She works part time for the Crime Writers' Association and is the Deputy Editor of Red Herrings magazine.
Judith: The Poppy Denby Mysteries are set in the 1920s. What made you choose that particular period?Fiona: I originally intended to write a book set at the height of the suffragette movement just before WWI, as the first book, The Jazz Files, was about the murder of a suffragette. However, three months into writing I had lost my spark. While the characters were interesting, I was bored by the world I was creating, and that showed in mywriting. At the time I was preparing for a jazz clarinet exam (a hobby I took up when I turned 40) and I was playing and listening to a lot of 1920s music. I have always loved the music, fashion and art of the 1920s, ever since I played Maisie and learned to Charleston in a school production of The Boyfriend when I was 16. So, I began to wonder if my book might be better set in the 1920s and instead of having my lead character being a suffragette, what if she were the niece of a suffragette, inheriting the freedoms won by her aunt. I decided to start the book again with that in mind, and within a few writing hours my passion was rekindled. The story, the characters and the setting came alive for me, and six books later, I’m still as in love with the period as I was when I started.
Judith: You chose to make your sleuth a journalist. Is that because of your own experience as a journalist in Cape Town?Fiona: Yes, it was. I had to give up working full-time as a journalist when I was in my mid 30s due to personal circumstances and it’s something I have always wished had been different. I wrote the first Poppy book when I was in my mid 40s and I suppose I was trying to reconnect again with my younger journalistic self through the character of Poppy. When I worked in Cape Town, I covered both the arts and crime beats, one day writing about an art exhibition in the southern suburbs, the next a gangland murder on the Cape Flats. Then back in the UK I worked on some regional lifestyle magazines, covering mainly arts, history and culture – but without the crime. The juxtaposition of those disparate experiences was helpful in creating Poppy’s professional world, filled with art, beauty and culture, but also darkness, sadness and death. Some of Poppy’s journalistic experiences in the first book, The Jazz Files, are based on similar events in my own, working as a young female reporter in a very male-dominated world.
Judith: In addition to the 1920s setting which must involve a considerable amount of research, each book in the series is concerned with a different subject such as the suffragette movement in The Jazz Files to X-ray crystallography in The Crystal Crypt. Can you tell us a little about your research and what proportion of the time it takes you to produce a novel does it take?
Fiona: I have a bachelor’s degree in history, so that gives me a basic foundation in research. I read as much as I can about the early 20th Century period in general, so I understand the world in which Poppy lives. I draw on that reservoir for each book I write. But there is also specific research I do for each book. As you’ve mentioned, thesuffragette movement and X-ray crystallography, and in other books, the Russian Revolution, Egyptian archaeology and artefact theft, the US immigration system, early radio drama, seances, coal mining, art forgery… This is one of the things I love most about my job. I usually spend three months immersing myself in research while making notes about how the story might develop from it. My research can involve visits to locations where the books will be set, exploring museum and archive collections (in person or online), reading period newspapers, books – fiction and non-fiction – and sometimes doing short academic courses like I did for my research into artefact smuggling in The Cairo Brief. Thereafter I start writing the book, which takes me around nine months. I will continue to do research as I go, but this is just on a ‘need to know for the scene I’m writing’ basis, such as, when did the word ‘okay’ first enter British usage or when was transparent cellotape invented.
Judith: What inspired you to write you latest novel The Crystal Crypt and how did having to write it during the pandemic affect your progress and the final story?
Fiona: I was listening to a BBC Radio 4 show about Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin who was a ground-breaking chemist who advanced the science of X-ray crystallography, eventually leading to the discovery of the atomic structure of penicillin, insulin, and Vitamin B12. She won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964 – the first, and so far, only British woman ever to do so. She had been overlooked for many years and eventually, after pressure from male nominees, appalled that she had never been honoured, was given the prestigious prize. The next day, British newspapers announced this incredible achievement: “Oxford housewife wins Nobel Prize”. The outrageous sexism enraged me – a great way to get the creative juices flowing. So, I bought a biography of Hodgkin and began reading about her life as a scientist at Oxford in the 1920s and Cambridge in the 1930s, and the battles to be recognised for her academic and professional achievements, and not just as a wife and mother. Dorothy Hodgkin, like my literary hero Dorothy L. Sayers, was a Somerville College graduate. Coincidentally, at the time, I was also reading Vera Brittain’s The Dark Tide, set at a fictionalised version of Somerville in the 1920s. Then, when I read that Hodgkin had a laboratory in the basement of the History of Science Museum in
Oxford (opened in 1924), I knew that the murder of a female scientist in 1925 was to be Poppy’s next mystery.
Working through the pandemic was hard. Firstly, my usual research trips were curtailed. And even though I managed to get to Oxford twice in 2020, I was unable to go inside many of the places I wanted to (although I did get into the Science Museum before the first lockdown). So much of my in-person research had to be conducted through virtual tours. On top of that, my husband and daughter were at home 24/7 and the three of us were working in close quarters in a small house. I am used to solitude when I write and I found it very difficult indeed to adapt my creative process to the new circumstances, so much so that it took me two months longer to write the book than it normally would.
Judith: All your characters are very memorable. Are they based on people you have met or are they totally from your imagination?
Fiona: They are 99% from my imagination. I can’t say nothing of people I know slips into their
characterisation, but no character is based on a particular person. My characters usually introduce themselves to me in my imagination and I meet them and discover who they are through my writing. I’m a very visual writer and I ‘see’ my characters in my mind’s eye when I first encounter them. Thereafter I allow them to speak and hear what they have to say for themselves. That’s how I first met Poppy. I knew I wanted a young, female reporter sleuth, but I had no idea who she was when I first started writing. I saw her for the first time when she stepped out of a cloud of smoke at King’s Cross Station, and I didn’t know she was from Northumberland until she started speaking. Rollo, her editor, was similar. I knew I wanted a middle-aged straight-talking male editor, but I had no idea he was a dwarf until he stood up to greet Poppy and he was only four and a half feet tall. However, I heard his voice before I saw him, when Poppy knocked on his door, and it was then I knew he was American.
