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Monday 3 February 2020

Chris Nickson: The First 10 Years

By Lynne Patrick

Ten years ago, a successful Leeds-born music journalist called Chris Nickson decided it was time he fulfilled a lifelong ambition and shifted his main focus to writing fiction. Though his roots were firmly planted in West Yorkshire, he had only recently returned to the UK after thirty years in the USA, and it was to those roots that he looked for inspiration. The history of his birthplace had always fascinated him, and he hunted around the centuries for a story, or a situation, or a character, who would form the basis of his first foray into crime fiction.

And so, Richard Nottingham, Leeds City Constable in the 1730s, came into being. He started out in a short story, but that was never going to be enough; before long Chris had woven a full-length novel around Nottingham's family, work and life on the streets of 18th century Leeds. And having written the novel, he naturally set off in search of a publisher.

I have to declare an interest here. Reader, I was that publisher. At the time I was running a small imprint – they call it kitchen table publishing – which specialized in crime fiction by debut authors. I like to think I knew how to spot talent, and in Chris I spotted it by the bucketload – so much so, in fact, that at first I refused to take him on; I felt he would fare better with a bigger company with a marketing budget that ran to more than t-shirts and press releases. But he kept coming back, and in the spring of 2010 The Broken Token made its first appearance in the bookshops.

The rest is history – in more ways than one! Four substantial series and a generous handful of standalones and two-fers later, all set at some point in the past and most of them located in Leeds, Chris has built a career which continues to burgeon. My tiny publishing company also lies in the past, and all but the first of those books – thirty of them and counting – saw the light of day courtesy of the larger imprints I tried to persuade him towards ten years ago.   

He's spent those ten years establishing a reputation for well researched crime novels with characters that readers love, or love to hate. But that's not all he's done; I asked him if there was some achievement he was especially proud of.

“There have been several remarkable things that I’d never have anticipated. Being asked to write a play which involved a live jazz quintet, for one. Perhaps the one that hit me deepest, though, isn’t entirely literary. In 2018 I was involved in putting on an exhibition called The Vote Before The Vote, about the Victorian women in Leeds who pushed for equality and the vote. It coincided with the publication of The Tin God, in which my character Annabelle Harper, the wife of Detective Superintendent Tom Harper, is a working-class woman running for office as a Poor Law Guardian in 1897; the book launch was part of the event. I felt I’d done something for Leeds with that. It’s my hometown, where the huge majority of my books are set. And one of the exhibition boards was about Annabelle, so in a way, I wrote her into history.

“I’m hugely proud of being able to do this for ten years. I’m about to publish my twenty-second crime novel set in Leeds. One reviewer wrote that if I was cut open, it would read ‘Leeds’ right though me like a stick of rock. I love that. My passion for the place shines, I hope.”

And all those characters he's created; is there a favourite?
“I think Annabelle Harper is my favourite. Odd, as she’s not even a major character in the Tom Harper series. But she’s certainly the emotional linchpin of the books. She came to me first in a short story that had nothing to do with crime, set in 1879. When I was writing the first Harper book, Gods of Gold, about the 1890 Leeds Gas Strike, she tapped me on the shoulder and said: ‘I was there, luv. Shift over and I’ll tell you about it.’ Now we've reached 1908, and she’s older, a mother, but still utterly real, as alive as anyone I meet in the flesh. She runs the Victoria public house at the bottom of Roundhay Road, which was a real place. My great-grandfather ran it in the 1920s.”

Annabelle isn’t the only woman with a strong, distinctive personality in Chris’s novels; they have played a large part from the outset, starting with Emily Nottingham, then Lottie Armstrong, Rosie Westow and Jane in the Simon Westow series. Is there a secret to making them come alive, or does it just come naturally?

“I’m not sure how you make anyone come alive on the page. If there’s a formula, I don’t know it! But my mother was a strong woman in her own way. I’ve been involved with strong women. I like them, so perhaps it’s natural for the ones in my novels to be that way. Yet they’re all very different. Honestly, when I finished writing The Hanging Psalm, I knew that Jane scared me. So disconnected, and so deadly. Finding out more about her in The Hocus Girl helped open her up. But she still terrifies me as much as she intrigues me.”

All the novels are set against a powerfully drawn historical background, which rings absolutely true even when you adjust the facts slightly to fit the story. It must take a lot of research. And again, is there a favourite era?
 “I’m a history buff. A Leeds history obsessive. My ancestors moved here in the 1820s, the place is in my DNA. I feel it. I love reading about it, so the research is a pleasure for me. And it can be the little facts that help bring a period alive. How loud it was, perhaps, how smelly, the soot in the air, any manner of things. And you have to do it with small, incremental touches, not information dumps that stop the flow of the story. So I read, I put myself in the shoes of the people walking those streets and try to describe everything I see, to make it immersive. Do I have a favourite period? Honestly, no. As long as it’s Leeds, I’ll take any era.”

