Naomi Hirahara Interview: “I’ve always been curious about the outside world”

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Historical mystery writer Naomi Hirahara discusses how she researches and creates her incredible books and brings the past back to life with her work.

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. Why did you start writing historical mystery novels?

Context is important to me—the history of how a person or place came to be. An academician in Japan called my books “journalistic,” an observation which I first interpreted as derogatory but now I believe to be pretty accurate. I’ve always been curious about the outside world. My Mas Arai mysteries are contemporary but have a cold case aspect to it—a historic event is woven into each of them. The mystery that I’m currently working on is a completely historical novel, set in 1944. I’ve written historical non-fiction, too, but with a novel I can use my imagination to color between the lines.

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

I worked as a journalist for a community daily newspaper for ten years. I didn’t know if I could be in a position to write fiction fultime, but devoted my free time working on my debut novel by taking college extension courses. I went freelance in 1997 and ever since then have been able to cobble together a solo writing career.

I’m developing a workshop on creating characters for an upcoming mystery writing conference. I’m going to use an image of cigar box as a place where we store our influences—individuals who’ve made a big impact on us, books, experiences and relationships. I believe when we write fiction, we are opening up that cigar box to access all these treasures. That’s why age can be an advantage, as long as we live our lives ever mindful and present.

As someone who writes about the American/ Japanese experience, how do you research your work? What’s the most interesting lesson that you’ve learned while researching a novel?

My years as a journalist have come in handy because I conducted a lot of interviews for stories and recording oral histories. Transcribing some of those interviews has been helpful in absorbing word choice and cadence. I’ve travelled to various historic locations, ranging from Angel Island in San Francisco to Gold Hill, where the first Japanese colonists settled in mainland U.S. from 1869-1871. Today there are so many digital resources available, from http://www.densho.org to http://www.ancestry.com to http://www.newspapers.com. What can be interesting is examining the holes of histories and contemplating why there is a void.

Talk to me about your upcoming book Clark and Division. What can fans expect from your novel?

I’m currently working on rewrites and I’m so excited for readers to be introduced to my characters. It’s set in 1944 and follows two twentysomething Japanese American sisters, Rose and Aki, who were released early from an American wartime detention camp in California’s Owens Valley to a new life in Chicago. A tragedy befalls the family in Chicago and it’s up to the younger sister, Aki, to sustain her parents while finding out what happened to Rose.

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

Chester Himes, who wrote A Rage in Harlem. During World War II, he lived in the Los Angeles home of a Japanese American woman writer while she was held in a detention center and it would be fascinating to integrate our different points-of-view in one manuscript.

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

After I complete my rewrites for the Chicago book, I’m going to be working on the second installment of my Hawai’i-based series. It’s called An Eternal Lei, and will deal with endangered flowers and sustainable tourism. After that will be another historical novel, Crown City, which will be set in my hometown of Pasadena, California.

What do you think that the current social/ political climate will do to the literary market in the future? What stories and plots do you hope to see/ plan on writing about?

It’s too hard to predict how today’s reality will impact publishing. Books have always served to whisk readers away to new worlds, sometimes fantastical ones and other times stories that focus us on real problems. I plan to continue to unearth hidden stories, my specialty.

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

I just finished reading Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong and plan to host a Zoom book club for other middle-aged Asian Americans to discuss its contents. Hong is also an accomplished poet and I plan to also read her poetry collections, especially the works that explore English language as spoken by immigrants.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

The WriteNow! writing conference which I’m currently preparing for will be held on September 11-12. It’s the annual conference organized by the Desert Sleuths chapter of Sisters in Crime. Because of the pandemic, it will be both virtual and free. So sign up here: https://desertsleuths.com/write-now/.

Thanks to Naomi for answering my questions; it’s been fascinating to here from you!

Jim Eldridge Interview: “I left school at 16 and worked at a variety of jobs, but I always wanted to write”

Jim Eldridge

Having just finished Murder At The Fitzwilliam, I’m very pleased to share my interview with the author, Jim Eldridge.

Please tell me about your books. What do you think makes them so popular with readers?

I’ve been very fortunate that the readers who discover my books seem to respond well to them, first during the time I was writing children’s books, and latterly when I’ve been writing historical crime fiction. This new direction in my career as a writer took place in 2016 with the publication of Assassins, a crime novel set in 1921 featuring Chief Inspector Stark and his assistant, DS Danvers, published by Severn House.

