Writing crime and thriller fiction is not an easy game; you always have to be aware of strategically building the tension and sense of the threats as your plot progresses, navigating the peaks and troughs of anticipation as your reader moves towards the final climax that has your readers on the edge of their seats.
But if that wasn’t hard enough, if your setting is based in eras past, you’ve got a whole host of elements to balance too. No fancy computer searches to aid the police, no high-speed getaway car and a whole lot more horse poo.
Therefore who better to talk about the sub-genre than my second author of Crime and Thriller Month: historical thriller pro Chris Nickson is in the chair!
Chris, welcome! Thank you for joining us here today. The Molten City is your latest novel in the Tom Harper series, isn’t it? Tell us a little more about it.
It’s set against the backdrop of the 1908 Suffragette Riot, when Prime Minister Asquith came to address a crowd in Leeds. He’d backtracked on an agreement to support women’s suffrage, so they were out in force at the same time as a large meeting of unemployed men – unemployment was a large problem them. A volatile mix. Tom Harper’s wife is a longtime suffragist – words not violence – but their teenage daughter is a suffragette, who breaks a promise to attend the demonstration. Yet the main plot is about an anonymous letter Harper receives, concerning a child snatched almost fifteen years before, an incident that was never investigated. No pressure on him at all, then …
The novel is set in the bustling streets of Leeds, a city that features in almost all of your novels. This time we’re in the Edwardian period but you have novels that span many historical periods. How important is setting to you as a writer? And how do you choose which time period to set your stories in?
Setting is vital to me. I have to know the places where a book takes place. I was born and raised in Leeds, and I moved back here. I love Leeds and its history; I’ve researched it with real passion. It’s in my DNA. Possibly literally, since my family’s been here for two hundred years. I set a couple of books in Seattle, where I lived there for twenty years, working as a music journalist. There’s also a series in medieval Chesterfield. After returning to the UK, I lived close to there for a few years. I have to feel the places, to smell and taste them.
How do I choose the periods? With the Richard Nottingham books, the 1730s were a time when Leeds was beginning to grow rich off the wool trade. Well, a few were becoming wealthy. Most weren’t, so there’s built-in tension. And it’s a largely unexplored period, especially with ordinary people, not the aristocracy. For Tom Harper, the inspiration was the 1890 gas strike, which the workers won in three days. The first Chesterfield book literally arrived in 10 seconds as I was driving through the town. For Seattle, those books take place in the music scene, which I wrote about … Different things spark me, as with the 1820s, 1920s, 1930s, 40s and 50s. As long as I can wriggle inside it.
Following on from this, as a historical crime/thriller writer, historical accuracy is potent issue. Do you enjoy the research process? And how strict are you with the truth? How much room do you think there is for artist licence?
I keep as close to the truth as is feasible, let’s put it that way. I’ll bend what happens sometimes, maybe dates or something. But by and large I want it to be real – at least to feel real. If the reader believes they’ve been to that place and time, that they’ve walked the streets and talked to the people, then I’ve succeeded. I love research. I have shelves of Leeds history books – and history in general, social history. It’s a constant fascination. I’ll read history books for fun, and go down wormholes of obscure Leeds facts.
Who inspired you to start writing? Have your influences changed since then?
Probably my father. He’d have loved to make a living as a writer. He did, briefly, with a pair of TV plays in the seventies. But the novel he worked on was never published. I don’t know that it was ever submitted. He was alive along enough to see me make a living from writing, and for several of my non-fiction books (the quickie biographies) to be published. Both my parents died before any of my novels came out. I hope they’d be proud of what I’ve done.
Why did you choose to write suspense and thriller?
Mystery and crime novels offer a very clear moral framework for a tale. It has everything, drama, tension, murder and the possibility for so many directions. However, it becomes way more interesting when you move away from the black-and-white simplicity of good and bad into the shades of grey, the ambiguities that colour life. These days, that’s where I seem to spend more of my time. My lead characters are all good guys, yes, but they’ve been known to strain the law a little …
You’ve written a couple of non-fiction titles too. Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction?
