I was delighted to be invited by Barbara Bos at the Women Writers Women’s Books website to write a piece on my Road to Publication, from an early longhand novel to my foray into indie publishing, and everything in between.

I have been in this writing game long enough to have started out in an entirely analogue world.

When I wrote my very first novel there was no internet, no social media, no email, no mobile phones, and precious little by way of computerisation.

(I should point out here that I was only fifteen at the time.)

I penned the whole manuscript longhand and my father, bless him, typed it up for me on an electric typewriter—with carbon copies. It did the rounds of the major publishing houses, where it received what is known in the trade as ‘rave rejections’. Everybody loved it. Nobody wanted to publish it.

I temporarily shelved my idea of becoming a novelist and went on to a variety of jobs in my teenage years. But the compulsion to write never quite left me. So, when I learned to drive and bought my first car, an elderly Triumph Spitfire, this led me into the classic car world. And, more particularly, into the classic car magazines.

It wasn’t long before I realised that there were a lot of car magazines on the market in the UK—about 120 at that time—and they were all desperate for good copy. I gave up my job, turned freelance, and discovered I had more work on than I could handle. It wasn’t long before editors starting asking for pictures to go with the articles. So I borrowed a camera and taught myself to use it.

That all began in 1988. I’ve been making a living from words and pictures ever since.

I may have found early success with non-fiction, but I never lost that urge to create my own story rather than retelling other people’s. For much of the 1990s I was kicking around the idea for a crime thriller. Mainly because that was the genre I most liked to read but also because, in the thrillers around at the time, I couldn’t find a female character who really satisfied me.

Mostly, the women in such books were there as the hero’s love interest, or to cook, tend to the wounded, scream in a firefight, or twist their ankle at an inappropriate moment and need to be rescued.

I wanted to read about women who were quite capable of doing their own rescuing, thank-you-very-much.

Enter ex-Special Forces trainee turned self-defence expert and close-protection operative, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox. I finished my first novel featuring Charlie back in 1999. After picking up my copy of the WRITERS’ AND ARTISTS’ YEARBOOK, and searching for Agents (Crime) I began at A. The second agent who requested the full typescript offered to represent me.

With hindsight, I should have spent days in my local library, going through the Acknowledgements sections of my favourite crime authors’ works, looking for the ones who thought highly enough of their agents to name-check them.

If I were starting out now, of course, I’d look at author websites, which often list the author’s literary agent on the Contact page. Or simply resort to Google, or—better yet—go and hang out in the bar at CrimeFest or Harrogate.

But, back then I was a novice, and there wasn’t the plethora of advice, forums, and support groups there is now. Even with the mistakes I made in my early decisions, KILLER INSTINCT came out in 2001.

Since then, I have written thirteen books in the Charlie Fox series, the latest of which is BAD TURN—out in Sept 2019. I’ve also written more than twenty short stories, which have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies. I’ve penned a couple of standalone crime novels, one of which is now the first of a trilogy set in the Lake District and featuring CSI Grace McColl and Detective Nick Weston. The second book, BONES IN THE RIVER, came out in May 2020.

When my first publisher was swallowed up by a larger fish in the pond, my early works fell out of print. I reverted the rights and, in 2011, decided the eBook bandwagon was something I ought to be on. I self-published, with immediate success. Ever since, I’ve been a hybrid author with a foot in both independent and traditional publishing camps.

I’ve learned to handle the layout and content side of indie publishing, as well as cover design, editing, marketing, social media strategy, blogging, and advertising. It can be overwhelming and exhausting. But the upside is total control and information flow in an industry not noted for providing the average author with either commodity.

It’s a lot of plates to keep spinning at any one time. Especially when you consider that there’s also the small matter of actually writing the books…

But there is a good deal of satisfaction to be had in knowing what you’re going to be writing next, regardless of whether that’s part of an existing series, branching out into another, or even trying something new.

When I wrote the first book in what has become the Lakes Crime Thriller Trilogy, DANCING ON THE GRAVE, it was intended purely as a standalone title. Then reviewers hinted that they thought Grace and Nick had legs. Soon, readers joined that cry, and I knew I just had to go again. So far, I’ve committed to a trilogy that can all be read independently. After that, well, it’s up to my readers.

But, with Charlie Fox fans clamouring for more—allied to the fact the series was recently optioned for TV—plus another standalone bubbling inside my head, and another series to launch into, who knows what might happen next?

There’s one thing about being an author—it’s never dull.

Read and comment on this article over on Women Writers Women’s Books.

A couple of weeks ago, I resigned myself to the horrors of a new computer.

This is always a nightmare of acclimatising to upgraded operating systems, trusty programs that are no longer available, and incompatible files.

I hate it.

It’s one reason, I confess, that I finally went over to the Dark Side with my last computer and bought a MacBook Air. It’s been absolutely wonderful, and has served me faithfully for the past seven years—far longer, I have to admit, than any of my previous PC laptops lasted.

And it’s not ready for the great parts bin in the sky quite yet. Removing all the accumulated rubbish and rebooting the operating system will apparently see it keep going for quite a while longer. At least, I hope so…

The real problem is that when I first gave myself MacBook Airs and graces, I was not doing nearly as much photo manipulation as I am now, having taken a deep dive into cover design. I need something with a faster processor and now seemed the ideal time to go back to a desktop. So, I’ve bought myself an iMac and, once I stopped cursing at it and threatening to throw it out of the window—and when I discovered how to switch off the dreaded Cloud that seemed to be eating all my files and regurgitating them in corrupted guise—I think I’ve finally made friends with it.

The almost blank desktop screen is strangely calming.

But, I did say ‘almost’ there. Because already four or five folders and icons have crept onto the right-hand side and I know I won’t ever get a better time to bring some organisational order to the way I work.

The question I face is…how?

At the moment I have, for example, a folder marked FICTION. That leads to more folders titled things like CHARLIE FOX SERIES, LAKES TRILOGY, SHORT STORIES, STANDALONES, etc.

Those in turn lead to more folders, one for each title. So, in the case of the latest Charlie Fox novel, I have a pathway that goes FICTION > CHARLIE FOX SERIES > BAD TURN.

So far, so good.

In the {TITLE} folder live all the peripheral documents, such as:

Acknowledgements. There’s nothing worse than the book coming out and you realise you’ve forgotten to thank someone who provided vital information right at the start of the project. I keep a document on the go and drop names into it as soon as they occur.

Jacket Copy. This is the brief book synopsis that normally appears on the back of the book jacket, or on the retailer page. I usually write this before I even start on the book itself, to keep myself tuned to the basic idea. It can be very helpful to run this by interested parties and watch their reactions carefully. If they look intrigued, you know you might just have something…

Metadata. By the time I’ve finished a book and it’s ready to upload, this file usually runs to about 25 pages. It contains every piece of information on the book that I need in order to register the ISBN number and upload it, including keywords, categories, page counts, descriptions, etc. Trying to go through this process without a giant crib sheet is incredibly difficult. I can’t believe it took me so long to put together a template for this file.

Outline. Sometimes this is the kind of thing I could show a publisher but more often than not, it’s my own personal writing outline, with a full character list, back story, and what happens off-camera to explain how the elements of the story slot together. It changes—a LOT—during the course of writing the book. I will usually also have:

Story Breakdown. This is more like a conventional publisher synopsis, with the plot divided into three acts and the turning point of each act noted. This is more of a note on structure than story.

And then I have my Summary. Even if you don’t plot beforehand, I always recommend keeping a summary of the book as you write it. Just a paragraph on each chapter with the main point of action, dialogue and character development. If structural edits are needed afterwards, I note them on the summary to work out how best to incorporate them into the book as a whole.

Other folders in the {TITLE} folder are BOOK, which is where I actually keep my work-in-progress documents. I’ve always written each draft chapter in a separate document, then dropped it into the overall book doc when it’s done.

There’s also a COVER folder, where I keep different versions of the final cover images, including the spine and back cover, hi-res for print use, and lo-res for website or internet use.

Another folder is called EDITS AND FEEDBACK, which is fairly self-explanatory. It’s where I keep all the emails and notes from beta readers, my Advance Reader Team, copyeditor, and proofreader.

A further folder is marked RESEARCH, where I store any articles on related topics, and images that might come in useful while writing, such as this one of the layout of a truck braking system, which anyone who read BAD TURN will realise the significance of.

I also keep any pictures of actors, etc, who have the look of characters in the book. I labelled this one of Everett McGill as ‘Conrad Epps’:

And this one of Oded Fehr as ‘Khalid Hamzeh’:

I also keep a folder for REVIEWS, although I try not to look at them too much. That way, madness lies…

And then there are the folders for book production—PRINT and VELLUM & EBOOK.

