An Interview with Michael Fowler

This month’s guest is a man who has spent his life dealing with crime and now enjoys creating his own – crime writer and artist, Michael Fowler.

Welcome to my blog, Michael.

Your police career involved a lot of undercover work. Did you sometimes feel that you were in an acting job, however one that had a realistic edge?

Acting is a very good phrase, because it was just that, especially when I was in the Drug Squad. I underwent undercover training by experienced undercover officers. The script they gave me involved learning the ‘language of the street’ together with acting ability on how to buy drugs and set up ‘deals’. My props were a changed appearance – I grew my hair long, wore an earring and changed my dress style. My stage was wherever the drug fraternity hung out. The more time I spent with them the more polished my acting ability improved.

That period of policing was up there as my best, despite being nerve-jangling at times.

When did you discover the desire to become an author?

I never had a desire to be an author. I always wanted to be an artist. My policing and writing career have come by default. I’ll expand on my writing career in a later question.

Were you always drawn to crime?

I’ve been an avid reader since the age of eight. In my early teens I started reading adult books of the Science Fiction and Horror genre. An uncle, who was also well read, introduced me to crime. I initially read cosy crime written by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Dashiel Hammet, and then I discovered the 87th Precinct series by Ed McBain and I was hooked on police procedurals.

Your first published works were about Mexborough. Have you always had an interest in social history?

The publication of my childhood and teenage nostalgic accounts of growing up in Mexborough came by good fortune. In the late 1980’s I discovered writing groups and began composing stories. My childhood adventures in the 1960’s, within a mining community, were the first things I wrote about. The writing groups were run by the WEA and one of my tutors suggested I approach a local publisher who published this type of work. In 1994 I met the editor at Wharnecliffe Press (Pen & Sword books), pitched my accounts and walked out with my first writing contract. They published three of my books, but I never thought it would progress beyond that because policing and two growing sons took up my life at that time.

Could you tell us about your artwork and what is your favourite medium to use as an artist?

As I have already alluded to painting was my first love. My earliest artistic recollection was sitting at the table drawing with my mum, and all through schooling I pursued art as my passion. My last art teacher introduced me to oil paints and I never looked back. At the age of 16 I passed an interview to attend art college only to return home to be told by my father that he couldn’t afford to support me and so I joined the police cadets. I did paint regularly, all through my policing career – it was a great stress reliever, and I also sold my work. When I retired in 2006, I did so to paint. I rented a studio and painted daily. My work was accepted at major exhibitions at The Mall Galleries, London, and I exhibited with a number of prestigious art galleries. In 2009 I was awarded Professional Artist of the Year. Then came the fall-out from the bank crash. Three of the galleries I painted for closed down and people stopped buying artwork. I knew I had to do something other than paint every day and so I returned to writing and going back to writing groups. I focussed on writing police procedurals and in 2011 I got a publishing contract for my first crime novel. Now I’m hooked on writing. I still paint occasionally, and I tutor an art group once a work, to keep my hand in.

What has been the most important lesson you have learnt as a writer?

That like a good wine you improve over time. I am now on book number seven and I can see a vast improvement from my first book, especially the grammar. A lot of that is thanks to the publishing editor’s skills. I have learned such a lot from the edited proofs that have come back to me prior to publication.

Where did inspiration for DS Hunter Kerr and DS Scarlett Macey come from: reality or fiction?

Hunter Kerr is 95% me and 5% my alter ego, even some of the events he is involved in are based on jobs I have worked on.

Scarlett Macey is a creation. I wanted to test myself developing her and it’s been a very interesting and enjoyable experience. She gets her first outing this September in ‘Scream, You Die‘ and I’m hoping she’s well received.

What next for Michael Fowler?

My first crime novel was released three years ago. Since then I’ve added another four Hunter Kerr books and I’m amazed at how my readership has grown. It’s been a wonderful experience that I want to build on. My policing career developed my discipline and drive and it would be fair to say that I am striving to be a widely recognised crime author.

