Poppy Denby: the truth-seeker

I am delighted to welcome Fiona Veitch Smith to my blog today. Author of the fabulous Poppy Denby Investigates series, she talks here about her third book, The Death Beat, as well as fake news and the need for good journalism.

At the launch party of the new book in my Poppy Denby Investigates series I was interviewed by a former broadcast journalist from ITV. She referred to the central character of my novels – a reporter for a London newspaper in the 1920s – as a ‘truth-seeker’. I was delighted that that was how she perceived Poppy.

She then asked me if I was trying to say anything about journalism and whether or not I felt the profession had been discredited. I said that I was most definitely trying to say something and I hoped my books were a celebration of the best of journalism as a key component of a well-functioning democracy. The journalistic profession at its best is a seeker of truth, an exposer of falsehood and an upholder of justice.

THE TRUTH WILL SET US FREE

The host of this blog, Claire Musters, has just released a book called Taking Off the Mask, that challenges us to live authentic, truthful lives. That’s what the best journalism helps us as a society to do – it takes off the mask of institutional falsehood. I haven’t been living under a rock for the last couple of decades, and am well aware of the self-inflicted image-destruction journalism has undergone, from the death of Princess Diana, to the phone tapping of Millie Dowler, to the obsession with celebrity culture. However, that side of the profession has always been there – even in Poppy Denby’s day. But alongside it is, and always has been, a dogged determination to hold those in power to account, to expose corruption and to help live out the God-inspired teaching that truth will set us free. That is why I became a journalist. And that is why I have written Poppy Denby the way I have.

In the fourth book in the series, which I’m currently writing, the rival newspaper to the Daily Globe – the London Courier – is an example of the worst kind of journalism: printing false, distorted, sensational news. But Poppy and her colleagues seek to work to a higher standard. They don’t always get it right, and the question of whether the ends justify the means is always an open one, but their underlining ethos is that they will not stop until the truth is revealed.

THE FAKE NEWS ERA

So where does this leave me and my books in the age of ‘Fake News’? In planning The Death Beat, I decided Poppy and her boss Rollo would work on The New York Times long before Donald Trump became a presidential candidate and started spouting his politically charged ‘fake news’ accusations at every media outlet that didn’t present him in a good light. The ‘failing New York Times’ (in his words) has been one of his most vocal opponents. As a young journalism student I was raised on a steady diet of New York Times articles as prime examples of excellent reportage and design. So for me it was an honour to send my heroine there for three months.

Fake News does exist. It’s when people deliberately make up unverified and unsubstantiated stories and distribute them (mainly through social media) to undermine or stir up trouble. Writers of fake news are employed by shady propaganda farms, not mainstream media outlets. Although I realise too that the mainstream media is not squeaky clean, we must be careful not to tar all journalists with the same brush. Fake news is not the same as news with a political or social bias. Unfortunately the public struggles to tell the difference and now anything they don’t like or agree with is labelled and discredited as ‘fake news’. This is a very unhealthy place for us to be. The way forward from here is far bigger than this little blog post, but I hope that my books might at least help to remind people why we need journalists – even if we don’t like what they have to say.

Fiona Veitch Smith is the author of the Poppy Denby Investigates series. Book 1, The Jazz Files, was shortlisted for the CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger 2016. Book 2, The Kill Fee, was a finalist in the Forword Book Review mystery of the year, 2017, and book 3, The Death Beat is out now. Fiona has worked as both a practising journalist and as a lecturer in journalism. Found out more about her series at www.poppydenby.com

 

The history in the mystery

the-kill-fee-blog-tour-poster

I am delighted to be a part of Fiona’s blog tour as The Kill Fee, her second book in the Poppy Denby Investigates series, is released. I am partway through the book currently – and am absolutely hooked (as I was with the previous title). Fiona is an incredible writer; she really sets the scene and historical background to her work and also paints her characters and storyline vividly and imaginatively. The pace is just right – as a reader you are swept along, immersed in the story, eager to find out how the mystery will be solved. Fiona explains below the way that she ensures the history of the period is as accurate as possible in her books during the writing process:

The Poppy Denby Investigates books are murder mysteries set in the early 1920s. The Jazz Files takes place in June 1920 and The Kill Fee, October of the same year. Each book has a particular historical backdrop and also a backstory, set a few years earlier. So I have to ensure I get two different sets of historical ‘facts’ correct in each book. How do I do it?