PRINT contains the content pdfs for the paperback, hardcover and large print editions, the cover templates and actual full-wrap cover files, and the downloaded proofs. If I’ve used any special fonts, they’ll be in another folder in this folder.

The VELLUM & EBOOK folder contains the Vellum document, which is the program I use to convert a Word doc to ebook formats and print-ready pdf, plus the mobi and epub files for both the ARC and the final versions, and the Vellum-produced cover images to upload.

And that’s about it.

What you have to bear in mind is that BAD TURN is book 13 in the Charlie Fox series. I have another 12 {TITLE} folders in the CHARLIE FOX folder, each of which contains all those elements. Often, when I’m putting together a metadata file for one book, I check back to see how I did something on the last. It involves quite a bit of hopping about and I regularly have so many folders open on the desktop I struggle to work out which is which.

It’s not enough to label a folder COVER, I have to call it BT-COVER just to be sure I know which folder I’ve found. Because, that’s not the only place I keep covers…

In the main FICTION folder, I then have another called COVERS. This is where I keep the PhotoShop files of all the covers I’m working on, the jpg images of the final cover, the original images that make up the different covers, their attributions and picture credits, as well as all the draft versions, and covers I played about with that didn’t quite make the cut. I also keep versions with and without a border. The latter feature is something I realised I needed when I started having covers that were either black or white, to make sure the cover edges are visible on all backgrounds, as you can see from the image below.

The reason these are all together like this is because, when I’m building one cover it’s very important to get the elements lined up with those that have come before it. I need to make sure the author name and series indication is in the same size font and in the same position on the cover. For that, it’s easier to keep everything in one place.

Or, at least, I think it is…

Things have become a little easier since I discovered how to use an Alias on a Mac desktop, which is basically a shortcut. (And I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to work that one out.) But I’m still left wondering, is there a better way to do this? A more logical layout? A better critical path analysis?

What do you use? All advice gratefully received!

This week’s Word of the Week came courtesy of EvKa. It’s trophallaxis, meaning the mutual exchange of regurgitated liquids between adult insects and their larvae. It also means the transfer of food or other fluids among members of a community through mouth-to-mouth or anus-to-mouth feeding. Along with nutrients, trophallaxis can involve the transfer of molecules such as pheromones, organisms such as symbionts, and information to serve as a form of communication.

(Note to self: if asked to ‘communicate’ with EvKa, ask questions on method before agreeing…)

You can view and comment on this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.

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I was very pleased to be invited to take part in a recent podcast interview with fellow crime thriller authors Adam Peacock (writing name, A.M. Peacock) and Judith O’Reilly, who are part of the Northern Crime Syndicate.

(The NCS is a group of crime authors, not a criminal enterprise, although I understand they have been looking at the lease on a hollowed-out volcano somewhere near Tyneside…)

‘Episode 4 of the Northern Crime Syndicate podcast, hosted by Adam Peacock and co-hosted by Judith O’Reilly, features thriller writer Zoë Sharp. Zoë’s series, featuring protagonist Charlie Fox, has received high praise, with Lee Child stating that Fox is the female Jack Reacher. Join us as we discuss Zoë’s early influences, her journey into crime writing and much, much more…’

with Elizabeth Hill, James D Mortain, Caroline Goldsworthy, Dawn Brookes,
moderated by Zoë Sharp

The first weekend in June 2020 should have been CrimeFest in Bristol. Sadly, with the current Covid-19 pandemic still on the loose, the live event has had to be postponed.

For the last few years, it has been my privilege to moderate The Indie Alternative panel on Sunday morning at CrimeFest, which allows indie-published authors to showcase themselves and their work. As a hybrid author myself (half author, half digestive biscuit) I still wanted to give these authors a platform, and what better place than here?

So, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to the four diverse and interesting writers below:

Elizabeth Hill

Elizabeth published KILLING THE GIRL in April 2019 and is now busy working on her second novel. ‘We all love a great murder mystery and KILLING THE GIRL explores the reasons why an ordinary woman kills. What pushes her to her limit of endurance and sanity? And could that woman be you?’ Elizabeth is a member of The Alliance of Independent Authors, The Bristol Fiction Writers Group and Noir At The Bar, Bath. She was a speaker at the 2019 Bristol Festival of Literature.

Zoë Sharp: Your debut novel, KILLING THE GIRL, is about a woman who has been living a reclusive life for more than forty years in a large house where the body of a man she murdered is buried in the garden. Now the house is about to be demolished to make way for a bypass and she knows her secret will come to light. It’s an intriguing set-up. What inspired this story?

Elizabeth Hill: I live in south Bristol and there has always been the prospect of a ring road below Dundry Hill. The idea came because at one time there were discussions that this ring road would travel up over the Hill. What if a house was built on its path and what if the reclusive woman who lives there has buried a body? How does she survive being forced to leave her home with the prospect of the murder she got away with coming back to haunt her? What will she do? I loved travelling on that journey with her because I didn’t know what would happen, how she would survive, and who else she would kill. She became more vengeful than I’d originally imagined as she told her story.

Zoë Sharp: You’re already at work on your next book. Will there be a continuation of any characters from the first novel, or do you intend to write standalones?

Elizabeth Hill: My second book is a stand-alone but I want to retain the ‘Killing The…’ theme to give a sense of a series, and to be part of my brand of three novels. All my novels will feature women who have killed, or caused the death of someone. Reasons why women kill as a theme for the mystery novel fascinate me.

Zoë Sharp: What was your road to publication? Did you consider or try to find a traditional publisher or go the indie route right away? And why?

Elizabeth Hill: I tried to attract an agent, but it didn’t work. I had overwhelming praise from two big agents during a webinar featuring my first page that came to nothing. It was the positive response to my writing from my editors that gave me the ‘nerve’ to self-publish. Martin Ouvry teaches creative writing at London Uni so when he said my novel was excellent that was a great endorsement, and the impetus for me to bite the bullet and go for it.

Zoë Sharp: What, for you, are the best and worst aspects of being indie published? What do you enjoy doing the most and what do you find something of a chore?

Elizabeth Hill: Marketing, advertising, and all that happens outside of writing that sucks up my time, but I have to learn how to get my book noticed. The plus side is mixing with other authors and becoming immersed in a whole new world—and a lovely world at that. I’ve met some wonderful people and the best thing is that there is no competition because readers will buy every one of our books—and more.

Zoë Sharp: How do you go about marketing your work and building your readership? What do you find your most useful tool or platform for this?

Elizabeth Hill: I’m still learning this! Various book promotion sites with email lists help. I haven’t built an email list because I don’t blog or write news updates, etc. Experimenting and learning from my mistakes and feedback is key to progress. Learning who I should target with advertising and what I should invest in—but that’s ongoing and will probably change as markets change. I’m on Goodreads and have 103 ratings. NetGalley worked as readers that liked my novel listed it at Barnes and Noble, The Indie Bookstore, and a library in the US.

 Zoë Sharp: What one piece of advice would you offer to someone just writing their first novel and considering indie publishing?

Elizabeth Hill: Write the best novel you can because without a great novel nothing you do will get you anywhere. Get as many people to read it as possible and take their feedback seriously. Then re-write it! Use a story editor and re-write again. Before you publish, use a proof reader and read it again several times. That’s the best piece of advice—write the novel you want to write and then make sure it’s the best it can be.

James D Mortain

James is a former British CID Detective with the Avon and Somerset Constabulary turned crime fiction writer. ‘He brings compelling action and gritty authenticity to his writing through years of police experience. He began writing in 2012, following a chance encounter in a Bath bar with SAS veteran, TV personality and author, Chris Ryan. Using his own real-life experiences within a busy CID department, James creates gripping, fast-paced crime thrillers that will keep you on the edge-of-your-seat until the very last page.’

His first series has become a Kindle bestseller both in the UK and overseas. Featuring Detective Andrew Deans, these books are a chilling blend of police procedural and the paranormal. His latest work, DEAD RINGER, features a new character, DI Robbie Chilcott, in the start of a new urban crime series set in Bristol, UK.

Zoë Sharp: I have to ask, what was it about meeting Chris Ryan that inspired you to start writing? How long did it then take you to write your first book? And were you still a serving police officer at the time?

James D Mortain: I had left the police one month before that fateful meeting and it was actually Chris who suggested that I possessed the knowledge and first-hand police experience that most crime writers would kill for, and, he suggested, why didn’t I give writing a go? My first book, STORM LOG-0505 took around four years to write. I really had no idea what I was doing at the start and didn’t know if I had the ability within me to write a book. It turns out I had enough of a story to create a trilogy!