More from Michael

Crime and Punishment – Dead to Sin

The early nineteenth century in England was a harsh time of poverty for many. When soldiers and sailors were no longer needed to fight the wars that had dogged England from the end of the previous century, many men returned victorious having fought for their King (or Prince Regent) and country only to face unemployment. With little or no social support they often turned to crime to feed themselves and their families. With the increase in crimes, came new laws and harsher sentences.
Ripon Museum
I recently stopped by one of North Yorkshire’s finest museums in the little city of Ripon. Ripon is an unspoilt cathedral city that has maintained its characteristics of a delightful market town with plenty of historical places of interest to visit. It is also an excellent base for venturing into the Yorkshire Dales or the North Yorkshire Moors!

Ripon Museum comprises of three museums, all to do with the city’s historic law and order buildings that have been lovingly maintained. The photos below were taken in the Prison & Police Museum in St Marygate. It was a prison from 1686-1879 and a police station from 1880-1959.

When I first visited the prison I was writing Dead to Sin. Although the existing building was Victorian, the cells hold exhibits which relate to its earlier history and the development of crime and punishment, cruel and harsh as it was. Nowadays, the museum is clean, whitewashed and immaculately presented. Obviously in the time of Nicholas Penn it would be far from this.

The first chapter of Dead to Sin begins with Nicholas Penn bracing himself as he enters this dark, fettered world.


Nicholas Penn took one last deep breath of fresh air outside the high stone walls of the Gorebeck lock up. He glanced back at the cobbled square of the market town; wagons rattled, farmers haggled, women bartered, children’s laughter melted into the animals’ pitiful cries, the noise of which was in turn drowned out by the banter of the bidders. All was chaotic, all stank, yet there was colour and life here amongst the continuous whirl of people trading their wares.

             A heavy lock was turned in the barrier in front of him. Nicholas breathed deeply, his broad chest glad of what fresh air there was as his mind dreaded the prospect of seeing what he would find within the cold walls – and who. The reinforced wooden door creaked and groaned as the warder pulled it open, grating the edge against the stone.

             He pulled the high collar of his coat close, covering the ends of his shoulder length locks. ‘Trapped sunshine’ his mother had poetically described his wayward curls when he was a cosseted child. Now straighter, they had matured and grown like Nicholas himself. No sunshine would filter through behind this door. The rain started to pour down. Nicholas was silently led inside along a narrow stone corridor; he was taken further into the building’s bowels, down a spiral metal staircase to an airless chasm where six bolted black doors lined the dimly lit passage. Disembodied coughs could be heard even through the iron-wood barriers, which incarcerated their prey. Nicholas intuitively pulled out his kerchief and held it over his mouth. Gaol fever was to be avoided by the wise man who had the option to, but the inmates of this place had little chance to do that. The warder turned another key in the door lock at the end of the narrow corridor.

             “Ten minutes!” he growled back at Nicholas. The man had a curvature of the spine and did not look up at Nicholas’s straight frame. Instead, he shuffled back.

             Nicholas grunted what could have been his agreement or a simple acknowledgement. The turnkey gestured for Nicholas to enter.

             With some reluctance, Nicholas stepped into the small dank cell, ducking slightly so that his round hat did not contact the top of the door’s stone frame. What light and fresh air there was from the open grate that served as a window, was lost to the rain water, which now poured in, bringing with it the filth washed down from the market street above. The cell’s air stank of damp and excrement. Nicholas stood equidistant from the slime covered walls, not wanting his new riding coat to touch anything in the place.

             The cell was putrid. Under his highly polished boots was a stone-flagged floor strewn with soiled hay. Nicholas fought back memories, bleak, barefooted memories, as he glared at the figure in front of him. Like the cell, the man locked within it was unwashed, unshaven and unkempt. His appearance was in stark contrast to the man’s usually immaculate presence. The figure was seated on a small stool, wrapped in a flea-infested woollen blanket, leaning against the edge of the moist wall. Even in such discomfiture he seemed to be calm in manner, resigned perhaps to his fate. Nicholas wondered if this was true. To most people in his circumstance it would have been the case, or a near breakdown of spirits, but not Wilson. Nicholas knew the man too well. He was as hard as the stone walls which held him, to the depth of the heart that beat strong within his chest.

