!

You have had some fascinating career roles to date: acting, directing, teaching and of course writing. Has each one contributed something to your current profession of being an author?

Absolutely. Theatre has shaped my writing. Dramatic structure parallels story structure in terms of build-up, highs and lows, climax and denouement, not forgetting cliff-hanger scene endings, “curtain” in drama. There’s also motivation, emotional journey, conflict (inner and external), character, dialogue, sub-text – the spaces between the words and character introspection. As an actress, these things became part of me. As a teacher, I had to dissect them. Ditto as a director, viewing my “staged drama” as a whole moving picture. The difference is that words encourage the reader to watch “the play” in their imagination.

You have been blessed with cross-cultural experience and travelled widely throughout your life. Do you agree that these aspects of life help to deepen an author’s ability to create engaging characters and plots?

I think it has given me a large tolerance of other cultures. Perhaps most telling, an understanding that human nature is pretty much the same, nation to nation. Such cultural differences as there are consist by and large of moral standards and artistic appreciation. But the human condition is what it is throughout. We all run the gamut of emotions and struggle with our personal demons as we try to survive. Observation enables you to engage as you mirror the inhabitants of the world around you.

Who or what would you say has had a strong influence on your life/work ethic?

My values echo my father’s. A true gentleman, he had wide tolerance, liberal ideals, intelligence. Articulate, funny, considerate and kind, he was a big teddy bear to me. As to work ethic, I imagine my mother’s bundle-of-energy personality must have rubbed off on me. Not that I could keep up! But I do have her drive to push through and get things done.

You have been published and self-published. What would you say are the main advantages or disadvantages of each?

Oh, this is a hard one. These days, you can’t talk of leaving promotion to others because both avenues require you to play your part in touting the books. I think traditional publishers help with visibility and take the burden off in terms of editing, proofing, formatting, book cover design and initial launch. On your own, you have to do it all and that’s tough. On the plus side, you have artistic control and personal satisfaction, even if sales are not as easy to promote.

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What advice would you give your younger self if you could as you set out on a life as an author?

Well, this is interesting because I am constantly giving advice to new authors. I’m not sure I would give the same advice to my younger self because things were very different in publishing when I started out. I had also already struggled to make it as an actor so persistence was not new to me. I think I would say: “Just do it. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”

What is next for Elizabeth Bailey?

Here’s where I reveal the dream! If I get my dearest wish, it will be a TV series of Lady Fan. That would put the icing on the cake of my writing career.

Thank you for taking the time to answer all my questions and I wish you every success in your career and in life. I hope you realise your dream!

 

 

 

Meet Sarah Quirke!

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Sarah Quirke, Publishing Manager of F A Thorpe Publishing

I am  delighted to welcome Sarah Quirke, Publishing Manager of FA Thorpe Publishing to my blog to talk about her work and interests.

 Firstly, Sarah, welcome! Could you tell us about FA Thorpe Publishing?

F.A. Thorpe Publishing is the publishing division of Ulverscroft Large Print Books Ltd, which distributes large print and audio books worldwide. It was established by Frederick Thorpe in 1964, with the intention of reproducing popular books in larger type for those who struggled to read standard print. Initially, there was scepticism on the part of publishers about this unknown format. However, a chance encounter with Agatha Christie allowed Dr. Thorpe to discuss this project with her, which resulted in her wholehearted support – she expressed a desire to see all of her titles produced in large print. This was a key factor in gaining the support of other publishers and authors. A Pocket Full of Rye was one of the first titles to be published in large print format, and we have, over the years, published all of Agatha Christie’s title in large print – along with a fair few others…

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The team working hard at F A Thorpe

Did you always want to have a career in publishing?

Although I had no doubts about what I wanted to study at university – English literature – I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to do once I finished my studies. I feel extremely fortunate to have landed my job. I’ve been with the company for nearly 14 years, so I feel rather fortunate about that, too!

Have you always been an avid reader?

Always! I vividly remember reading aloud to my dad when I was about six, and him telling me to read the words ‘as though you’re speaking’, and it suddenly clicked. And then there was no stopping me…

Which authors have, or do, inspire you?

I found A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash thoroughly inspirational in terms of the writing, which was exceptional; it just poured off the page and felt beautifully effortless. In terms of story-telling, and the moral dilemma presented, The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman was utterly compelling.

What is your favourite genre for your own leisure reading?

I do enjoy a well-written, ‘unreliable narrator’/twisty-turn-y tale. I think Paula Daly is fantastic, and I also like Tamar Cohen. I’m afraid I’ve yet to read The Girl on the Train, but I definitely want to do so before seeing the film.

Could you describe the imprints you represent and the word limitations on each?

Our Charnwood and Isis imprints contain mass market popular fiction and non-fiction titles, and our big name authors. The upper limit here is very much dependant on how well we can expect a particular author to sell. Our Ulverscroft imprint tends to house much shorter titles, and the upper limit here is currently around 60-65,000 words. For our Linford Romance imprint, we’d ideally want titles to be somewhere between 30-50,000 words, although we have taken shorter and longer titles than this; the same is true of our Linford Mystery and Linford Western imprints, give or take a few thousand either way.

What do you look for in a new submission?

For most titles, the first consideration is always a practical one – if it’s too long or too short, I won’t be able to consider it. The next consideration is whether or not it will be a good fit for our lists.

What should writers avoid sending you?

If you’re aiming for one of the Linford imprints, then try to make sure it’s a clear fit within the genre – so, a romance rather than a general fiction title, for example. We tend not to do sci-fi or fantasy titles, or self-published non-fiction.

You must see a vast number of submissions, so is there any advice you could give to a writer who is considering submitting a manuscript to you?

Please read and re-read what you’re submitting with as clear an eye as possible. The fewer mistakes, the easier it is for us to see the story you’re trying to tell.

What is the most satisfying aspect of your work?

It’s great when I win an auction for a title I desperately want in our lists, and it’s also very satisfying putting a list together and seeing what I know are some absolutely cracking reads in there. Being surrounded by books all day is also a definite bonus!

Would you consider writing a novella/novel yourself?

I would love to. I note down ideas a lot, although that’s about as far as I’ve ever got.

When not involved in the world of books what do you love doing to relax?

Yoga and singing – I do both with great enthusiasm and questionable results.

My thanks for your continued support for my work (39 titles to date) and for the insight into your world and that of F A Thorpe Publishing.