Zoë Sharp: Before you wrote your latest novel, the first in a new series with DI Robbie Chilcott, you wrote three paranormal police procedurals with Detective Andrew Deans. Why the paranormal element? And why change to your new main protagonist? What was it about the story of DEAD RINGER that needed a new voice to tell it?

James D Mortain: As you would have already discovered, my writing was somewhat spontaneous in nature, and Chris Ryan had told me to write about what I knew and also write about what would keep me entertained. As a police officer, life was about proving facts or disproving explanations through the gathering of reliable evidence. I thought it would be fun to challenge that process via a topic that divides opinion and belief, and cannot be proven one way or the other. I created the new DI Chilcott series acting on the advice of another author who said I could be missing a large chunk of readership that may be put off by the paranormal elements of my trilogy. I plan to continue both series and I have a far away dream that one day, Deans and Chilcott will both come together in a shiny new series.

Zoë Sharp: What was your road to publication? Did you consider or try to find a traditional publisher or go the indie route right away? And why?

James D Mortain: Gosh, my road to publication was pretty rocky. After a couple of years of endless self-edits and professional edits, I took the plunge and queried a handful of agents. To my utter astonishment, I had a response from a big London agent within the first forty-eight hours, requesting the manuscript to STORM LOG-0505. A detailed response followed with fantastic advice on how I could improve the story and an invitation to resubmit my manuscript. I was absolutely delighted and thought I had a fighting chance of securing an agent, but then within the week, I was struck down with viral meningitis and life for me and my family changed in an instant. I was seriously affected by the symptoms and spent the next few months undergoing various brain and physical tests. Unable to work my day-job, let alone re-edit my book, my cognitive abilities were badly inhibited and for reasons I still cannot explain, I didn’t inform the agent I was ill. Needless to say, I lost that chance and so when I was better placed, I decided to forge my own destiny and publish my book independently.

Zoë Sharp: What, for you, are the best and worst aspects of being indie published? What do you enjoy doing the most and what do you find something of a chore?

James D Mortain: The best part of being indie is having total control of your products: from book cover design to pricing and everything in between. The worst part is finding available time and ‘discoverability’—how to get my book before the eyes of potential readers? I don’t find anything a chore. I think it’s a mindset that indies have to have; there is no one element of publishing a book that is less important than the next and so they need equal attention. Get one part of the ingredient wrong and you’ll likely fail. I actually love editing. I hated it at first, because I put far too much emphasis on the time it had taken to write the swaths of text I was then deleting, rather than appreciating just how much better the story had become.

Zoë Sharp: How do you go about marketing your work and building your readership? What do you find your most useful tool or platform for this?

James D Mortain: I use Facebook and Amazon advertising to help with discoverability. Having a series helps to build loyal readership and I’m blessed to have avid readers who simply can’t get enough of Deans and Chilcott. I subscribe to Mark Dawson’s Self Publishing Formula training modules. This is a paid product, it doesn’t come cheap, but the advice and hands-on tuition is priceless. It covers everything from day one of being a writer to advanced advertising. It has certainly helped me to improve my skills and grow my author presence. I now also have a publicist who is great at tapping up press and media leads.

Zoë Sharp: What one piece of advice would you offer to someone just writing their first novel and considering indie publishing?

James D Mortain: Don’t cut corners and don’t rush to publish…and always believe anything is possible.

Caroline Goldsworthy

Caroline describes herself as an Essex girl living in Suffolk. She was born in Chelmsford and moved to Colchester aged three. Going to university in her early thirties, Caroline graduated with a BA in Spanish Language and Linguistics and won a full scholarship for an MA in Language Acquisition. It was during this time that Caroline discovered she really liked writing.

Her debut novel TANGENT, loosely inspired by events in Ipswich 2006, was shortlisted in 2019 for The Selfies Award—a new prize for self-published authors. The second in the series, RECOMPENSE, is out now, with book three on the way. She has also written SYNNÖVE: THE KING’S CUPBEARER, a murder mystery set in 625 AD.

Zoë Sharp: I well remember the Ipswich prostitute murders which inspired your first DCI Ronnie Carlson book, TANGENT. What was it about this case that made you particularly want to use it as the basis for your debut?

Caroline Goldsworthy: I moved to Ipswich in September 2006 and the first young woman, (Tania Nicol) went missing at the end of October. Her body was found on 8th December. In the meantime another woman went missing (Gemma Adams) and her body was found in the same area as Tania on 2nd December. I was taking my Doberman puppy for a walk and a man told me that I was the first woman he’d seen out on her own in ages. I shrugged it off, nonchalant that it was daytime and I was far from the town centre, but… when I got to the far end of Longstrops (the open ground where we walked) the Police were doing a line search on the other side of the hedge. The last two women had been found about 3-4 miles from where I lived. It brought it all home. How close it had come to me was really scary.

I am old enough to have been around when the Yorkshire Ripper was at large and there was one thing that struck me over the difference in the media response to the women. In Ipswich in the mid-2000s they were “Somebody’s Daughter” in the 1970s and 80s, they were considered disposable and that death was an “occupational hazard”. Until the student was murdered – the first “innocent” victim.

So that was in my head melting away. I met someone who was later in the Cutting Edge programme Killer in a Small Town, and I was inspired by the story of Anneli Alderton and her brother’s memories of her. For a long time I wondered why she got off the drugs and the game and then came back to Ipswich.

All of those things went into the melting pot and a story began to form. I spent a summer doing voluntary work one afternoon a week at Iceni (the drug outreach centre) and was further inspired by the women I met there. I knew that I didn’t want the women in my book to be feeble victims. I wanted them strong but addicted to that heinous drug.

Zoë Sharp: You have also written SYNNÖVE: THE KING’S CUPBEARER, a murder mystery set in the early medieval period. Is this going to be another series, and what drew you to historical mysteries as well as modern crime?

Caroline Goldsworthy: I live near Sutton Hoo, which is the site of a Saxon ship burial. The fantastic treasures are in the British museum and copies are in the museum at Sutton Hoo. I was on a guided walk, standing on mound one (argued to be Raedwald’s grave) and the guide was giving such an atmospheric description of the funeral cortege that it was as if I could see her walking towards me. It was very surreal. She started life in a short story and it grew into a novel. I had great fun researching it.

Is she going to make a series? To be honest, I’m not sure at this stage. I left her story as Christianity is making inroads into the pagan beliefs. I am sure Synnöve will have strong views on that.

Zoë Sharp: What was your road to publication? Did you consider or try to find a traditional publisher or go the indie route right away? And why?

Caroline Goldsworthy: I finished writing the first draft of Tangent in 2017. I’d been on an Arvon course in Crime Fiction and Forensics (run by Margaret Murphy and Helen Pepper – they write together as Ashley Dyer).

At this stage I had no idea if I could actually write or not. I had no idea if my writing was any good. I received a lot of positive feedback from that course.

So I did, as everyone does, and tried several agents. I did this far too soon. The book wasn’t polished enough. I did get a full MS request (from a very big agency) but, when my work was rejected at that stage I was devastated. I cried for a week!

Then I got in touch with Ian Hooper at the Book Reality Experience, he took it all over for me with a solid contract with timelines and an agreed publication date. And in December 2018 I had a published book.

Zoë Sharp: What, for you, are the best and worst aspects of being indie published? What do you enjoy doing the most and what do you find something of a chore?

Caroline Goldsworthy: The best part is the freedom and independence. I can write what I want (within reason as I now have readers and they have their expectations of me), but I do get to make things up and sell those stories to people which has got to be one of the best jobs ever. I’m planning a different series for next year which will be released under a pen name.

Zoë Sharp: How do you go about marketing your work and building your readership? What do you find your most useful tool or platform for this?

Caroline Goldsworthy: I really struggle with the marketing side of things. This is the one thing I find a bit of a chore. Despite all appearances I am quite shy and I’m still struggling with the “gosh who wants to know about little me?” I know I have to get past this and I am working on it. I need to spend some time updating the back matter in my books and make sure that there are links to my newsletter page and the other books that I have now written.

Zoë Sharp: What one piece of advice would you offer to someone just writing their first novel and considering indie publishing?

Caroline Goldsworthy: Take it seriously. Publishing is a business and you need to treat it as a proper job.

Once you have written that first book, write another and write a third. Make them a series. Get good covers—research your genre. Get the best editor you can afford.

There are 8 million books on Kindle alone. With one book you will make the merest plop in the ocean. Remember this and keep writing. Readers move on. Make sure you have something for them to move on to. When they love you, you’ll earn their loyalty—but it’s a two-way deal. Take care of your readers and keep writing stories they will love.

PS I wish I’d listened to this advice when I heard it the first time.

