Chris Nickson. Writing the Heart Into a Mystery.
I’m very fortunate that, at the moment, Chris Nickson lives in Nottingham. We had initially bumped into each other on Twitter and because of this I began reading his Richard Nottingham books. We finally met in Derby on a tweet-up after I had interviewed independent researcher Helen Kara (coming up soon). Not wanting to waste the opportunity, I interviewed Chris on the way back to Nottingham in a remarkably noisy sprinter train. Between the roar of the power units and singing children, I told Chris that this was the most unusual place I had ever interviewed a writer. Chris had no trouble toping that several times over. I suspect if he ever got down to writing an autobiography it would make riveting reading. So I am sure that Chris’s wealth of life experience will ensure we’re going to be treated to a huge variety of fascinating books for many years to come.
You’re a prolific writer. What have you been writing in the last year?
I just finished another Richard Nottingham Leeds book and also something quite different which is coming out in March and is set in the Seattle music scene. I’ve also finished a historical mystery book set in Chesterfield in the 1300s. Then there’s the audio books produced by Creative Content.
Do you physically go to these places when you’re researching them?
I grew up in Leeds. Even though I’ve not lived there since 1976, I go back regularly, always have. When you grow up somewhere, you know it in a way that you can never know anywhere else. Having said that, I have done a lot of local history research, as well as general research. It helps that I’m a history buff, so I’ve read a lot about the period. The Thoresby Society which is a local history society up there has a really good library, where I can go and do some research.
I lived near to Chesterfield for four and a half years. Again I’ve read extensively about the period and a lot of it is set around the church with the crooked spire. In fact The Crooked Spire is its title. I’ve been into that church several times, even going up to the base of the spire, which is as far as you can go on the tours.
So I do research, but I’m not an academic. However, my good friend Candace Robb, who writes historical fiction and historical crime, is an academic and writes from that viewpoint. She is an excellent writer and has certainly influenced the way I have approached my books.
So I approach things from the perspective of a fiction writer. I try to get things as historically accurate as far as possible, but at the same time my feeling is that if your reader feels as if they’ve been to the Leeds that I describe in the Richard Nottingham books and they feel immersed in it, then I’ve succeeded in my job as a writer. It doesn’t need to be one hundred percent accurate in that regard. You do have to be very careful how you weave the history in. It only needs to be woven in very lightly, so there’s just enough to make people think they were there. The main things are the not just the sights, but the sounds and the smells as well. This doesn’t mean to say that I might not, for example, give a brief description of what someone’s wearing, for example breeches, because as my characters are poor, they’ll be wearing fourth and fifth hand clothes (not uncommon at the time) and it’s just enough to give a reader the sense of the people. But my main emphasis is on the appearance of Leeds at that time. The layout of Leeds city centre streets is still the same as it was then. Leeds is the character in these books, which is why there’s always a map in the book.
All I do when I write is put down a movie that’s playing in my head. I’m right there, but at the same time I can’t see the character’s face, although I do picture them to a degree. What is vivid is the environment they’re in. That’s the way my imagination works. However much I describe them, you’ll find it’s still only a very general sketch. In the same way I don’t put in graphic violence, I hint at it and around it, allowing people’s imagination to do the work. People’s imagination is far more horrific than anything I can come up with if you push it in the right direction, so that works for me.
Do you think your background as a journalist has helped?
Oh yes. It’s improved my writing and makes me a much more confident writer; to the point where I know when something works and when it doesn’t. A good gut feeling, if you like. I’m also able to work quickly even though I’m editing as I go along, so my first draft tends to be fairly complete. I’ll do the first 10,000 words and edit that, then just plough through the rest of the book from there.
At one stage, when I was a journalist, I worked for an online service where I had to research and write (and bear in mind this was a rolling thing) two stories a day. As well as this I had to write at least one CD review a week, do other journalism on top of that, not to mention writing books (quickie unauthorised celebrity biographies). So you get used to working quickly and becoming more assured in your choice of words. It’s a very different beast to writing fiction, but one that informs any sort of writing. I had a very good editor who improved my writing one hundred percent, because he was ruthless with anything I produced. I really appreciated that. It vastly changed the way I wrote. I still do a fair amount journalism.
I’ve written fiction in the past, but the stuff I wrote is nothing I’m likely to revisit. It was only when I got to the Richard Nottingham, Leeds series, I found I’d created books with their own identity, their own voice. So when I go back to write a new one, I can slip into that voice quite easily. The Emerald City has its own voice and a very different one to the Richard Nottingham books. Not only is it geographically different and a different century, but the main character is now written in the first person and is female. Because it’s American it’s much more open. The style of the Leeds books is kind of poetic with very long sentences, which is the way it developed and works for that series. It’s the same for the points of view. I use three different points of view these days in the Leeds books, whereas the Seattle book is a single point of view. There’s advantages and disadvantages to using points of view this way.
Why do you use three different points of view in the Richard Nottingham books?
You have Richard Nottingham, John Sedgwick and another character in the third and fourth book. It offers a change in narrative on what’s going on because you’ve got these slightly different viewpoints. That’s a pretty good way of breaking things up and the relationships that Nottingham and Sedgwick have with their respective families are as important to me as the mystery. The different points of view allow the relationships to grow and develop; which they do over the course of the books. That was something I really wanted.
I set down some rules myself. For example, anyone can die, even central characters and they do. I like this because I feel like the readers have been through something. Also they don’t know which of the main characters will be alive at the end of the book. That’s a reflection of life, particularly as it was then. No one’s immortal. Life was brutal and short in those days.
Why Leeds and why then?
Leeds was just starting to assert its dominance in the wool trade by the 1730s, which would carry on for another century. That brought about a gulf between the merchants, who made a lot of money and the other people who didn’t. There was a very small middle-class, but the whole situation created a dichotomy to work off and a nice tension to the storyline. My sympathies are very much with the poor, I wear that on my sleeve and I make no apology for that.
You have an emerging city which the merchants and corporation ran. There are times in the book where I see reflections of what is happening now politically. In my fifth book The Dying of the Year, the corporation are defending one of their own who might be guilty of killing a number of street children.
So each book in the Leeds series has a slightly different format?
Yes. It’s always the same good guy, but sometimes you’ll know what’s going on and they don’t and sometimes you’re as much in the dark as they are. They’re not all whodunits. The second book, Cold Cruel Winter, for example, (which the Library Journal named as one of the 10 best mysteries 2011) is about someone who’s been transported and has come back seeking revenge by killing people. So the reader finds out very early on who the murderer is, but it’s a case of finding him. The sixth book which I’m just writing now is told in part from the viewpoint of the bad guy, but Richard Nottingham doesn’t know who is behind the crimes. So you get completely contrasting viewpoints. It’s as much about them as the mystery. Change in writing style is all about making things interesting for yourself as a writer as well as making the writing a challenge. To be honest I don’t anticipate doing more than eight books in this series. I may stretch to ten, but I don’t want to be in danger of repeating myself.
There are too many series that have done that. I don’t like cosy crime books. So many historical mysteries seem to be about upper-class people, which does not reflect most of life. Most people are not upper-class privileged (that’s another one of my writing rules). Having said this, some people’s series have improved with age, for example Peter Robinson and Ian Rankin, but at the same time I can’t see me doing 18 or 20 books about Richard; much as I love him. Although, even when the series is done I’m not done writing about Leeds, it’s too deep in my blood.
What about your book that’s set in Seattle? Why Seattle and why a first person account?
I lived in Seattle for 20 years. I was involved in the music scene as a journalist and a fan. So writing about Seattle seems very natural as well. I’m writing as a female, in the first person because that was the voice that came to me. Emerald City was originally written as a male character and I rewrote the last part of it three or four times. Creative Content wanted to do it as an audio book. They’d done an e-book and an audio book of The Broken Token, which was one of the Independent on Sunday’s audio books of the year, along with books by Ian Fleming. Maeve Binchy, JK Rowling and Kazuo Ishiguro.