             Ebony eyes looked up at him as the door lock was slammed shut behind Nicholas who was trying hard not to show his inner fear, or his loathing of small airless spaces as much as his abhorrence for the pathetic looking creature in front of him.

             “You came, Nick!” the voice announced, louder than Nicholas had expected it to. That tone was almost as if he was annoyed at his late appearance. This was not the whispered breathy word of a dispirited soul. The confidence, the strength and the defiance were still there in his comments even if he looked to be in a physically weakened state.

For the love of baking!

The Baker’s Apprentice is now available to download in eBook format for all eBook readers at a special price of $1.50 from Smashwords!

I love baking because it sparks memories of time spent in a warm kitchen with my mother and aunty, chatting and laughing as we enjoyed eating some of the results of our labour. From a young age I would bake the basics for the house: cakes, scones, puddings and pies. The smell of freshly made bread or scones return me to part of my childhood that will forever bring a burst of nostalgic warmth on a cold winter’s day.

A friend commented that among my titles, which focus on my North Yorkshire villages in the early nineteenth century, I had not based one around a bakery. Not everyone had their own oven, so the village bakery traditionally played an important part of village life. One comment sparked an idea and Molly Mason sprang to mind; an impetuous heroine who does not lack the courage to leave the home she dislikes, but has not the foresight to realise the hard work behind the ‘cosy’ surroundings she imagines sharing when helping her friend who runs the village bakery.

Often in life we see our own problems and look at the greener grass growing elsewhere without considering the effort that is needed to sustain the lawn.

TBA KECThe Baker’s Apprentice is set in a fictitious North Yorkshire market town that pops up in many of my titles called Gorebeck. In this story it is in a state of transition as newer Georgian terrace houses line a road replacing the older timber and cottage buildings. Some people will always welcome change seeing it as an opportunity, or others as a threat – they crave the familiar and as the old saying goes ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’. It is at a crossroads for routes north to Newcastle, south to York, east to Whitby and west to Harrogate.

I will talk more about Gorebeck in future as I look at asylums, churches, market towns, inns, new and old money, mills and coaching routes in future posts.

In this story, Molly Mason carries hatred in her heart, convinced her father was murdered or driven to an early grave and seeks to escape from his wife and discover the truth. Sometimes though the truth is not what we want to hear.

An Interview with Ian Skillicorn

Ian SkillicornWhat better way to usher in the New Year than to share an inspiring interview with Ian Skillicorn who is a very talented and successful writer, publisher, speaker, director, voiceover artist, translator and producer.

Welcome to my blog, Ian! I hope I have not omitted any of the many hats that you wear within your fascinating career.

Thanks for having me! Well, those are all of the various hats I’ve worn over a twenty-five year career to date, but fortunately I haven’t had to wear all of them at the same time!

You obviously have a natural love of language: written and audio, both in English and translation. When and where did this love of words and story-telling begin?

From a very early age. My parents are (and grandparents were) great readers, and so there were always lots of books around the place. The weekly visit to the library was really important in introducing me to a variety of authors, and firing my imagination. At weekends my parents took us to museums, art galleries and historic sites around the country, which gave me a lasting appreciation of art and history, and all sorts of stories about people through the ages. I also had a couple of very supportive English teachers at secondary school who encouraged my own writing efforts. I recently discovered that one of them is a friend of one of my authors, and we have since been in touch, which was lovely.

Did your early career, working for a national magazine in Milan, give you the exposure to the industry that you needed to realise your own literary ambitions and projects?

Not directly, to be honest. I came back from Italy with six years’ solid work experience but at that time, in the 1990s, I think people were expected to follow a much more rigid career path than they are nowadays. I had never worked in the UK, and although I wanted to get into publishing, I found I was over-qualified for some jobs, but didn’t have the relevant experience in this country for others. I ended up taking what was for me the obvious easy route – becoming a freelance translator. It was something I had enjoyed doing in Italy, but literary translation work in the UK was hard to come by, so I went into translating for businesses. It wasn’t really what I wanted to do, but I suppose I was lucky I had it to fall back on. The upside was that being freelance meant I had the flexibility to work on developing my own projects as well. It took many years of working seven days a week, doing lots of projects for free, financing some myself, and numerous false starts before I was finally able to give up the day job. Now I do work in publishing again, with my own imprint, and in the end I was the one who gave me a job!

