Kate Ellis was born and brought up in Liverpool in the Beatles era, moved to Manchester to study drama, and has never really left that area. She is married with two grown up sons and now lives in north Cheshire.
She worked as a teacher and in marketing and accounting before taking up
Crime and mystery stories have always fascinated her, as have the history and archaeology which play a large part in her books. She has written two series, one featuring archaeology graduate turned detective Sergeant Wesley Peterson, set in South Devon, the other featuring DI Joe Plantagenet, set in a thinly disguised and rather spooky York. She has also written a historical trilogy set mainly in Derbyshire, a historical standalone and a number of short stories for crime fiction anthologies and magazines.
Kate has bagged a number of awards. Her first success was in 1990, when she won the North West Playwrights Competition, and in 2019 she won the CWA Dagger in the Library.
In 2014 she was elected a member of the prestigious Detection Club.
Lynne: Kate, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to Mystery People. Your first writing success was as a playwright. What inspired you to move sideways into fiction? And why crime fiction in particular?
Kate: I wrote a play because I’d seen an advert in the Manchester Evening News calling for entries for the Northwest Playwrights’ Competition, and as I’d studied drama at university, I thought I’d have a go. I ended up winning the competition, but although I’d always wanted a career in writing, I knew in my heart of hearts that I wanted to concentrate on mysteries. I’d been addicted to a good mystery from childhood; I started on Enid Blyton’s mystery stories and worked my way up to Agatha Christie at an early age when my mother used to pass her books on to me. I often begin my author talks by telling the audience that my mother started me on my life of crime!
Lynne: Some writers have been writing from childhood, others come to it later. Has writing always been there in your life, or did you start as an adult?
Kate: I’ve written for as long as I can remember, first things for school magazines, then a very bad romantic mystery during my teenage years. As a student I wrote a couple of experimental crime novels fit only for the bin. I used the plot of one of them in a short story later on, so nothing is ever wasted.
Lynne: You’re a Lancashire lass, but you clearly have a yen to explore other places in fiction. What took you to Devon, and north Yorkshire, then briefly to Derbyshire?
Kate: I first visited Devon almost forty years ago. I fell in love with the county and have returned every year since. I’m from Liverpool, and Dartmouth (my Tradmouth) was used as nineteenth century Liverpool in the TV series The Onedin Line, with the Dart standing in for the Mersey, so I’m not sure whether this influenced me – maybe I felt at home there. York is another place I fell in love with when once, and some of the spooky tales our guide told us provided the inspiration for my Joe Plantagenet series. When I wrote my Albert Lincoln trilogy, set in the northwest of England in the aftermath of the First World War, I didn’t have to travel far to do my research as they’re set near where I live.
Lynne: Tell us about the historical strand that plays such a large role in both your series. Where did your interest in history come from?
Kate: History was always my favourite subject at school (as well as English of course) and I’ve always loved reading history books and visiting historic sites. As a child I used to visit Speke Hall in Liverpool with my parents, and I loved learning about its past and its secret passages. My late father was passionate about history too. So I probably caught the bug off him.
Lynne: Which comes first when a new novel is growing in your mind – the history or the present day
Kate: It’s different for each book. Sometimes I come across an irresistible historical idea I feel I have to use, and sometimes an intriguing modern day case fires my imagination. My latest book, The Killing Place, was inspired by seeing a life-sized model in eighteenth century dress sitting in a sedan chair in a National Trust property in the Midlands. I just knew she had to play an important part in the book.
Lynne: Does it take a lot of research? How do you go about it?
Kate: I enjoy the research side of writing. I have a large library of history and other reference books in my garden office, and once I’ve decided on the historical aspect of a book I read up on it extensively. I also find the internet is an excellent source of information, provided you choose the right sites. After my initial bout of research I often need to do more as the book progresses. It never really stops until I’ve typed ‘the end’.
Lynne: Do you plan in detail, using your research to fix everything firmly in place in your mind before you start writing, or do you let the characters take you on their journey?
Kate: Before I begin writing I make a flow chart outlining the rough central plot, possible red herrings and the historical aspect of the story. I use this as a starting point and as the story develops I always get new ideas to add to the mix; new plot strands and more interesting characters, for instance.
Lynne: Did you choose to write mainly series, or is it just the way it happened? Are there any more standalones lurking in the back of your mind?
Kate: I do enjoy writing series (and a trilogy of course) because you can get to know your characters and they become like old friends. I’d like to write standalones one day, but apart from the first novel I wrote – a mystery set in Tudor Liverpool entitled The Devil’s Priest, available on Kindle, it hasn’t happened yet. But never say never.
