Sunday, May 3, 2020

NOT Newcastle Noir with Neil Broadfoot, Noelle Holten, Ed James and Zoë Sharp

Over the first weekend in May, I should have been in Newcastle, attending Newcastle Noir, organised by the wonderful Jacky ‘Dr Noir’ Collins. I was lucky enough to attend the very first crime fiction event Jacky organised, back in 2014 at the Literary & Philosophical Society—the Lit & Phil.

The event has grown hugely since those early days and is now a fixture in the crime writing festival calendar (ahem, 2020 excepted, of course). It now finds its home at the Newcastle City Library, a fitting place for readers, authors and books to combine.

Jacky is still planning to hold some virtual panels online but in the meantime, having got together with my intended fellow panellists for the Murder They Wrote item on the programme, I thought it would be fun to do a bit of a Q&A on writing and publishing with them here.

So, working strictly in alphabetical order, sitting to my virtual left, is Neil Broadfoot.

Described by Ian Rankin as “a true rising star of crime fiction”, Neil Broadfoot’s debut novel, FALLING FAST, featuring journalist Doug McGregor and DS Susie Drummond, was shortlisted for both the Dundee International Book Prize and the Bloody Scotland Book of the Year Award. His Stirling-set series, which features close-protection expert Connor Fraser, has been hailed as “tense, fast moving and bloody” and “atmospheric, twisty and explosive”. NO MAN'S LAND was long-listed for the 2019 McIlvanney Award. NO PLACE TO DIE, which is out now, has been hailed as “amazing” by New York Times bestselling author Mike Lupica. 

As a father of two girls, Neil finds himself regularly outnumbered in his own home. He is also one of the Four Blokes In Search of a Plot, a quartet of crime writers who live write a story based on suggestions from the audience.

Zoë Sharp: You were a journalist for fifteen years before you became a crime writer. Why choose to make Doug a journalist? It is a case of write what you know? And were there things you discovered as a journalist that you weren’t allowed to use but you wanted to find a way to tell those stories?

Neil Broadfoot: The creation of Doug, and his being a journalist, was purely an act of necessity. I got into journalism because all I’ve ever wanted to be was a writer, so I figured reporting was a way to make a living with words while I was trying to get published. But that was a road paved with a thousand rejection letters, and I was getting frustrated. I was out on lunch one day and I looked up at the Scott Monument. I was so hacked off about not being published that, me being me, the thought of throwing someone off the top of the Monument came to mind. So I went home and wrote the scene, but that’s all I had. No plot, no characters, no nothing. So I created Doug and we attacked the story together as a journalist would. I pulled my head out of the screen 80,000 later, and had Falling Fast—and Doug McGregor. As for stories I’ve come across in my journalistic career that I couldn’t tell, no comment. But I’ve covered some pretty big stories in my time, from Gulf War Illness to the expenses scandal and the fall of Gaddafi (when we had reporters on the front line and I had to try to make sure they were safe) so you can take a guess!

Zoë Sharp: You wrote three books with Doug McGregor, then went for a change of scene to Connor Fraser, close-protection specialist. Why the change? Why that character? And how much harder has it been to research his day-to-day life?

Neil Broadfoot: Again, this was, like almost everything with my writing, a lucky co-incidence. I was happily writing the fourth Doug and Susie book when I went to Bloody Scotland, the annual crime writing festival held in Stirling. I was up at Cowane’s Hospital watching the Scotland vs England crime writers’ football match, and the idea suddenly occurred to me that it would be a great place to dump a body. I took the idea and went for a walk to play with it a bit. And as I walked around Stirling and really took in the way the historic and the modern sat cheek to cheek, it hit me that it would be a great place for a crime series. Connor came about as a result of that—given the opening of NO MAN’S LAND it was apparent early on that there would be some very serious, very dangerous people in the book. And I wanted a protagonist who could match then. I spent a lot of time in Belfast in my misspent youth, and I always wanted to reflect that in my work, so I made Connor a former PSNI officer, which gave him a level of training that I needed. After that, he grew organically, and I’m lucky that I had a few police friends I could call on when I needed some extra background information.