I had been a scriptwriter for TV and radio for 40 years since 1970 until 2010, and then primarily writing children’s books, with over 90 published. The book was well received and led to a sequel Shadows of the Dead. Shortly after this my new literary agent (my previous agent only dealt with children’s books) introduced me to Susie Dunlop, publishing director at Allison & Busby, and from this came my Museum Mysteries series, which I’ll expand on in my answer to Question 4.

Again, fortunately, these have been well received by readers, and I believe that’s because the readers like and have sympathy for the lead characters, Daniel Wilson and Abigail Fenton, as they did for DCI Stark and Sgt Danvers in the two Stark novels. During my 40 years as a scriptwriter I learnt that what audience, and readers, want is a good story with sympathetic lead characters, and interesting other characters, and they like to follow those lead characters through a series and see how they and their situations develop.

You write across a range of genres and for a variety of readers: how do you adjust your writing style?

Yes, I have written across a wide range of genres, both as an author and a scriptwriter. For me, whether I’m writing for adults or children of any age (I’ve written for picture books aimed at 3-year olds, as well as television series for young children and sitcoms for adults) the key is much as I set out in my answer to the previous question: what audience, and readers, want is a good story with sympathetic lead characters, and interesting other characters. This applies whether the lead character is human, animal, an extra-terrestrial alien, or even a plant. Will the readers like that character?

The only real adjustment is in the language used: for very young readers the words have to be very simple so they can understand the story; with the level of language increasing as readers get older. Even this is aimed at an “average” reader for this age range, because I’ve known 8-year olds reading books written for adults, and 14-year olds struggling with simple texts. Often this is because they are dyslexic, and I have written some books for the specialist publisher, Barrington Stoke, aimed at the dyslexic teens. My background as a teacher helped. From the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties, in addition to scriptwriting, I was a teacher, working mainly in schools in disadvantaged areas in the Luton area. I came to specialise in working with children with literacy problems, and was proud of the fact that every child who left my sessions left able to read.

What is your background in writing and how did you get into writing professionally?

I left school at 16 and worked at a variety of jobs, but I always wanted to write. During the late 1960s I was a performance poet, including an appearance as guest poet on John Peel’s Radio 2 late night show. In 1970 I got commissioned to write a thriller novel, basically pulp-fiction.

It was called Down Payment on Death and appeared in 1971. In that same year I pitched an idea for a radio sitcom to the BBC about a small rural railway station. They liked it and a pilot was made, starring Arthur Lowe as the stationmaster, with a support cast of Kenneth Connor, Liz Fraser and Ian Lavender. It was called Parsley Sidings. The audience liked the pilot show, and I was commissioned to write a series, and then a second series. In all, I wrote 21 episodes.

The main factor for me was that I was paid a lot more for my work as a scriptwriter than I was for the thriller novel; so although I wanted to continue writing crime fiction (my favourite genre), the bigger money was more attractive, especially with a family to support. And so I became a scriptwriter, first writing sitcoms and sketch shows for BBC radio, and then for television for BBC and ITV.

By 1983 working in comedy had begun to pall, the atmosphere in comedy is often stressful with lots of egos trying to dominate, so I changed to writing for children’s television. This was hugely enjoyable. For the next 24 years I wrote for various children’s TV series, including creating series of my own (Uncle Jack, Time Riders, Monster TV, and Powers were just some) and BBC radio comedy-drama (my Radio 4 series King Street Junior ran for 100 episodes over 20 years from 1985-2005). In all, during my time as a scriptwriter I had 250 TV scripts and 250 radio scripts broadcast. I wrote not only for BBC and ITV but also for American TV (e.g. Disney). But by 2010 things at both BBC and ITV were changing, including all my producers taking retirement. It was time for a change.

What’s the inspiration behind your murder at the museum series? How did you create Daniel Wilson and Abigail Fenton? 

As I mentioned earlier, I’d left scriptwriting behind and continued writing books for children (which I’d been doing at the same time as scriptwriting since 1990), but deep down I wanted to get back to where it had all began for me in 1970, crime fiction for adults.

