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Wednesday 6 September 2017

Nicola Slade

Carol Westron talks with Nicola Slade

This month I’m interviewing another good friend and fellow Deadly Dame, Nicola Slade.
After writing children’s stories and short stories for women’s magazines, Nicola started her novel writing career with a romantic comedy.
Following this she turned to humorous cosy crime with two series, one Victorian and one contemporary, set near Winchester in Hampshire. Nicola’s latest book,
The House at Ladywell is due to be published in November 2017.
It is a return to romantic comedy, however Nicola assures me that it has a few murders in it as well.

Carol: Your first novel, Scuba Dancing, was a romantic comedy. When did you realise that you wanted to ‘turn to crime’?
Nicola: My mother and grandmother were mystery fans so I was brought up reading Patricia Wentworth, Margery Allingham and co. Besides that, I’ve always been fascinated by graveyards and a lot of my early childhood was spent accompanying my Granny to ‘visit’ members of her vast family and check that their graves were tidy. I used to salvage flowers from the bins (and probably ‘borrow’ some from other graves) to put on the tiny unmarked graves of babies that had a morbid attraction for me. Add a passion for history and I was always going to end up writing historical mysteries!

Carol: After Scuba Dancing you moved into historical crime with Murder Most Welcome and have now written three books featuring the young Victorian widow Charlotte Richmond. What appealed to you about the 1850s Victorian period that you selected?
Nicola: Again, the passionate love of history, combined with practicality. I initially wanted to write a book like the Georgette Heyer Regencies that combine romance with mystery: The Reluctant Widow, The Quiet Gentleman, The Talisman Ring, etc. However, the Regency period is well-covered already so I turned to the large number of Victorian novels I was brought up on – best-sellers, Charlotte M Yonge and Mrs Henry Wood. Their first books came out in the 1850s and that period appealed.

Carol: How do you set about your research for your historical novels?
Nicola: See Q2! I dive into my old and much-loved favourites for rhythms of speech, social history, clothes, manners and – occasionally – a plot idea or three. They’re well out of copyright so I’m sure they don’t mind!

Carol: Charlotte Richmond is a very lively and unconventional Victorian heroine with many secrets in her past. When you started Murder Most Welcome did you already know what she was like and how she would turn out or did she develop as you wrote?
Nicola: I knew she was called Charlotte and I knew she was a young widow because the original title of the book had leaped into my mind as, ‘What Will Become of Poor, Dear Charlotte’ – too long, of course, for my eventual publisher. The trouble was, I had no idea why she was ‘poor’ or what, indeed, was to become of her so I had to feel my way. It came as a shock to realise she was an Australian and how to get her from there to Hampshire? The Indian Mutiny of 1857 sprang to mind and gave me Spring 1858 for the date when she finally arrives in England.

Carol: You chose the surname of one of Jane Austen’s heroes for Charlotte’s neighbour, Mr Knightley. What characteristics of Austen’s hero inspired you to do this and what characteristics do you feel the two Mr Knightleys share?
Nicola: Emma has always been my favourite Jane Austen novel – I ‘did’ it for A Level English Lit, which, surprisingly, didn’t ruin it for me! Even then I loved the decency and stability Mr Knightley offered, as well as the way he took no nonsense from Emma and I realised that Charlotte needed someone just like him. I made things difficult by providing him with a wife who was initially meant to die in the first book; like Charlotte, though, I loved Mrs Knightley and couldn’t do it!

Carol: In your Victorian series you occasionally introduce real historical people to interact with your fictional characters. What challenges are there in doing this?
Nicola: The easiest real person to tuck into the story was Florence Nightingale (The Dead Queen’s Garden). Her family lived at Embley Park, near Romsey, so it was plausible that they would be on visiting terms with Charlotte’s in-laws about 12 miles away, just outside Winchester.
Sending my heroine to Bath (Death is the Cure) in 1858 was an interesting exercise, not least because mid-19th century Bath was very different from the city Jane Austen knew. Shabby and slightly down-at-heel, it was still a place for invalids and that suggested a guest house for visitors come to take the waters. There is a young girl inthe story and at a concert I suddenly thought of a famous historical writer who might easily have been in Bath – and there he was, a tall young mathematician from Oxford, with an interest in photography and an easy manner with little girls. He even makes a note when Charlotte tells the child to ‘curtsey when you’re thinking, it saves time’.

In the same book, there’s a very famous – or notorious – fictitious heroine, now an old lady, who arrives in Bath on a quest that leads her to Charlotte and embroils both of them in a dangerous situation.

