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Tuesday 2 February 2021

Alison Morton and Helen Hollick

question each other turning to crime

Helen is a multi-published historical fiction writer specialising in Saxon royalty and 17th century pirates.
Alison has been writing alternative history thrillers in the award winning Roma Nova series. Until now.

Okay,     Helen, why have you abandoned the past?

Helen:    I haven’t completely forsaken it as my new cozy mystery, A Mirror Murder, is set in the 1970s. Previously, I wrote novels set in the Norman Conquest and Arthurian periods and then turned to the 17th century to produce a series featuring a pirate called Jesamiah Acorne. He switched in and out of legality and morality, but although tough, he really was one of the good guys and became a pirate hunter himself. He worked with a varied team of rough and ready rogues, cultured, secretive characters and a mysterious lady-love and pursued adventures, tragedies and triumphs around the Caribbean. But he was always on a mission, not least one that would save his own neck, and always curious about why people did what they did.

I’m equally curious and having sold my series to an American publisher and some foreign language rights, I was looking for another path. So, I reached into my own past which gave her the setting for A Mirror Murder.

And what about you, Alison? I thought you were stuck in Rome and its modern version, Roma Nova? And what about all those Praetorian heroines saving their country and themselves? I love that imaginary world of yours!

Alison     Ha! I put it all down to Conn Iggulden, the massively successful historical fiction writer who threw me a challenge when he was reading Insurrectio for me. He commented, ‘You clearly have the knack for fast plotting tension. I kept coming back to see what happened next.’ He suggested I recast one of my alternative Roma Novan heroines as a member of a modern-day European organisation and run the story as a crime thriller. So I did. Double Identity is the result.

And a second motive was that I wanted to write a character with strong roots in France which is where I live. Making my heroine a dual national just adds another layer of interest and potentially internal conflict.

Have you based any of your characters on real people, Helen?

Helen: I don’t base any of my characters on real people, but I do ‘borrow’ mannerisms, speech patterns and such, and gather ideas, so real people are immensely valuable. There’s a saying that is often quoted for aspiring writers: ’Write what you know about’, it’s good advice, except, as I haven’t actually committed a murder (or for my other novels, sailed in a pirate ship or fought at the Battle of Hastings,) the knowledge about accurate detail is a little limited. However, I have based a few of my nasty characters, in A Mirror Murder and my other novels, on people who have either upset or annoyed me (with identities well disguised!) There’s another saying that makes me giggle: ‘Never annoy a writeryou might end up as the victim in the next novel!’

 What about you, Alison? Have you based any characters on real people?
:          Forming a character is a complex business. I take a skeleton (not literally!), a basic type, and then flesh it out with physical characteristics, temperament, back history, emotions, conflicts, desires and ambitions. Then I pinch elements from different living people. I know who I’ve based them on, especially for the two main characters in Double Identity, Mel and McCracken, and also the tough but urbane Stevenson who heads the unit they end up working for, but no wild horses or even dragons would drag the names from me!

Do we think we need to spend the same time researching for these new books as we did for historical fiction?

Helen bursts out laughing, almost choking. Alison takes up the slack
    Research? You could spend your entire life doing it. Research dogs the steps of every historical fiction writer and it’s only a little less for the conspiracy thriller writer. It’s not just facts and figures, but how long it takes to pursue a bad guy from the moment he steps off a London Tube train to the station exterior. Or on a covert operation, what would you see from point X or Y? Lines of sight are very important in thrillers! The military scenes are much easier thanks to my six years in uniform although the most intriguing was researching French military voice procedure when using walkie-talkies! 

Are you okay now, Helen?

Helen:     Yes. Sorry about that. I agree _ you can hardly write a sentence without checking the facts.  Even things like going to the loo. (How did pirates at sea in 17th century clothes do it?) Luckily, I can remember much of the setting for A Mirror Murder, but if there’s one thing historical fiction writers are used to it’s checking stuff you think you are so sure about.

 I’m really intrigued by the names of your characters, Alison. I’m used to reading Roman style ones in your Roma Nova series. So how did you go about it for Double Identity?
I needed a high-status French name for my main character that could be shortened to something more ordinary when used in English. This resulted in ‘Mélisende’ which becomes ‘Mel’. Her surname ‘des Pittones’ originates from the Pittones tribe which inhabited the Poitou area of France after the Romans left. Descent from antiquity is very, very rare, but the idea of a family hanging in there for centuries appeals to the historian in me!

McCracken sprang to mind spontaneously; he’s a prickly character and I wanted a name with a harsh cracking sound in it. I have the same approach to all character names, but here’s a tip: always check via Google that your character name isn’t a serial killer, rockstar, politician or any combination thereof.

How did you come up with yours, Helen?
:     I wanted something unusual for my lead female, Jan Christopher, somethin that would be the base of a future mystery for the series – ‘Jan’ is therefore short for ‘January’ the month she was prematurely born, while her twin sister got ‘June’ for when they were conceived. And beyond that I’m not giving anything more away!