Dawn Brookes

Dawn is a British author with a long nursing pedigree and takes regular cruise holidays for research purposes! She brings these passions along with a Christian background and a love of clean crime to her writing. The surname of her protagonist, Rachel Prince, is in honour of her childhood dog, who used to put his head on her knee while she lost herself in books.

Bestselling author three memoirs of nurse training in the 1970s, Dawn worked as a hospital nurse, midwife, district nurse and community matron across a thirty-nine-year year career. Before turning her hand to writing for a living, she had multiple articles published in professional journals and co-edited a nurse textbook.

She grew up in Leicester, later moved to London and Berkshire but now lives in Derbyshire. Dawn holds a bachelors degree with Honours and a Masters degree in education. Writing across genres, Dawn also writes for children.

Zoë Sharp: You have written six novels in your Rachel Prince cruise mysteries, the latest of which is MURDEROUS CRUISE HABIT, and book seven is due out in August. Which came first, the cruising or the desire to write crime fiction? Was it a conscious decision to use the cruise element to give your stories a greater hook to appeal to a segment of readers you felt was perhaps not catered to? What’s the appeal to you?

Dawn Brookes: Cruising came first. I went on my first cruise whilst still working full-time in the British health service in 2006 and fell in love with it.

Yes it was a conscious decision to set the mysteries on a cruise ship. I tended to read in the clean, less graphic murder mystery series and thought it would be fun to use the cruise ship setting rather than the traditional village. There’s a lot of interest in cruising from both seasoned and non-cruisers and because of its international nature both among crew and passengers, I felt it would lend itself to a series.

At first, I had the idea of a murder mystery with the ‘upstairs, downstairs’ appeal of Downton Abbey. The crew provide the stability of characters along with the protagonist whose best friend is a cruise ship nurse. The passengers are the newcomers who bring their issues on board and add to the intrigue. The luxurious setting adds that feel-good factor giving people an escape.

Zoë Sharp: You have also written nursing memoirs, books for children, and you have the first in a new series featuring a private investigator, Carlos Jacobi, in the Derbyshire Peak District. Is this the same Carlos from the Rachel Prince books? Why did you decide to spin him off into a series of his own?

Dawn Brookes: Yes, my first book was a memoir and reminded me of a childhood ambition to write full-time. I decided to spin Carlos off so that I could have a series based on land. As a private investigator he will be able to travel around the UK and abroad. I also wanted to explore writing from the POV of a male protagonist.

Lady Marjorie is popular with readers too. I was going to kill her off in the first book in series but changed my mind and I’m so glad I did. She has her own following.

Zoë Sharp: What was your road to publication? Did you consider or try to find a traditional publisher or go the indie route right away? And why?

Dawn Brookes: Indie publishing was always going to be my choice, though as I wouldn’t have the patience to wait a few years to publish. Also, now I’m older, I don’t have time on my side!

I was contacted last year by an indie publisher and offered a contract but I declined as by that time I was working as a full-time writer. It would take a huge offer to tempt me away from indie publishing.

Zoë Sharp: What, for you, are the best and worst aspects of being indie published? What do you enjoy doing the most and what do you find something of a chore?

Dawn Brookes: The best aspects relate to being in control of my own destiny and owning the rights to my work. I enjoy being involved with the cover design although I employ a designer and I like working with my editor. The worst aspect is that in some quarters it’s still looked down upon and seen as second best although these attitudes are changing.

The thing I enjoy mostly is the creative side, the writing and also the pleasure I get when readers contact me to tell me how much they love my work. Marketing is a chore for me, I do it because I have to but it’s not my favourite. I also found listening to my audiobook chapters to check for errors not to my liking, I’ve passed this on now.

Zoë Sharp: How do you go about marketing your work and building your readership? What do you find your most useful tool or platform for this?

Dawn Brookes: My main marketing platform is Amazon Ads and these, though not as cheap as they were are the most fruitful. I use Facebook ads around launch and at intervals but these tend to have a short life in terms of return for me. I have a website and a social media platform (mostly Facebook) where I stay in touch with my most loyal followers. I write a monthly newsletter to people who have subscribed to let readers know of anything new and about new books.

Zoë Sharp: What one piece of advice would you offer to someone just writing their first novel and considering indie publishing?

Dawn Brookes: Do your homework and invest in editing and cover design. Some things you can do with a little less money, but some things will hurt you if you don’t get it right.

So, it only remains for me to thank my panellists for their time and patience answering my questions. And to say that I’ve read and enjoyed all these indie authors’ latest novels, so if you’re looking for another good book during lockdown, look no further!

This week’s Word of the Week is interrobang, which is the name for when you combine an exclamation mark with a question mark—thus?! Thanks to EvKa for spotting these on fellow author Tim Hallinan’s page.

You can read and comment on this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.

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Today is Day 9 of the Blog Tour for BONES IN THE RIVER. Last stop on the tour is ShotsMag Confidential, where I’m the guest of the remarkable Ayo Onatade, talking about taking the first book in the Lakes Crime Thriller trilogy, DANCING ON THE GRAVE, from being a standalone into the start of a new series.

Although I’ve said I’ll do three books with CSI Grace McColl and Detective Nick Weston for the moment, I’m not ruling out more. And if the response is as positive as it’s been so far, that has become a distinct possibility!

When is a Series not a Series

There was Never Going to Be a Second Book
When my Lakes-set crime thriller, DANCING ON THE GRAVE came out in late 2018, it was fully intended as a standalone novel. In fact, I stated as much in the sub-title of the book.
I’m not quite sure who I was trying to convince.
That story is my take on the Washington Sniper incident from back in 2002, but transported to the English Lake District. I focused the story around four of the main characters—rookie CSI Grace McColl; recently transferred Detective Constable Nick Weston; the sniper himself; and the disturbed teenage girl who becomes his spotter.
Unlike my first-person POVCharlie Fox series, DANCING ON THE GRAVE was written in close third-person viewpoint, so I could get right inside the heads of the characters—including the perpetrators. That made it feel, to me as I wrote it, unlike the usual police procedural. The story allowed me to explore a number of themes that were important to me, about the abandonment of former military personnel after their service was up, and what seems to be the current obsession with ‘being famous’ without regard to reason.
But I didn’t think it would be an easy book to follow up, even if I’d been intending to. Reviewers and readers had other ideas.
Such was the response to Grace and Nick that I was eventually persuaded to give them a second outing. (Although, strictly speaking, Grace’s first appearance was in a short story,Tell Me, which you can currently read on the Crime Readers’ Association website.)
The basic idea for BONES IN THE RIVER has been with me in some form or another for more than fifteen years. Back in the early 2000s, I was living in the small market town of Appleby-in-Westmorland in Cumbria, while building a house in the Eden valley. Every year in the first week in June, Appleby Horse Fair takes place in the town. It’s been held in one form or another since medieval times, but since the beginning of the last century it’s grown into the largest gathering of Gypsies and Travellers in Europe.
Held from Thursday to the following Wednesday (but mainly Friday to Sunday) the Fair attracts around 10,000 members of the Travelling community—quadrupling the population of the town. Another 30,000 visitors flock in to watch the spectacle of horses being washed in the River Eden and shown off along the Flashing Lane.
Locally, it’s greeted with mixed feelings. There are those who love it for the extra business and revenue it generates. And equally those who hate it for the disruption it causes. Not just during Fair week, but also in the run-up to the event, as the different Romany clans begin to assemble in outlying villages.
It is, I was told, a very good time to settle old scores. If one of your neighbours has pissed you off, you wait until the Fair to get your own back, and blame it on the Gypsies. The police are always out in number and trouble is, shall we say, not unknown.
So I set my story against this backdrop. It was somehow a metaphor for what was going on in the country at large over Brexit, where outsiders were viewed with suspicion and distrust. My aim was to portray without romanticising or demonising either. People are people, and there are good and bad of all types.
I also wanted to look closely at the effects of a split-second bad decision on someone who has spent their life on the ‘right’ side of the law. To see the slow, corrosive consequences as they are forced to compound their sins.
And, having discovered the title BONES IN THE RIVER as part of a song by Gillian Welch, I knew I was going to have to make the River Eden as much a character in the book as the people.
Once again, you see one crime as it’s committed and I make no effort to hide the identity of the perpetrator for long. But then a second body emerges, and there’s more mystery to the who and why.
If people react as well to BONES as they did to DANCING, then it’s a style I hope to repeat. I’ve already promised a third instalment with Grace and Nick. After that, it’s up to my readers. If they like what they see (including the Force Medical Examiner, one Dr Ayo Onatade) then there will be more crimes to come in the wild hills of Cumbria!
Read the illustrated version of the post over on ShotsMag Confidential.

