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.

MIE-title2