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Thursday 2 November 2017

Carol Westron

Lizzie Sirett talks with Carol Westron

Carol Westron was born and brought up in North London. As her home was situated exactly opposite a Police Station she was fascinated from an early age with police cars, tearing off with sirens sounding and flashing lights. She suspects that it was her early curiosity as to where they were going that turned her to writing crime novels.
Carol 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. 
Her first book
The Terminal Velocity of Cats was the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, and was published July 2013.
Her latest book
Karma and the Singing Frogs was published
21 September 2017

Lizzie: Your new book, Karma and the Singing Frogs, features Scene of Crimes Officer Mia Trent who we first met in The Terminal Velocity of Cats. Can you tell us about the book and from where the
fascinating title originated? 
Carol: The title of The Terminal Velocity of Cats came to me when Paul, my elder son, was regaling me with some quotations from a book of strange scientific facts that he’d been given and informed me how far a cat had to fall from for it to be terminal. (The theory is that falling from four or five floors in an apartment building they may be okayish and above nine or ten storeys they relax and may survive.) This ghoulish bit of information stayed in my mind, along with the phrase ‘the terminal velocity of cats.’ Paul is an archaeologist turned Scene of Crimes Officer (CSI) in the south of England and one day I asked him if he’d had a good day and he replied, ‘In what other job do you get to drive around all day with a dead man’s toenails in your van?’ It was a light-bulb moment and I knew that I had the perfect first line and title for a novel. Mia is an archaeologist turned Scene of Crimes Officer in a fictional town in the south of England because I needed to write what I knew, at least at second-hand, but in most other ways she is very different to my son.  For the follow-up to The Terminal Velocity of Cats I needed an equally quirky (not to say bizarre) title. I had heard the story of the social worker and the singing frog from somebody I knew was telling the truth and, for some time, I had thought I would be interested to explore how Fate sometimes comes back to wreak vengeance on those whom systemic corruption has conspired to protect – thus Karma and the Singing Frogs. Like all fiction writers, I have had to play with the factual accuracy of the police procedure – few people wish to read about reams of paperwork and routine and jumping through official hoops, but Paul says I’ve got the feeling of the job pretty accurately, especially the knowledge that you are meeting people on what may be the worst day of their lives and, even if you bring the perpetrator to justice, you cannot put things back to the way they were.

Lizzie:  In between the two Scene of Crimes novels featuring Mia Trent, you wrote About the Children a police procedural featuring Detective Chief Superintendent Kev Tyler and DI Gill Martin and The Fragility of Poppies featuring Detective Inspector Rick Evans and his artist wife, Annie. Will either of these develop into a series?
Carol: They will definitely both develop into series. I always intended to write crime books that mirrored a real-life police force and had officers in the same county being seconded to different towns, so that characters the reader recognises turn up in other books. I had written About the Children before I wrote The Terminal Velocity of Cats, so I included Detective Sergeant Luke Warden and DCI Aron, who both appear in About the Children in lesser roles in The Terminal Velocity of Cats. Nikki Anderton, who is a detective constable in About the Children is promoted to detective sergeant and moves towns in Karma and the Singing Frogs. The next book in the series featuring Tyler and Gill Martin will be called The Tyranny of the Weak and I am playing with the idea of introducing Mia Trent as the Crime Scene Manager when a body is found dumped in a local museum, but I’ll make my final decision when I get to it. I have already written Delivering Lazarus, the next book featuring Rick and Annie Evans, but it will require a lot of serious editing before it is ready to go.

Lizzie: Did you always want to write Carol?
Carol: I really cannot remember a time when I didn’t want to write, although I didn’t always know what I wanted to write. When my children were small I wrote a lot of fantasy adventure stories for them. When they came home from school we’d all snuggle up on the sofa and I’d read them the 2,000+ words that I’d written for them that day – definitely good training for meeting deadlines! Later on, I was doing well with my short story sales to Woman’s Weekly and I enjoyed writing them. I was constantly amazed at how broad-minded the editors were about stepping outside their usual areas. I once submitted a First Person Present Tense short story told in the viewpoint of a seventeen-year-old boy living on the streets and they published it. However, in the long term, I wanted to write novels and romance never mattered enough to me to carry me through 70,000 words, so I turned to crime.