On Friday, June 5, I received one of those out-of-the-blue phone calls. The kind where, as soon as you pick up the receiver and realise who’s calling, you know why, and you know it’s not going to be good news.

My friend of more than 35 years, Andrew W Neal, had died during the night.

He was not in good health, but this was unexpected news. I’d been planning to see him on my usual trip south for CrimeFest in Bristol (it should have taken place this very weekend). Then the UK went into lockdown because of Covid-19 and all such travel was out of the question.

Now I was too late.

A former pilot, Andrew flew just about anything with wings or rotors, and one or two things where such vital bits had dropped off. His stories were amazing, flying in the bush in Africa with a missing rotor blade, landing on train tracks in South America, crashing after hitting wires strung between trees in Australia. I always tried to persuade him to write some of them down.

And now I was too late for that, too.

Whenever I needed advice for my writing on flying (or indeed, crashing) Andrew was the person I went to. He gave me such help with the helicopter scenes in DIE EASY: Charlie Fox #10, that eventually I made him the pilot in the book. As my tribute to Andrew, here are those three chapters:

Sixteen

The helicopter Tom O’Day had hired for the sightseeing tours of New Orleans was a six-seat Bell 429 corporate model, dressed in the discreet livery of a local oil company. I say “hired” but in fact he probably talked them into lending it for nothing. All in aid of a good cause.

The flights were taking around thirty minutes, taking off from the open top floor of the parking structure next to the hotel, beating north over the city towards Lake Pontchartrain and then circling back over the network of canals and levees that protected the city’s eastern side.

I’d heard the rapid thrum of the rotor blades as the helo came and went all morning, starting around nine-thirty and running straight through like continuous flight ops from a carrier deck. The only break was a short one to refuel, then it was back on station.

The pilot was laid-back about the whole thing. Sean and I had already met him. The guy was a former US Army captain called Andrew Neal, who spoke little and missed less. Although he never mentioned it, we knew from the standard background checks that Capt Neal had actually been at the controls of a Sikorsky Black Hawk that fateful day in 1993 over the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

I assumed his reluctance to discuss his experiences was very much like the members of the SAS assault team who stormed the Iranian Embassy in London many years previously. There are a thousand pretenders to that particular crown. Those who really were there rarely talk about it.

Blake Dyer was booked for the last flight before lunch. We took the elevator up to the roof where O’Day’s Foundation people had set up white marquees to keep potential donors from letting the sun go to their heads. Uniformed wait-staff circulated with trays of canapés and yet more champagne. I wondered if O’Day had bought up an entire vintage to give away over the course of the weekend.

News teams and reporters were among the guests, mingling and interviewing. Must have been one of the few times everybody was happy to see them.

Dyer had a few words with the front man from the local news channel, a bouffanted guy whose expanding waistline was mostly concealed by careful tailoring. He was in full make-up that was wilting slightly even out of direct sunlight. Despite the electric fans blowing from every corner, the marquee was coming up to a midday high temp.

Sean and I stayed out of the way and let Blake Dyer circulate unmolested. He seemed to be enjoying himself, chatting to Tom O’Day himself like the old friend he professed to be, as well as taking Jimmy aside in a godfatherly kind of way. I don’t know what he said to his godson, but Jimmy didn’t look any happier afterwards.

Not that he looked happy before. Maybe he’d finally got wise to that snake Vic Morton, who was constantly by his elbow. I wondered if the bodyguard had been told to stick close and make sure the kid didn’t screw anything up.

Or it might have had more to do with the state of Jimmy’s hangover battling against the smell of jet fuel and the constant noise of the Bell cycling through its turnaround routine. Land, unload, reload, take off again. Efficient and neat. No fuss.

It was apparently left to Jimmy to keep things running to schedule on the ground. He swung by to collect Blake Dyer about ten minutes before our designated flight-time, took him over to gather with Ysabeau van Zant as if unaware of the tension between them. Mrs van Zant was coldly immaculate in a pale blue dress suit that reminded me vaguely of the former UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Mrs van Zant was alone, apparently confident that her status would protect her. She and Dyer studiously ignored each other. I stayed nominally between them, just in case.

Behind Jimmy O’Day’s shoulder, Vic Morton’s eyes volleyed back and forth between me and Sean as if trying to spot the cracks he’d undoubtedly caused. I reckoned I had them pretty well plastered over by that point.

You know exactly what you’re trying to do, don’t you, you little bastard?

Sean and I were filling two of the available seats on the Bell. The remaining pair had been earmarked for an old-money banking couple from Boston, but when I looked round I couldn’t see them on the roof.

“Where are the others?” I asked Jimmy O’Day. “They’re cutting it fine.”

Jimmy kept throwing me little sideways glances without turning his head to look at me directly, as if afraid I’d turn him instantly to stone if he did so.

“Um, they’re not coming—heat’s too much for them I guess,” he said, but he sounded as if he was taking no-shows as a personal affront. “Looks like you guys will be able to really stretch out.”

I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy.

Because at that moment I felt a ripple through the crowd. I turned. The young baseball star Gabe Baptiste had just stepped out of the elevator. The stunning blonde, Autumn, was on his arm again. I wondered how Tom O’Day felt about their sudden palliness. She was wearing a white dress covered with a huge red poppy motif that should have looked gauche amid the sophistication, but came across as fresh and simple.

Maybe she was part of the reason the newsman abandoned another guest in mid-sentence and swam for the pair of them like a shark aiming to keep ahead of the pack.

Baptiste sidestepped the newsman with practised agility. Instead, he headed in our direction. His bodyguard stuck to his shoulder like a conjoined twin. The guy was built like a gun emplacement in a pinstripe suit.

And where were you last night, hmm?

“Mr Dyer,” Baptiste greeted our principal, a little hesitant. “How you doin’?”

“Good, Gabe, thanks. And please, it’s Blake.”

Baptiste ducked his head in acknowledgement, but his gaze had shifted over to me, and to Sean.

“Just wanted to say thanks, you know?” he said. “For saving my ass last night up here.”

He still had a small dressing just above one ear. I let my gaze drift to his bodyguard. “You’re welcome,” I said, keeping my voice neutral.

Sean didn’t respond. He was frowning as if the inside of his skull was being tickled by a memory he couldn’t quite grasp. After a few moments he shook his head, let it go.

“Been a long time, Sean,” Baptiste said, voice sober. “Didn’t think we’d ever see each other again, huh?”

“I’m afraid I don’t…remember you,” Sean said stiffly. “I’m sorry.”

“No shit—that for real?” Baptiste checked our faces like we were all in on some massive joke at his expense.

“Sean’s recall of names and faces is the only thing affected by his recent injury,” I put in, filling an awkward silence. I added a tight smile. “But, as I’m sure you realised from the…incident last night, he’s as effective an operator as he ever was.”

It might have been stretching the facts a little, but there was no way I was going to admit to anything less in front of a client—past or present.

Baptiste continued to eye Sean for a moment longer, then grinned. “Sure,” he said. “That’s cool. So, we good?” He offered a hand bearing more gold and diamond rings than most of the women present—and that was saying something considering the company.

“Looks that way.” Sean answered the smile with a cooler version of his own—but a smile nevertheless—and gave the ball player’s hand a perfunctory shake.

“Well, shit, that is cool. In that case, I am so riding with you guys.” He glanced at the stoic bodyguard. “That cool with you, Frankie?”

John Franks—the gun emplacement—gave a fractional twitch of one massive shoulder. It might have been a shrug, or he could simply have been troubled by insects. It was hard to tell from his blank expression. I guessed Franks had been employed more for his size than his skillset.

Well, you can’t have everything—where would you put it?

“It OK with you if we take the next ride?” Baptiste asked Jimmy O’Day. And just before Jimmy could answer, Baptiste added casually, “Oh, and Autumn’s coming with me, of course.”

If Jimmy O’Day didn’t like Autumn dancing with Baptiste at the van Zant reception, he liked the prospect of her taking a pleasure flight with the ball player even less. He frowned, almost a scowl. It took a brief look from the blonde, almost too fast to register, to have him backing off, flustered.

He muttered an excuse about needing to redo some calculations—probably the fuel load taking Franks’s sheer bulk into account—and scurried off. Baptiste ignored him with the air of someone who takes it for granted that whatever he wants will miraculously happen.

It made me wonder again about Autumn’s role in the proceedings, though.

Meanwhile, Ysabeau van Zant had been sizing up Autumn with zealous intensity. I could almost see the calculations forming inside her head. If it came to photo opportunities, she knew she would be better to stand as far away from the younger, taller, thinner woman as she could manage.

Baptiste’s face when he realised that Ysabeau van Zant might be on the same aircraft with him was a picture of consternation. I watched him weighing up how much offence was likely to be caused if he backed out now because of it. Too much, clearly.

