Radmila May in conversation with Clare Chase
Clare Chase was brought up in the Midlands. She went on to read English at London University, then worked in book and author promotion in venues as diverse as schools, pubs and prisons.
More recently she’s exercised her creative writing muscles in the world of PR and worked for the University of Cambridge.
Her current day job is at the Royal Society of Chemistry.
Her writing is inspired by what makes people tick, and how strong emotions can occasionally turn everyday incidents into the stuff of crime novels. It would be impossible not to mix these topics with romance and relationships; they’re central to life and drive all forms of drama.
Radmila: Clare, I am delighted to have this chance for you to tell us about your writing and your books. Thanks so much for inviting me. I really appreciate it.
First of all, have you always wanted to be a writer? And what did you do before first becoming published? When did you start seriously writing? And how did you feel when your first novel was published? Have you always been drawn to crime fiction or did you start off writing something else?Clare: Yes, I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a small child. As a teenager, I taught myself to touch type so I could get my ideas down faster! Crime was always my favourite genre too. I devoured mysteries as a youngster, from children’s books like Stephen Chance’s Septimus and the Danedyke mystery to novels by Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, PD James and Dick Francis.
But writing went by the wayside as I started my career in arts administration and broke off to have a family. Then, while my kids were little, I wrote three children’s picture books, which I sent off direct to publishers. (That seemed to be possible, back in those days!) I got some encouraging responses, but again, life was busy and by the time I finally got published, it was with a book called You Think You Know Me – a standalone romantic thriller. Mary Stewart was a huge favourite of mine as a teenager and I wanted to write something in her genre.
Getting my first contract felt amazing, and at the time it seemed like everything I wanted to achieve, but of course, it was really just a tiny step forward. My next book will be my twelfth, with my second publisher.
Radmila: Your first novel was the standalone romantic suspense (You Think You Know Me) set in London and the Lake District. That was followed by a two-book series set in Cambridge featuring a couple, Ruby Fawcett and Nate Bastable, who are essentially amateur sleuths (A Stranger’s House, One Dark Lie). Your next series was set in and about Cambridge and the Fen Country, with four books featuring the young Tara Thorpe who begins as a journalist and later joins the local police (Murder on the Marshes, Death on the River, Death Comes to Call, Murder in the Fens), and now you have five set in Suffolk featuring a middle-aged amateur sleuth, Eve Mallow (Mystery on Hidden Lane, Mystery at Apple Tree Cottage, Mystery at Seagrave Hall, Mystery at the Old Mill and, coming shortly, Mystery at the Abbey Hotel - all published in one year or just over!). What occasioned these switches, and do you envisage now staying within one series?Clare: The switches have been for a variety of reasons. My children were still young when I wrote You Think You Know Me and I was battling sleepless nights, juggling writing, a day job and childcare. I was in the mood for something sparkly and romantic with thrills and danger thrown in. But after that I realised, I’d really like to write a mystery series. The trouble was, I was with a romance publisher. They were fine with my books having a crime element, so long as each novel included the entire romance arc, so doing a series with a drawn out slow-burn relationship was out. I wrote two Ruby and Nate mysteries for them, and that was just about all right. (They fell out of love and into it again in book two!) But as you can imagine, it would have stretched credulity if they’d done that in book three as well. So, I realised I needed a new home and approached my current publisher, Bookouture.
I was already a fan of their authors and kept hearing good reports about them. Thankfully they took me on, and it’s been a brilliant experience. So, I started afresh with the Tara Thorpe series. I went for the slow-burn romance I’d wanted to do before, but after four books, that sub-plot came to a natural end. And by that stage, I’d written six books set in Cambridge. It seemed like the right moment to move on to something fresh.
Working on the Eve Mallow mysteries was a new challenge. I switched from a police protagonist to an amateur, obituary-writing sleuth, and from Cambridge – a small university city – to rural, coastal Suffolk. It threw up new ideas for plots and allowed me to set books in another of my favourite parts of the world, where I spent childhood holidays, staying with my grandmother. As to the future, I’m still enjoying exploring Eve’s character and the Suffolk countryside at the moment, but if I feel as though I’m running out of things to say then I’ve got an idea for a new series, waiting in the wings.
Of course, a publisher plays a key part in these decisions too. If a series isn’t selling, they won’t want to commission more of it. (And equally, if it’s doing well, then ideas for something different may have to wait!)
Radmila: What made you choose Eve Mallow as a central character? Can you tell us more about her?
Clare: I knew her job would be useful. As a freelance obituary writer she gets to interview all the victim’s closest contacts, just like the police. I got the idea for her after listening to a fascinating interview with Margalit Fox who is a former obituary writer for the New York Times.
Eve is organised and thorough which means she picks up on tiny details that other people might miss. Eve’s ‘Watson’ is her friend Viv, who is as determinedly spontaneous and scatty as Eve is precise. Officially, Viv disapproves of Eve’s control freakery, but that doesn’t stop her offering Eve a part-time job at the tea shop she runs. The work supplements Eve’s freelance income (and allows her to get the local gossip!)
