Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The genial logical detective returns - interview with Steve Robinson

RELEASED TODAY 'The Lost Empress'

No 1 Bestseller in Historical Thrillers

amazon link
Meet Steve Robinson – bestselling author and a man who has confessed here that he shoots from the hip (see interview below). He has also finally appeared in public wearing the infamous 'writer's hat' mentioned in his first appearance on my blog, and again when I last interviewed him. 

Steve Robinson drew upon his own family history for inspiration when he imagined the life and quest of his genealogist-hero, Jefferson Tayte. The talented London-based crime writer, who was first published at age 16, always wondered about his own maternal grandfather - "He was an American GI billeted in England during the Second World War," Robinson says. "A few years after the war ended he went back to America, leaving a young family behind and, to my knowledge, no further contact was made. I traced him to Los Angeles through his 1943 enlistment record and discovered that he was born in Arkansas . . ." Robinson cites crime writing and genealogy as ardent hobbies--a passion that is readily apparent in his work. He can be contacted via his website or his blog 

Welcome back, Steve. I see you're wearing your writer's hat. It's very you :)

The truth about the hat and more photos on Steve's blog
It's a bit embarrassing really. After Kindle Direct Publishing made a mini-documentary about me, a photo of me in the hat appeared on twitter so the hat is really out of the bag.

Since you last visited, you’ve written another two books in the Jefferson Tayte Genealogical Mystery series and, after being a huge self-publishing success, you’ve signed with amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint, bringing out new editions of your backlist alongside matching audio-books. What made you jump ship from self-publishing? 

The short answer is a four book deal with Amazon Publishing’s mystery thriller imprint, Thomas & Mercer, but I don’t really like to think of it in terms of having jumped ship. I still feel ‘indie’, and that will always be a big part of my journey as an author. Signing with Amazon seemed to offer the best of both worlds. I’m still very much involved in the process, from book cover designs and blurbs, and I even got to pick the narrator for the audiobook editions from several samples that were sent to me. Signing with Amazon Publishing has helped me to focus more on my books, and of course it’s great to have editors waiting to help me shape them up for publication. I also felt that Amazon was better placed to help my books reach a wider audience.

Are the amazon waters as infested with sharks as the headlines suggest? 

Not as far as this author is concerned. From my own experience during the year since I signed with Amazon Publishing, I believe they treat their authors very well. 

Sorry about the shipwreck metaphors but I was influenced by your latest book :) The tragic sinking of the Empress of Ireland in 1914 is key to the story that JT is uncovering. How did you discover this event and what made you decide to write about it?

When I set out to find the story for my fourth Jefferson Tayte mystery, I knew it would be released in 2014, and I wanted to find something that tied in with the centenary of the outbreak of WW1. When I came across the tragic sinking of the Empress of Ireland in May that year, I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of it before, and the need to make more people aware of it became very important to me. So many stories are told of the Titanic and the Lusitania, but here was a disaster that had all but been forgotten, and yet, excluding crew members, more passengers lost their lives when the Empress of Ireland sank than on either the Titanic or the Lusitania. I wanted to weave a story around this event, and because it happened before the war broke out, I decided that the backdrop would be the build up to war, rather than the war itself.

As always in your books, there’s a lot of research underlying the historical parts of the narrative and another thread in the novel is the WW1 network of spies. How much of your detail about spies is based on fact?

It’s all based on facts from my research – at least, it’s based on reported facts at the time. There’s a lot of speculation about the scale of spying before WW1. Britain was in a state of paranoia about the threat of a German invasion, with satirical cartoons in the press and on posters showing German spies everywhere. A number of spies were arrested and executed at the outbreak of war, although I think there were far fewer than had been anticipated. Those spies mentioned during JT’s research in the book are real, as are the details of their spying activity and their punishment. I try to keep everything as real as possible.

As a fellow-photographer, I was fascinated by the detail of spy photography in 2014 – very clumsy compared to today’s micro-cameras or even mobile phones. How did you research the details, which I assume are accurate? 