That has to be one of the main benefits of being self-employed.

Hardacre by CL SkeltonIn 2006 you founded www.shortstoryradio.com. How passionate are you about broadening the market for short story writers?

Very. Short Story Radio was one of those projects I developed in my own time, and initially at my own expense. I often read comments online and in print from creative people who say they refuse ever to work for free, but I don’t completely subscribe to that view. Even if you are passionate about your craft and believe in yourself, in the early days of your career sometimes the only way to get noticed is by creating your own opportunities. Through working on Short Story Radio I learned that there was an appetite for short stories in English not only in this country, but around the world. I met many talented writers and actors, some of whom are now good friends, and realised how difficult it was for short story writers to find paying outlets for their work. After a while I applied for a grant from Arts Council England. My application was successful and that support from ACE financed work for a lot of writers, actors and technicians, and raised the profile of Short Story Radio and its content. It was also a very important morale boost for me, and the start of building up an audio production business which led to many interesting commissions over a number of years. For most of the Short Story Radio writers it was their first experience of being broadcast, and a number have gone on to have successful writing careers.

Do you see a growing trend for shorter fiction evolving both through audio (The Story Player) and eBooks?

I do. However, I think enthusiasm for the short story among readers hasn’t yet caught up with the form’s popularity among writers. It’s often said that the short story is perfect for today’s busy, time-poor lives, but hearing that always makes me cringe. Good writing should be savoured no matter what the length, not because it is “convenient”. I don’t like the idea of a short story being considered the literary equivalent of “wash and go”. That said, I’m sure that new technologies will present all sorts of opportunities for creating, selling and experiencing short stories. We’re only just at the beginning.

Do You Take This Man by Sophie King coverYour connection with short fiction was further strengthened when you founded National Short Story Week in 2010, which has best-selling author Katie Fforde as its patron. What would you say is the essence of a good short story?

That’s a tough question! I suppose it depends on the opinion of the individual reader and their tastes. Personally, I enjoy stories which manage to say something about the human condition, and which I can relate to even if my life is nothing like those of the protagonists. I think that’s why the stories of authors such as Saki and Katherine Mansfield, mostly written more than 100 years ago, are still fresh and relevant today. Their themes are timeless and universal.

If I could just say something about National Short Story Week. One of the best outcomes, which wasn’t actually an original aim, has been the enthusiasm and involvement of schools and their pupils, librarians and teachers. The National Short Story Week Young Writer competition, for year 7 and 8 pupils, is now in its fourth year and going from strength to strength. I can highly recommend the anthology of last year’s winning stories – The Mistake. It reached Number 51 on Amazon’s book charts last November, and has raised funds for Teenage Cancer Trust. The children’s creativity, imagination and use of language are very impressive. If we are serious about championing the short story form, surely the best way to do this is to get people interested in writing and reading short stories from an early age.

The Property of a Gentleman cover artworkThat is excellent and inspiring for the future.

In 2012 you created your own publishing imprint Corazon Books (I love the tag line: Great stories with heart!). It was launched with a novel by bestselling author Sophie King. However, you have just published an out of print title The Property of a Gentleman by Catherine Gaskin who died in 2009. What inspired you about Catherine’s work and do you intend to publish more of her titles?

I was very lucky to launch my business with a title by Sophie King, who is a great writer (and whose work inspired the Corazon tag line!) and a lovely person. I have been familiar with Catherine Gaskin’s work since I was young, when my mother and grandmothers were reading her novels. Although I knew and loved the books, I didn’t know much about the author before I published The Property of a Gentleman. I have since done some research on her life, and was fascinated to discover she wrote her first book, which became a bestseller, while still at school! I have received many nice comments from readers since Corazon Books started reissuing her novels, and it has been very gratifying to see The Property of a Gentleman back in the bestsellers charts both in the UK and Australia. Corazon Books has also recently published Sara Dane, which is probably Catherine Gaskin’s best known work. The Lynmara Legacy is out in February 2015, and will be followed by Promises in the spring.

