Having been captivated by Fiona’s latest novel, The Jazz Files, I was delighted when she agreed to an interview. I’ll warn you up front that it is long, but so fascinating and full of honesty and advice for writers and aspiring writers alike that I simply couldn’t cut it. So please do read this and tomorrow’s instalment for a behind-the-scenes look at how Fiona’s new crime series has been birthed and crafted – and what life as a writer is like for her.
Congratulations on an intriguing, fast-moving novel. This is the first book in a series – could you explain how your publishing deal came about?
I hope you’ve got a cup of tea in hand, this is a bit of a long story … I was hired by Monarch (Lion Hudson) around four years ago to ghostwrite a biography. They took me on because a few years before that I submitted a non-fiction idea to them which they turned down. Although they didn’t want the book, they liked my writing style and kept me in mind for the ghostwriting project. However, after nine months working on it I came to the conclusion that the man who the book was about had made up much of his story. I told Monarch and they cancelled the contract.
Lion Hudson – and, in particular, Tony Collins, one of the commissioning editors there – felt awful that the contract was cancelled and asked if I had anything else they could look at because they really wanted to work with me. The only other thing I had in the pipeline at the time was a historical novel set in the 1st century against the background of the early church. At the time the Lion Fiction imprint was being launched and they asked to look at it.
It took them eighteen months – and two rewrites from me – to decide that although they liked the book, they felt it was too ‘Christian’ for their market. Again they asked me if I had anything else. Well I didn’t; nothing written anyway. But I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth so I started mulling over some new ideas.
My research of what Lion Fiction was already publishing told me that crime mystery series were something they were interested in. So I came up with the idea of a reporter sleuth set in the 1920s and submitted the idea to them. They liked the idea and the outline but weren’t prepared to go to contract without seeing the whole book.
So I had to write it. It took me six months. I submitted it – plus some ideas for the rest of the series – and they finally offered me a contract. Phew! So the moral of the story is … don’t give up. These things can take a looooooong time to come to fruition. I’m so grateful they stuck with me and I thank Tony Collins for believing in me as a writer for so many years.
Do you have all the ideas for the whole series already set out, or is it an evolving process?
It’s an evolving process. I deliberately started the series in 1920 so I had ten years for my heroine to have adventures before it became a series set in the 1930s – whether she, the publisher or I are game for another decade, is a decision for the future. However, I had it in mind from the beginning to set the book against real historical events as they unfold through the decade. Which events still have to be decided, but I do have a basic structure in mind.
About halfway through writing the first book I knew that I wanted to set the next one – which has now been written – against the diaspora of White Russian refugees in the wake of the Russian Revolution. I know too where the third book will be set and am starting my background reading on that now. I have an inkling of Book 4, but have not made any firm decisions yet. The story and background of Book 2 were decided because one of the characters of Book 1 was a Russian and it gave me scope to delve a bit more into his back story. Also, I found a faux Fabergé Egg in a charity shop, which gave me the idea for the main plotline.
The same with Book 3 – it’s linked to the back story of another character. So a tip for writers considering writing series: have a broad dramatis personae of colourful characters. They may only play a bit part in the first book but could be developed down the line.
The Suffragette movement is still at the forefront of your characters’ minds. Your main character, Poppy, is one of the young women who were forging their own careers in traditionally male-dominated worlds. Why did you choose to set the series in that era?
After my first self-published novel, The Peace Garden, I discovered I was attracted to the mystery genre. The book started as a literary novel but soon drifted towards mystery. And as I have a degree in history and I love reading historical mysteries, it seemed to be a natural fit. But why the 1920s? Well I originally conceived of it set in 1912. The day before I received the rejection for my 1st century historical and the request for another proposal, I had been to visit the grave of the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison in Morpeth. It was the centenary of her death and I had just used her as an example of women acting out their faith (she was a Christian) in a talk I gave to my church’s women’s ministry. The pastor’s wife suggested we visit Emily’s grave and lay flowers. There is a picture of me at her grave on www.poppydenby.com under the ‘Suffragette’ link.
The next day I received news that Lion had rejected my 1st century novel. I was naturally very upset after all the work I’d put into it, but heartened that they wanted more. As I was praying and asking God to guide me as to what to write next, my eye was drawn to a book on my bookshelf called Unshackled by Christabel Pankhurst. It’s a first-hand account of the women’s suffrage movement.
It suddenly dawned on me that I should write about a suffragette reporter sleuth. (Why a reporter? Well I was formerly a journalist … but that’s another story). So I started planning the novel. However, the period just didn’t seem to fit. The clothes were boring, the music was boring and frankly, my character might have been feisty but she was downright dowdy. I felt the same writing her as I did playing Sheila Birling in an am-dram production of An Inspector Calls. But what I wanted to feel was like I felt when I played the delightful Maisie in Ken Russell’s The Boyfriend (a high school production – pic again on www.poppydenby.com). I had also just started learning to play jazz clarinet and was listening to music from the 1920s. I began to conceive of shifting my story to the 1920s and having my main character an inheritor of the legacy of the Suffragettes.
Just like Poppy I worked as a journalist in the 1990s and inherited the freedoms won by the brave women of the 1960s and 70s. Once I made this shift I immediately felt an emotional connection with the character and the period. And the rest, as they say, is history.
How did you research the historical content of your novel?
I read a number of non-fiction books about the period, which are listed at the back of The Jazz Files and also on the www.poppydenby.com website. In addition to this I went down to London for a few days and walked up and down Fleet Street and King’s Road – key locations in the novel – to get a feel for the place and travelled the same routes that Poppy would travel on bus and train. I spent two days in the British Library reading newspapers from 1920 – particularly the Daily Mail and The Times. Some of the news stories that appear in the book were genuine articles from the time. I also went to the Suffragette exhibition and fashion exhibition at the London Museum. Some of the outfits that Poppy and Delilah wear in The Jazz Files were exact replicas of outfits I saw there. In addition I researched what was playing on the theatre scene in 1920 as well as cinema and music. The songs played in chapter 3 of the book were all actually played in 1920. These are small details that most people won’t notice but it gives me great pleasure to get these things right. I also like to think it adds a touch of authenticity that readers will feel if not know.
To purchase The Jazz Files, please click here.