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Dashing adventure and writing at lunchtime with Alec Marsh

English writer Alec Marsh writes dramatic thrillers set in the 1930s. He’s the author of the new soon-to-be-classic Drabble & Harris adventure series. Ernest Drabble is a mountaineering Cambridge historian and his partner Harris is an old school friend and press reporter. These two have all the dash and wit they need to solve mysteries and throws spanners into the works of bad folks.

Alec started his writing career on the Western Morning News in Cornwall, and then went on to write for titles including the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Times and London Evening Standard. In 2008 he was named an editor of the year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. He is now the editor of Spear’s Magazine, a title focused on luxury lifestyle. He is married and lives with his family in west London.

Alec’s debut novel RULE BRITANNIA was released in 2019 and the second novel in the series, ENEMY OF THE RAJ, will be published this September.

Author Alec Marsh, photo credit David Harrison

Author Alec Marsh, photo credit David Harrison

Welcome to last Word of the Week, Alec, and thank you for coming along to chat about your books and your writing. Looking at your bio, I can see that you have  been writing all your life. Why is writing important to you?

Alec: I can only imagine that it’s the same for a lot of writers and most people on some level. But since the earliest time I can remember I’ve been telling stories – either to myself or others, but mostly I would think to myself. And it becomes a habit that drives an urge that leads decades later to hard-drives being filled with words. So I think for me it’s pretty hard-wired.

A born storyteller! That usually goes with voracious reading. What was your favourite book as a child?  

I adored Hornblower; CS Forester’s nautical series set during the Napoleonic war; I also loved – perhaps more and in very much the same vein – the Richard Bolitho series written by Douglas Reeman, under his ‘other’ name of Alexander Kent. Years later I had the pleasure of interviewing Reeman. He was exceptionally generous with his time, clearly spotted me as a fan, too, and was quietly inspirational: he told me how he would get into his car during his lunchbreaks as a young man and write with his typewriter on his knees. I’ve often thought of him since, when I’ve been sitting in Pret-a-Manger with my laptop, eating a sandwich…

Rule Britannia by Alec Marsh (cover detail)

Rule Britannia by Alec Marsh (cover detail)

 

Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?

Absolutely. I did a one day screen-writing course in Newcastle when I was a student there and learnt a huge amount in just a few hours. I still remember being terrified. Later on I was tempted by the Creative Writing MA at East Anglia university but in the end I decided I would keep working and writing around work. With my first published novel, RULE BRITANNIA, I got some advice from a literary consultancy. Books like EM Forster’s Aspects of the Novel offer important advice and insight for writers. Arguably just reading the best that’s out there is the most important thing.

What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?

I asked Martin Amis for his advice once at a literary festival. ‘Just keep writing,’ he said. It didn’t seem very profound in the moment he said it, or repeated it. But it was – and it worked for me. I once asked Sir John Mortimer, creator of the Rumpole of Bailey series, what the secret to a great comic novel was. ‘Making people laugh!’ he roared, laughing. Then he added an important point – words to the effect of: ‘If you can make yourself laugh while you’re doing it then you’ve got half a chance.’ And that’s true for any emotion you’re trying to generate, really.

I love your anecdotes of such great writers! Do you have a go-to routine for writing?

Not really. I work fulltime and have a young family so a great deal of my second novel, ENEMY OF THE RAJ, was actually written on the London Underground on my commute to and from work. A crowded Tube carriage is not ideal, but fortunately the book was not harmed. I’ve written in lunchbreaks, or after the kids have gone to bed. Quite often, on a Saturday morning I’ll get up early and head to a local café when it opens at 8am, and get in two hours then. That’s the best time.

ENEMY OF THE RAJ (Drabble & Harris #2) by Alec Marsh

ENEMY OF THE RAJ (Drabble & Harris #2) by Alec Marsh

How do you feel about reviews?

Be grateful for good ones and listen to the bad ones. Sometimes people go too far and make it personal. That can be upsetting. As a journalist it has made me think harder about the impact of what I write upon my subjects.

Yes, it does have that effect, which I think is a good thing. Whatever we write, we can think about the effect on readers. Has your work been compared to other writers?