In particular, historical crime fiction, which had become my favourite genre. I had acquired a new agent, and – as previously mentioned – she arranged for me to meet Susie Dunlop, publishing director at Allison & Busby to talk ideas. Susie was the one who raised the topic of a series of historical crime novels investigating murders in famous museums. We both agreed that late Victorian times would be best because that had been a time of great social change and scientific discoveries. Susie wondered if we could base it around Frederick Abberline, the famous Victorian detective who led the investigations into Jack the Ripper. I liked that idea very much, but my concern was that if our lead character was a real person it could limit us to where Abberline had actually been at different times. I’ve always felt that if a real person is used in a fictional story, it should fit with what that person was actually doing, and where, at that historical time. After discussion, we agreed a compromise: that our detective would be a fictional member of Abberline’s squad. And so Daniel Wilson, private detective, ex-Scotland Yard, was born.

But every lead detective needs a partner, someone to discuss cases with. Who would be Daniel’s partner?

During my time as a scriptwriter I often worked on scripts where a relationship of clashing opposites was at the heart of things: two people with opposing ideas, or life experiences that meant they were at odds with one another, but eventually (and reluctantly) they realised they were tied to one another. I’d always enjoyed writing this, and realised that audiences like it, too, as they waited for this ‘odd couple’ to face up to what everyone else could see – that they were made for each other.

We had in Daniel someone who’d risen through the ranks to become an Inspector at Scotland Yard. He came from the poorest of backgrounds (just how poor we only discover in the new book, Murder At The Natural History Museum. He still lives in Camden Town in London, what was then an notorious slum area. So his partner needed to be the opposite of all of this. A woman of the same age, educated, upper middle-class, socially aware, highly intelligent, well known in her own right. And so became: Abigail Fenton from Cambridge; studied at Girton College, and gained fame as an archaeologist, especially with her work on the Pyramids in Egypt. Forthright, determined, and not afraid to upset people.

For those who want to know how things developed between them, please do check out the first in the series: Murder At The Fitzwilliam.

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When choosing books to read, what style of writing do you enjoy yourself? Are there any particular writers you admire?

 I often find myself returning to books I have read and enjoyed before: namely: P G Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster; Simenon’s Maigret stories; Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes; and Edward Marston’s Railway Detective novels. I also love Raymond Chandler, and George Orwell’s work, including Animal Farm, 1984, and his essays.

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

This is a difficult one because some writers can be very prickly to work with. For example, I admire George Orwell, but by all accounts he could be quite difficult. When I was scriptwriting I often collaborated with other writers; scriptwriting is one of the most collaborative forms there is – which is why the list of writers credited at the start or end of a TV show or film is often quite lengthy.

One of my most enjoyable collaborations was co-writing with the wonderful and brilliant Malorie Blackman on all three series of her ITV children’s sitcom Whizziwig, developed from her book of the same name. But some were not as emotionally enjoyable. On reflection, I think I would choose P G Wodehouse.

By all accounts he was happy to collaborate when writing all those Broadway musical comedies he worked on, and I would have learned so much from him.

Have you got any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?

My next book will be Murder At The Natural Mystery History Museum, the fifth in my Museum Murders series, which will be coming out in hardback in August. And then, early next year, Murder At The Ritz Hotel, the first in a new series set during World War 2 and featuring DCI Edgar Coburg, a veteran of World War 1 is out. I am very excited by both of them.

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

I always look forward to any new book by Edward Marston in his Railway Detective and Home Front historical crime series; and Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, set during WW2. As someone born towards the end of WW2 and who grew up in the 1940s, this period resounds within me.

Anything you’d like to add?

Just thank you, Hannah, for letting me share this with you and your readers.

Thanks to Jim for answering my questions; you’ve given some really insightful responses!

 

A Death In Mayfair Review: Another Incredible Addition To A Phenomenal Historical Crime Series

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As long-time readers of my blog will be aware, I’m a big fan of Mark Ellis’ Frank Merlin series, which began with Stalin’s Gold, continued with Prince’s Gate, and moved on to Merlin At War, which is where we pick up from in the latest part of the saga, A Death In Mayfair.

Set slightly later in the Second World War, Ellis’ latest novel touches on Pearl Harbour, the cinema scene at the time and London’s gangs, who emerged during the Blitz and become key players in the city’s criminal underworld.

Like I’ve said before, I’m not a huge fan of historical crime fiction. Or at least I wasn’t, until I read Mark Ellis’ books.

Ever since I’ve come to look out for crime fiction novels set during the Second World War, although I’ve never found any other writer who can hold a candle to him in terms of characterisation, recreating war torn London and generally just keeping me hooked until the very end.

As such, I was excited to read this latest novel and find out what’s in store for Merlin and London, which plays as a big a role as any character in Ellis’ work.

