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Frances Brody

Q & A With Crime Writer Frances Brody

3 January 2017

In the third instalment of 'Ulverscroft Interviews' with authors, we speak to well-known crime writer, Frances Brody.

Frances is the author of mystery novels set in 1920s Yorkshire featuring the stylish amateur detective, Kate Shackleton. She has lived in Yorkshire for most of her life and worked as a teacher before becoming a professional writer.

How did you start writing?
I'd always scribbled. When I left school, I saved for a portable typewriter and began to tap out a novel. When that didn't work to my satisfaction, I wrote stories, poems and sketches, some of which were published in magazines. A BBC drama producer took some of my pieces for a weekly programme called The Northern Drift. I went on to write radio drama.

Can you tell us about your journey to becoming a published writer?
My mother's stories about her early life were so compelling that they inspired me to write Sisters on Bread Street. Bread Street was the street in Leeds, between Wheat Street and Apple Street, where my mother, Julia, lived until the age of eleven. Following Sisters on Bread Street, I wrote two more sagas Sixpence in Her Shoe and Halfpenny Dreams (first published as Sisters of Fortune). Crime looms large in Halfpenny Dreams. This was the novel that turned me into a crime writer.

Do you carry a notebook around with you to jot down ideas and storylines?
I do carry a notebook. Here are my tips to anyone who plans to do the same.

  • Put a date on the page.
  • Don't just write the odd few words that will be totally mysterious when you look again.
  • Pretend you are writing the note for someone else because that's who you may be by the time you go back to it.

(Note to self: follow own advice)

You used to write family sagas, why did you switch to crime fiction?
A puzzle presented itself to me: an image in my head of a man who couldn't go home to his family. I couldn't crack the case and so I created Kate Shackleton, detective extraordinaire who is a great deal smarter than I. Once she stepped into my life, I knew I could rely on her to uncover all sorts of dastardly deeds.

Do you sketch out a character description before you start writing?
Not really. When the character appears in the story, I stop and have a thing about that person. Sometimes I write what he or she has to say, to find out about their preoccupations and, how they came to this point in life. This makes characters feel real to me. Gradually I learn more about them. It's a bit like life. You don't immediately know what makes someone tick. That was true of Kate Shackleton's housekeeper, Mrs Sugden. She has surprised me at times.

Where did the inspiration come from for your character Kate Shackleton?
I was looking through an old photograph album and saw someone who had been a friend of the family. She was very much a 1920s person. I knew little about her and so was able to create Kate from that small glimpse of a long-ago person.

How do you research your books?
Most of all I like to visit the locations and imagine how they were in Kate's day. It's easy to do that in Yorkshire, where so many places have stayed the same. It's helpful to talk to people who know a place well. Author Leah Fleming kindly walked me around Langcliffe, setting for A Death in the Dales. Also, I look at old photographs. When working out a timescale, I check the perpetual calendar in my Whitaker's Almanac to see when high days and holidays fell in that year. For the geography, I look at old maps.

How long does it take you to write each book, roughly?
I have been writing a book a year for about twelve years and I can't exactly say how long it takes me. Sometimes I give myself a deadline to have a first draft by a certain date.

You have now written seven crime mysteries featuring Kate Shackleton - how many more are you planning?
Death at the Seaside, set in Whitby will be number eight - out in October 2016. I have ideas for nice and ten. I won't tempt fate by trying to think beyond that!

Many of your mysteries are set in different parts of Yorkshire. How do you decide on the setting for each story?
I have to care about the place, and have a feeling for the lives that people led there in the 1920s. Harrogate was the perfect setting for A Medal for Murder. I loved the idea of dark deeds in a genteel setting. Sometimes I "know" something that will need to be in the story. There will be a quarry - Death in the Afternoon. There will be a cave - Death in the Dales. I am a member of the historic Leeds Library and decided to set a story there when I learned that the library was said to be haunted by the ghost of a former librarian - Death of an Avid Reader.

What do you most enjoy about writing for a living?
After having 'proper jobs,' early starts and catching buses, it's a luxury to sit in bed with a cup of coffee and a notebook, working in my pyjamas.

Titles published by Frances Brody can be found on this website. 'A Death In The Dales' has been published in large print this month and will be available as an audiobook on CD, MP3CD and via our digital platform.

Interview by Nicky Solloway at Magna Large Print Books.