I thought I’d run into a problem when I came to the particular plot hurdle in question, for which I needed a camera that existed in 1914, which would be small enough to conceal. I had no idea whether such a camera was in use then, but was very happy to find the Ur-Leica—a 35mm film camera, built in 1913 by Oscar Barnack at the Ernst Leitz Optische Werke in Wetzlar. It was still in prototype form at the time my story is set, but having been designed and built in Germany made it ideal, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine such a prototype camera in the possession of a German spy. Necessity being the mother of invention, it was also not difficult to imagine that such a small camera for the time was  designed for this very purpose.

Once again, you interweave a woman’s viewpoint from the past, with JT’s, and I certainly found Alice’s perspective and dilemma very convincing. Do you have any tips for writing from the viewpoint of someone in another historical period? Any special considerations regarding gender?

Someone wrote to me a short while ago and asked that very question. It was about the character, Mena, in my second book, To the Grave. How do you get inside the head of teenage girl from 1944 enough to understand her mannerisms and expectations? It’s a tough question to answer because I don’t really know. I don’t even have any children of my own to draw inspiration from. I suppose it must partly come down to the research, and I think when you come to fully understand a character, to the point where they seem quite real to you, then you can better understand how they would feel and how they might react to certain situations, irrespective of gender or the times they live in. 

Your plots must be complicated to write, with 3 different storylines interwoven (the present genealogical case for JT, the past as it happened and JT’s own personal family history and relationships). How do you keep track of it all? Any tips?

The software application, Scrivener, has been invaluable in helping me to keep track of the various plotlines in my stories. I highly recommend it. When I’m faced with two interwoven timelines, I typically write the entire past narrative before I write Jefferson Tayte’s character in the present. This helps to keep me in character and I can focus wholly on one part of the story at a time. I then look at how JT is going to unlock the key elements of the past narrative and I structure what’s going on in the present day around those links to the past. The elements of JT’s own, larger story are usually written into the appropriate places as I go. The key there is not to let them get in the way of the main story. The hard part really comes down to making the often complex mechanics of the story appear transparent to the reader so that the entire narrative as a whole makes sense and it easy to follow. I love it when I see reviews that describe my work as an ‘easy read’. The writing is usually far from easy, but if I’ve managed to make a reader feel it was an easy book to read, then I consider that I’ve done my job as a storyteller well.

Is JT going to make progress with tracing his own ancestry in the next book? Can you give us a teaser for the next JT novel?

Yes he is! I’ve plotted the book and I’ve started writing it. I hope to deliver the first draft to my publisher next summer. As for a teaser, all I’ll say at this point is that Jefferson Tayte is in for quite a shock.

JT’s professional expertise reflects your own in tracking family trees. It seems very sophisticated nowadays, so what tips do you have for readers who want to play sleuth to discover their own ancestors? 

JT faces many genealogical brick walls on his various assignments in my books, and each one has to be worked through to reach a solution that often seems impossible to find. Everyone working on their family history comes across these brick walls from time to time, and typically the answers are difficult to reach because we’re looking in all the tried and tested places, following our regular pattern of research, and sometimes you need a fresh approach. There’s usually more than one way to find what you’re looking for, however wild or unlikely it might seem. You don’t always have to climb that wall, sometimes you can find your way around it.

Do you sometimes feel the urge to abandon JT and write something different?

No, we’ve become good friends over the years, and I want to find our how his life turns out myself. I couldn’t abandon him part way through his own story. It’s a partnership, and he’s relying on me to help him find out who he is. When you create a series character, I think you owe it to that character, and of course to your readers, to see the story through.

What are you doing photography-wise at the moment? 

I recently took a backpack full of photographic equipment to the Dolomites and came back with some mountain photography I’m very pleased with. I’ve posted a blog about it with some of the images I particularly like here

Here are some other images I really like, which I’ve not shared before. 

I shoot with a Canon 5D mk3, and I like to take it into London with my 35mm f1.4L for street photography. I prefer to shoot candid images for street shots as I feel they best capture the realism, which for me is what street photography is all about.