Lizzie:                When writing crime fiction do you plan your plots before you start?  And, if so, do your books change during the writing process? So often writers say that the characters take over, resulting in a different ending and sometimes perpetrator. Do your books pan out exactly as you originally planned?
Carol:                As you know, Lizzie, I’m a Creative Writing teacher and try to encourage all my students to find their own voice and their own creative process. I keep telling them that there is no ‘right’ way, just the way that works for them. That said, for myself, when it comes to books, I’m a passionate advocate of ‘writing into the dark.’ I start with a scene in my head, almost like a snapshot. In The Terminal Velocity of Cats it was a Scene of Crimes Officer (Mia) in her van, grumbling about the repulsive things she has to transport, and then being called to another crime scene. I honestly had no idea what she was going to encounter there or who she was going to meet, just that it was something to do with cats. For Karma and the Singing Frogs, I had two snapshots: Mia in the office receiving a phone call from a person who has dialled the wrong number and is demanding pizza (another anecdote from my son) and a body in a disused 2nd World War air-raid shelter. I’ve heard many people say that their characters have taken over and I know what they mean but, for me, I think it must be my subconscious taking over. For example, in About the Children I had intended to kill a minor character but, as I reached the point of his death, I realised that would disrupt the thread of the main narrative, so he was given a reprieve. Of course, this method of writing involves a lot of stringent editing to get the right pace and remove all the clunky bits. Usually that involves a rigorous culling of words to get approximately 120,000 words down to 90,000 or less, but when there is more than one viewpoint character it can involve a great deal of restructuring too.

Lizzie: When embarking on a new book, what area of the book challenges you the most?
Carol: Probably the major challenge is to find enough time in a big chunk that I can immerse myself in the narrative. I need several days, preferably a few weeks. I can do most other things in short bursts – reviewing,
writing articles or papers, and editing, but the first creative process needs space to concentrate. The other challenge is to discipline myself not to think too much about the work in progress, or the work I’m about to start, or I’ll get bored and not write it at all. One of the main disadvantages of a writing process like mine is that you cannot be certain a book ‘has legs’ and will be a good 70,000 word read, although experience usually helps a writer to tell. I remember having a conversation with the late, great Julian Rathbone about when writers tend to stop writing and we decided that it was around the third chapter and around the seventh. If I get to approximately 20,000 words and I’m still going strong I’m pretty sure it’s going to be okay.

Lizzie: Recently you have teamed up with your grandson Adam and written two children’s books which Adam has illustrated.  I understand also contributed to the stories.  How did that come about?
Carol: Although nowadays I only teach community classes, for much of my teaching career I was working in the Special Needs department of a local Further Education College, teaching severely disabled adults. Thanks to a very far-sighted manager I was able to teach Creative Writing, Literature, Local History and Literacy to classes of people who had long-term, often terminal illnesses and disabilities. This experience convinced me of the life-enhancing effect creativity can have and how it can combat depression.
Eleven years ago, my grandson, Adam was diagnosed as severely autistic and the prognosis was that he would never have useful speech and never have any understanding of the world. My daughter and I accepted the diagnosis but not the prognosis and, after some difficult negotiations with our Local Authority, we decided to Home Educate him. He has always loved trains and, as his speech and understanding developed, he enjoyed drawing. I wrote him a story called Adi and the Dream Train, about a magic train that goes through the night delivering happy daydreams to children who are sad or afraid. The children cannot see him but one night he meets a little boy who is different, a child who can see the secrets behind the darkness. Adi and the Dream Train set off on an adventure together. When I read this to Adam he said he’d like to illustrate it and did so – one picture usually took two or three days (about four to five hours) to complete but we’d only tackle one every two or three weeks. My friend Christine Hammacott helped us to lay it out and put it on Createspace. Two years ago, Adam was given the Runner-up award in the Portsmouth News’ Children of Achievement, in the Challenging a Disability category.  I then wrote Adi Rides the Night Mare and had to edit it to fit in Dent, the Blue Tender Engine, who Adam had created to join the fun. We have just published that one. A year ago, Adam said to me, ‘Grandma, can I tell you a story?’ and told me about a white Christmas train who was like a ghost because he’d fallen over a cliff and got smashed up and would disappear for ever unless Adi and his friends found his pieces and put him together again before his spirit blew away. It made me smile because a few months before I’d read him The Iron Man by Ted Hughes. If you’re going to recycle an idea it’s good to get it from the Poet Laureate. Illustrating the Dream Train stories has done a lot for Adam’s understanding, use of language, and his drawing skills. For me it has been a delight – it’s our special thing that we share.

