Jill at Sedbergh Book Festival, June 23

Writers Elly Griffiths and Alex Gray

One celebrated writer told me plotting was 'easy'

Shetland Noir here I come 



TALKING ABOUT YOUR OWN BOOKS is never as straightforward as it might seem – unless you have a super-helpful chairperson asking questions. I saw that at Shetland Noir where Elly Griffiths was interviewed by fellow crime writer Alex Gray.

I spend a lot of time preparing if I am talking to a group of young people, with nobody to ask prepared questions. They are easily bored, will shift and wriggle, challenge, remind you that what you know is immaterial to them.

I begin a session by asking everyone to raise hands and to put them down if they’d never seen a soap opera. ‘What’s that?’ I say, Waterloo Road, Grange Hill, Emmerdale, Coronation Street, Eastenders and finally a couple of hands are lowered. By the time I get to, ‘Hands down if you have never played a computer game’ there is some confusion. I insist all games incorporate a story. ‘Depends what game you play.’

I agree, and say my youngest grandson has been addicted to Fortnite for years. They nod at me. No story there. I say, ‘I’ve sat alongside Fortnite and I can tell you there’s a story. A killing story, in fact.’  An occasional groan gives way to a nod.

I point out that someone writes all the webpages, the adverts, the film scripts, the news programmes, what goes on cereal packets – that studying English is a fantastic preparation for a great life. The creative arts are booming in the UK.

‘How much do you get paid for your books?’

‘Not enough.’

I think for a moment. ‘You’ve heard that scriptwriters for best-selling series in the US are on strike? How much do talented musicians receive for their tracks when they’re screened?’ I seem to have confirmed the view that creative artists don’t earn much so I change the subject as fast as I can.

They make you think, young people. The boy who stands close to me telling me about his novel, that he’s autistic, that he really concentrates on his story, lights up when I say I would love to read it. Someone else asks me to sign the bottom of the page in her exercise book where she’s written a story she’s proud of. ‘I don’t know how to write chapters so I don’t have chapters in my story.’

Good enough, I think. Sharp, original minds – who wouldn’t love spending time with them? I’m going back to run some writing workshops but I know I will learn as much as I impart.



I DISCOVERED THAT the Shetland Noir Crime Fiction festival existed from friends who know Ann Cleeves, patron and curator of the Festival, so booked early. People have flown in from Canada, the US, Switzerland, and many other countries, for the excitement of listening to writers talking about crime fiction.


I started out with Speed Dating: half a dozen delegates sitting round a table listening to crime writers who had two minutes in which to talk about their work. There was meant to be a Q and A option but it was hard to find the time.


I’m baffled by crime writers’ obsession with their characters – as if the Marjory Allingham and Dorothy Sayers love affairs with Albert Campion and Peter Wimsey still lived and thrived in 2023. There was much talk about the ‘golden age’ of crime writing, but as one who read all these many years ago, I find them far more difficult to accept now, with their casual racism, anti-Semitism and occasional misogyny, however disguised. I swallow it because the plots are so good. I tried to ask how a crime writer plots the narrative, but few seemed willing to answer. One celebrated writer told me plotting was easy. In a crime novel there’s a murder, and a solution, and that’s all the writer needs to think about. Others in a panel discussion, did accept that managing the reveal was critical.


Q: Do crime writers find it easy to work out the main criminal in another crime writer’s novel?

A: Yes.


I’m still baffled. It seems to me that plotting is a great skill. Most of these writers didn’t want to tell us – though Shona Maclean, whose work I had not read, led a workshop on a Sense of Place, and inspired great respect in me for saying, All readers have a bank of images on which to draw. Don’t overwrite.


I enjoyed spotting other delegates on the plane from Edinburgh, and seeing the same faces in Lerwick. I’ve listened to writers describe their sequence of novels, all using the same detective, the same place, how agents/editors tell them not to write a standalone crime story, or the contrary. Crime novels are popular among the young in Shanghai. Short stories polish one’s skills.


