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 SeriesThere was Never Going to Be a Second BookWhen 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!
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.
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.