Fiona Taylor Interview: “Women, especially working-class woman, are often absent from history”

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Today it’s my pleasure to introduce Fiona Taylor, who writes about and loves Dorset, the best county in the whole wide world! Read on to find out more about her book, which offers an insight into the torment of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

Tell me how you came to define your writing style.

I have not consciously come up with a writing style. For me my writing style has come from past experiences that have been internalised, it’s how you think and feel. In The Sheltering Tree I have based the book on Elizabeth Standfield, a daughter of one of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It takes place in Dorset in 1834 and the story follows the coming age tale of Elizabeth. One of the reoccurring themes is how the landscape plays an important part in her life. I feel deeply connected to the natural environment and I have been influenced by writers such Laurie Lee, Harper Lee and Laura Ingalls Wilder who discuss the natural world in their novels.

What is your background and how did you get into writing professionally? How do you draw on your past when writing fiction?

I grew up in a rural village in Surrey and spent most of my adolescence planning my escape to a large city, which eventually resulted me leaving for London at eighteen. After leaving university I worked for several years in the public sector working in housing. I then decided to take a career break and travelled for a few years working on route to Australia. When I came back to England, I started working for a trade publication as an Editorial Assistant. After the birth of my children I moved to sunny Weymouth where I stopped working for a while but missed writing so much, I started writing a walking blog. In 2018 I published a local history book. The Sheltering Tree is my first fiction book.

Even though I couldn’t wait to leave where I grew up, I have found that much of my writing has been drawn on the nostalgia of my early years living in a rural village. Some of my characters in The Sheltering Tree, such as George Loveless, share characteristics of some of the older villagers that I knew as a child. Aunt Maggie is based on my own grandmother, who had a reputation for always staying cheerful despite having to feed a large family with little money.

Talk to me about The Sheltering Tree. What can fans expect from your novel?

The Sheltering Tree is based on the true story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It follows Elizabeth, a 15-year-old girl, whose father is transported to Australia in 1834 for starting a trade union. Elizabeth is left to help bring up the younger siblings as her mother struggles to cope. It is a story of struggle to survive and the fight for justice. It is aimed at young adults. The Tolpuddle martyrs is an important part of British history but has always been told from the male point of view. Women, especially working-class woman, are often absent from history so I wanted to show the hardships that they and their children had to endure so that the struggle for trade unions could be successful. I have chosen to write it from Elizabeth’s point of view as I thought it would be more interesting for young adults and the issues raised are still relevant today.

Where do you find inspiration? Are there any particular place or incidents you draw on when you find yourself with writer’s block?

I am lucky enough to live by the Jurassic Coast and I choose to spend a lot of time walking my black Labradoodle, Mutley, along this coastline in all weathers. I find walking is a type of thinking and allows me to imagine where my characters are going next. I find I develop the story more when I’m out and about rather than when I’m sitting hunched over my keyboard.

When I hit writers block, I tend to go out for a coffee and escape by watching the world pass by. I’ve always been told that I have a fertile imagination and I only have to hear a snippet of someone’s conversation to lead me to imagine their lives, which will often get my brain ticking and acts as a stimulus to get back to writing.

How being based in Dorset – AKA the greatest place on earth- enriched your writing and your life?

The Sheltering Tree would not have been written if I had not moved to Dorset. I have a brief recollection of the Tolpuddle Martyrs from a history lesson, but it was not until I went to the Tolpuddle Martyrs Music festival in 2018 that I found out more and decided it was time to write my version.

Dorset is full of tangible memorials to the county’s historical and mythological past such Iron Age hillforts, the long barrows, Maiden Castle, Cerne Giant and much more. This history influences much of my writing. I enjoy going for long walks in different parts of Dorset and I find it the perfect way to connect with the past and a sense of continuity with past generations. Dorset is often overlooked as holiday makers head for Devon and Cornwall, but with my hand on my heart, I think Dorset is the most beautiful county. I agree with you – it is the greatest place on earth. I challenge anyone to find a better view than that of when you stand on the hills above Abbotsbury and look over the Fleet towards the sea – pure bliss. Incidentally, it remains the only county in England without a single mile of motorway.

