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Sunday 8 October 2023

Interview: Lizzie Sirett in conversation with Barbara Fagan Speake


Barbara Fagan Speake was born and brought up in Connecticut.
She moved to the UK in 1972 following her marriage and had a varied career as a research psychologist, clinical psychologist and senior manager in the NHS.
A previous author of non-fiction books, she turned her attention to fiction writing in 2001.
Barbara creates her characters from both the US and the UK and draws on her experiences of both countries as well as on her professional background. A fictional city in Connecticut, Westford, was the setting for her standalone debut novel,
Secrets Only Sleep (2005). She continued to use the setting for the novels in her Scottish Detective and has now written ten books in the series featuring Detective Annie Macpherson

Lizzie:         So tell us how you got started?
Barbara:     Back in the early 2000s I thought I wanted to write standalone novels, but in my debut novel, Secrets Only Sleep (2005), I created a fictional town and police department, and it seemed a shame to abandon that creation. What I needed to add was a new series character: Scottish Detective Annie Macpherson. In the ten book series, Annie is working with her American counterparts, initially on secondment and eventually on contract. She learns a lot from her American colleagues as they do from her.

The first three books take place within her six-month secondment. In Primed by the Past (2011) Annie and her colleagues deal with a vicious assault that leaves a woman for dead. Annie feels responsible as she didn’t believe the woman was being stalked when she first interviewed her. In the second, Programmed to Kill (2012), Annie and her colleagues are faced with three murders in quick succession, all with the same hallmarks, but all their theorising as to the connection between the three victims is wide of the mark. In Past Deception (2014), Annie and colleagues investigate two kidnappings before one of detectives becomes another victim.

Scared to Tell (2015) sees Annie working undercover in a residential unit for people with intellectual disabilities, as she too becomes a target. In Based on Lies (2017) the detectives deal with a series of assaults on the local university campus which have connections with a twenty-year-old cold case. In Committed to Revenge (2018), Annie and her colleagues investigate another set of murders which at first appear unrelated but are intimately connected.

Punish the Guilty (2019) deals with the aftermath of an historical school shooting from the point of view of the family of the shooter. Whilst investigating a current case, the detectives uncover information about that historical case, which was unknown at the time. Novels Question the Lies (2020) and Face the Lies (2021) explore the mind of a female serial killer, who uses coercive control to ensnare her victims. Although she is caught in Question the Lies, the sequel finds her using her wiles again to escape from custody. My latest, Targets for Revenge (2023) finds present and past police detectives from the Westford team becoming victims of a vicious consortium.

Lizzie:          You live in the UK but set your books in the US. Does this cause issues in your writing?
Barbara:      I like the juxta positioning of a British character with her American counterparts but it means that I have both a British and an American editor. I use British spelling in the books but use American terminology for the crime scenes and for the dialogue involving the American characters, trying never to put British expressions in American mouths and vice versa.

Lizzie:         How would  you describe your books? and does your professional and international background help in your writing?
Barbara:     My books are more psychological suspense than murder mysteries, as my background in psychology makes me question why people do the things they do. A recurring theme in the books is revenge for past wrongs and every book has a main plot and one or more subplots. Often the reader is left with a moral dilemma regarding the crimes depicted. As a former practising clinical psychologist, I am also interested in psychological issues and themes, including relationships and how they develop and how people interact with each other.

Lizzie:         What do you enjoy most about the writing process and why are you an Indie author?
Barbara:     I love working out the complications of the plot, especially as all my books have a main and one or more subplots going on. I love bringing it all together and the intricacies of how it will all tie up, especially the forensic evidence. And as I said before, I love spending time with my characters. They feel very real to me

All my books go through several drafts, extensive editing and scrutiny from beta readers. I also had the good fortune a few years back of meeting a forensic specialist who also now reads the books in draft form. I am also lucky that my husband is a graphic designer by profession and a professional photographer so he does all the preparation work and cover designs for my paperbacks which I have printed and distribute myself, while the e-books are available on Amazon.

I am very much an Indie author by choice, having had mainstream publications as an academic. Fundamentally, I do not want to give up my own intellectual property rights and I want to retain my own copyright to my novels. I like working to my own timescales and getting to know so many of my readers.

However, I guess like many Indie authors I find that the hardest part is getting known. I am lucky to have built up a firm following over the years, but marketing is something I need to focus on more. I keep telling myself to get my head around developing my website, my earlier one running well until my son moved away! Until lockdown, most of my promotion was through word of mouth, regular presentations to community groups (some of whom resorted to Zoom presentations), attendance at crime writing festivals and involvement in two writing groups, one of which I facilitated.

Lizzie:         What advice would you give to new or aspiring writers?                        
Barbara:     My first piece of advice to any aspiring writer is to read. Read books in the genre you want to write in. Think about how characters come across, how the story unfolds. Think about what appeals to you as a reader, as that is a good gauge of what might appeal to others.

Learn about your craft. Often in life, we set out to do something new. We must acquire knowledge or seek someone with experience to help us. Then we learn by doing and get better and better with practice. Writing is no different, especially genre writing. In fiction, you are making it all up. I needed help thinking about writing dialogue, creating suspense, keeping the tension up, making people want to turn the pages, plotting, and eveloping characters. Therefore, I read countless books on writing in general and more specifically on crime writing. I went on courses and I started attending crime-writing festivals to hear authors speak about their craft.

Get your basic facts right when it comes to forensics even if you use a bit of poetic license.

And, find your own voice. It’s impossible to write like someone else. While you can take pointers from other writers about how to structure your novel, the voice must be yours.

 Be inquisitive and stay alert: carry around a notebook. Observe people, their habits, mannerisms, and dialogue.

Finally write. Write every day. It is true what they say that the more you write the more you improve. Never be content with what you write, always push yourself. Above all, write, don’t just talk about it.

Lizzie:         So, what’s next?
    In addition to my crime novels, I have published a collection of 21 short, and flash fiction (100 stories of exactly 99 words each) entitled: Shades of Crime Dark and Light (2022).

In terms of the crime novels, Detective Annie Macpherson certainly has more stories to tell and who knows, one of these days I may be inspired to create a new series but only after Annie has finished with me …

 Barbara’s ebooks can be found on Amazon:

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