I heard you speak at three events last year: Society of Author’s day event in Bristol, R.N.A. conference and at the H.N.S workshop. You inspire, entertain and inform people especially about eBooks. How do you view the major changes happening within this very new industry today impacting upon what for decades has been a very set publishing industry in the future?

Thank you, that’s very nice of you to say so. I really enjoy talking at conferences and giving workshops. When so much of the average working day can be spent in front of a pc screen, it’s a good opportunity to get out there and meet like-minded people, and to share ideas and experiences. Obviously we are living through a period of huge technological change, in many aspects of our lives. The publishing industry is clearly going through a major transformation and as such there will be winners and losers. I think it’s too early to say who will be the winners and who the losers. You have to be able and willing to reappraise and adapt quickly.

What is next for Ian?

I’m very excited about the books lined up for publication by Corazon Books this year, which include a number of novels by new talents and other projects I can’t talk about just yet. Plans for National Short Story Week 2015 and the Young Writer competition are already under way. I’m looking forward to doing more ebook workshops for the Society of Authors in March, and at Sheffield Hallam University in April. I also have a long list of ideas I want to pursue, which are currently at different stages of development!

Thank you for taking the time to share your work and experience with us and every best wish for your continued success with all your projects in 2015.

Thank you very much for having me on your blog Valerie, I’ve enjoyed it. Best wishes to you, and for your writing, and to all of your readers too.

More From Ian:

Roses are Dead: Burglary and Intent

Occasionally I drift away from my love of history for a change of pace and venture into a contemporary world of suspense, love and adventure. This usually happens when something in reality has struck a nerve, such as when a friend’s home was burgled.

Jen’s world is turned upside down when she should be at a happy beginning in her life. She is hounded by a string of unnerving events and then someone breaks into her home; her new sanctuary.

We read about burglaries all the time. However, they are not only a violation of a person’s belongings and space, but also their peace of mind. How quickly a person bounces back from such an experience will depend upon the individual and the extent of the theft and damage.

Doubts can linger regarding the motivation behind the crime – Was it a random event? Was I targeted? Did they know my work pattern so that I would not be there? Do they know me?

In fiction we can play with these questions, keeping the answers and consequences within our control. However, in reality, overcoming such a personal violation can take a lot of time. Authors often focus on the crime and catching the criminals, but I respect that for the victim this is only part of the process of healing and restoring that inner peace.

If you want to read Jen’s story, Roses are Dead is available from Amazon and Smashwords.

York

I am so lucky that in the course of doing my research for my own titles I have been able to visit some fascinating historic places. York is the one that encapsulates time as now other. If you were a Roman, it was known as Eboracum. If you had lived there through the Saxon era, then it would have been called Eoforwick. Perhaps it is better known historically as Jorvik because of the state of the art Jorvik museum which brings Viking York back to life.

Walking through the city’s narrow lanes is like seeing all eras of time side-by-side. Medieval wooden structures stand next to Georgian houses and over them all are the famous towers of a grand cathedral known as The Minster.

There are far too many aspects of this fantastic place to mention in one post so I am sharing some photos of the city with you that I discovered when researching locations for Abigail Moor.

The Laundry Maid’s Lye

I have just revisited the beautiful Georgian house and grounds of Beningbrough Hall, north of the ancient city of York. It was as I walked around the laundry in the grounds of the house, crossing through the archway of the bell-tower, that I created the heroine Miss Chloe Branton and Mr Tobias Poole.

The life of a laundry maid was hard. In the days before running hot and cold water, it had to be either hauled from a well or stream or pumped up from an underground source. Once they had the water they then had to heat it and use substances such as lye soap to soak, wash or scrub the garments, which was hard on the hands. Even the garments were more difficult to maintain as before modern textiles, dyes and methods of controlled cleaning the garments may have to be unpicked to separate delicate lace, from wool or silk and each section cleaned or washed separately. Materials were not colorfast and were often heavy. A careless laundry maid could cause shrinkage, pilling and ruin a garment and easily lose her already lowly position.