I would find it challenging to write about a landscape that I did not know and understand. Since moving here, I have become much more concerned with the environment and how humans are so reliant on it. As agricultural labourers the Tolpuddle Martyrs would have been well aware of this. Our dependence on the order of the natural world has become more apparent in recent weeks since the onset of Covid19. I am hoping that with the restrictions in place we use this opportunity to make real changes that will benefit our future and our natural environment. On a lighter note, since the Cover 19 restrictions I have attempted to learn the ten most common birdsong, but I think I must be tone deaf as I am finding it almost impossible to distinguish between a Black Bird and a Robin.

If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead on a writing project, who would it be and why?

Living in Dorset it would have to be the counties most famous literary figure, Thomas Hardy. Many of the major themes in his work, the characters and the landscapes they inhabit, are drawn from the Dorset countryside. I first became aware of Thomas Hardy when I studied Far from the Maddening Crowd for my A level English and it has remained my favourite Hardy book. He describes beautifully the contrast of the scenic but harsh realities of Dorset farming life. As this is a theme that is covered in The Sheltering Tree, I would have been keen to collaborate with Thomas Hardy on this issue.

Do you have any other projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?

I have started to research a fiction book set on the Isle of Portland. Once again, the novel would be set against the backdrop of the natural environment. The Isle of Portland is the southernmost point of Dorset and is connected to the mainland by Chesil Bank. It has an almost lunar like landscape with large quarries and treeless horizons, which I can’t wait to write about. 

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up?

I am excitedly waiting for Raynor Winn’s The Wild Silence due in September 2020. This is the follow-up to The Salt Path which is the story of Raynor and her husband’s journey along the South West coast path, as they come to terms with loss. It was beautifully written and strangely uplifting despite its content.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

One of my underlying messages of The Sheltering Tree is to show that everyone has the right to stand up and to challenge when there is something they do not agree with. Protest is a cry for help and everyone with a voice has the right to use it. Historically, the Tolpuddle Martyrs are just one example where collective action has worked to change society for the better. I hope The Sheltering Tree will inspire young adults to realise that they too can stand up for a better future.

Massive thanks to Fiona, it was great to talk to a fellow Dorset lover!

Why We Need More Female Spy Writers

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Recently I reviewed The Treadstone Resurrection, a brilliant novel that forms part of the Jason Bourne universe.

The book is gripping and enticing, but it lacks one crucial element; the presence of any realistic female characters.

Even in the male-dominated security landscape, women still play a vital role, and if you’re describing just about any scenario then it will doubtless include numerous women.

What this novel lacked was women who were anything more than mindless lovers. They were all obsessed with the men they were connected to, and as such were simply an extension of them.

In real life, women are much more complicated and actually have free will and independent thoughts. I have never met, or heard of, or witnessed, a woman unbuttoning her blouse in the presence of a man she fancied. Yet that’s genuinely a scene from The Treadstone Resolution! 

If you really think about it, most of the women in popular spy novels and movies are either eye-candy or staff. James Bond is one of the best examples I can think of; in the books, his women either sleep with him or mother him. In the films, it’s pretty much the same story.

The reason that these books are all utterly clueless about women is because they are, pretty much, all written by men. The spy novel genre is dominated by men, and if we want to enjoy reading about better female characters in spy novels, then that’s going to have to change.

As women are great readers of spy novel and thrillers, and big readers in general, we should be able to get a foothold in this market, but when you visit a bookshop and check out the spy thriller section, you’ll see a noticeable absence of female names. We’re able to work a wide range of jobs now, and female authors have made big names for themselves in the writing arena, but unfortunately the spy thriller genre remains a male-dominated space.

Women have started to make headway, but that doesn’t mean that things are perfect. We still need more women to write spy novels, and for publishers to push their books with the same verve and vigour as they do the latest John Le Carré.

By encouraging women writers to tackle the spy thriller genre, publishers could also help women readers to enjoy it more.

After all, one of the biggest barriers for many women who are eager to tuck into a new thriller is the lack of believable, relatable female characters. It was literally the only criticism I had of The Treadstone Resurrection, which was otherwise an amazing and gripping read.

So, in summary, I’m eager for more women to write and publish spy thrillers. For a major, meaningful change to happen in the industry, the publishing market needs to open its mind and start welcoming and encouraging more women to write books in this genre.

In the meantime, if you or know of a female spy thriller writer, or a male one who writes great depictions of female characters, then reach out and I’d be happy to work with you to promote your work. I think it’s valuable to have lots of great representation of women in this market, so I’m always here to support writers and help them grow their readerships.