Zoë Sharp: What was your path to publication and particularly to self-publication? How did you get hooked up with Ed James, who I note did the content layout and covers for some of your books, now reissued by Constable?

Neil Broadfoot: I met Ed properly for the first time in Harrogate a couple of years ago, and we proceeded to go on a monumental pub crawl that still gives my liver pangs of pain whenever I think about it. When we sobered up, we got talking about our works, and I mentioned about getting the rights back for the Doug and Susie books. Ed’s an absolute whizz at self-publishing, so he helped me out in reissuing the Doug and Susie’s. I’ve had a lot of positive feedback from that, and readers getting in touch to ask when they’re coming back, which is nice. So Doug and Susie will be back next year.

Zoë Sharp: Why go from indie to traditional publishing?

Neil Broadfoot: Again, lucky fluke. After I took my walk in Stirling, my now-publisher, Krystyna Green of Constable, got in touch and said she was in Stirling and would I like to meet up for a drink. We got chatting and she said she really wanted to publish me, but couldn’t take the Doug and Susie’s mid series, so did I have anything else I was working on. She must have thought I was mad when I burst out laughing and started talking about Connor and the ideas I had had earlier that day. From there, it was a quick outline, some sample chapters and the deal was done.

Zoë Sharp: What’s next? More Connor Fraser? Or back to McGregor & Drummond?

Neil Broadfoot: Both! Doug and Susie are still rattling around in my head, and readers are asking for them to come back, so they’ll definitely be back. As for Connor, I’ve just signed up with Constable for two more in the series, so he’ll be back in September (in THE POINT OF NO RETURN) then next year and the year after. I can’t wait to get the next Connor, THE HUNT, under way, it’s the story I’ve been (subconsciously) building to since I started writing the series.

Zoë Sharp: I read a recent quote from you that said: “I love twisty B-roads and a car that can handle them.” What do you drive?

Neil Broadfoot: Unfortunately, I’ve got a dadmobile at the moment—a trusty old Honda CR-V. But my dad is an engineer so I grew up with him tinkering with his cars and cranes, so I guess that enthusiasm has rubbed off on me. I’ve had my fair share of sportier cars, including an RX8 like the one Doug drives (which was brilliant fun when you switched off the traction control and hit those B-roads). One of the most fun cars I’ve driven for a long time is my neighbour’s Renault Clio Renaultsport. He very kindly gave me a loan of it when I was heading up to Nairn for an event as my car was in the garage. That drive was a lot of fun—and that car is going to crop up in a standalone book I’m toying with.

Zoë Sharp: What’s the one thing you’d like readers to take away from your current book?

Neil Broadfoot: With everything that’s going on right now, I just hope people enjoy my work and get some pleasure from it, and it provides a distraction for a couple of hours. On a wider theme, I guess I’m saying that justice has a way of being done, and never underestimate the lengths a half-Irish gym addict will go to to get to the truth.

Zoë Sharp: My thanks to Neil. Next to him—but sitting the requisite dead-body-length apart, naturally—is Noelle Holten.

Noelle turned the tables on crime, moving from dealing with murder and criminals by day into writing about it by night!

Zoë Sharp: You’ve been a successful and award-winning book blogger for how long? What came first—desire to write a crime novel or to blog about crime novels?

Noelle Holten: My blog, CrimeBookJunkie turns FIVE this year—late May. I started in 2015 after never even knowing what a blog was until the end of 2014. I actually never believed I would do either a blog or write a book, so I’d have to say my interest in crime itself came first. I’ve been reading crime fiction since my early teens and Nancy Drew / The Hardy Boys before that. All my university studies focused on crime in one form or another. The blog and then the book(s) just were things I never believed would be seen by anyone but myself… I had always enjoyed writing stories in my teens, I just never believed I could write a book.

Zoë Sharp: You were a Senior Probation Officer for eighteen years, have three BA Hons—Philosophy, Sociology (Crime & Deviance) and Community Justice, and a Masters in Criminology. Great background for writing crime. Why make DC Maggie Jamieson a straight detective rather than a profiler or something on the psychological side?

Noelle Holten: The series itself takes a multi-agency approach to solving crime and is more an ensemble series so each novel has not only DC Maggie Jamieson but also a Probation Officer, Criminal Psychologist, Social Worker, and other agencies/leads. I covered all bases! 