I’m here with a daughter and we dive off into Shetland Wild, to white beaches and blue, freezing seas. We’ll get up for a 5:30am boat trip to gaze at seabirds, and wake at 2am to find ourselves able to read by daylight. I’m looking forward to stories about crime on Shetland that aren’t all solved by Jimmy Perez. The film crews are everywhere ...



Meeting deadlines ...

IN ANOTHER LIFE, when I was still a headteacher, I was often asked to contribute chapters or whole sections to books for leadership teams in schools. This wasn’t because of my wisdom. ‘You meet deadlines, Jill,’ was the message.


Having missed my self-imposed deadline of posting a blog every Monday, I’m presenting the defence: I have been working flat-out to meet another set of deadlines, of May 31st, for several literary competitions. I’ve entered for years, without success, and I don’t expect to get noticed this time.






First novel award?  You have to read the small print very carefully to be sure your entry isn’t instantly rejected. ‘First novel’ usually means the author hasn’t been paid by a publisher, but it’s not invariable.  Every award asks for something different: no extract should contain your name/ensure your name is clear. Provide a synopsis of 300/400 words, or a full page. Your extract should include the first three chapters or about 5000 words; or 8000 words/ 10,000 words.


Is it worth the agony? Well, yes. Every time I go through my proposed entries I find something to improve. In the meantime, I’m preparing for a talk at Kendal Library about my first novel, Morph, on June 10th, and to take part in the revived Sedbergh Book Festival later in the month.




Next month I’m off to Shetland again...

It will be my third visit and I always go with my oldest daughter. We are fans of the Scottish islands – Outer Hebrides and Orkney as well as the Shetland Isles. This year there’s an additional incentive: the Shetland Noir festival, its patron being Ann Cleeves, with several literary notables giving workshops, readings, tips on how to manage a crime story. I am really looking forward to it. One of the visitors is Ella Griffiths, whom I met a few years ago. She’s a friend of a friend.  Her hot tip was to include something criminal, a police presence, to any novel, to generate additional interest.


I wish I could do that, and I’ve oblique references to a serial murderer in the novel I’ve just finished, When the Killing Comes Home, though if you’ve read my earlier blogs you’ll know I think there are other kinds of crime, in the way we treat vulnerable children. We take them from their parents and then don’t guarantee a loving upbringing.


Well, I was reading the programme for Shetland Noir, when one of my now rather large rescue kittens, Djibi, decided to take an interest. Thoughtfully, she chewed the edge of my laptop. Who’d have thought a MacBook screen could be punctured by catty teeth? Apparently, it’s not uncommon.

She was tiny when hand-reared. Now, weighing in at almost 4 kilos, she has a considerable bite. She means it to be affectionate. I have the puncture marks on my forearms, delivered every morning when I wake up. It’s her greeting.  I wish she could kiss me instead …


I do love cats, though. A cat named Marmalade had a major part in my first novel, Morph.  In my second novel, Anna and the Snake Queen, my characters visit a magical island where evolution has taken a slightly different turn and they meet a mind-reading species of cat, called a squillkit. Squillkits have two tails. Why not?



Where do ideas come from?


I started thinking about When the Killing Comes Home many years ago. A girl in a school where I was the Principal slapped a member of staff. I discovered that she was on her umpteenth foster-placement and her grandmother had just died. The task set had led her to feel she was worthless – it was unintentional on the part of the teacher, of course. The girl’s lashing out was a symptom of enormous distress. Her story haunted me.


Another story, of a completely different kind, also caught my imagination. A very old friend, at the time a magistrate, told me of a story presented to the court, one they felt would not easily be resolved. A woman whose baby had been removed tracked down her child, some years later, and began to stalk the new family. The magistrates sensed that without enormous therapeutic support she’d be likely to stalk again, whatever penalties were imposed. The trauma of having her child removed, probably for excellent reasons, had caused deep damage. My friend was haunted by the incident. I felt I was looking at two sides of a story, though I didn’t know how to tell it.


In 2010, a taxi driver, Derrick Bird, previously said to be a pleasant man, began to shoot people he knew well, beginning with his twin brother. He shot people in the face, including complete strangers. In half a day he drove along the West coast of Cumbria, killed 12 people, injured another 11, and narrowly missed killing more. Finally, he shot himself, in a remote woodland.


I knew the area, and, it transpired, I knew some of the people caught up in his rampage. Newspaper headlines were black and white – this was ‘a killing spree’, ‘a Cumbria massacre’. The then prime minister, David Cameron, said, "There will be some parts of this that we will never understand. There were some random acts of killings, and people who will have lost loved ones will ask why it happened to them and why so random? Why it is so unfair and so cruel, what's happened here?”

I thought of all the children taken into care, but never finding  successful foster-carers or adopting parents. I’d come across many such stories, listened to friends who are social workers. I also knew of those women researchers ‘maternal outcasts’: women who become repeatedly pregnant, are cared for by social workers, until the babies are born, removed, and the women feel abandoned:

  • and I thought, ‘these people have lost loved ones’ for all those whose babies are removed …
  • and I thought, ‘Why it is so unfair and so cruel, what’s happened here?’ for the girl on an umpteenth foster placement, her story so predictable …

There are other kinds of “killing” spree that don’t attract national headlines or visits from prime ministers. How many children leaving care are homeless, sucked into crime, lose heart completely? How many maternal outcasts suffer? Was Bird’s behaviour really impossible to explain?

I found the psychiatric research related to behaviour such as Bird’s. A friendly senior policeman sent me the report most useful for the police (that’s for another blog). I set out to write the story of a teenage girl running away from school, after constant bullying because she’s ‘looked-after’, set against the background of Bird’s killing journey. I visited the area, took copious photographs, pored over maps, began writing … and then I realised, because I understand the value of getting the details correct, that schools were on half-term when he got out his shotgun and rifle. People were camping in the valley, visiting the seaside. And what about the girl’s mother? Where did she fit in?


Do other authors find they are working on two novels simultaneously?

I didn’t intend this. I thought the one I’d just finished, When the Killing Comes Home, was as good as I could get it. I’d sent it to several independent publishers and a few agents. I’d worked on it for some years, going through countless drafts, reflecting on comments from my writing group, as well as feedback from other participants in the Cornerstones Edit Your Novel the Professional Way.


I’d sent it to Professor Linda Anderson, OBE, extremely distinguished founder of the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts, the Newcastle Poetry Festival (Linda was one of my PhD in Creative Writing supervisors and has read everything I’ve written since. I am very lucky). I also sent it to a friend who specialises in trauma counselling to make sure she’d approve of how I’d used her advice.


I didn’t inspire any agent or publisher, so I settled down last month to shorten the novel by about 6,000 words, make other changes in response to suggestions and felt it was as good as I could get it.


By the way, I was already 40,000 words into the next novel.


Well, on impulse I sent the revised version of When the Killing Comes Home to an editor who’s the friend of a friend. The next revision awaits me. I received excellent advice on why agents probably don’t get past my first couple of pages, and clear instruction on how deal with my over-reliance on ‘show, not tell,’ a tendency which can leave the unwary reader baffled. Some early ‘telling’ is ok.


The editor is Anne Hamilton, by the way. Her website is http://www.writerightediting.co.uk.


When I get back to my novel in progress I’ll try to remember her advice. I’m already on the second major rewrite, but it will have wait for a few days.


In the meantime, I ponder the reality that brilliant book covers and great reviews don’t necessarily sell books. Jilly Cooper unexpectedly provided a terrific review for my first novel, Morph, I won the Lakeland Book of the Year Award for Fiction, in 2019 and the cover is stunning. Sales are not spectacular.

'They make you think, young people'

Eating Cullen skink, a local speciality soup of haddock, onions, potatoes

We dived off into Shetland Wild

Don't miss it (if you're local, of course)

Djibi, the feline felon

Near Boot, Cumbria