Ysabeau van Zant came to the rescue of both of them. She showed her teeth briefly to Autumn. “My dear, you must take my place. I’ll go this afternoon. I insist.”

Autumn flashed a sunny smile and thanked her with grave politeness that, in someone with more apparent depth, might have been mocking.

Jimmy O’Day fussed around us, making furious notes on his crumpled list, the deeply scarred pencil notations a visible sign of his inner frustration. I put my hand in my pocket and found a strip of paracetamol still lurking there. With a sudden burst of sympathy, I handed the painkillers to Jimmy. He glanced at them for a moment, frowning, then gave me a fleeting, weary smile.

Overhead came the sudden fast chop of rotor blades as the Bell circled the rooftop and dropped down for another centimetre-perfect landing. After the last round of passengers had been disgorged, the group of us walked out onto the sun-baked concrete towards the waiting helo sitting with its main rotor still turning lazily. We ducked instinctively below the blades as we approached.

“Mind your heads,” Jimmy shouted over the whine from the twin turbines. “And please don’t go aft of the doors when you’re boarding. Wouldn’t want to lose anybody in that tail rotor before you’ve had a chance to let my father talk you out of all your money tomorrow night, huh?”

It sounded forced, like he’d been making the same joke every time, all morning. Dyer and Baptiste gave dutiful laughs the rest of us didn’t feel the need to emulate.

I looked at the mixed emotions on the faces surrounding me. This was not, I realised, going to be quite the fact-finding pleasure flight it was meant to be.

Inside the rear cabin the plush leather seats were laid out in rows of three, facing each other. There was a slightly undignified rush for the honour of helping Autumn up into the cabin. The poppy dress only reached about halfway down her thighs and all the guys in the party jostled for the best view.

I climbed up unassisted and took the centre of the rear seats between Autumn and Blake Dyer. There was a noise-cancelling headset on a hook by the headrest. I put the cans on, adjusting the flexi-boom mic so I wouldn’t heavy-breathe into everyone’s ears.

Alongside me, Autumn strapped herself in. She looked less than thrilled at the prospect of messing up both her hair and her dress in one hit, but managed to don both the harness and headset without anyone needing to push her chest in and out while she thought about it.

Then she settled back and crossed those spectacular legs. The move was followed in minute detail by three pairs of male eyes on the other side of the cabin.

Gabe Baptiste had slumped into the seat by the far window, while his bodyguard, Franks, had folded himself awkwardly into the middle seat directly opposite me, probably because he recognised that his bulk might make us fly round in circles if he sat to one side. He was too big for the harness to fasten around him, even in the land of six-XL clothing as a standard size. He left the thing unfastened and fiddled with his headset.

Sean climbed in last. Jimmy O’Day gave Autumn one last worried look and slammed the door behind us. He looked terrible, but maybe that had something to do with the fact he’d been performing this duty all morning with the mother of all headaches and no ear defenders. He’d know better next time.

Once the door was closed I buckled my harness like a good little airline passenger, pulling the lap-belt tight and low across my hips.

The pilot twisted in the left-hand seat. “’Morning folks,” he said. “We good to go?”

It was clearly a rhetorical question. Even as he spoke the Bell was lifting off as if of its own accord, rotating effortlessly onto a new heading as it rose.

Show-off.

Just before we cleared the edge of the rooftop I glanced out of the door window and saw Jimmy O’Day still standing on the concrete below. There was something a little mournful in his rounded shoulders—the big man’s son reduced to playing the kind of role that normally netted minimum wage and a uniform with a name-tag attached.

By Jimmy’s shoulder stood his bodyguard, Vic Morton, who was staring up at the departing helo with his hand shading his eyes, almost in a parody of a final salute.

I shivered and looked away, meeting Sean’s eyes across the cabin. They were cold and distant.

What further damage was Morton going to do to the pair of us, I wondered, before the day was out?

 

Seventeen

“This is the Lower Ninth Ward,” Capt Neal said, half over his shoulder. “Katrina hit the whole city hard, but I’d say she hit here hardest of all.West of here, the parishes of Jefferson and St Tammany got away pretty lightly. But they reckon that here in St Bernard parish, only three houses were left standing.”

He brought us in low over an area to the east of the Industrial Canal, which he’d been using for his own personal equivalent of a Dambusters run south from Lake Pontchartrain.

“If you stick to the tourist areas—the French Quarter and the Garden District—you don’t get a true picture of how bad things were,” Capt Neal went on. “And how bad they still are.”

As we overflew industrial buildings I thought I could make out water marks still remaining on some of the exterior walls, like a badge of honour.

“It’s the kids who get the worst of it. Hardly any place safe to play. There’s only one school remaining for the whole parish, and fewer buses running means they can’t get to schools further out.”

With our forward speed slowed to a crawl, we craned to look down out of the cabin windows. Seeing the place from the air was effective in a way no ground-based trip would ever have been. In a city where housing tended to be packed in close, here there were only empty concrete slabs to show where houses had once stood. They were surrounded by overgrown lots as nature clawed back what was rightfully hers.

“They’re rebuilding slowly now. But in some cases the insurance companies paid out a fraction of what the houses were worth, and then only after the work’s been done. Not many folks can afford to pay up front.Pretty much the whole of this neighbourhood—everything north of Claiborne—has been derelict since.”

I thought of Ysabeau van Zant’s reconstructed mansion. Charity, it seemed, did not begin at home.

“Why was this area so badly affected?” Blake Dyer asked, leaning forwards in his seat.

“Poverty,” Capt Neal said bluntly. “Most of the folk here didn’t own a car, couldn’t afford a bus or train ticket. Katrina hit at the end of the month—a time when money’s always thin on the ground. So a whole bunch of them decided to stay put and ride it out, like they’d done before. Only, ground level round here can be as much as four feet below the level of the Gulf, and the houses were mostly single-storey homes. Then the storm surge came in, and the flooding, and when the levees broke they were under water. People drowned in their attics.”

He lowered the Bell towards an abandoned house, its front façade delicately adorned with wrought-iron railings. Weeds choked the approach to the gaping front door. Only darkness showed inside, like a mouth opened to scream.

Keeping a wary eye out for overhead power wires, Capt Neal inched the Bell forwards and the engine note rose in pitch and volume. In plaintive harmony I heard the cries of an underclass betrayed, of victims brushed aside and forgotten. It seemed to resonate with the beat of the engines, flung back from the few remaining derelict houses that were still standing. As we gazed down from our air-conditioned, cushioned luxury it wrapped itself around us like a taunt.

“With half the police force gone, New Orleans has one of the highest crime rates in the country,” Capt Neal said. He did not sound proud of the achievement. “We got half the police force and a population down by two-thirds, but there’s still the same number of arrests. Times like these, seems only the lowlifes prosper.”

I skimmed the other faces. Their expressions were largely turned inward, sombre.

“This was a tragedy,” Gabe Baptiste said, as if a news crew was there to record his concern for posterity.

If you care so much, why haven’t you been back before now?

Blake Dyer leaned forwards to catch Baptiste’s eye. “Son, look around you,” he said. “It still is.”

Capt Neal started to take us up, guiding the helo onto a new course.

“I’ll take you out over what’s known as the funnel,” he said. “The storm surge came up the Mississippi about fifteen feet high, as well as into the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet and through Lake Borgne, and it all converged in the funnel. Then as the eye passed over, it pushed colossal storm surge down Industrial Canal from Lake Pontchartrain as well.” He shook his head. “This area got hit every which way.”

I peered out of the far window. Below I could see the wide canal, just beyond what looked like the world’s largest scrapyard.

And just as we started to pass over it, Sean—sitting by the near window—went rigid and let out a yell.

Just one word—possibly the word nobody in a low-flying helo ever wants to hear. I certainly didn’t.

“INCOMING!”

You can’t shout something like that to a pilot with combat experience and not expect an instant, visceral response. Capt Neal was a decorated veteran who had lost none of his instincts when he’d returned to civilian aviation. He jinked, almost a nervous twitch of hands and feet on the controls. The cabin tilted wildly and lashed sideways.

I looked left. The view through the side window was almost straight down into the street below. I was just in time to see the streaking exhaust of the shoulder-launched missile heading straight for us.

 

Eighteen

Time slowed, the way it does for me at moments of high-intensity stress. The rocket-propelled grenade seemed to hang in the air, climbing so slowly I was almost certain the pilot’s split-second reaction would get us clear.

It didn’t, of course.

Shoulder-fired RPGs have a relatively low muzzle velocity—around three hundred metres per second. Half the speed of an average rifle bullet.

Still much too fast to miss a large, near-static target less than a hundred metres away—barely a quarter of the weapon’s maximum effective range.