Her co-star is Laurie Walker, a name that fitted well for the 1970s and her uncle, DCI Toby (Tobias) Christopher got ‘Toby’ because that was my Dad’s nickname. He passed away several years ago now, but  I wrote A Mirror Murder for him as he’d always wanted to be a policeman, but was not tall enough to be accepted.

 You have a lot of action and tension in Double Identity, but what was the hardest scene to write?
    It has to be the moment of betrayal. I’m not going to tell everybody where, when and to whom that occurs ;-)  but it was gut-wrenching for me. High emotion, especially a flood of negative emotion where trust is sliced into shreds is a terrible moment to experience, let alone write it in fine detail. You and I had been through that, Helen, when we contributed our stories to the recent Betrayal anthology.

Now, you’re heavily involved with reviewing, Helen, as in your spare time(!) you run Discovering Diamonds Reviews. But what about reviews for your own books? And are you nervous about your first ones for this radical change of genre?

Helen:     Honest reviews are important, especially on the buying platforms such as Amazon. It’s a great shame that more readers don’t add their comments after enjoying a book, because a positive review can, genuinely, help an author. It’s also a good way of saying ‘thank you’ – if you go to a play or concert you show your appreciation by applause, so think of a review as the equivalent of clapping your hands for a tale well told.

 Feedback from readers is useful for an author to know why a novel was (or wasn’t!) enjoyed. What is unhelpful are the sort of comments that are destructive rather than constructive. It is disappointing to receive poor reviews, but maybe the reader didn’t like the book, it was too long/too short, too romantic/not romantic enough, etc. That’s all a matter of opinion and taste.  It’s not easy to shrug and ignore deliberately nasty comments. If you get a bad review read it carefully, is it making a valid point? If so, remember it for your next book. For the nonsense ones... ‘I didn’t like this author’s other book.’ (so why read this one?) Sigh, ignore, move on. Believe me, intelligent prospective readers will easily spot those ‘troll’ reviews. And don’t worry because you have four stars not dozens of glowing fives. Fours are fine. Honest.

 Well, I can’t disagree with any of that, Helen.

We always tend to focus on the one hurtful or unjust review and discount the four glowing ones. I think that’s what humans tend to do. Now I’ve grown a shell about reviews, I do read them to tease out any weaknesses that recur or if there are several requests to see more of something.

 So, who has helped us with these new books?

Alison:     There are many, of course, as being an author is a team effort. My critique writing partner of 10 years, Denise Barnes (aka Molly Green) is one, as are my cover designer Jessica Bell and editor Carol Turner. But Helen has done much more. She’s supported me wholeheartedly from our first days together as aspiring writers nearly ten years ago. [Helen: gasp! Really that long ago?] She has given me professional confidence to pursue my own path, celebrated generously with me and administered a bracing ‘talking to’ when necessary. We’ve not done some bad work together over the years…

 Helen: I have several author friends who ‘beta read’ for me, and my cover designer, Cathy Helms of Avalon Graphics needs to take a bow. However, there is one I especially want to thank, and that is my co-partner for the launch of our books Alison Morton. Without her A Mirror Murder would have still appeared, but not so efficiently, promptly or beautifully! Alison formatted it for me and talked me through the process of uploading to Ingram Spark and Amazon. Her kindness, patience and expertise deserve a huge hug which I fully intend to give when we are Covid-19 free and able to hug again! Thank you, Alison, from the bottom of my boots to the top of my hat!

Double Identity
Published by Pulcheria Press, 7 January 2021

Deeply in love, a chic Parisian lifestyle before her.
Now she’s facing prison for murder.

It’s three days since Mel des Pittones threw in her job as an intelligence analyst with the French special forces to marry financial trader Gérard Rohlbert. But her dream turns to nightmare when she wakes to find him dead in bed beside her. Her horror deepens when she’s accused of his murder.
Met Police detective Jeff McCracken wants to pin Gérard’s death on her. Mel must track down the real killer, even if that means being forced to work with the obnoxious McCracken.
But as she unpicks her fiancé’s past, she discovers his shocking secret life. To get to the truth, she has to go undercover—and finds almost everybody around her is hiding a second self.
Mel can trust nobody. Can she uncover the real killer before they stop her?

To read a review click on the bookjacket
      Available in ebook and paperback worldwide


A Mirror Murder 

Published by Taw River Press, 13th January 2021

Eighteen-year-old library assistant Jan Christopher’s life is to change on a rainy Friday evening in July 1971, when her legal guardian and uncle, DCI Toby Christopher, gives her a lift home after work. Driving the car, is her uncle’s new Detective Constable, Laurie Walker – and it is love at first sight for the young couple. But romance is soon to take a back seat when a baby boy is taken from his pram, a naked man is scaring young ladies in nearby Epping Forest, and an elderly lady is found, brutally murdered... Are the events related? How will they affect the staff and public of the local library where Jan works – and will a blossoming romance survive a police investigation into murder?The first in a new series of quick-read, cosy mysteries set in the 1970s ... Will romance blossom between library assistant Jan Christopher and DC Laurie Walker – or will a brutal murder intervene?“

To read a review click on the bookjacket
Available  in ebook (Amazon) and paperback


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