We return to the tales of Frank Merlin, Scotland Yard’s finest, right after he becomes a father for the first time with his new wife, whom we’ve already met as his girlfriend in previous books.

Sonia and the baby are out of London visiting her parents, so readers get the Detective Chief Inspector all to ourselves. He’s just nabbed a couple of heavies from an important gang in a raid, but his good luck is interrupted when the powers that be order him to investigate the death of film star Laura Curzon.

This beautiful starlet had just returned from Hollywood when she fell to her death from the balcony of her flat. Merlin is ordered by on high to investigate, whilst also dealing with the corpse of a mystery young girl found in a bombed building who was strangled before being preserved in the ruins of the property.

The two cases quickly become connected, and in the course of his investigations Merlin and his team encounter everything from corrupt Hollywood bigwigs through to child prostitution, black mass and beyond.

Somehow, despite all of those interlinking ideas and various plot strands, Ellis masterfully keeps A Death In Mayfair’s readers hooked throughout. The plot moves at a quick pace, but it’s surprisingly easy to keep up with everything that’s going on.

One of the main reasons for this is Ellis’ exceptional characterisation, which is once again the defining feature of his work. Each character has been meticulously defined, but without dumping info on the reader all at once. Somehow you just connect with the characters, and that’s a rare achievement for a writer.

The only issue I have is with the dialogue, which in places is patchy. Other than that, the novel is enlightening and fascinating, showing readers a unique glimpse into war torn London at a time when relations in Asia and closer to home, in Germany, were strained and when Britain was blighted by rationing and other social problems.

It’s also a thrilling police procedural, with Merlin and his ever-intrepid team working doggedly to uncover several mysteries, all of which quickly intertwine to become one big tangle of criminality, debt, drugs and general debauchery.

To summarise, if you’re looking for an enticing novel to get you through the bleakness of the end of an English winter, then look no further than A Death In Mayfair. Mark Ellis has once again created an intriguing mystery that will have you hooked.

 

 

June Trop Interview: “I thought writing a good mystery would be the greatest challenge”

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This week I speak to June Trop about her Miriam bat Isaac Series, especially her fifth and latest book, The Deadliest Thief. She gives me a guided tour of her work and shares an exclusive piece written in the style of her protagonist.

Please talk me through your background and how you got into writing.

A transplant from New Jersey, I’ve lived in New Paltz, New York in the mid-Hudson Valley for more than thirty years. I began my professional life as a science teacher in New Jersey and moved to New Paltz when I married Paul R. Zuckerman. I taught biology at the local high school before earning a doctorate in science education from Columbia University Teachers College. Then I served as a professor of science teacher education at the State University of New York before retiring to write professionally in 2007.

When taking a course on the historical development of concepts in chemistry, I encountered Maria Hebrea, the first-century alchemist who, living in Alexandria, became the legendary founder of Western alchemy and held her place for 1500 years as the most celebrated woman of the Western World. Years later I would model my protagonist, Miriam bat Isaac, on her.

How about your protagonist, can you tell me something about her?

Actually, Miriam is right here and will tell you about herself as long as you swear by Alethia to keep her work a secret:

Times are dangerous here in Roman Alexandria. I am an alchemist, and while the goal of our league is to perfect human life—to heal, extend, and rejuvenate it—we also focus on base metals like copper and iron, to perfect them as well into gold. But that’s where we can get into trouble, big trouble. The emperor is afraid that by synthesizing gold, we will undermine his currency and overthrow the empire. And so, the practice of alchemy, even the possession of an alchemical document, is punishable by the summum supplicium, the most extreme punishment. Like the vilest of criminals, any suspect is summarily crucified, left to hang outside the city gates to serve as an appalling warning to others. And so, when an alchemical document was stolen from my home, I began to practice sleuthing. Now don’t forget: You must swear to keep my alchemical work a secret.

I live in the Jewish Quarter of Alexandria, on the coast and farthest from the main necropolis. So, we inhale the scent of the sea instead of the stench of the embalming workshops. If it’s exceptionally hot or I’m carrying valuables, my bearers take me in a sedan chair to the agora, our central marketplace. Otherwise I walk to the heart of our city, this cloaca of gossip, our venue for seeing and being seen, for hearing and being heard. Approaching the plaza, I feel its vigor filter into my arteries as haranguing hawkers and hucksters, orators and priests, soothsayers and astrologers, tricksters and swindlers, magicians and conjurers, snake charmers and peddlers, wizards and sorcerers promise me a miracle for a price.