Much of that early non-fiction was made up of quickie bios about celebs, mostly music and film. A month to research and write a 50,000-word book, and most of that happened before the Internet held every scrap of information, so it was libraries and microfiche. It was a great learning curve, an extension of journalism. There isn’t the time for endless revisions. You learn to get it down pretty much right the first time – something I still try to do. But with the journalism, it paid the mortgage and the bills. We had a young child, so it helped there, too … However, I have published a biography of John Martyn, a serious one of a musician whose 1970s work I still love.
I still do a few CD reviews, but nothing in the way of interviews, simply because the outlets for my kind of music really no longer exist.
Do you like to plan the action of your novels (plotter) or do you just let them write themselves (pantser!)?
Pantser, definitely. The characters tell me where we’re going. They dictate everything; I’m just writing down the movie playing in my head. If I tried to constrain them within a plot, they’d rebel! And with a series, a new book becomes like revisiting old friend. They bring me up to date on what’s been going on, and that becomes the new book.
What is the biggest challenge you faced when writing your first novel? How did you overcome it? And has it changed now you’ve got so many under your belt?
Well, I wrote my very first novel when I was twenty, heavily under the influence of Richard Brautigan. It was probably pretty bad. Then three more: one crime, two mainstream fiction. None published, thankfully. But it was an apprenticeship, slowly learning my craft. A couple of short plays staged, a few short stories published. And reading a lot, understanding how it’s done. By the time The Broken Token, my first published novel, appeared, I was in my fifties. I’d been making my living as a journalist and non-fiction writer for fifteen years. Technically, I knew how to do it. But I hadn’t found that kernel of truth in my writing. What I produced was entertaining, but it was surface. Which is fine, but not what I wanted. My friend Thom Atkinson (Thomas M. Atkinson, award-winning short story writer and playwright whose first novel will be published next year. We started out as bandmates and are still close friends. Please check him out.) had it. But once I began writing about Leeds, I knew that truth was there. I’d hit something at the core of myself. It was real.
These days, I’ve learned more, and I hope I’ve become a better writer. But I need to make each book better than the last. I only compete with one person, and that’s myself. It’s probably what all writers do. It becomes a mountain to climb, but I gladly do it. Or attempt.
Lockdown has affected everyone in different ways, giving some more time to use their creativity, but for others, they’ve found it hard to make the most of their lockdown nights as they just can’t connect with the reading they love so much. Has lockdown affected your writing in any way?
Lockdown definitely affected me. I was working on the fourth Simon Westow novel, almost halfway through. But those novels are fuelled by anger, and suddenly that was an emotion in very short supply. So I’ve put that aside, and started another Tom Harper, set in 1917, where sorrow can pervade things. Along with solving a crime that’s trying to undermine society, of course. By keeping my routine, it helps keeps me steady. Yet I also know I have plenty of time to write this. I had been doing a thousand words a day. The need for that has vanished. For me, the thing is to avoid the sensation for free fall. But I do still read a lot. The perfect escape, as I watch very little TV.
What is your desert-island read?
If it existed, I’d take the complete works of P.G. Wodehouse.
What is your writing process like? Do you have a routine? A favourite place to write?
We have a small place, so I don’t have a separate room for writing. The computer is set up on the table in the living room. But I get to look out on trees and the fields beyond. I’m an early riser, usually around four thirty. I’ll make a cup of tea, check emails and news and start writing by five. At the present, my quota is five hundred words a day. I’ll break to eat breakfast, then go back and finish. After that, it’s often allotment time, come back and shower and get to other work – reviews, maybe some work on a different book. And reading.
Do you have any writing tips to share?
Write every day. Establish a routine. The more you write, the more you learn, and the better you become. You don’t have to produce volumes every day, but you’ll find it starts to flow more easily
Finally, most important question. Favourite writing snack?!
Good cheese, in moderation. I’ve become a big fan of Coverdale, from my local cheesemonger (they deliver).
Chris’s latest novel Molten City (Tom Harper series) is out now and his next book The Anchoress of Chesterfield (John the Carpenter series) is coming out in June 2020.