The author most referenced by reviewers of RULE BRITANNIA is John Buchan. Stanley Johnson remarked that with the Drabble and Harris series Buchan ‘must be stirring uneasily in his grave’. It’s without doubt true that Buchan was something of an influence – The 39 Steps, Greenmantle; these are tales of personal hazard and adventure that generate an excitement for the reader that I very much wanted to ape.

Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?

When I was  17 or18 I went on a school theatre trip to see Arcadia, Tom Stoppard’s then new play. I had no idea how much of a big deal it was to see it (the first run with a star cast) but I came away thinking that I would very much like to do that. I also loved Oscar Wilde’s plays as a kid – anything really that demonstrated such verbal dexterity and wit. I was also fascinated by plays like Look Back in Anger, which are really very different. As a result my first efforts as a writer when I was at university were plays. One of these won a student competition which made me think there might be something in it. I switched to fiction after reading Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. I realised that you could bring the essential freshness of dialogue to life without the need of a theatre, and perhaps therefore have a more direct relationship with the reader.

Did you always plan to write historic fiction?

No, never. In fact I set out write the next great English novel. Eventually, after several failures, I listened to an old friend of mine who had been advising me for years to write historic fiction. ‘Alec,’ he would say, ‘you’re obsessed with the past, you should write about it.’ He was absolutely right. When I began writing what would become RULE BRITANNIA I knew immediately that I was on to something.

Is writer’s block a thing for you?

Absolutely. Knowing what comes next can be difficult. Quite often you run out of track and I often find my mind needs time to catch up. When this happens I go for a run, or more likely read around the topic or setting – tangential research – is the answer. Before you know it you’re raring to go again. The secret, if there is one, is to keep thinking ahead as you are writing, but that’s easier said than done. 

True! Thank you so much for chatting with me today, Alec. Congratulations in the publication of Rule Britannia, and good fortune to you for Eneemy of the Raj!

 

Alec’s Links

Twitter: @AlecMarsh

Facebook: @AuthorAlecMarsh

Instagram: marsh_alec

 

To by paperback or ebook from Amazon:

 

Trevor Wood introduces The Man on the Street

Although Trevor Wood has lived in Newcastle for twenty-five years and considers himself an adopted Geordie, he still can’t speak the language. A successful playwright who has also worked as a journalist and spin-doctor for the City Council, Trevor served in the Royal Navy for sixteen years joining, presciently,  as a Writer. Trevor has an MA in Creative Writing (Crime Fiction) from the University of East Anglia.

Trevor’s widely-praised first novel, The Man on the Street, is set in Newcastle, and will delight readers of mystery thrillers – if you like Val McDermid and Ian Rankin, Trevor’s Jimmy Mullen series could be your next addiction.

Let’s discover a bit more about the writer behind Jimmy.

LWOTW: Welcome, Trevor, and thanks for talking to me on last Word of the Week. What was the first book you read for yourself?

TREVOR: Like most people my age I blame Enid Blyton for everything. The Secret Seven, Famous Five and the ‘Adventure’ series were undoubtedly my gateway drugs to a lifelong love of crime fiction. It’s no coincidence that my debut crime novel The Man on the Street features a dog. He’s a direct descendant of Timmy.

Author Trevor Wood

Author Trevor Wood

Once I’d put on my big boy pants it was difficult to know where to go next for something to read – YA fiction was barely a thing back in the day. The solution came to me on a terribly dull barge holiday on the Norfolk Broads with my cousin and his family. These days I’d love that kind of holiday – a glorified pub crawl on a boat being my kind of thing – but for a 14-year-old boy it was stupefyingly boring. The solution was galloping through the shelf full of books on the barge – all written by Agatha Christie. From that moment on it was crime all the way and it’s all due to Enid and Agatha (and maybe Scooby Doo).

Enid and Agatha provide a perfect pedigree, but I see you also have an MA in Creative Writing. Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?

I have nothing but praise for the creative writing courses I’ve done and am certain that without them I wouldn’t now be a published author. I tried a couple of short, local courses in Newcastle first. From the first I ended up joining a small group of writers who meet up every three weeks to offer each other constructive criticism on our latest work in progress. It’s been an invaluable part of my process. My second course provided me with a great friend who also happened to be a retired senior cop, who is now not only a drinking partner but a sounding board for some of my more fanciful ideas regarding the police.