I was walking past this lady, shooting from my hip as I passed so as not to draw attention to myself. Studying the image later on, I became very interested in her story. Her attire and the backpack she’s sitting on don’t appear typical of someone on the street. It makes me wonder about her story. It makes me want to know how this older lady wound up here. Judging from the number of roll-up cigarette ends on the ground in front of her she’s been sitting there a while.

With Coutts bank in the background, I like the juxtaposition it represents. 

I think wet pavements can add interest to a shot, and I like how the image of this man in the doorway turned out. Rainy days are great for shooting London street photography, and are well suited to black and white images.

For obvious reasons, I call this last image ‘The laughing cloud’. I was in Cornwall, having a coffee outside a hotel that overlooks the sea when I took it. It appeared for a moment and was gone again, but I had my camera with me and managed to get the shot.

Thanks, Steve! Your happy cloud looks more like a scared leopard to me but I like the street shots. All the best with the new book. Party time!

You can contact Steve via  his website  on twitter and on Google + 


My Review of ‘The Lost Empress’

The genial logical detective returns in another page-turner

Fans of this bestselling series, like me, will find much to enjoy and even surprise them in the latest adventure of genealogical detective J.T. As always, it is the unfolding of the story set in the past that I like best. In this case, I discovered the prelude to WW1, with credible spies and a real-life shipwreck. More passengers died when the Empress of Ireland sank than in the Titanic disaster and yet most of us know nothing about it because war news overwhelmed all else. Who was it that pointed out how to bury bad news by timing its release? Caught up in these events is the subject of JT’s investigation, Alice. I found it easy to empathise with Alice and her dilemma as she struggles against threats to her family and pressure to betray her country.

The modern day antics, with murder and chases, are entertaining, well-structured to leave the past narative at cliff-hanger moments, and I believe in J.T. as a character. His sloppy shyness with women is endearing, as is his failure to discover his own family history (so far). It goes with the genre that there are twists and revelations and the reader has to be willing to accept some unlikely behaviour in the interest of plot entertainment. Given the complexity of the three-strand plot (past and present of ‘the case’, plus J.T.’s own life) I think Steve Robinson pulls it off well. 

Until three-quarters of the way through the book, I was completely gripped by Alice’s story; after that, the pace grew faster but the characterisation weaker, in my eyes. Of course, I still wanted to know what happened but I'm always going to prefer it when the writing reaches a higher level. Having said that, the sinking of the Empress is an emotional roller-dipper of a scene and I love the historical detail in the whole book. I trust Steve Robinson's portrayal of clothes, manners and machinery to set the scene. I now know what camera spy might have used in 1914 – fascinating!

Looking for your family history?

You'll also find really helpful advice in this book by author Karen Charlton on how she shook her family tree and a criminal fell out.

amazon link

Goodreads Book Giveaway

One Sixth of a Gill by Jean Gill

One Sixth of a Gill

by Jean Gill

Giveaway ends November 01, 2014.

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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Don't call me Shirley

I suppose it was inevitable that within minutes of us renaming our adopted dog 'Sherlock', my husband (a big 'Airplane' fan) said, 'Of course, we'll call him Shirley.' Sherlock/ Sherl/ Sherley/ G'boy seems very happy with his new names and life. He has a tail like a cat's and it's usually waving that little white hook at the end high in the air. His hind-quarters have completely regained muscle tone and a bum doubled in size suits him better than it does me; ditto the extra 5kg he gained gradually after he came to us. Read Part 1 of Sherlock's story

A Happy Tale

Sherlock is a griffon bleu de Gascogne, a Gascony Griffon, bred for hunting, abandoned with no ID. My suspicions that he was thrown out by his hunter-owner have been backed up by his behaviour. When we opened a bottle of Clairette (the local sparkling wine), the cork popping sent Sherlock into nervous running round. Purely in the interests of dog-training, we made sure he heard the sound frequently and he has grown used to it over the last eight months but this is not a dog who will cope with gunshots. He's scared when the hunters go past in their SUVs, hounds barking and trailers clattering. Nose glued to the ground as always and ears trailing, he didn't even see the pheasant that pottered into the woods on one of our forest walks. I suspect that he has the nose but not the temperament; or that a hunting accident traumatised him.