Lizzie: For a few years now you have been regularly contributing to the Mystery People monthly newsletter articles on the Golden Age.  Is this a period which has always particularly interested you?
Carol: Until you came into my life, Lizzie, I had the usual interest in the Golden Age – I had read and enjoyed Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Allingham, Tey, Wentworth, Creasey and Heyer – but I had never considered the wider range of Golden Age writers. I’ve been lucky that the revival of interest in the Golden Age has made so many books of the period available on Kindle.
A few years ago, it would have been very difficult and fiendishly expensive to access authors that are now available almost instantly. When we first discussed the articles, I suspect I said I’d do a short series of the authors I knew and that grew to a few more and a few more... Not that I’m complaining. In fact, I’m profoundly grateful to you. I’ve discovered authors that I love that I would have never have heard of if you hadn’t aroused my interest in the subject. I’ve become a Golden Age expert (if Martin Edwards said it, it must be true), and spoken at conferences like The Crime & Mystery Conference at St. Hilda’s and Captivating Criminality, and got an article on Crispin’s Gervase Fen in an anthology The Hundred Greatest Fictional Detectives, due to be published in 2018. That’s all due to you and Mystery People. Thank you!

Lizzie: Following early disappointment with seeking a publisher you set up with two friends Wendy Metcalfe and Christine Hammacott Pentangle Press.  How difficult was that?
Carol: I don’t think it was one disappointment, it was a continual run of agents and editors that said they liked my writing but it wasn’t what they were looking for at that time. Everything from the Commissioning Editor who loved my work and said she’d take me on but then her money-men said ‘no more unknown authors’, to the agent who wanted to represent me but couldn’t sell my work to the big publishers and wouldn’t make enough profit from the small ones and asked if I could write a family saga instead. But the thing that tipped the balance was that on New Year’s Eve 2010 I had a stroke. For a day it left me without speech and unable to control my right arm. As I lay in my hospital bed, I promised myself that, if I got out of this, I’d hold a New Year’s party. I did recover and I did hold a party (thanks to my lovely daughter, who did a lot of the preparations.) In the meantime, The Terminal Velocity of Cats had been short-listed in a self-publishing competition and that helped me to make my decision. This was one area of my life I could control and I told my friends I was going to self-publish and asked if anybody was going to join me. Christine and Wendy said they would and we formed Pentangle Press. The name Pentangle was nothing to do with witches, it was from a tangle of pens, because we all write in different styles. It was hard work, and still is, but we were lucky because Wendy and I are both very competent editors and Chris has her own graphic design business (The Art of Communication) and does our covers and lay-outs. It was difficult because we had to find out what to do as we went along and there was less help for Indie authors then than there is now. The promotion side is and was the most challenging thing but that’s true of many authors. We set ourselves the challenge that our books would be professional in every way and I think we’ve succeeded. We’ve appeared at several events to talk about self-publishing, including Winchester Writers’ Festival, and Chris is arranging a two-day publishing event as part of Portsmouth Bookfest 2018.

Lizzie: Would you recommend this pathway to publishing to other authors getting started?
Carol: I would, as long as people know what they are getting into. There are lots ways of getting support for your self-publishing project but, unless you are part of a co-operative with a suitable range of skills, it could cost a certain amount of money. You need a decent lay-out and a cover that grabs the reader’s attention. Above all, you need to be well-edited, both for typos but also for pace and continuity. I’ve read hundreds of traditionally published books with numerous errors but if you’re self-published many people will pounce on the smallest mistake, magnify it and say, ‘Well it’s self-published, what do you expect?’ The hardest thing is still promotion and that’s a never-ending battle, but again it’s the same for the mid-list, traditionally published author. Indie publishing my books has taken me to lots of exciting places, including being part of the first Indie panel at Crimefest. If any author wants to take control of the future of their own books and is realistic to the need for hard work, I’d say, ‘Go for it.’

Lizzie: So what’s next, Carol? 
Carol: In March 2018, you and I and the organisers of Portsmouth Bookfest have our first Mystery Fest Day at Portsmouth Central Library. There is still a lot of organisation to do and emails to send and, as I’m
Participating Moderator for the History Mystery Panel, it would be a good plan if I could publish my first Victorian Murder Mystery,
Strangers and Angels. It’s set just before Christmas, so I need to get it out by
December, even though I know it’s late for the Christmas market this year. I’m really excited about this book, which is set in a real place, the naval town of Gosport, and is centred around a real event, in 1850 two ships full of Turkish sailors came from the Ottoman Empire on a training mission. Many of the sailors died from cholera or accidents and, to honour them, Gosport has a very rare Muslim naval burial place within the Naval graveyard. Of course, being a crime writer, I had to take the poshest street in Gosport, The Crescent, and endow it with a Turkish sailor, a rebellious lady’s maid and a dead body.

I’m looking forward to writing the next Victorian Mystery in the series, although all I know at the moment is that it involves a spectral horseman and mesmerism.

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

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