It was the third, however, that provided the major impetus to my writing career, such as it is. I was one of the guinea pigs on UEA’s inaugural Crime Writing MA, a two-year, part-time course with an end point of producing an 80,000 word crime novel. With visiting writers including Lee Child, Ian Rankin, Mark Billingham and Denise Mina, and ten other thoroughly-committed budding crime writers offering regular feedback on every 10,000 words produced, it was a total joy from start to finish. Not only did it make me a far better writer, it opened so many doors, with visits from agents, editors and several experts in their fields from pathologists to crime scene boffins, the whole thing was an inspiration. Out of the eleven students, five now have publishing deals and three more have agents with books in the pipeline.

If your ambition is to be a published crime writer then I urge you to SIGN UP NOW (I’m not on commission but maybe I should be?)

Yes, you should be! That sounds like a fabulous course.  Personal question now: are there any secrets hidden in your writing?

It’s not a secret really but a small in-joke for my own amusement that no-one has ever mentioned so this is basically a WORLD-WIDE EXCLUSIVE.  The main character in The Man on the Street, Jimmy, is a homeless veteran who is suffering from PTSD. He is particularly haunted by fire as a result of his experiences in the Falklands War. I have a cop in my book too, who may or may not be on Jimmy’s side, no plot spoilers here. The cop’s name is DS Burns. I did say it was a small in-joke.

But a world-wide exclusive small in-joke! LOL! Now, how do you feel about reviews?

Undoubtedly the best response I’ve had to The Man on the Street was from the ultra-talented writer Dominic Nolan, who I’m certain will soon be catapulted on to the A-list with his brilliant new book After Dark. All praise is, of course, deeply gratifying but when it comes from a master of his, and your own, craft it’s doubly so. I’ll leave this here:

Trevor has assembled a fine array of characters—each playing their part in the main narrative whilst remaining the heart of their own stories, and never once are they condescended to. The plotting is so deft—weaving the larger tapestry of social inequality and the wretchedly skewed priorities of collapsing instruments of state services with the more intimate darkness of personal crimes. It is the kind of thriller our times need and deserve.

Dominic Wood on The Man on the Street

cover

Of course, there will always be those who don’t like your work. I really don’t mind less-than glowing reviews as long as they are constructive and often find myself agreeing with some of the criticism. If you’re going to be a writer you really have to learn to take criticism because believe me you’re going to get it. It starts from the moment you begin submitting to agents and then, if you survive that ordeal, editors come next – and it never really stops. It’s a brutal rite of passage and you need to be resilient to get through it. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything that’s said about your work, far from it. But it does mean you have to be able to examine your work carefully and critically. I have a rule that if two people say the same thing then I need to have a good look at it but sometimes you have to go with your gut and stay strong if you’re convinced you’re right.  There will always be people who hate your work. Note it and move on quickly. I’ve co-written around a dozen plays and my favourite bad review was “the writers set the bar really low yet still manage to limbo dance under it.”  Which you have to admit is a funny line even when you’re the victim of it.

Oh dear, yes, that made me laugh out loud! Do you imagine specific actors playing your characters – which is possibly inevitable for a playwright?

I was very lucky with the audio version of The Man on the Street. As I’ve mentioned above, I’ve co-written several plays (and consequently worked with a lot of great actors.) My publishers sent me a link to listen to when they thought they’d found the right actor to take the job on and I didn’t even need to open it. It was the outstanding David Nellist, who had starred in one of my co-written plays Alf Ramsey Knew My Grandfather but is perhaps better known for playing Mike Stamford, the character who introduces John Watson to Sherlock Holmes in the re-boot of the TV series. As always, Dave has done a fantastic job with the book, bringing a real authenticity to the characters.

That’s wonderful. And is there more Jimmy Mullen to come?

Yes there is! A second book is well underway, and there might be bigger things in store for Jimmy.

That’s so exciting! Thanks for sharing with me today, Trevor, and all the best to you and Jimmy.

You can find Trevor on Facebook at

https://www.facebook.com/Trevor-Wood-Author-104885950924368/

and he tweets too: @TrevorWoodWrite

*******

The Man on the Street

When Jimmy, a homeless veteran grappling with PTSD, witnesses a murder, no-one believes him.