Carol: Your central protagonist for your contemporary series is Harriet Quigley, a retired headmistress. Superficially, Harriet is a very different protagonist from Charlotte Richmond, but I suspect they have certain character traits in common, not least an insatiable curiosity. Am I correct in thinking this?
Nicola: Oh, yes – curiosity and a sense of humour with a tendency to laugh at entirely inappropriate moments. Charlotte says of herself: ‘I have few ladylike accomplishments…Sadly, the ability to do quantities of mending, to cook a good plain dinner and to shoot a marauding crocodile as I once did, is not appreciated in Polite Society.’ Harriet is calm, clever, much-respected in her profession – and nicknamed Boudicca by her students in acknowledgement of her all-seeing eye and swift, but fair judgement. In Harriet’s third adventure (The Art of Murder) there are hints of a connection between my two protagonists.

Carol: You are a lady who has travelled extensively and yet you have set two cosy crime series in similar parts of Hampshire, near Winchester, and it is clear that you have a great affinity with this area. What is it about this part of the country that sparks your creative imagination?
Nicola: Winchester, as the former capital of England, is full of history; you only have to walk through the town to be aware of the ancient glories. I live about six miles away so it’s the perfect place to combine a spot of research and shopping!

Carol: Returning to the Harriet Quigley series, you have achieved fame – or possibly notoriety – in the CWA by being the author with the most unconventional murder weapon in your first Harriet Quigley book, Murder Fortissimo. Could you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind that?
Nicola: To be honest, Carol, I’ve no idea how I thought that one up! I started writing it with a vague idea of victim, murderer and motive, but the method was vague. I did know I wanted to include an Oompah Band because I knew someone who played in one and the murder method – and weapon – was suddenly irresistible.

Carol: Not wishing to be outdone by her 21st century rival, in The Dead Queen’s Garden, Charlotte Richmond fends off an attacker with an artificial leg. Do you feel you have now reached your imaginative limit regarding extraordinary weapons or is there more to come?
Nicola: I don’t have anything in mind at the moment, but I think the answer to that has to be: Watch this space!

Carol: Whatever the genre or time period, humour figures strongly in your work. Have you ever written anything that does not have that strong vein of humour running through it?
Nicola: I don’t think I could, because humour is so much part of the human experience, but I don’t write jokes, as such. I prefer natural humour as it arises from ordinary situations in which – as in real life ‘cheerfulness keeps breaking in’.

Carol: As well as being a writer you’re an artist, and you used your knowledge to good effect in The Art of Murder. Tell us a bit about your recent art exhibition.
Nicola: Ever since Scuba Dancing was published my husband has framed each book as they came out so that we have a procession of them all the way up the staircase wall. My younger daughter suggested I should display them throughout August in the gallery café of a local cinema – the Harbour Lights, in Southampton – with some paintings as ‘window dressing’. I had a lovely phone call from a visitor to the cinema wanting to buy a painting. His wife had painted all her life but ill-health had put a stop to her creative hobbies; however, she had fallen in love with my sunflower picture when they went to see a film

Carol: As well as writing and art have you got any other hobbies and interests you’d like to tell us about?
Nicola: Some years ago a friend and I decided to enlarge on our interest in Victorian glass and china so we started having a stall at various local antiques fairs, specialising in glass, pretty china, and my favourite, English blue-and-white transfer ware. Expanding families and my writing eventually made us give up though we still have boxes of the things we couldn’t bear to sell or give away, so who knows? I certainly can’t resist buying the occasional gem, just in case…

Carol: Last, but by no means least, tell us about your latest book, The House at Ladywell, which will be published on 14th November by Crooked Cat Books.
Nicola: I’m back where I started, not with a sequel to Scuba Dancing, but a romantic novel set in the same town – a fictional version of Romsey, another of my favourite haunts, half-way between Winchester and Southampton. Interspersed with the romantic thread there are historical interludes so that the reader, although not the protagonist – learns the story of the ancient house and the family. It’s not a dual time line because there are glimpses of several eras and of course there are a couple of murders! I don’t think I could write a book without killing off at least onecharacter but these deaths occur in the historical parts so there was no need for detective work.

Books by Nicola Slade

Harriet Quigley Mysteries featuring recently-retired headmistress, Harriet Quigley and her clergyman cousin,
Canon Sam Hathaway
Murder Fortissimo.        A Crowded Coffin              The Art of Murder (2016)

Historical series Charlotte Richmond Investigates
The Dead Queen’s Garden (2013)
Murder Most Welcome 
Death is the Cure

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.
Read a review of Carol’s latest book
The Fragility of Poppies

1 comment:

  1. I love reading about other writers and this is fab. Thanks so much. Enjoyed it no end. Best wishes for the latest Nicola and good luck Carol too.