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Thursday 1 December 2016

Kate Ellis

Carol Westron talks to
Kate Ellis

Kate Ellis is the author of two popular detective series which mix the investigation of contemporary crime with historical and archaeological mysteries. The long-running Wesley Petersen series is set in Devon and the more recent Joe Plantagenet series is situated at the other end of the country in a fictional town with many of the characteristics of York.
 Kate is also an award winning short story writer. Her latest novel,
A High Mortality of Doves,
was published at the start of November 2016.
It is a haunting tale, set in an English village in the dark days of loss and grief that followed the end of the Great War.

Carol: It is several years since the first Wesley Petersen book was published and early next year The Mermaid’s Scream, the 21st book in the series will be published. In the beginning did you foresee that you had the start of a long series?
Kate: To tell the truth I didn’t set out with a plan to write so many books featuring Wesley Peterson. However, I kept getting more and more ideas and realised there were a lot more stories to tell. There were so many crimes and themes I wanted to explore (along with parallel historical mysteries) so I just carried on.

Carol: When Wesley first appeared in the West Country in The Merchant’s House he was described as ‘one of Devon’s first black detectives.’ His ethnicity is obviously an integral part of the character you
created but do you feel it affected the way he was regarded by his colleagues in Tradmouth and has that changed over the years?
Kate: Wesley has experienced racism from time to time but I didn’t want to make it the focus of the books – possibly because I think he is a strong sympathetic character and I’d hate to see him as a ‘victim’. After some
early difficulties his colleagues have come to like and respect him and he has certainly grown closer to his boss, Gerry Heffernan, over time (possibly because both men are outsiders in the community - Gerry, like me, is from Liverpool).

Carol: Is there anything about Wesley, his family and friends that you would have altered if you had guessed you would have to live with them for so long?
Kate: If I had my time over again he’d probably have started the series as a single man. If I’d done this I could have explored his decision to marry Pam and perhaps given him more of a choice between Pam and Rachel. But, having said that, I’m happy with the way things have worked out, especially now his children are growing up (there are a few surprises in the next book, The Mermaid’s Scream, which is out in February).

Carol: The fact that Wesley had a background as an archaeologist makes total sense to me; archaeology
is another form of detection. Your books all have a back-in-history dimension to them. Have you a background in archaeology and how do you research this part of your books?
Kate: I’ve been interested in archaeology for many years and I’ve taken part in excavations (which, I hope, enables me to write convincingly on the subject). I’m a member of my local Archaeological Research Team and I’ve recently taken part in a survey of medieval graffiti in a number of North Cheshire churches – yes, you’ve guessed it, the book I’m writing at the moment has a medieval graffiti survey as part of the plot. My younger son studied archaeology at York University so he’s always available to help me with technical matters. And they do say that inside every archaeologist there’s a detective trying to get out!

Carol: Your second series, featuring Joe Plantaganet, also has crime investigation, archaeology and a historical dimension, but they also have a supernatural element. Is the supernatural another of your interests?

Kate:     Like a lot of people I love a good ghost story and I’ve always enjoyed the writings of M R James. I first had the idea for the Joe Plantagenet series while I was on a ghost walk of York with my son and some of the guide’s stories the guide have proved to be irresistible starting points for crime stories.

Carol:   Both of your series are situated in fictional places that are typical of the counties in which they are set. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a fictional location?
Kate: Lots of people ask me why I don’t use real names and I always explain that creating a parallel town and landscape, even though it’s based on a real place (Dartmouth in the case of Tradmouth and York in the case of Eborby) allows me use my imagination and change things around to suit the story: for instance Tradmouth has a police headquarters whereas Dartmouth’s police station is tiny and only staffed part time these days. I’m sure that if I did use the proper names and then played fast and loose with reality, I’d get a lot of complaints. I always make the point that I’m not the first writer to do this – even the great Thomas Hardy did the same in his books.

Carol: You have written one book set in the 16th Century. Did you ever consider writing other books set fully in this period?
Kate: The Devil’s Priest was one of the first books I wrote and it was published by a small press before I made it available on Kindle. It has a strong female protagonist (an abbess who was turned out of her convent by Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries) and I’ve always thought I’d like to write about her again, although so far I haven’t really had time. I loved the research I had to do for the book (delving into the history of sixteenth century Liverpool). I certainly wouldn’t rule out giving Lady Kathryn another case to solve in the future should the opportunity arise.

Carol: You have won awards for your short stories. In what ways do you feel that the techniques for writing a successful short story differ from those needed to write a full length novel?
Kate: I love writing short stories because they enable me to experiment with different settings, times and characters without having to commit to writing a full length novel. I have used many periods and locations, including Anglo Saxon England, present day Prague, fin de si├Ęcle Paris, 1960s Liverpool and medieval Wales to mention but a few. The technique is quite different and it takes discipline to tell a story in few words (although this focuses the mind wonderfully). I often like to write a new short story when I’ve finished the marathon of creating a full length book.

Carol: I am looking forward to reading your latest book, A High Mortality of Doves. It is set in the dark days of 1919. What inspired you to choose this as the date of your new book?
Kate: For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the way people dealt with the trauma of the First World War. How can you just go back to normal day to day life after so much tragedy and loss? The idea for A High Mortality of Doves was brewing in my head for a few years and, even though I was writing other things in the meantime, it refused to leave me alone. It was a story I just had to write and I’m really pleased with the result. I hope my readers will be too.

Carol: Do you plan A High Mortality of Doves to be the start of a new series?
Kate: I certainly intend it to be the first of a trilogy – after that I’m not sure. The main character is very strong and I can see him carrying on but I’m making no decisions yet.

Carol: To finish, please tell me about yourself and your hobbies. What do you like to do when you have
any spare time?
Kate: I’m married with two grown up sons and a new granddaughter. As well as my archaeology interests I love anything to do with history including exploring old towns and buildings. A few years ago, inspired by Dorothy L Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, I took up bell ringing (which is great exercise after sitting at a desk all day creating crime

Wesley Peterson Series

Joe Plantagenet Series
Seeking the Dead (2008) Playing With Bones (2009)
Kissing the Demons (2011)
Watching the Ghosts (2012) Walking by Night (2015)

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her latest book The Fragility of Poppies was published 10 June 2016.


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