Firstly, it is impossible to ensure that every single thing is 100% right. That being said, I try my utmost to do so and would estimate that about 90% of it is as right as I can get it, 5% has been deliberately ‘tweaked’ to fit in with the story (I always point it out in the historical notes) and the final 5% will be mistakes I was not aware of – I apologise in advance for my inevitable fallibility. I try to deal in historical authenticity rather than complete accuracy – it’s a novel, not a history text book – and aim to create an authentic feel for the period rather than giving the reader a checklist of exactly what happened where and when.

As I also write for stage and screen, my writing is very visual. One reviewer said she could almost ‘see’ the story as if it were being acted out on stage. Just as I would create the mis en scene by selecting representative costumes, props, music and actions to evoke a sense of the period, I do the same in my novels. Before I even start writing – and certainly during the process– I absorb myself in the music, fashion, art, architecture, cuisine, cinema and theatre of the period. There are lots of collections online, plus books to read and museum exhibits to visit. I even made an outfit from an original 1920s pattern for my first Poppy Denby photo shoot!

1920s-pattern

The 1920s pattern Fiona used as inspiration for her own outfit.

In terms of the historical backdrop of the suffragettes (book 1) and the Russian Revolution (book 2) I took a more ‘academic’ approach. I have a degree in history (simply a BA, but it is enough to ground me in the techniques of historical research). Before I start writing the story I spend around four months reading the key texts of the period. I prepare for writing in the same way I used to prepare for my university exams – sketching timelines and flow charts and trying to reach an understanding of the broad historical, political, social and economic backdrop, rather than memorising ‘details’. The details can, and are, easily added later. But I do not start writing until I have a feel of what it might have been like to live in that period – I try to read diaries, biographies and novels written at the time – as well as how the period ‘fits’ into history.

But then I stop, switch brains, and start to focus on the story, the characters and the mystery. That for me is the most important part. The history is certainly the skeleton of my books, but the muscles, the flesh and the beating heart are Poppy, her friends and their adventures. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I have writing – and researching – them.

For more on the social, historical and cultural background of the books – as well as flapulous fashion and music – visit www.poppydenby.com

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Fiona in her own ‘flapulous’ creation!

 

 

Author interview with Fiona Veitch Smith: part 2

In the second instalment of my interview with Fiona Veitch Smith, she provides more detail about what a writer’s life is like for her…

Fiona in her 1920s guise :)

Fiona in her 1920s guise 🙂

You write in various genres, including children’s books, stage plays and screenplays. Where do you get your inspiration for each genre, and do you find writing for one of them easier than the others?

I didn’t set out to write for all genre and media. I set out to be a full-time writer and simply pursued whatever opportunities came my way. I would push at a door to see how far it would open and if it stopped, try another. The net result is that I am published and produced across the media but with varying success in each. I am first and foremost a storyteller. I come up with story ideas and then see which media would be the best vehicle to tell that story. So I rarely look at a genre then come up with an idea; it works the other way. Occasionally though I will be commissioned to write something for a specific medium and then I delve into my ideas bank and see which story would best suit the technicalities of the medium. Some stories are more visual (film) others require immediacy and audience interaction (stage) still others are simple stories with deeper truths (children) then others more epic with extensive back story (novel). Short stories and poems are better suited to a single image or concept. I wrote a poem this morning about an ageing apple tree. The concept would have been overstretched if I’d tried to write it into a film or novel. It could have been a children’s story, however, but I wanted to get across a deep spiritual truth which required the reader to have a bit of life experience to relate to – so a poem for adults it became. Each medium has its strengths and weakness. It’s like trying to choose your favourite child. At the moment though I am focusing on writing picture books for children with SPCK and novels with Lion Fiction.

For all those aspiring writers out there: how do you manage your time between being a lecturer in writing and writing itself? Are you working towards writing full-time or do you feel you have the balance as you want it?