Judith: How do you go about writing your books? Are you a great plotter? Do you have a regular routine?Fiona: I’ve never been a great advance plotter, although my books are still intricately plotted. My plotting emerges as I go, and I somehow manage to hold it all together in my over-crammed mind. I don’t have charts, spreadsheets or anything like that. Just a notebook with lots of thoughts and ‘don’t forgets’. But I used to plot more than I do now. My early books had to have a beginning – middle – end outline to send to my publisherefore I could get a contract. Nowadays that outline is very slim indeed, and often changes as I go along. For the last three books I haven’t even known who the murderer is until I’ve got well into writing. However, now I and my publisher (hopefully!) trust my creative process and I don’t worry too much that I won’t be able to figure it all out. Although I do always have a panic around the 70K mark that I’ve tied myself in too much of a knot and I won’t be able to bring it all together. But I remind myself that I have always managed to do so and then take a deep breath and carry on. I plot in blocks. I tend to write up to about 10K words then stop to plot the next 10K and so forth. Sometimes I will have an idea for later in the book and I’ll write down some notes about it to pick up again later. But I never write out of sequence – eg the end before the beginning. I also do very detailed first drafts – which takes about nine months – then a quick second draft which only takes me a few weeks. Then a final polish draft which takes a few days, before sending off to my publisher.
Judith: You started your writing career as scriptwriter for film and the theatre. What made you decide to write novels
Fiona: I was part of a Christian theatre company for a few years in my 20s and used to write scripts for them. Then I did a MA in Creative Writing specialising in script – for theatre and film – for which I earned a
distinction. I got commissioned to write a couple of feature film scripts which I was paid for but were never made. I had a couple of short films produced with Northern Film and Media and I also had a professional production of one of my stage plays that won the People’s Play Award. Oh, and I had two short children’s animations made. I also lectured in scriptwriting at Northumbria University for seven years. However, all told, it was not enough, financially, to be called a ‘career’. But when I started writing books – for children and then, later, for adults, I had much more success. I received two publishing deals within six weeks of one another, one for children’s picture books and another for my Poppy Denby books. The subsequent work that came from that could be called a career, so I diverted my time so I diverted my time and energy into that rather than script. My script work though has had an impact on my prose as my strengths are in visual storytelling and dialogue, which is why, I think, the Poppy books have adapted so beautifully to audio. I also enjoy having a larger canvas to play with in novels as the 90 – 120-minute time frame of a theatre or film script, can be restrictive in terms of plot development, and of course, I can now go inside my characters heads which is much harder to do with script.
Judith: Not all your books are crime novels. You’ve also in other genres. Can you tell a little about them?
Fiona: I have written (and self-published) a coming-of-age romantic thriller called The Peace Garden, set partly in apartheid South Africa, partly in England. The book was my coming of age as a writer, as I searched for my
narrative voice, and the story kept straying towards the crime and mystery genre – which is ultimately what I ended up doing. I also have a historical romance called Pilate’s Daughter (Lume Books), which I wrote before the Poppy books but was only published afterwards. Readers have asked for the sequel to that, but I don’t know if I’ll ever write it (even though I think the prose in Pilate’s Daughter is some of the best I have ever written). However, I am trying to focus my energies on crime and mystery. It can be complicated having such varied output and I’m trying to become known primarily for the one genre. My children’s books – Christian themed picture books – are another sideline. I very much enjoy writing for children, but I don’t think it will ever become my primary focus. I am a person of faith, but I don’t want to be typecast as a ‘Christian writer’. My adult mystery books are aimed at the general market.
Judith: Who are your favourite authors and what appeals to you particularly about their books?
Fiona: I love Alexander McCall Smith for his colourful characters, wit and charm. Lindsey Davis for her humour. Val McDermid for her clever plotting. Andrea Levy for her exquisite prose and deep insight into human nature and social commentary. Dorothy L Sayers, again for her colourful characters, wit and social commentary. As most of those authors are crime or mystery writers, I think you can see where my sympathies lie. But I don’t read only crime and mystery. I love Hemingway for his economy of prose and Dickens for the exact opposite! Dickens also appeals to me for his social commentary, colourful characters and insight into human nature. I hope some of that has made its way into my Poppy books too.
Judith: Can you tell us a little about your next book?
Fiona: I am almost finished the first book in a new series featuring a new female detective. I can’t say too much about it, but it starts in 1929 and will move into the 1930s, so it will have a slightly darker tone than the Poppy books. The lead character is in her 30s and quite different from Poppy in personality. If it gets commissioned, I hope to alternate between the new series and the Poppy books, as Poppy still has a lot of life in her yet.
Books featuring Poppy Denby
Judith Cranswick was born and brought up in Norwich. Apart from writing, Judith’s great passions are travel and history. Both have influenced her two series of mystery novels. Tour Manager, Fiona Mason takes coach parties throughout Europe, and historian Aunt Jessica is the guest lecturer accompanying tour groups visiting more exotic destinations aided by her nephew Harry. Her published novels also include several award-winning standalone psychological thrillers. She wrote her first novel (now languishing in the back of a drawer somewhere) when her two children were toddlers, but there was little time for writing when she returned to her teaching career. Now retired, she is able to indulge her love of writing and has begun a life of crime! ‘Writers are told to write what they know about, but I can assure you, I've never committed a murder. I'm an ex-convent school headmistress for goodness sake!’