Today, I’m delighted to welcome Chris Nickson, author of the historical crime series featuring Constable of Leeds, Richard Nottingham, to the CTG blog.
Chris, your new book, At the Dying of the Year, is your fifth novel in the Richard Nottingham series. What was your inspiration for creating a historical crime series?
When I began it was simply a book, not series. It took me a long time to find a publisher for The Broken Token, until I found Lynne Patrick at Crème da la Crime, who liked the book and wanted to put it out. I’d published plenty of non-fiction books before, but a novel, that was something altogether different. When she said, ‘What’s next?’ I had to think seriously. Continuing the series seemed the natural option. These characters had more to tell me, I wanted to know more about their lives. Then Lynne sold Crème to Severn House and they wanted the next one, Cold Cruel Winter. From there it just continued. Richard Nottingham, John Sedgwick, Rob Lister, their families have become friends now. There really was a Richard Nottingham who was Constable of Leeds from 1717-1737, although the role would have been more ceremonial than my character.
The series is set in 1730s Leeds, England, what research do you do to ensure the historical setting feels so real?
I’ve always been a history buff, but Leeds history – the history of my hometown – wasn’t something I really began to discover until I was living in Seattle! I’d go back to Leeds every year and buy the history books on the city that appeared. Then, when eBay began I could find some rarer, older books on there at low prices. The big problem was the postage costs, of course…Leeds also has a good historical society, which has their own publications and I’ve acquired some of them and been in their library. Essentially I just keep reading and learning more and more. I find it fascinating. I focus on the ordinary people, rather than the rich, and their lives, of course, aren’t documented. But what I try to do is make it an immersive experience, so people feel they’ve walked those streets. Things like, dirt, noise and smell, the things we don’t tend to think about, are important.
At the Dying of the Year centres around a spate of child murders and is your grittiest novel to date, what prompted you to tackle that subject matter?
A couple of the books have dealt with the vulnerable, and Richard Nottingham – my Richard Nottingham, anyway – was a homeless child, living on the streets for part of his youth. This is an extension of that, in many ways. These are the children with no families, for one reason or another, the ones who’ve always been so easily exploited and used. The theme of abuse and murder of these children was meant to shock and to make people think, as is the idea of the rich protecting their own, this cloud of silence. I completed the book around July or August last year. A month of two later the Jimmy Savile scandal broke, and again, there’s been this conspiracy of silence around abuse by the rich and powerful. I believe that kind of thing has always existed. The book wasn’t written to take advantage of that situation, but more to force readers to think.
It was emotionally draining to write, incredibly so. Not just because of the children and the frustrated attempts to bring the murderers to justice, but also what Nottingham suffers along the way – in many respects that was the hardest thing of all, although I’ll say no more, as it’ll be a spoiler.
As to it being gritty, that’s a word that brings out mixed emotions in me. I prefer to think of it as dark, probably the darkest yet. But fiction is about conflict, and often conflict can take you to very dark places, inside and outside yourself. I hope the characters and the situation seem real. I’ve always tried to show that the essence of human nature doesn’t change over time. The setting might be historical but I try to make it some that readers can understand these characters and their situations. There are more shades of grey in this book than in previous ones – the lines between good and bad have become more blurred.
Tell us a little about your writing process, do you plot out the story events before sitting down to write, or do you drive right in and see where the story takes you?
I know where the tale begins and I have a rough idea where it ends, but that’s it. From there I’m simply writing down the movie in my head, what the characters say or do. Sometimes I can see ahead a ways, sometime it’s like moving through a heavy thicket. At times they surprise me – I didn’t expect that! – but this process of discovery is one of the joys of writing to me. The family lives of my main characters are as important as the mystery. My father, who was a writer, told me, ‘Create a good character and people will follow them anywhere.’ That’s what I try to do, create good characters that people care about. Even Leeds is a character in these books.
How the story gets from A to Z is a journey it can be difficult to undertake, but it’s one I wouldn’t miss.
What have you learnt through writing your series that you’d like to pass on to aspiring crime thriller writers?
I’m not one for giving much advice, but I would say a writer has to be disciplined. That means writing every single day. The concept of holiday doesn’t exist. It can be 500 words or 1000, over time it mounts up. Care about what you’re writing. If it’s not tearing you apart, you’re not going deep enough. When you’ve finished a draft, put it aside for a month before going back to it so you can look at it objectively. That said, everyone has their own way or working, and who am I to say that someone else’s method isn’t better for them than mine.
Keep faith with your work. If you really believe you have something special, keeping trying it with agents and publishers. And as you are, keep writing the next book. This is a craft just as much as it’s an art.
And what’s next for you, are you planning your next novel, or already well into the writing of it?
2013 is a very busy year for me. At the Dying of the Year came out at the end of February, and March saw the release of a very different book, Emerald City, as an ebook and audiobook (narrated by Lorelei King, who’s won awards for her work and narrates the Janet Evanovich series). It’s still a mystery, but set in Seattle in 1988, in the music scene there – I also work as a music journalist, and have for years. Then, in September, the sixth Richard Nottingham book will be published; that one’s called Fair and Tender Ladies. To round things off, The Crooked Spire, set in Chesterfield in 1361 around the building of the spire on the church there, will be out in November.
I know that seems an awful lot (and yes, it is an awful lot) but it’s the culmination of work over a couple of years that’s just all come together. Writing is what I do. I’m lost without it…
And I’m currently writing another book set in Leeds, this time in the Victorian era, against the backdrop of the Gas Strike of 1890, a famous victory for the workers. A mystery, of course, as I like the moral framework it offers, but with a mix or murder and radical politics, how can I say no? The main female character, Annabelle Atkinson, first appeared in a short story I write before Christmas and won’t go away. She’s based on a female relative from a century ago, who started out as a maid in a pub in Leeds, married the owner, took over the business when he died. She also opened some bakeries around town and lent money at no interest to local poor people. An interesting, strong woman who’s set to marry my main character, Inspector Tom Harper of Leeds Police. When it’s done all I have to do is hope someone wants to publish it!