Zoë Sharp: You’ve written two books so far in the Maggie Jamieson series, the latest of which is DEAD WRONGDo you see this as a long-running series, or do you have a set number in mind?

Noelle Holten: My contract is for five books so I have two more to deliver. I have quite a few ideas so it could definitely be a long-running series, but that will be up to my publisher!

Zoë Sharp: Your books are published by One More Chapter, an imprint of Harper Collins, but you are also online marketing guru for Bookouture. How do you juggle so many hats? And do you find there’s any conflict between the publicity work you do and reviewing other publishers’ books?

Noelle Holten: I have to be very disciplined balancing my full time job with Bookouture, writing and blogging. After work I set aside time for writing but my blog has definitely taken a backseat as I can’t do it all. I don’t think there is a conflict at all—I can easily champion all the books, no matter who publishes them. Bookouture are incredibly supportive of everything I do. Oh, did I mention I don't sleep much either…?

Zoë Sharp: What was your road to publication?

Noelle Holten: This could be a long answer, so I’ve highlighted the main points here: 
  • I attended a writing course—Crime & Publishment with only the prologue to my debut in 2017 and with some encouragement I wrote the first draft in 12 weeks when I returned home.
  • In 2018 I returned to the course and pitched my book to Karen Sullivan—who asked me to submit. This gave me the encouragement to submit to other publishers. 
  • At Harrogate in 2018, Graham Smith and Abi Fenton introduced me to Finn Cotton—an editor at Killer Reads (now One More Chapter)—I pitched my debut to him on the Saturday. He emailed me the Monday and asked for the full MS. The following week he offered me a two-book deal and a few other publishers made offers but Finn understood the book so I signed with him. 
  • Before my debut was published, I was offered a further three-book deal—then DEAD INSIDE was released in May 2019 and it has been a whirlwind since. DEAD WRONG was just released and the third book in the series comes out in October 2020.

There was a lot more to it than this, but with hard work and support from an amazing bunch of people, I finally had a book published!

Zoë Sharp: How many more Maggie Jamieson books in the pipeline?

Noelle Holten: I’m halfway through finishing Book 4 and the final book I’m contracted for is due Dec 2020—after that…who knows!

Zoë Sharp: Is there anything you encountered during your time in the probation service that you would write about, but know nobody would believe you…?

Noelle Holten: Now that would be telling! My debut actually mixes fact with fiction—and many reviewers commented that a probation officer would never find herself in an abusive relationship…sadly for thirteen years, I did. I am always amazed when I see reviewers comment “as if that would ever happen”—that just shows how much more education is needed on the subject of domestic abuse.

Zoë Sharp: What’s the one thing you’d like readers to take away from your current book?

Noelle Holten: That no one agency is responsible for solving crime—it takes a village.

Zoë Sharp: I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s found that sleep is very overrated… Thanks Noelle, and finally—strangely sitting as far away from me as he can get—is Ed James.

Ed is the author of multiple series of crime novels: Six books in the bestselling DI Simon Fenchurch series is set on the gritty streets of East London. The Scott Cullen series of Scottish police procedurals features a young Edinburgh Detective Constable investigating crimes from the bottom rung of the career ladder he's desperate to climb. Spinning off these, the Craig Hunter books star a PTSD-suffering ex-squaddie now working as a cop investigating sexual abuse cases, with lots of slapstick and office banter.

As well as continuing the Cullen books in a series of novellas and short novels, Ed has also published two DS Vicky Dodds books, two FBI Special Agent Max Carter books set in Seattle and SENSELESS, a serial killer thriller with a twist. He lives in the Scottish Borders, Scotland and writes full-time. He used to work in IT project management, where he filled his weekly commute to London by literally writing on planes, trains and automobiles.

So, your latest book is 
TELL ME LIES, described as first FBI Special Agent Max Carter book. And you’ve more planned?

Ed James: Yes, the second one—GONE IN SECONDS—will be out in the summer, date TBC. I finished it around Christmas and edited it just as Seattle was going in to lockdown, so it was pretty strange. I’ve got another one planned in that neck of the woods, but good old Max might take a back seat in that and let someone else take lead.

