Welcome to our Authors Forward series, where our innovative and talented Books Forward authors interview other great, forward-thinking voices in the industry.
- What inspired you to become a writer?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing stories as a kid, but I can vividly recall the moment I realised that that was what I wanted to do, when the idea that I wanted to be a writer entered my head and stayed there. My mum gave me a copy of The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier when I was ten and I was hooked. I was captivated by the book’s ability to tell a universal story that resonated across time and place through a small, personal tale of a refugee family in World War Two Warsaw trying to find each other after the devastation of the war.
That was the starting point. I was very lucky to grow up in a house filled with books – it was my mum who encouraged me to read, and my dad who encouraged me to write – but then life and all its tricks got in the way, until I somehow found myself writing travel books. After the initial fun of that began to wear thin, I realised the problem was that I needed to write my stories, the stories inspired by that moment when I was ten years old. And that’s when I took the plunge and rediscovered the path that finally led to me becoming a fiction writer.
- You are just about to publish the second in your wartime detective series set in Occupied Paris. Why did you choose that setting?
Many years ago, I wrote my degree thesis on the Resistance movement in the Vercors region of France, and one of the aspects that most surprised me was the amount of in-fighting and factions within the Resistance. That stayed with me and steadily grew, as I questioned how people as a whole reacted to occupation. I read a statistic that said that 3% of the population actively resisted and another 3% actively collaborated. I immediately wanted to know what the remaining 94% did and I came to the realisation that they simply tried to survive as best they could. Also, what exactly did the terms ‘resistance’ and ‘collaboration’ mean? There must have been huge grey areas between them, and times when an individual was forced into one or the other through circumstance.
I’ve read a lot of novels set during the Occupation, and the great majority look at heroic acts of resistance or are set among the upper echelons of the Occupiers. I wanted to explore what life was like for ordinary people, the ones trying to get by and keep their jobs and a roof over their head at the most challenging of times. This led to my wondering how a police detective would fare, trying to solve everyday crimes while all around him, far greater crimes were being committed. The obvious setting for this was Paris, a huge city with its attendant levels of crime, but also the seat of the Occupation and one that would allow me to look at both the bigger picture of Nazi rule and the everyday aspects of ordinary people and the dilemma they faced between acts of resistance and acts of collaboration.
- Historical crime fiction is booming. Why do you think that is?
I think that setting a crime novel in a historical period is a way of trying to understand and explain an unfamiliar era through a familiar type of narrative. The crime novel, its structure and intent, is something we all know and one where we have expectations that are usually fulfilled. That makes it a very good and accessible framework on which to hang something that is often less familiar. That might be a police procedural or a medical intrigue, or – in our case – a place and time in history. This specific historical era may be widely studied, as the Second World War is, but there are always aspects that are not so widely known or others that have become distorted through the retelling. It’s our job as historical crime novelists to pass on the history as truthfully and as honestly as we can while telling a story based on it that is engaging and satisfactory. We take a global history and turn it into an individual story, making it more manageable, more relatable today, and possibly easier to comprehend, and I think that’s something that resonates with readers.
- As a writer myself I am always fascinated by other writers’ working methods. Can you please describe a typical working day?
For a long time, I worked as a freelance translator, and no matter how organised I tried to be, writing inevitably became something I did in my spare time, an escape from the day job, so there was always a catch-as-catch-can element about it. Now, though, I’m lucky enough to be writing full-time, but I have to confess I’m still very much feeling my way into that. Writing feels very different when it’s an escape and when it’s what you do, but I’m steadily getting there.
Essentially, I start the day with a walk along the cliffs or the seafront where I live so that I can start to immerse myself in the story, see things differently, imagine scenes and dialogue, and perhaps spot plot holes. Then, I go back home and write all morning, from 9am to 2pm. I write in 30-minute blocks and aim to get 300 words written per half-hour session. In between blocks, I get up and walk about, make a cup of tea or coffee, do the vacuuming or something mundane, which all helps the story thoughts swirl around inside my head.
The first part of the afternoons is for admin – writing emails or social media posts, marketing, things for Crime Cymru (a collective of Welsh crime writers I’m a member of), and so on – while the second part is for research. Because the books are set in Paris during the war, they require a lot of research, and I often get drawn into all sorts of rabbit holes, so that part of the day can become fairly open-ended, but it is immensely enjoyable.
- Who are your favourite authors?
I would say that Josephine Tey, with The Daughter of Time, opened my eyes to the extraordinary potential of historical crime fiction, so she has to be somewhere near the top. In terms of other historical writers, I have immense respect for Robert Harris for his ability to set authentic stories across a range of periods, Philip Kerr for paving the way for WW2 noir, Andrew Taylor for the depth of atmosphere in his books, Laura Shepherd-Robinson for the layers of complexity and Vaseem Khan for opening up a period I knew little about.
Growing up, the writers that laid the foundations of my love of reading would have to be PG Wodehouse, Robert Graves, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy L Sayers, Dashiell Hammett, PD James, Edmund Crispin and Margery Allingham. Writers in non-historical crime and other genres that I admire include Jonathan Coe, Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett for their love of language, and I’m a recent convert to Mick Herron, who has the extraordinary ability to make you care about the most unpleasant of characters.
Ellen Whitfield is senior publicist at Books Forward, an author publicity and book marketing firm committed to promoting voices from a diverse variety of communities. From book reviews and author events, to social media and digital marketing, we help authors find success and connect with readers.