It was a hard life, but it was also an excellent place for someone to be hidden away for a short time. Chloe was unused to hard work, in a building with a cold stone-flagged floor, lifting heavy loads. She needed help and a good friend to survive.

The Captain’s Creek – Pressing Times

Maggie Chase discovers an injured stranger hiding between two rocks as he flees for his life on the beach. Rapidly, she is forced to make a choice: reveal his whereabouts to the fast approaching press gang, or hide him from their sight.

The Impress Service was set up to make sure that the Royal Navy had the needed number of sailors to man its ships. It was harsh and unfair as the press gangs were notorious for their raids, often ignoring the set age-limits of between 18-55, in an era when it was difficult to prove your age when plucked off the street.

The coastal towns were rife with smuggling. Robin Hood’s Bay, for example, had a network of tunnels and passages linking the houses built on its steep banks. Although these were designed to move and hide contraband, they also proved useful when the press gang arrived. The womenfolk fought off the gang with anything they had to hand whilst their menfolk hid. They were a tough and hardy people, which is why the service wanted good seafaring men at a time when paid volunteers were not enough in number to fight Napoleon’s threat. Criminals who had chosen to serve a different type of sentence in the Royal Navy were often weakened by illness because of their previous incarceration. Therefore, the press gang swooped on the unsuspecting and gained a ruthless reputation as a result.

The eBook of The Captain’s Creek is available from Smashwords and Amazon directly or from most eBook sellers.

Abigail Moor – Biddy’s Bakery

Abigail was rescued as a baby by Lord Edmund Hammond – or so she believed.

Raised as a lady, calling him father, she enjoyed a sheltered life as she grew up and loved her step-brother, Frederick. Life dramatically changes because she has to flee from a forced marriage when Lord Hammond falls ill. With her lifelong maid she travels to the port of Whitby via the beautiful ancient city of York.

To Abigail’s naive eyes Whitby would have been a noisy, bustling place with a myriad of smells from the various industries surrounding the whaling, fishing and boat making industries. Even Abigail’s name, like her situation, has a double irony. Abigail literally means ‘my father’s joy’, yet she does not know who he is. The name is also used commonly to refer to a lady’s maid.

When I explored Whitby I came across a narrow snicket in which was a love old ram-shackled set of buildings I borrowed this setting for ‘Biddy’s Bakery’, placing it next to an old inn like the amazingly well restored White Horse and Griffin and took the extra liberty of placing a laundry opposite. Whitby was so wealthy through the whaling industry that in 1790 there were two street lamps in Church Street outside this original coaching inn.

I had the pleasure of staying in the same room that it is said Charles Dickens once used. It was a lovely friendly place in a fascinating location, and serves excellent food.

The eBook of Abigail Moor: The Darkest Dawn is available from Smashwords and Amazon directly for $2.99/£1.88 from most eBook sellers.

The Wonders of Whitby


Whitby is a place I love to explore. It has a fascinating history, some of which I would like to share with you, from the ruined abbey that dominates the headland, with the unique church of St Mary’s that leads you to the famous 199 steps and the town and harbour below.

The abbey was first settled by St Hilda when she opened the first monastery in 657 AD. Famed for her energy, commitment to learning, and her faith, life could not have been easy in such an exposed place. The original buildings have long since gone but the ruined stone remains of the abbey as it stands has been a symbol of the haven of the port for many a fisherman returning home.

The whaling industry made Whitby an important and lucrative port throughout the eighteenth century until 1830 when it collapsed because of the discovery of the cheaper, cleaner and more accessible paraffin oil. Throughout this successful period other industries flourished: ship building, sailing, fishing, tanning and one which came into popularity during the period of Queen Victoria’s mourning of Prince Albert, Whitby Jet.

James Cook was apprenticed to Captain John Walker in 1746 and served nine years. He went on to be the first European to successfully chart the East Coast of Australia and New Zealand. Walker’s house is now a museum to Cook.

I hope that has given you a flavour of this beautiful and atmospheric port on the northeast coast of England.

Further information