Capt Neal’s manoeuvre saved us a direct hit, but didn’t turn it into a miss.

There was an explosive impact somewhere aft of the cabin. The whole airframe shuddered like a harpooned whale, staggered to the side and went into a violently uneven lateral spin.

This close to the ground there wasn’t much anyone could do, least of all the pilot. He fought gravity and physics all the way down, yanking up on the collective just before contact to bring us in as gently as he could. It was a losing battle.

We made a rough landing—worse than any bike crash I’ve ever had. And I’ve had one or two.

I’d already jammed my head back against the rest to protect my neck, and wrapped my arms tight across my body, but even so we impacted with an almighty buckling whumph that jolted the breath right out of me. I was aware of screaming, male and female, and unsecured limbs jerking around in my peripheral vision.

The Bell continued to spin viciously, ripping the skids loose. The sheer rotational force of the main rotor dragged us round in a horrendous graunching scream of tearing metal on the stony surface. The aircraft kept turning even after we hit, as if trying to screw the wreckage right into the earth. Dead and buried all in one move.

The Bell was wrenched across the ground. It lurched onto its right-hand side. As the rotor blades hammered into the earth and debris they shattered in all directions like flashing daggers in a psycho circus act. One piece sliced through the skin of the cabin right in front of my face. I swear I felt the swish of hot displaced air as it hissed past.

For a second after impact nobody moved. It took that long to recognise we might just have made it down alive, if not exactly unscathed.

The cabin was at almost ninety degrees to vertical, canted over onto its starboard side. I was hanging suspended from my seatbelt and I stretched out my feet onto the cabin wall before releasing the buckle. The turbines were still shrieking and the slop-slop of spilling jet fuel was an acid chemical burn on the back of my tongue. The potential for fire reared up in my mind with nightmare intensity, an intuitive response to a primal fear.

I ripped the useless cans from my head and twisted up towards Dyer, still hanging half-above me. I hit the release for his belt and half-caught, half-slid him onto his feet next to me, then ran fast hands over him looking for obvious injuries. There weren’t any. He was shaken but basically unhurt.

“Blake, you with me? Blake! We need to get you out, sir, right now!”

He baulked. “But, the others―”

“Sir, with respect, they can go fu―”

“We’ll get everyone out.” It was Sean who cut harsh across the pair of us. “Nobody gets left behind.”

He’d cut himself loose. Before I could argue, he’d gripped the interior grab handles and jacked his body, using both feet to punch the upward door open like a giant flip-top sunroof.

The action drew instant automatic weapons fire from outside. He ducked back immediately and swore under his breath.

From what little I could see of the outside world, we’d come down in the middle of the giant scrapyard I’d seen just before we crashed. Ahead of us was a small mountain of crushed cars and twisted trucks. There were even a couple of old yellow school buses.

At a rough guess, the direction of fire was away to our left, which put the helo’s floor between us and our attackers. The 429 model’s corporate spec included a lot of bells and whistles, but I very much doubted battle-hardening the under-shell was one of them. We were sitting ducks.

“Hey, guys—a little help here?”

It took me a moment to realise the calm voice came from the blonde, Autumn. I glanced down, found her crouched against the far door, which was now the lowest part of the cabin. She was leaning over the inert form of Baptiste’s bodyguard, John Franks. He was crumpled against the frame, pale and unconscious, lying half on top of Baptiste. I’d known he was loose in the cabin during the crash, but my responsibility was to my principal, so I’d blanked him out.

Baptiste himself was pale and silent, eyes closed. There was a little blood trickling from a cut above his eyebrow, though, so I judged he was unconscious rather than dead.

But Franks had been the only one not wearing his seatbelt at the time of the crash and had been thrown around the cabin like a medicine ball as we went in hot. The rest of us were lucky he hadn’t crushed us to death in the process.

As it was, to begin with I thought Autumn’s poppy-covered dress had acquired a few more flowers than I remembered. Then I saw the belt she was heaving tight around Franks’s thigh just above the knee, both hands wrapped in the leather, tanned arms taut.

As she shifted position I saw he’d clearly suffered a double compound-fracture of his tib and fib, the jagged ends of the bone jutting out from the lacerated flesh of his lower leg. Even with Autumn’s makeshift tourniquet, he was losing blood fast—too much of it. The broken bones must have severed an artery. He had minutes—if he was lucky.

I met Sean’s eyes. Franks must have weighed a good two-hundred-and-fifty pounds. We didn’t have the sheer muscle available to move him, but—if we wanted to survive—we couldn’t stay put either.

“You’re going to have to leave him,” Sean told her roughly.

“He’ll die.”

“So will we all if we don’t get us the hell out of here,” said Capt Neal. He was still dangling half sideways from his harness in the pilot’s seat. “I don’t suppose one of you boys has a spare pistol, do you? Only, I left mine in my other pants and we got hostiles a’coming in.”

I reached down and took Franks’s gun off his hip. He wasn’t in any state to use it. The gun was a Glock nine. I couldn’t see a pro carrying it empty or safe, but as I handed it past the forward row of seats I checked the weight and slid a finger across the loaded-chamber indicator just to make sure.

“There’s one up the spout all ready to go,” I told the pilot.

“Much obliged,” Neal said, like I’d just passed him the salt. “Might want to cover your ears, folks.”

With that, he swung the gun towards one of the plexiglas windows in what had been the floor of the cockpit beneath his feet and kept pulling the trigger until the action locked back empty—standard US military operating procedure. The Glock held seventeen rounds and one in the chamber. Even with the warning, it was horribly loud inside the tin can cabin.

“That should keep their heads down a little longer,” Neal said with a tired smile. “I’d appreciate an assist with debussing, though. I think I busted both my ankles when we set down.”

Die Easy

Day 8 of the Blog Tour for BONES IN THE RIVER. Today, I’m the guest of the amazing Vic Watson on her Elementary V Watson website, talking about What I Learned From the Day Job:

What I Learned From The Day Job: Zoë Sharp

I suppose there was half a chance that writing fiction might have been my day job, right from the start. After all, I penned my first novel at the age of fifteen—and I do mean ‘penned’. I wrote the entire thing, long-hand, in a month, and gave myself the most appalling writers’ cramp in the process.

That early effort did the rounds of all the major publishers, where it received what’s known in the trade as ‘rave rejections’—everybody said they loved it but nobody actually wanted to publish it.

Looking back, I’m rather glad about that.

Because, in order to be a writer, you need different experiences under your belt. At the age of fifteen, I’d had few worth mentioning. Apart from living aboard a catamaran from the age of about seven and leaving school at twelve. But that, as they say, is probably another story.

Having failed at my first attempt to be a novelist, I became side-tracked by a variety of jobs in my teenage years, including crewing boats and learning astro-navigation. I was mad keen on horses, rode competitively, and once even took part in a rodeo. I learned to shoot—did a little competing there, too. Long guns, mostly. I considered myself an average shot with a handgun but, as I discovered on my last visit to a US indoor gun range, most people can manage to miss the target entirely at less than ten feet.

As for jobs, I became a freelance motoring writer at the height of the classic car boom of the late 1980s. That quickly transmuted into being a photojournalist, having taught myself both how to write commercial magazine articles and also how to take images good enough for numerous front covers and centre spreads.

It was hardly surprising, then, that eventually I’d have to start writing a character who was a photographer. Enter Grace McColl, first in DANCING ON THE GRAVE and now in BONES IN THE RIVER. Grace started out as a keen amateur photographer, who became involved in providing evidence for the defence in a court case. She was then approached by the Head CSI at Cumbria police, who asked her if she’d ever thought of joining the side of the angels. Always nice to be able to write any parts of the story concerning photography without having to do lots of research.

My time spent writing about cars also played a part in BONES IN THE RIVER, which begins with a hit-and-run incident. Understanding how the mechanics of a vehicle work makes writing scenes with them in so much easier and, I hope, more accurate.

Plus, all that time spent with horses came in very useful for a book that takes place during the largest Gypsy and Traveller horse fair in Europe. There were still plenty of times when I had up to a dozen different scientific research books laid on the table at the side of my desk as I wrote, though. Fortunately, forensic science and pathology are such fascinating subjects.

They tell you to write what you know. I disagree. I think you should write what you’re desperate to find out instead.

Read the full article over on Elementary V Watson.

 

As we speak, I am in the midst of a Blog Tour for the publication of my new book, the second in the Lakes Crime Thriller trilogy, BONES IN THE RIVER. I should have been talking about the book at Newcastle Noir and CrimeFest as well.