Maj Sjöwall Obituary

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At the end of April, in a year that has sadly heralded a great many obituaries and broken up so many families, Maj Sjöwall, beloved crime fiction writer and translator, left us.

She died after a prolonged illness and is survived by three children and five grandchildren.

A renowned journalist and prolific translator, Sjöwall was perhaps best know as the co-creator of the Martin Beck series, which she wrote alongside her late third husband Per Wahlöö.

The novels were a unique project, a series of 10 which each took the reader a little further into the mind and work of its titular detective.

The novels went on to be an international success, and helped to pave the way for the dramatic popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction, also known as Nordic Noir, worldwide.

Thoroughly researched, the Martin Beck novels told the story of a damaged contemporary Swedish society and the depravity to which it had sunk. The authors made the novels into a unique blend of social commentary and gripping thriller, which would form the basis of the style of crime writing that we know and love today.

Their work influenced many of the greatest Scandinavian crime fiction authors of all time, including the incredible Henning Mankell.

With several children to care for, Sjöwall and Wahlöö always had limited finances, and often struggled to make ends meet. Like many of the best writers in the world, their poverty and struggles led them to create rich, fascinating works of fiction.

Today, the Martin Beck novels are renowned around the world, and have been turned into revered movies and TV shows, and have earned their creators many awards. Sjöwall, like many other creators, had cameos in the acclaimed Swedish TV series based on her books.

After the death of her collaborator and husband in 1975, Sjöwall went on to continue her work as a journalist and translator. She also published several books in collaboration with other acclaimed writers, showcasing her versatility and immense narrative skills.

In these dark times, it is a shame to lose yet another writer and valued member of society. The last Martin Beck novel was published 45 years ago, but to this very day the legacy of those incredible novels lives on. Unfortunately, neither of their creators do, but we should feel blessed that they lived fulfilling lives which gave us these phenomenal books and helped to push an entire genre of writing, Scandinavian crime fiction, onto the global literary stage.

Three Perfect Liars Review: A Unique Thriller That Keeps You On The Edge Of Your Seat

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Following my previous review of Heidi Perks’ Now You See Her, which I loved, I was excited to check out her latest novel, Three Perfect Liars.

This innovative book tells the tale of three very different women and the series of events that culminates in a fire and a murder.

It begins with Laura, who is returning to work following her maternity leave to her job in an advertising agency and expecting her temporary replacement to be leaving. However, when the young woman not only remains at the company, but also retains Laura’s biggest account, she becomes suspicious of her motivation.

Switching between the perspectives of Laura, her young colleague/ rival Mia and Janie, the wife of company owner, the novel shows an overview of all of their opinions and ideas, and how their lives become intrinsically linked over the course of the story.

The story is told through a range of mediums, including interviews with staff at the advertising agency after the fire and flashbacks to the events that occurred in the lead-up to the tragic event.

A uniquely structured novel, Three Perfect Liars gives little away, and the reader doesn’t actually find out who has been murdered until it’s almost over. Instead of telling us what’s going on, Perks drives the narrative forward by slipping in small details, leaving the reader constantly clamouring for more.

Perks uses a variety of narrative structures in this book, including interviews, time jumps and intense dialogue. With these different styles of creative writing, the author is able to bring into play a variety of ideas and complications, including the role of women in society, the treatment of working mothers, and many more. They’re all introduced in a unique way, so that the reader doesn’t feel preached at, but rather that they are seeing these issues in action.

It’s this approach, combined with the tension that seeps through every chapter, which makes it so hard to put this novel down. Despite its immense heft, I still managed to finish it in less than two days, which is no mean feat when you have a full-time job, part-time blog and still want to have as much as a life as you can when you’re stuck in your home.

So, if you’re looking for an enticing, gripping thriller to get you through the lockdown, then Three Perfect Liars is an ideal choice for you. Although as mentioned above, you should be warned that you’ll get through it very quickly because you won’t be able to put it down!

Ian Lomond Interview: “I chose to be in control of my own release and path as an author”

Death Investor - Front Cover

This week I get to introduce you to a new name in crime fiction: Ian Lomond, who is self-publishing his debut novel Death Investor.

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime fiction?