Radmila: Do you think character or plot is more important? Maybe both? And how about setting?
Clare: I think plot and character go hand-in-hand. In cosy crime, motives tend to revolve around relationships, personal feuds, jealousies, greed and so on, so character drives the crimes. And of course, as an
obituary writer, my current heroine, Eve, is desperate to understand what made the victim tick. Unravelling that mystery helps her solve her cases. I think setting’s very important too. A particular location can spark ideas for the central mystery (due to anything from its culture to its layout), add suspense through its atmosphere, or make crimes even more shocking by providing an idyllic backdrop.
Radmila: Your Eve Mallows are set in a village – this is a characteristic setting for a cosy. Do you think this enhances the particular atmosphere of a ‘cosy’ story?
Clare: It’s quite true that a village backdrop is traditional, and I think escaping to an idyllic setting works well if you’re aiming to give the reader a break from the real world. But I don’t think the location has to be
chocolate-box pretty or rural. For me, the key requirements are a place that’s full of atmosphere and which can accommodate a group of locals who know each other well. I like to have series characters that the reader can bond with, who know the investigator and are able to contribute to the case.
Radmila: Tell us about your actual writing technique. Do you plot out the actual story beforehand in detail? Or do you come up with an idea and let that inspire you? Or a bit of both?
Clare: I’m a planner at heart. I develop my initial idea on long walks, then make lots of notes. Finally, I put a series of plot points down on PowerPoint slides. (Don’t worry – I don’t make anyone sit through a presentation! But I find the programme useful, as I can stick in placeholders for bits of action I know I’ll need at some point. Then, once I’ve got a clearer idea of the plot, it’s easy to drag the slides around to change the order.)
I usually end up fine tuning things when I’m a third of the way into the book and although I decide the basics in advance, the story never ends up quite as I originally planned it. New ideas come along as I write.
Radmila: Your books, particularly the Eve Mallow series, have been categorised as ‘cosies’. ‘Cozies’ are, of course, immensely popular in the U.S. but how do you feel that they are regarded in the U.K.? How do you feel about the categorisation?
Clare: I just regard ‘cosy’ as shorthand for a book that won’t be full of graphic violence, and where the puzzle element will be important. The label’s designed to help me reach readers who’ll enjoy my books. I know my publisher does a lot of testing of different approaches and if they feel they aren’t reaching the numbers they’d expect they’ll move quickly to change things. But it seems to be working in terms of finding a readership, both in the UK and the US, so I’m pleased about that and very happy with Bookouture’s approach. And it’s interesting. I agree with you that received wisdom says there isn’t much of a market for cosies this side of the Atlantic, but it seems the readers are out there.
Radmila: Do you feel that there is a lack of regard in the U.K. crime-writing world for the category? What do you feel can, or should be done, to enhance the status of cosies?
Maybe there should be a prize for mysteries that are a tonic, which take people away from their normal lives. If novels will only be appreciated if they’re seen to do a serious job, then perhaps that’s the way forward. I believe acting as a tonic is valuable, and all the more so in turbulent times. On the bright side, several publishers are taking on new cosy/traditional mystery writers (my own, Bookouture, is a case in point), and with the success of famous names such as Richard Osman writing in the genre, I hope the profile will be raised still further. Interestingly though, I don’t see any mention of ‘cosy’ in Osman’s reader description on Amazon or Waterstones. I’m guessing the publisher still feels there’s a stigma around the label, yet plenty of readers are happily calling it cosy in their reviews and have identified it as their bag. I do wonder whether it’s critics and award judges that the publisher is considering when holding back. Perhaps they’re aware of the lack of regard you mention too.
Radmila: Of course, a story centred around a murder or murders cannot be entirely rosy and sunlit. But cosies to tend to eschew the darker side of their subject-matter – no gruesome accounts of the actual moment of death, the perpetrators are rarely, if ever, deranged psychopaths, the murders have often taken place in the past so no descriptions of the process of bodily decomposition. Are there any subjects you actively would not take as a theme, such as child abuse? On the other hand, would you also avoid plots involving very advanced modern technology which at least some of your readers might find hard to grapple with!
Clare: I’m not sure I’d know enough about very advanced modern technology myself! I’m getting expert on Zoom and I know my Office, Facebook and Twitter but that’s about it, so I think you’re right – very advanced technology is out. And the motives in cosy crime tend to be personal anyway, so cyber or other kinds of organised crime, serial killers etc don’t usually fit the bill. And, as mentioned above, cosy mysteries usually focus on the whodunnit element. I always give lots of space to the victims and the people they leave behind, but beyond that it’s a chance for the reader to follow the clues along with the sleuth. I think a book featuring child abuse would have to have a different focus in all conscience. It’s another horrific crime on top of the murder and rather than being (potentially) driven by desperation in a moment of madness, it's an act of sustained cruelty which would have to be brought to life on the page. Then trying to bring in the whodunnit element for entertainment would feel wrong.
Radmila: I’m really looking forward to your next stories whichever series you choose to continue.