Current circumstances—UK lockdown for Covid-19 coronavirus—have put paid to any physical festivals or conventions. So, everything has moved online, with panels and interviews and readings. I took part in the recent Virtual Noir At The Bar (Episode 5 on April 29, from about 44:00min to 51:00min) instead of actually meeting up, in an actual bar, to do actual readings from our works.

As well as keeping on top of the Blog Tour, I’m also deeply into the planning of the next two books. And that’s where I run into the biggest questions of all.

How are we going to write about the events of 2020 in the future?

If I look at BONES IN THE RIVER, for instance, the events of the story occur at the annual Appleby Horse Fair, held in the Cumbrian market town for hundreds of years and famous as being the largest gathering of Gypsies and Travellers in Europe.

This year it has been cancelled.

The opening scene, in which a man accidentally runs down and kills a child on a deserted country road at night, could still happen in lockdown—but not after he’d just spent an evening having a meal with friends where they were undoubtedly all sitting around a dinner table—inside—in close proximity.

My CSI, Grace McColl, goes from crime scene to office and out into the field again, mixing with both the public and her colleagues. My detective, Nick Weston, goes to interview suspects and potential witnesses in person rather than by phone or Zoom, because how can you really get a feel for the reactions of the people you’re talking to unless you can see them while you talk.

People are brought in for questioning—their legal representatives sitting alongside them. What will happen in future? Zoom again, or will this cause a major leap forwards in projection hologram technology?

Grace visits her mother, Eleanor, who has moved back from the south coast up to Appleby. Grace’s ex-husband, Max, has been making himself useful around Eleanor’s new house and garden, perhaps as a way of trying to reinsert himself into Grace’s life. Even with the slight easing of lockdown due to take place in the UK from June 1, this is dubious behaviour. They have a barbecue—which as it’s outside would probably be allowed. But Nick also attends and he doesn’t count as family. Not sure he and Grace stay the full six feet apart at all times there, either…

Besides, Nick’s a father with a young daughter, Sophie. Would he risk her health by associating with others more than he absolutely had to for his job? And what about Nick’s partner, Lisa, who has been working suspiciously late at a hair and beauty salon that wouldn’t be open for business yet anyway.

While one of the other CSIs is suspended for a supposed error. He’s staying at home in his scruffs, watching the TV and playing video games—perfectly feasible in these lockdown times! But then he gets a visit from one of his colleagues and, instead of insisting the man stays on the doorstep so they can chat (no garden available in a little terraced house in Workington) he invites the man inside his home—without hand sanitiser, gloves or face mask.

The Travelling community at the Fair live in close proximity inside their vardo and bow-top horse-drawn caravans, and spend their time largely out of doors, but at the Fair they all mix and mingle with no thought to cross-contamination. There’s plenty of washing goes on, but it’s mostly of horses in the River Eden, as fits with tradition rather than to prevent the spread of Covid-19 infection.

And at the stand-off near the end of the book, the police are more concerned with the numbers involved than the risks of getting too close to the saliva of others.

If I’d been writing this book next year, and setting it this year, it might have been a very different story altogether.

So, what do I do about the third instalment? Do I mentally set the story pre-winter 2019, when Corona was still just a beer, and a virus was something more likely to be contracted by your computer than by your elderly relatives?

After all, I didn’t specify that BONES IN THE RIVER was set in any particularly year. It’s contemporary but not tied to any specific, non-transferrable event—the millennium, for instance.

But, in a few years’ time, the obvious setting of a book pre- or post-Covid-19 will undoubtedly date it. I went through my very first book recently, KILLER INSTINCT and UN-dated it. I didn’t change the story but I did take out references to minor things that I felt dated it badly. References to computer floppy disks, video cassette tapes—even public phone boxes, most of which have either disappeared from our streets or been turned into tiny libraries or stations for community defibrillators.

The next book I have planned is a bit more of an experiment, and therefore could be set at any time in the last few years. I don’t intend to make reference to Covid-19 in that story. It still feels too soon. Too raw.

This will give me time to see what’s going to change in societal behaviours in the slightly longer term before I start the next Charlie Fox book. If Charlie’s greatest threat to someone in the future is that if they don’t stop what they’re doing, she’ll cough on them, it’s going to change things in a big way…

What are your feelings, both as writers and readers about the inclusion of Covid-19 in books written right now, to be read in the next year or eighteen months? Do you want them to reflect these strange times in full and horrible detail, or do you read as more of an escape of what’s going on around you, and therefore not want to be reminded?

And will pre-2020 become seen as the new Golden Age—both of crime and of life?

This week’s Word of the Week is petrichor, meaning the smell of rain on dry earth. It comes from the Greek petra which means stone and ichor, which means the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology. My thanks to EvKa for sending me this among a whole list of wonderful words. A gift to treasure for a logophile like me!

You can read and comment on this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.

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Today is Day 4 of the Blog Tour for BONES IN THE RIVER. Today I’m the guest of Tina Hartas at TripFiction. This site specialises in the locations of books, so wherever in the world you live, or are thinking of visiting, you can find a book there which is set in that particular place. As Appleby-in-Westmorland is central to the story of BONES IN THE RIVER, that was the obvious topic of our conversation:

Talking Location With author Zoë Sharp: APPLEBY-IN-WESTMORLAND

#TalkingLocationWith…. Zoë Sharp, author of BONES IN THE RIVER: Lakes crime thriller Book No2 in Appleby-in-Westmorland

It was the street names of Appleby that first fascinated me—Scattergate, Low Wiend, Battlebarrow, The Sands, Doomgate. They sound more like something out of Game of Thrones than a small market town in Cumbria.

But Appleby—the ‘in-Westmorland’ part was only added in the 1970s when the county of Westmorland was abolished—dates back to the Norman conquest. Its claims to fame include the fact that George Washington’s father received his classical education at the Grammar School in Appleby, and the town has been represented in parliament at different time by William Pitt the Younger and by Viscount Howick, who became Earl Grey. Both men went on to become Prime Minister.

Lady Anne Clifford lived and restored Appleby Castle in the 17th century. She founded the alms houses on Boroughgate, gives her name to an ancient path, Lady Anne’s Highway, that stretches a hundred miles from Skipton Castle to Brougham Castle in Penrith. Independent of spirit at a time when women were seen mostly as property, I give a nod to her in BONES IN THE RIVER by creating a pub called the Lady Anne’s Arms. There are plenty of fine pubs in Appleby but, considering the events I have happen there, I don’t think any of them would thank me for using a real location.

The river of the book title is the Eden, which runs through the middle of Appleby. It rises high above the Mallerstang valley to the east, and eventually spills out into the Solway Firth, ninety miles to the north. It is, apparently, one of the few rivers in England that flows northwards.

Appleby is the home of the annual Gypsy Horse Fair. This is held in the second week in June, lasting from Thursday to the following Wednesday, although the main days are Friday to Sunday. It takes place on Fair Hill, which was originally unenclosed land just outside the borough boundary, where the old Roman road crosses Long Marton Road. The latter is closed to traffic during the Fair, when it becomes the Flashing Lane, where horses are trotted up at great speed to show them off for potential buyers. This is after, of course, they’ve been washed in the Eden.

There are records of the first fairs at this site going back to the medieval period. They went through various incarnations until, at the turn of the last century, the event had become a major fixture on the Gypsy and Traveller calendar. Today, the Fair is huge, attracting around 10,000 from the Travelling community—the largest such gathering in Europe. Another 30,000 spectators descend on Appleby.

It’s a misnomer that the Fair takes place by Royal Charter from King James II. It actually has a ‘prescriptive right’ to exist, after having done so for so many years. In 2020, sadly, the coronavirus outbreak has led to the Fair’s cancellation.

I can’t help a certain feeling of irony that the very year BONES IN THE RIVER comes out (on May 26 2020), where Appleby, the Fair, and the surrounding area plays such a big part—will be one of the rare occasions the Fair will not go ahead.

When I lived in Appleby, I always knew it would be a wonderful time and place to set a crime thriller. After all, such a large influx of strangers into a small community is always going to cause friction. Not only between incomers and locals, but also among neighbours. “It’s a good time to settle old scores,” I was told. “You can get your own back on people who’ve annoyed you all year, and blame it on the Gypsies.” The fact that so many people converge on the town, stay for a limited period, then scatter again, creates a time imperative to solve any crime that takes place there.

I knew that I wanted to make the course of the River Eden an integral part of the story. From Water Yat at Mallerstang—an open area where the Gypsies often set up camp—through the amazing waterfall at Stenkrith and the wide, shallow stretch in Appleby where the horses are taken into the water to be washed. The river became more than simply a location—it became another character in the book. And it’s those stories, where the setting is as vital to the narrative as the things that happen there, are so often the ones I enjoy reading—and writing—the most.

Read the illustrated version of this piece over on TripFiction.