Zoë Sharp: TELL ME LIES is with Bookouture when previous books have been indie. Why the new direction?

Ed James: Not strictly true. I published six novels with Thomas & Mercer, the Amazon Publishing imprint, five Fenchurch books and a Vicky Dodds, which they’ve graciously returned the rights on and I’ve self-published them all, some even without completely re-editing. Ahem.

Zoë Sharp: So, you started off with DI Simon Fenchurch? Then DC Scott Cullen, then Cullen & Bain, plus Craig Hunter, Max Carter, and Scottish vampires and standalones. (Another who thinks sleep is much overrated!)

Ed James: Cullen was first, eight years ago, then I raced through four in a year. Then I did a supernatural crime-y thing, which was a disaster and has sold absolutely bugger all. I keep unpublishing and relaunching but it never stuck, so I bowdlerised it for the third Hunter book, though it bears very little similarity. Then another Cullen, then the first Vicky Dodds book, Snared, , then another Cullen, but instead of a sequel to Snared, I wrote the first Fenchurch, which had been about vampires but became about the sex trade in London. Then after another Cullen, I did two spin-offs in the Hunter series which are more Reacher-y fighty blokey type books. And I’m back doing more Cullen now with some short novels which are as daft as they are dark. And, finally, the second Dodds book, Flesh and Blood, set in my home town of Carnoustie.

Zoë Sharp: SENSELESS, featuring DS Corcoran and Dr Palmer came out in March 2020. Is this the start of another new series?

Ed James: I hope so. It’s published by Headline and they’ve been great, but it’s a completely different world to indie where you can be your own boss and make a complete disaster of whatever you like. It’s out in paperback in July and we’ll see if there’s an appetite for more, but I’ve certainly got ideas for more in that world.

Zoë Sharp: What’s the story of your road to publication from the perspective of indie vs traditional?

Ed James: See above. I’ve sold a ton of books through APub, but I think I’m at my happiest when I don’t have crushing deadlines and can work with freedom. This year has been a weird one for lots of reasons, but I feel like I’m on home turf publishing so many indie books that I’m really loving writing.

Zoë Sharp: Is the fact you used to work in IT in London why you set the DI Simon Fenchurch books in London but now write about Scotland when you live in the Borders?

Ed James: Well, I wrote about Scotland long before London, but I find the geography is as important as the characters you write about. My old publisher wanted me to change the location for the first Fenchurch book to Dundee, but it just doesn’t work. It’s set in the sex trade and there’s one lap-dancing bar there, versus about ten in Shoreditch alone. (And you know this how exactly? ZS) Similarly, writing about Seattle in TELL ME LIES is a very different prospect to writing about, say, Craig Hunter and his dodgy father dicking about in the Highlands, or Vicky Dodds unearthing an old case her dad worked back in the 90s.

Zoë Sharp: Does your girlfriend still do your covers?

Ed James: I do them now, but she’s trained me in the art of Photoshop, etc. And she’ll tell me how shit they are!

Zoë Sharp: Why did you take back control of your work from Thomas & Mercer?

Ed James: I had a good relationship with my old editor who pushed my books like crazy, but she moved on. Unlike a lot of similar things in publishing where they’d move to another imprint and take some authors with them, she moved to Amazon Video. After a lot of soul searching, I decided that it was best to take ownership of my back catalogue and market them myself. 

Zoë Sharp: Are you still Amazon exclusive?

Ed James: My indie books are all exclusive to Amazon as they offer so many advantages, such as price promotions and the lending library, which is over 50% of my income. I dabbled in “going wide”, as they say, but found that one day’s Page Reads was 90 days’ sales income elsewhere. Other genres and territories will vary, but Scottish police procedurals with slapstick and lots of swearing seem to be at home on Amazon. 

Zoë Sharp: What’s next? (Is there anything you haven’t yet tried?!?)

Ed James: Lots of things. I’m planning at least another two Cullen and Bain books. I’ve just finished the first Vicky Dodds book, so it needs editing. Then I should do another Fenchurch as it’s been too long, though like Cullen I did fall out of love with him writing too many books back to back. I’m finding variety is the spice of life just now, and being able to switch between projects at whim is very satisfying.