Lynne: Thirty-six published books, two ongoing series, one of them twenty-eight strong and counting; plus a trilogy and a standalone. That’s quite an impressive work rate. Do you have to be firm with yourself about putting the hours in, or do you look forward to spending time with your characters?
Kate: I think self-discipline is a vital requirement for any writer. There are days when I’d rather be doing the ironing than starting a new chapter, but you have to make yourself sit down and get to work. After the first few words you actually begin to enjoy the experience.
Lynne: After twenty-eight books, Wesley Peterson must feel like part of your family by now. How do you keep him fresh for your readers? And how hard is it to maintain a balance which means readers who
discover him halfway through the series get enough information, but fans who have been there from the start don’t get too much repetition?
Kate: That’s definitely the difficult part. Obviously the characters have to be introduced in each book for new readers, but I do try and do it in a slightly different way each time. Having said that, it’s quite fun to bring in fresh aspects of my characters’ lives from time to time – I do love writing about Wesley’s nightmare mother-in-law, and Gerry’s newly discovered long lost daughter has a lot of potential to be an interesting character in the future.
Lynne: It’s twenty-five years since you got that phone call to say your first book had been accepted. Can you remember how it felt? Was it overnight success, or were there others before the first one, which didn’t quite attract a publisher’s attention?
Kate: The first book I wrote, The Devil’s Priest, had been sent out to publishers and several said they liked it but at that time the market for historical crime about monks and nuns was rather saturated so it was turned down. This made me come up with the idea of a contemporary murder mystery with an historical/ archaeological background and this resulted in the first book in my Wesley Peterson series, The Merchant’s House, which was accepted pretty much right away. After all those years wanting to be a writer, I’d finally made it and it was a fantastic feeling. My sons were young then, and I remember that we celebrated as a family.
Lynne: Holding the first copy of your debut novel in your hand must be a terrific feeling – but twenty or thirty books in when it’s no longer a novelty, the thrill must wear a bit thin. What aspect of being a published writer still gives you that buzz?
Kate: It’s very true that no publication day can be quite like the first when you’ve written so many books. However, I still get a real buzz from knowing that people are reading and enjoying what I write. It’s lovely to meet readers, and so rewarding when people take the trouble to tell me how much they love my books.
Lynne: Do you reread your books when they’re actual books, not words on a screen? Do they still feel like your words?
Kate: I’m afraid that once I’ve written a book, and dealt with all the editing, copy-editing and proof-reading, I tend to forget all about it and move on to the next project. Writing a book is such an intense experience that I don’t want to keep going back to it after it’s all over. However, when I do read sections, such as reading a passage during an author talk, it is good to find that it flows well.
Lynne: What sparks off a new novel for you? Are you always planning the next one, or do you need a rest before a new one starts moving forward?
Kate: A book can be sparked by anything; something I read or seen on TV or maybe some interesting historical fact. I keep notebooks around the house and jot down ideas. I was delighted to discover that Agatha Christie did the same, so I was in good company. When I finish a book I tend to allow myself a few weeks to catch up with other things before I start researching and planning the next one.
Lynne: And finally – what next? Wesley? Joe? Or something completely new?
Kate: My Joe Plantagenet series is to be reissued with fantastic new covers in February, which is very exciting. I’m planning to do a sixth in the series; that might not be published for a while, but I’m looking forward to writing about Joe’s spooky investigations in ‘Eborby’ again. Wesley is being kept busy. The Killing Place is out in paperback in April and his twenty eighth case Coffin Island is out in August. I’ve now started work on the next one.
Lynne: Then I’d better let you get back to it! Thank you for talking to us, Kate, and good luck with the
reissues and the new work.
Books by Kate Ellis:
The Wesley Peterson series blends mystery and archaeology in south Devon.
The Merchant's House,
The Armada Boy,
An Unhallowed Grave,
The Funeral Boat,
The Bone Garden,
A Painted Doom,
The Skeleton Room,
The Plague Maiden,
A Cursed Inheritance,
The Marriage Hearse,
The Shining Skull,
The Blood Pit,
A Perfect Death,
The Flesh Tailor,
The Jackal Man,
The Cadaver Game,
The Shadow Collector,
The Shroud Maker,
The Death Season,
The Mermaid's Scream,
The Mechanical Devil,
Dead Man's Lane,
The Burial Circle,
The Stone Chamber,
The Killing Place.
Joe Plantagenet deals with crime with a link to the supernatural in a mediaeval north Yorkshire city.
The Albert Lincoln trilogy is set mainly in Derbyshire in the aftermath of the First World War.
The Devil’s Priest is a standalone set in Elizabethan Liverpool,
featuring a former abbess in pursuit of a brutal killer.
Dark and Merciless Things is a collection of ten short stories.
Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives in Oxfordshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction