It was after Vera Morris retired from teaching that she followed a lifelong dream to be a writer.
Before teaching, she had a varied career which included blowing soap bubbles in Woolworth's, cooking in hotels and electro-fishing in Welsh rivers.
Most of her teaching career was in a mixed comprehensive in South Oxfordshire, where she became headteacher.
When she isn’t busy with her popular Anglian Detective Agency series, you may find her gardening, cooking, reading, visiting the theatre, museums and art galleries, and travelling in her camper van.
And she still found time for an interview with Mystery People.
Lynne: First of all, thank you for making the time, Vera. The run-up to publication of a new novel is an especially busy time, and I’m sure you’d rather be writing.
Now the world seems to be getting back to normal, or something approaching it (though I hope I haven’t jinxed things by saying that!) it’s interesting to look back over the past year or so. How have all the various restrictions affected you? Have you been glad of the peace to immerse yourself in writing, or is enforced solitude outside your comfort zone?Vera: When I started the fifth book, The Great Shroud, in January 2019, I didn’t realize what a difference this virus was going to make to how I lived and wrote. Normally, I’m happy in my own company, but like the rest of the world, I found self-isolation testing. There were times when I couldn’t write, especially when a close relative died of Covid, and I had to deal with death certificates, arranging the funeral, the solicitor, and all at a distance – and I couldn’t go to the funeral. That was my lowest point. When I did get back to the novel and lost myself in the story, this, along with gardening, walking, and good friends, kept me sane. Well, as sane as I can be!
Lynne: Unlike many writers, you haven’t been making up stories since you could lift a pencil; you waited till you retired. Was there something in particular that sent you down that road?
Vera: I’ve always been an avid reader, loved English lessons, and wanted to do English Lit at A level, but my other passion was science, especially biology and chemistry. I continued to be a bookworm throughout my career: research, teaching and finally head of a 1000+ mixed comprehensive school. I loved working with people of different ages, and my job was all-consuming. The nearest I got to creative writing were the governors’ reports! But now I have time; when I retired, I decided to try and write crime fiction, as I’ve enjoyed reading it since my twenties.
Lynne: Not many people hit the mark with their first novel – overnight success usually takes years. But you did it! Can you recall how it felt when you got the phone call that first time?
Vera: The realization someone believed my novel was good enough to be published was a great joy; it made me very happy.
Lynne: Now you’ve written five novels, has a working pattern emerged? Do you plot carefully and know what will happen before you start writing – or is it an organic, seat-of-the-pants process for you?
Vera: I spend a couple of months researching and reading, and slowly the characters and plot appear. I like to let it all simmer until I have the beginning, the end, and some stepping stones in between, before I start writing. I don’t plot tightly as strange things happen when I’m writing – that’s the exciting part. If I have a problem, a shower usually works!
Lynne: Who are you writing for? Who is the reader you imagine picking up your books in the local bookshop?
Vera: I must confess I’ve never had a particular reader in mind. I write the book I would like to read; I always try with each new draft to improve the novel, with the reader, whoever that may be, in mind. I’m always thrilled when someone enjoys my books; it’s the greatest reward.
Lynne: The members of the Anglian Detective Agency aren’t exactly ordinary private eyes – ex-cops Frank and Stuart maybe more so than the women, but former P E teachers, secretaries and cooks aren’t what you might call natural sleuths. Where did they come from? Are they based on anyone you know?
Vera: I decided I wanted a male and a female detective with equal status, and I wanted them to be part of a team. I didn’t want them to have major hang-ups such as alcoholism, depression, or an Oedipus complex. It was to be a group of interesting people, who sparked off each other, and to whom extraordinary and dangerous things happened. In the first novel in the series, Some Particular Evil, Laurel, a teacher, shows a questioning nature, courage and a strong sense of justice. Frank realizes that together they would make a strong team and invites her to join him in setting up the Anglian detective agency.
In the first two novels, Dorothy, the agency’s administrator, and Mabel, the provider of fodder, are the back-up. Dorothy’s sleuthing efforts in The Loophole are not very successful, but she has better luck in the next novel!
The characters are not based on anyone I know, although like Frank, my late husband did have a penchant for leather jackets and long hair!
Lynne: The novels are set in the 1970s: not exactly the most crime-solving-friendly decade. There’s no DNA testing, no computers, minimal forensics. Why did you decide on that time-frame?
Vera: I wanted to write about a time when detection was reliant on interviewing skills, the understanding of
human nature, and deduction. Science helped with the autopsy, fingerprints and such details as the analysis of
other materials such as threads from clothes, but fingerprints couldn’t even be lifted from paper in this era. Also, the 1970s is an interesting decade at home and abroad: the beginning of female sexual liberation, the oil crisis, the rising power of the unions and terrorism.
Lynne: You’re clearly very familiar with the part of Suffolk you’ve chosen as your location, but you’re a Lancashire lass by birth and have now gravitated further south. Does Suffolk have some special resonance for you – or is it just an excuse to keep revisiting a beautiful place?
Vera: Coastal Suffolk has a great hold on me. I spent part of my childhood in Felixstowe, learnt to swim in the North Sea, hardened the soles of my feet on the pebble beach and wandered the marshes.
The inspiration for each novel in the series starts when a particular place says something special to me: Dunwich, once a mediaeval city; Aldeburgh, with its mixture of sea-folk, artists and musicians; Orfordness, a spit of land with connections to the Cold War; Minsmere, with its marshes and bird reserve; and Thorpeness, a holiday village built in the early part of the twentieth century.
Every year I return to the stretch of coast between Southwold and Orford for research, and to eat fish and chips and as many oysters and Dover sole as possible!
Lynne: At the end of Some Particular Evil, the first in the series, it’s made clear that you have further plans for your five characters. Was it always intended as the first of a series, or did that evolve as the book progressed?
Vera: I wanted to write a series as I’ve always enjoyed reading them. It’s really satisfying when you read the first book in a series and look forward to returning to interesting characters, seeing how their lives develop, and
knowing there’ll be an exciting and gripping story as well.
Lynne: A new book is a very special thing, more so when it has your name on the cover. How did you feel when you held your first copy? Do you re-read the books when they really are books rather than manuscripts?
Vera: When I hold a new book in my hands, I’m amazed I wrote all those words! I feel slightly distanced from it, as if someone else wrote it! I don’t read them again as I’m too scared I might see a mistake, or want to rewrite a paragraph, pick up a red pen and start scribbling!
Lynne: Without giving away any spoilers, can you tell us a little about your new novel, The Great Shroud? Vera: Most of the action of The Great Shroud takes place in Aldeburgh. The North Sea and those who work on it play major roles. One of the members of the agency has to deal with personal tragedy, and there is plenty of
murder and mayhem, of course.
Lynne: Finally – please say you’re not yet done with the Anglian Detective Agency! They’re starting to feel like old friends, and I hate to lose friends.Vera: I’ve started the sixth book in the series, working title Impossible Monsters. I’m at the research and letting it all simmer stage.
Lynne: Vera, thank you again for taking the time for this. The best of luck with The Great Shroud. I’m really looking forward to reading it.
There are currently five books in Vera Morris’s Anglian Detective Agency series:
(click on the title to read a review)
Some Particular Evil
The Ship of Death
The Great Shroud – out this month.