I started lecturing by accident. A friend’s husband died suddenly and she asked me to take over her adult ed writing class. I’d never taught before, but I felt unable to say no. It turned out to be a very fulfilling experience. It also provided income to buy me time to write. Since then, now 11 years ago, I have continued to teach and lecture part time. I now lecture at two universities but I wouldn’t say it’s my day job – I only lecture a day or two a week between September and April. My day job is still writing. I think I’m beginning to find the balance. A couple of years ago I said yes to taking on more lecturing work because I needed the money but then my writing suffered. In the last two years I have tried to keep April to August completely free to write. It’s tough, because I only get paid for what’s called ‘contact time’ and I end up living off my credit card for a couple of months every year. Should other writers do it? That’s up to you. I gave up a full-time, well-paid job as a journalist to pursue creative writing, but my family’s income took a massive hit as a result. It’s not for everyone. I make sure I take on enough paid work to keep the wolf from the door. And that’s the reality for most writers. Very few people manage to do it full time without an additional income stream.

You also speak at conferences and offer creative writing workshops for both children and adults alike. Would you say that writers need to learn to diversify, or have those other avenues simply developed naturally for you?

I do that because a) I enjoy it; b) I have a natural gift for public speaking and teaching; and c) it helps to pay the bills (although some of the appearances barely pay enough to cover expenses – if anything at all!). This is something that suits me and my skill-set, but will not necessarily suit everyone. Yes it has increased my profile and hence gives me and my books a bit of a ‘platform’ but that’s not the primary reason I do it. I would advise writers to connect with their audiences in whatever way suits their personality and skill-set. But readers do like to meet authors ‘in the flesh’.

In 2011 you started your own ‘indie’ publishing company. How did that come about, and what was behind the decision to fold it in 2015?

Crafty Publishing was started when my husband was made redundant (and then got a bit of spare cash when he got a new job fairly quickly). I had written a series of children’s books called the Young David Books, which I had unsuccessfully tried to get published. After they went down so well at my church my husband and I decided to use some of his redundancy money to self-publish. It was hard work but ultimately a successful little enterprise. Within four years of self-publishing we were approached by three different publishers to buy us out – two in the UK and one in America. By this time we felt we had plateaued with the books and couldn’t take them to the next level. We decided to sell the books to SPCK who are doing a brilliant job with them now and are getting them the international distribution that we were unable to do.

As things were going so well with my own books I thought I would try to give some other writers a chance – as I know how hard it is to get published – and also to try a different genre. I brought out my own adult novel and then signed another writer. We had four other writers in the pipeline (one children and three adult) when we decided to stop publishing earlier this year. The reasons were financial. My children’s books were the only things that made any money (not much, but we were approaching break-even point) yet we struggled to find sufficient distribution for the adult books to make it a viable commercial concern. We were at the point where we would have to have started siphoning off our family’s savings to fund it and we weren’t prepared to do that. So sadly, particularly for the authors involved, we had to call it a day.

You have quite a presence online: an old website, your new author website, a Poppy Denby website plus your Crafty Writers website. How do you have time to keep all the content refreshed? What advice would you give to writers wanting to make more of a presence online?

The truth is I don’t. My many websites reflect different aspects of my career over a 12-year period. One of the sites was more active when I was making my living primarily as a freelance feature writer, journalist and blogger. Another when I was earning more from giving writing advice and freelance editing and copywriting. As my career has developed so my web presence has changed. The problem is the sites are linked in to other sites and it is not that easy to take them down. As my writing career is becoming more streamlined into me being a novelist with Lion Fiction and a children’s writer with SPCK I am trying to streamline my online presence – but this takes time. So my advice: don’t take on more than you can chew!

It’s the same with social media: I am on Linked In, Goodreads, Twitter and FB but really only focus on Twitter and FB. They suit me and my relational personality more. I might give Goodreads another go but there are only a few hours in the day that I can (or should!) devote to social media. I would advise writers trying to build their online presence to choose one or two outlets and do them well. That being said, these days, having an online presence and being active in social media is one of the things publishers take into consideration when deciding whether or not to take your book. So do it, but do it wisely (ain’t hindsight a wonderful thing?).

What now for Poppy Denby and future writing projects?

I’m very excited that Poppy 2 has now been sent off to my publisher. I will be focusing mainly on lecturing over the Autumn plus promoting The Jazz Files. In between I will start research for Poppy 3. In the New Year I am looking forward to working on a new children’s series with SPCK. Beyond that, I’m very tempted to start pitching Poppy Denby Investigates as a television series. I would like to do the adaptation myself. A girl can dream, can’t she? And sometimes, just sometimes, those dreams come true.

To purchase The Jazz Files, please click here.