My writing style is human centred and dialogue driven – you can hear the characters and see their movements through their dialogue and interactions with each other. In crime, there is always more behind the words than the meanings themselves. A “no comment” can mean so much, or “I don’t remember” is frustratingly ambiguous!

Crime fiction let’s me share my favourite locations, build special characters, and invite you to my favourite bars and restaurants, with action and investigations leading you through the front door. I think it’s a wonderful format to share a city, and it’s people. For me, crime fiction let’s me extend what I think is possible – could someone do that, can technology aid that crime, would greed lead someone that far?

What is your background and how did you get in to writing? How do you experiences when writing fiction?

My career is in managing people and technology, and I’ve done this in many industries, including a decade in the law and justice sector. These experiences, combined with a role that allows me to constantly learn about new organisations and meet new people, provides a platter of ideas and stories to draw from, extrapolate and exaggerate. Through this, I did a lot of dry business writing, reports, submissions and so forth. So, I use this experience, practice and discipline when writing fiction.

Please tell me about your book. How did you come to write it and who is it aimed at?

Death Investor is a crime mystery novel that follows two detectives in tracking down the killer of Peter Maher, a software developer murdered after sharing his new technology idea.

The detectives are Rebecca Reid and Mark Kidman. Rebecca is younger, and whilst recognised for her experience, lacks the confidence of the older Kidman. Together, they navigate the streets and clues that lead them to a successful property developer with a criminal past and political connections, and a rough, old time street criminal, who now owns a pub.

The pair uncovers the software the victim developed could track someone without their consent, using their phone’s Bluetooth and WIFI connections, and linking that to credit card purchases. In fact, several governments are rolling out very similar mobile apps right now to trace and track COVID19 cases. This story reflects on the power of digital surveillance software, and the lengths that people might go to keep their location and history to themselves.

Through other characters, I can share an insight into a few of Sydney iconic suburbs and locations – Kings Cross and its dark and dubious history, the Sydney Harbour, The Bay Run, Lane Cove and even the delicious delicacies at Newtown and Merryland’s.

It was important to have a female protagonist in this series from the outset. Detective Rebecca Reid grows in stature and confidence through the story, and there are plans for this to continue over the next two stories in the series.

You’re publishing your novel yourself: tell me about this process?

I chose to be in control of my own release and path as an author and have published independently. This does mean that your team is just as important, and finding editors, beta readers, cover designers and a support crew you gel with is critical to achieve publication, and retain some sanity in the process!

If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

This is a great question! I really admire Ian Rankin and his Rebus series, so it would be tempting to say him. However, I would have to say Stephen King, for a few reasons.

One, his no nonsense approach to writing is as relevant now as it was when he release On Writing two decades ago. His no victims spared, no holds barred deliver on what it takes to be a better writer then you are now is fantastic and inspiring.

My style often shares the nuances of the surroundings – it’s those details that I recall often with an emotional connection, and I try to bring that across in my work. However, striking the balance between detail and action is a work in progress – something I think King could definitely influence me on.

Thirdly, he has the master touch of building characters, making them angelic, making them dark, making you love or hate them. I can’t help but think I would enjoy and learn so much in company.

Finally, he has a corgi nicknamed “The Thing of Evil”! I love dogs, and meeting The Thing of Evil would be surreal.

Do you have any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?

The sequel to Death Investor is in draft mode. The title is Pipeline of Death, and it centres on the murder of a CEO of a gas pipeline company. There are many interests at play in such a company – money, power, environmental. The possibilities on how I could shape this story to share Sydney CBD, and the wilderness of The Blue Mountains has me excited. Detective Rebecca Reid is dealing with a troubled teenager daughter, whilst trying to focus on the investigation, and Detective Kidman relies on his instincts, but perhaps too much.

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to in the future?

Chris Hammers Silver is on my to be read list – it was released in 2019, and his second novel, after Scrublands. His sense of place and descriptions of locations are wonderful. I have also beta read a few fantastic stories, and I keeping an eye on their authors – I am hoping to see and support their releases this year!

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I would like to share that as debut novelist, the step to hit publish, and share your work is exhilarating and scary and wonderful all at the same time, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to reflect on that journey here in the interview.

Huge thanks to Ian for answering my questions; I love to work with up-and-coming authors. You can find out more about Ian and his work here.