But I used to have another reason for going to the agora, and that was to see Judah. I can still dream my way to that first encounter with him, that unexpected ache when I walked into his shop. He raised his lids to look at me and then squared his shoulders with a slow, deep, almost guttural intake of breath and an even slower exhale. That sensation of his nearness, close enough for our air to mingle and for his hand to brush against mine, would ignite my private fantasies.

Tell me about your latest book.

So far, I have written five books in the Miriam bat Isaac Mystery Series, all with three-word titles beginning with “The Deadliest…”.

In my latest book, The Deadliest Thief (Black Opal Books, 2019), the only surviving accomplice in a jewel heist vows to kill Miriam and her occasional deputy, the itinerant potbellied dwarf, Nathaniel ben Ruben. At the same time, a kidnapper seizes Miriam’s closest friend, Phoebe, and threatens to butcher her piece by piece. Miriam suspects the events are connected, but can she find her friend before it’s too late?

When Did You Discover Your Love Of Mysteries?

I became addicted to mysteries when, as an eight-year-old girl, I borrowed my first Nancy Drew mystery from a classmate.  Of course, I wanted to be Nancy Drew or at least be a detective just like her. Search as I might though I could find no secret passages, whispering walls, or unclaimed treasures. The only thing I could do was read more mysteries. When I’d read all the Nancy Drews, I graduated to Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes. Fortunately, with our ever-expanding genre, I’ve never run out of great mysteries to read.

So, What Was It That Made You Decide To Write Your Own Mysteries?

Aside from my own love of mysteries, I thought writing a good mystery would be the greatest challenge. Readers should have access to all the clues to solve the puzzle but, at the same time, be unable to do so. And then, the solution must satisfy. That is, readers should see that the author was fair. And finally, justice should triumph. The writing doesn’t get more challenging than that!

How Did You Turn That Idea Into A Book?

One source for plot ideas is the stories I’ve read or heard about but with a “what if” twist that would suit my characters and setting. Of course, that’s just the beginning of a plot idea. I keep a journal of them. Most of the storylines reach a dead end, but some come alive.

When I’ve fixed on a plot, I make a list of all the scenes to get from the beginning to the end and record the conflict that must occur in each scene to move the story forward. Then I create a subplot or two and insert those scenes where I want to leave the reader hanging for a while. This framework is what I use to flesh out each chapter. And, as a new idea emerges along the way, I insert that idea into the relevant scene or string of scenes.

Of course, that gets you only the first draft. But you really can’t know, really know your story until you’ve finished that first draft. Then the editing begins.

What Are Your Favorite Mystery Books To Read?

I have three: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, and A Long Line of Dead Men by Lawrence Block. I love Doyle’s stories for their atmosphere; Christie’s for their twists; and Block’s for his character Matthew Scudder, the noir streets of New York, and his dialogue. Block makes the written word sound like the spoken word. To me, these three mysteries are like chocolate ice cream. I never get tired of them.

Why Will Readers Enjoy The Deadliest Thief?

My books have won various awards, which include praise for their riveting suspense, their authentic portrayal of life in Roman Alexandria, and for bringing the reader right there. The Deadliest Thief in particular is a puzzle filled with action, a startling twist, and an array of distinctive characters that support Miriam in her pursuit of justice against the thrust of time. Although fifth in the series, The Deadliest Thief, like all the others, stands alone. You can enjoy any of them at any time. So, let Miriam take you into the underbelly of her splendid city to help solve her most baffling case yet.

Do You Have Any Advice For Other Writers?

These precepts guide me. I hope they can bring encouragement to others.

  1. Avoid comparing yourself to other writers. You have your own distinct voice and stories to tell.
  2. Accept your failures and learn from them. In fact, if you’re not getting rejected some of the time, then you’re not taking the chances you need to improve your craft.
  3. Be grateful you have this opportunity to express yourself.

Do You Have Anything To Add?

I welcome visits and comments.

Readers can learn more about The Deadliest Thief and the other books in the Miriam bat Isaac Mystery Series and watch the book trailers for each story on my website. I also post a weekly blog about life in Roman Alexandria on Facebook. My books are available in bookstores and online platforms. Readers can easily find them on Amazon. Most of the book trailers are on Youtube here.

Thanks for your time June, it’s been great hearing your thoughts!