I do know that he was treated badly. He no longer flinches when I stroke him unexpectedly and he's no longer afraid if I'm cross (usually with Blanche and he worries on her behalf). He knows there's no hitting here and his confidence grows all the time. Yesterday was a big day; he looked me in the eyes and, for the first time, licked my nose. He seeks caresses now without fearing reprisals. In fact, he'll push Blanche aside to get his share and she's so sure of herself (and of me) that she doesn't mind. It wasn't safe for him to show his feelings and he is a reserved dog, who is taking the risk of expressing himself more and more. 

He is also deeply stubborn. He might have been beaten but he wasn't broken. I see it when Blanche plays dominance games. She is so much bigger that he can't avoid being jumped on but he doesn't buckle and he doesn't give in. He endures it. I suspect his previous training involved commands, stubborn refusal and then him being hit. The shelter reinforced recall as a bad thing (back into the cage if you came when called). That has changed completely with positive training but he still wavers sometimes at the final moment in recall. There's a lot of harm to unlearn. And he has no idea what play means. So motivation has to be praise, cuddles, need to be with me or occasional cheese cubes.

Sherlock sleuthing

I get funny looks when Sherlock is with me. One man waiting with me at the vet's told me he used to have a bleu de Gascogne. The dog got nicknamed 'Inox' the French name for a metallic pan-scraper, because the wire-haired coat is so harsh. The breed website shows a photo of owners; rows of men with guns and Sherlock-dogs.

Everyone knows that it is a bad idea to adopt a hunting dog. Why, I wondered, having adopted a hunting dog. A French friend told me, 'They escape. They run away all the time.' This was not good news. Escaping dogs die. The very next day, I found Sherlock outside the garden fence, running around the terrain that is open to a busy road. A lump in my throat, I called him back in. Blanche hadn't followed him - that time. John and I checked the fence, argued, blocked the hole that hadn't been there before, feared the worst. 

It happened again. I watched where Sherlock went when he was back on the inside, found the new hole. Heavy-hearted, I told John. It was a bad day. We both know from bitter experience what a determined escaper can be like and how dangerous it is. Gritting his teeth, John looked at the fence again. And then looked around inside the big garden. And saw what Sherlock had been trying to tell us all along, looking through the fence, pointing gun-dog style. Wild boar excrement. The holes had been made by wild boar coming down from the woods into the garden. All Sherlock had done was go through the hole and check out his outer territory - and then come home.

When strimming the grass outside the fence, someone had cut through the tension wire at the bottom and that was all it took to allow piggy diggings and a break-in. Acorns and worms in damp soil all attract the boar. Luckily a strand of barbed wire along the bottom of the fence outside stopped the nocturnal invasions - big thanks to the Welsh friend who gave me that tip.

Sherlock has made NO escape attempts so another myth can be exploded; hunting dogs don't all want to run away.

Sherlock on his holidays by Lac St Croix

Apart from the nose-lick, yesterday was a big day for another reason; vaccinations and health check. It's good news. The way I'm treating Sherlock's ears is working so although they are dirty and need wiped regularly, the regime of a week's Zymox, then a break, has prevented any return of infection and can be carried on forever. No talk of operations, nor even of antibiotics. One healthy, shiny, happy dog.  My vet has remained impassive in the past while I've sobbed all over her consulting-room but this time she cracked completely, in a good way. Yesterday, she stroked Sherlock and we agreed that he wasn't the sort of dog who'd attract potential owners but that he was beautiful, 'well-proportioned'. She told me, 'I love this dog. There is something peaceful about him.' The word she used was 'reposant', which carries the sense of 'makes me feel peaceful.' Yes, 'reposant' is a good word.