Zoë Sharp: Are the chickens still laying?

Ed James: They are. Just started again, getting 6-10 a day. It’s that time of year where the ex-battery ones starting getting ill and, unlike cats or dogs, hens don’t really come back from illness. On balance, letting them peck around our fields for two years seems a fair compromise for the nine months of sheer hell they had in cages. We took in some ex-free rangers last year (poultry farmers tend to get rid of birds after nine months) and they seem a lot hardier and a lot less damaged so hopefully they’ll last longer.

Zoë Sharp: What’s the one thing you’d like readers to take away from your current book?

Ed James: A wry smile.

Zoë Sharp: I asked my fellow panellists if they had a question for me that could be safely answered in public. This is what they came up with:

Neil Broadfoot: How are you coping with the lockdown—other than getting various power tools delivered for your next project? And how do you think the current circumstances are going to be reflected in future books, not just yours but in the genre generally? (I’d really like to know the answer to this as I’m struggling with how to frame it myself!)

Zoë Sharp: To be honest, the current UK lockdown due to Covid-19 has not changed life much for me. I’m pretty isolated where I spend my winters anyway. Just me, acting as staff to a couple of high-maintenance cats, and pottering through renovations alongside the writing. I think the only real difference is that I seem to be getting more contact from people than usual—and I’m getting through more bleach…

It’s interesting to think about how we’re all going to take the global pandemic into account in books that are written either now or in the future. I don’t think this virus is entirely going away for quite a while. But, if social distancing of one form or another becomes a regular part of life, I think we’ll absorb it into the framework of our books just as we do any other behavioural changes. We no longer have characters smoking in pubs or restaurants, for example. The difficulty is going to be working out how much change, how quickly, and how long-term.

The book that comes out this month, BONES IN THE RIVER, was obviously written largely before the virus hit, so there’s no mention made of it. Next in the planning is a standalone that will probably be set at some unspecified point BC (Before Covid-19). But then I’ll be working on the next in the Charlie Fox series, and I’ll take stock before I dive into that as to how much I need to make allowances, because it will tie the book to a precise date that might be a drawback in the future.

Noelle Holten: How much research did you have to do for the latest series and were you shocked/surprised about anything you found?

Zoë Sharp: I did a load of research before I began writing BONES IN THE RIVER, and while I was writing it, come to that. I remember at one point I had about eight different non-fiction books spread around me as I was working. Because of the setting at the annual Appleby Horse Fair, it required research not only from the perspective of the Gypsy and Traveller characters, but also because it involves police procedure—both by detectives and crime-scene personnel—that is very different from the Charlie Fox novels. She is all about threat-assessment and danger rather than straightforward crime.

At the same time, I knew I didn’t want to turn this book into a How-To manual for investigators, so I tried to strike a balance of including just enough technicality without overdoing it. As with the first book in the Lakes crime thriller trilogy, DANCING ON THE GRAVE, I’m concentrating as much on the effects of crimes on the characters as I am on their part in the crimes themselves.

Ed James: If you could co-write a novel with any living author, who would it be?

Zoë Sharp: That’s a really tricky question. You, of course, Ed. When do we start?

This week’s Word of the Week is misericord, meaning a narrow-bladed dagger used for killing a wounded enemy. From the Latin misericordia, tender-hearted.It can also mean a turn-up seat in a choir stall, which offers the user support when standing; a room in a monastery where some relaxation of rules was allowed; and mercy, forgiveness, or pity.


  1. Fascinating collection of writers, Zoe (yourself included, of course). This is going to do such damage to my TBR had almost got to a stable height.

  2. What a great post, Zoe. Misericordia is also the name of an ambulance squad in Florence! First aid for me in isolation is books. I am happy to learn about new "traveling companions."

    1. Thanks, Annamaria. Glad you enjoyed it. Stay safe and well!

  3. Zoë, you amaze me in so many ways (which we shall not enumerate in any detail to protect the innocent), but most of all with your skill as an interviewer. It takes a lot of preparation to make it seem as effortless as you do. BTW, Congratulations on "Bones in the River."