Even he hopes it’s another hallucination.

Then a newspaper headline catches his eye: GIRL IN MISSING DAD PLEA.

It’s time for Jimmy to stop hiding from the world. But telling the girl, Carrie, what he saw puts him at risk from enemies, both old and new

Jimmy has one big advantage though; when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.

Maisie Porter has the Last Word

In this episode of Last Word of the Week, I’m excited to speak with Maisie Porter. Maisie works as a wedding photographer in Australia. We should make it clear right now that she has neither abducted nor been abducted by any competitors (something that *might* happen in her novels…). Maisie is an author at Crooked Cat Books.

LWOTW: Hi, Maisie, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Can you tell us when you first realised that you are a writer?

Maisie: As well as writing, I work as a wedding photographer. In 2017, in between weddings, I began writing a story. At that time I had a desire to create something that wasn’t as fleeting as a photograph. So much work is put into creating visuals for social media (especially in the photography industry) that I was becoming disillusioned at the dispensability of photos. These days you can take a wonderful photo that has to be replaced immediately with another to feed the social media monster! So I started to write a story. It was a private and satisfying effort.

‘Something a bit more lasting.’ That’s a good explanation. As a writer, do you rely more on dreams, imagination, or planning?

All three! In that exact order, I dream up the story, imagine it as I am writing, and plan and organise all the parts so it all fits together.

That sounds quite organic. You’re a natural! What’s the highlight of your writing career so far?

The highlight of my career is my first book No Reception being published by Crooked Cat Books.

What are you most looking forward to at the moment?

I have just finished writing my next book, so I’m looking forward to when I dream up my next story.

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That cover is quite chilling! If you could say one thing to aspiring writers, what would it be?

I would say, get your book written and find a good editor to look at it for you. Then get it out there; either traditional, small press or self publishing. But don’t get to hung up on writing the story because the hard work of marketing your book is still before you.

And finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character?

Norman Bates.

Yikes! Now I’m truly scared 🙂 Thanks for speaking with us, Maisie, and all power to both your writing and photography careers.

Maisie’s Book Links:

mybook.to/theplasticseed

mybook.to/noreception 

Maisie on Twitter: https://twitter.com/eyeointment

Maisie on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/maisieporterauthor/

Jamie Paradise has the Last Word

Jamie Paradise has written a debut novel that takes crime to an audacious new level. Night Time Cool has been described as flamboyant, comic, and energetic: a tale of Christmas time in 2015 London with all its colour, exuberance and the odd swathe of violence. It’s the underbelly of Shoreditch and the characters, particularly Detective Inspector Frederick Street and his son Elvis, revel in their complex, seedy setting.

In the day time – when not hunkered down in a dark mansion surrounded by old family skulls and writing comic crime – Jamie is also a sports journalist called Jamie Jackson. He writes about football. “Soccer” to those of us in Australia who adhere to Aussie Rules.

LWOTW: Good to meet you, Jamie. Tell us about when you first realised that you are a writer.

Jamie: Good Question – I have a memory of being around nine and thinking, yes, writing for me – then at 21/22 I knew – after reading Henry Miller.

So Henry Miller tipped you over the edge. That’s good to hear. Do you rely more on dreams, imagination, and planning?

Imagination all the way – get an idea/opening scene/etcetera then away I go – so much fun.

Writing can indeed be fun, and it’s great that it shows in your novel. What’s the highlight of your writing career so far?

Having my first novel compared to Martin Amis, Anthony Burgess, and it being reviewed by The Observer (the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper) as a “rip-roaring debut”.

That is really wonderful, congratulations. What are you most looking forward to at the moment?

The current novel I’m writing – about 2/3 in of 1st draft.

First drafts can be exhausting. Good luck! If you could say one thing to aspiring writers, what would it be?

Read all the time, write all the time and keep DREAMING.

And finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character?

Peter Pan – I’m never growing up anyway. XXX

LOL! Thanks for speaking with me today, Jamie, it’s been amazing. More Power to you and the Streets of Shoreditch.

Jamie’s Links:

Twitter: @jamieparadise_

Instagram: @jamieparadise_