Creative Content asked me to make the main character female. It was a very practical request from their point of view, because it’s run by two women, one of whom is the actress Lorelei King, who does a lot of audio books and she’s American. So that was a commercial decision. I thought, ‘You know what. That’s a really good idea. If the main character’s a woman, it changes every dynamic in there.’ It meant rewriting the whole book, because every interaction between the main character and other people had to be changed, which stretched me a lot more and the result is a much better book.
What about the Chesterfield book? How did that come about?
I lived outside Chesterfield for about four and a half years, so I know Chesterfield very well. We were driving back just over a year ago through Chesterfield and I was looking up at the church spire and the book started to come to me. So I sat down and wrote the first draft in six weeks. It’s the fastest I’ve ever written a book. It’s a very different book to the Leeds books. It’s a gentler book. The Leeds books are relatively gritty, because of the life they reflect. Although it’s a hard life in the fourteenth century, the tone of the books is much gentler. Even though a couple of people are killed in the book.
You’re turning out a huge amount of words, so you have to have the discipline not only to write it but to look at it from an editing viewpoint. Again is your background as a journalist helping you with this?
Yes. Once something is written, I put it aside for a few months, so when I come back to it and look at it objectively. The other thing is, if what you’re working on doesn’t make you bleed a little inside when you’re writing it, then you’re not really writing. If that’s not happening, then you’re just putting down words. My father was a writer and musician amongst other things that he did and he had a couple of television plays on in the late 1960s. The important piece of advice that he gave me was that if you create a fully formed character you’ll follow them anywhere. That’s what I try and do even with the minor characters in my books. If they’re just ciphers, then they’re not working.
A month or so ago I was doing the proofing on The Dying of the Year. It was a very difficult book to write because it was emotionally powerful to me. There’s a lot of heartbreak in it and even going through the proofs, knowing what was going to happen was tearing me apart.
So would you say that you can tell whether the author is just turning out the words and they aren’t really into what they’re writing?
There’s two things really. Their hearts might be in it, but they don’t have the skill to make it do what they want it to do, or there is no heart and it’s just words on paper. I think I can tell this if I read something and I come away unmoved by it. One writer who always moves me is Peter Hoeg. He can be quite out there with his concepts but you’re right there with his characters.
Different books work on different levels. I love PG Woodhouse Blandings books. But they’re a completely different experience. For an immersive series I would recommend John Lawton’s Inspector Troy books that run from the 1930s to the 1960s. Susan Hill’s ‘Simon Serrailler series’ are quite remarkable, because of the way the family is such an important part of the books.
Forging relationships and communities is what humanity’s all about, even online. This becomes even more important when people move around from country to country (this might be because I’ve shifted continents twice myself, I’m much more aware of this). So relationships that develop, grow and change are vitally important to me. This is why in the Richard Nottingham books there may be mysteries and murders in them, but I’m as interested in the relationships between people. The structure of a mystery, by being very black and white, gives a good moral framework to hang a tale on, although the further I get into these books the less it becomes black and white and the more it becomes shades of grey. I find that far more intriguing. In book number six, the rebellious daughter, Emily, features a great deal more than she has before.
Something that really brought the importance of my character’s relationships home to me was when I went to Leeds recently. There was a plaque on the wall from the 1860s for someone called Leonard Sedgwick. John Sedgwick, Richard Nottingham’s subordinate, is a purely fictional character, but I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if he was the great-grandson of my John Sedgwick who had bettered himself and had become a bit of a philanthropist.’ Part of me knows it’s impossible, but a part of me wants to believe this is true. So my characters are very much alive to me. When the book’s finished I carry on wanting to know what happened to them.
For example, I’ve introduced a new character. He’s come back to Leeds after 20 years. He left because, as we find out at the end of The Broken Token, Amos Worthy had threatened to kill him many years before, but now he’s back. While I was writing this character I thought, ‘Yes I’ve got something here and I want him back. He’s a devious sod and I like him.’ I do develop a lot of affection for these people.
At the Dying of the Year will be out on the 28 February.