Some writers of historical fiction weave their stories around newspaper items or other contemporary sources. Do those stories come up in the course of the research, or do they just arrive? 
“Sometimes it’s events. One of the two big threads of the latest Tom Harper, The Molten City, is the Suffragette Riot of 1908 in Leeds. It’s a natural for anything involving a police superintendent, especially as it takes place on his manor, and his wife is a suffragist and his daughter a suffragette. That was serendipity. I’ve had a few books where I’ve been lucky that way. Others are tales, nothing more. Modern Crimes was built on the more nebulous idea of the first women police constables in Leeds.  Or, with the Richard Nottingham books, set in the 1730s, the real Constable of Leeds in that time was… Richard Nottingham, although I’ve never managed to discover much about him. I took him from a ceremonial role to being a proto copper.”

When one book in a series comes to an end, how does he decide what happens in the next? Does he think about what his large fan base (in Leeds, the rest of the UK, and increasingly in the USA) would like to happen to these characters they have grown to love or hate? Or do the characters themselves dictate what direction they take? 
“Sometimes there’s an arc for the books. I know I want to take the Tom Harper series through to 1918 and the end of the war. That’s partly because I’ll then have covered each decade from the 1890s to the 1950s in Leeds in at least one book or series. But it’s also a natural end. Harper will be ready to retire then, old enough.
“At other times, the characters give me the story themselves. Sometimes, as with Lottie Armstrong, I’m not ready to let them go yet. The only way to do it was bring her back twenty years after the first book, in 1944. And out of that came a book I love, The Year of the Gun. It’s impossible to do more with Lottie, though; I wrote myself into a corner.”

Chris has produced at least two novels a year since The Broken Token back in 2010, and he has said many times that a thousand words a day, every day, is how he keeps up a pace a lot of authors would find daunting. But how does he go about keeping it fresh, especially when a series gets to the eighth, ninth, tenth?  
“The characters have to grow older, maybe even wiser. Most of my main characters have families, the way the vast majority of people do; those families grow, and the relationships deepen. That’s an integral part of things for me. And I try to make each story different from the ones that have gone before. I’d sooner stop a series than have it become formulaic. So, I’ll take the characters in a different direction. Sometimes promotion, so responsibilities change. First of all, what I’m writing has to interest me. If it doesn’t, why bother? It won’t interest anyone else. Tom Harper is the first series that’s got to eight, and the ninth is written. But two more after that will be all. I don’t want to carry on endlessly. Tom and Annabelle have their lives to live without me harassing them”.
“I feel that a thousand words a day isn’t much of a pace. It’s tortoise rather than hare. But do it every single day and the word count soon builds up. And why wouldn’t I want to do it every single day when I’m lucky enough to be writing for a living (however precarious)?”

Leeds remains the main focus of the books; with two long series, one developing one and several duos and standalones, it’s clearly Chris’s first love. But there have been detours to Chesterfield, where he lived for a few years, and Seattle, where he spent half his life. Are there any plans to look elsewhere for inspiration?
“No. I’ve only been able to write about those places because I’ve lived in them and have a real feel for them. I don’t think I could be convincing about, say, London. I can’t smell it or taste it. I’d be going off books and maps, and that won’t work for me. The Seattle books are about a place and time, the music scene in the late 1980s and 90s. I was a music journalist there back then, I was part of that, so it made sense. Chesterfield… well, those books are set in the 1360s, because it seems to me that if you’re going to write about the place, then the Crooked Spire is a natural. A fourth book in that series, The Anchoress of Chesterfield, will appear this summer.”
I hope we'll be having this conversation all over again in another ten years – so what’s in the pipeline? Any thoughts about yet another series, maybe set in another era of Leeds's history? Or might there be something completely different?
“I do have some plans involving Tom Harper's daughter Mary, but I’m not about to give those away yet; and I’m continuing with the Simon Westow series, about a thief-taker, set in the 1820s. Jane is the young woman who works with him. Every month or two, people ask if I’m going to write another Richard Nottingham book. While I have no plans, if the right story comes… people do love him, and I have a tender spot for him myself. After all, he was where it all began for me. And after eight years of only being available as an ebook or audiobook, it’s going to be coming back into print, just in time for the tenth anniversary of its publication.”

Ten years is a long time in publishing, and a milestone many authors never reach. Chris Nickson has not only reached it; his many fans will be delighted to know he is set fair to keep producing great historical crime fiction, probably set in Leeds, for at least another ten. And if you're not one of those fans, pick up one of the books and you soon will be!

Laura Benton: (set in Seattle)
Emerald City (2013)
West Seattle Blues (2014)

John the Carpenter series: (set in Chesterfield)
The Crooked Spire (2013)
The Saltergate Psalter (2015
The Holywell Dead (2017)
The Anchoress of Chesterfield (Summer 2020)

 DI Tom Harper series:
Gods of Gold (2014)
Two Bronze Pennies (2015)
Skin Like Silver (2015)
The Iron Water (2016)
On Copper Street (2017)
The Tin God (2018)
The Leaden Heart (2019)
The Molten City (2020)
Brass Lives (2021)

Simon Westow series:
The Hanging Psalm (2018)
The Hocus Girl (2019)
To the Dark (Autumn 2020)

WPC Lottie Armstrong:
Modern Crimes (2016)
The Year of the Gun (2017)

Dan Markham:
The New Eastgate Swing 2015)
Dark Briggate Blues (2016)
The Dead on Leave (2018)

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives in Oxfordshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction

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