Indie author Jonathan Digby, writer of historical fiction set in Elizabethan times, joins IndieBookWeek.com today for an interview.
Welcome, Jonathan! Tell us about your background and how you came to be a writer.
My background is that I am English, I live in London and I’m an actor and a musician. I wanted to write a book for a long time but couldn’t really decide what to write. I’ve started various writing projects over the years, but never quite found a style or topic which really kept me interested. It was only after I went back to university to study archaeology in my 30s that I hit on the idea of writing an historic crime novel. In terms of my other pursuits, I have a career as an actor in the United Kingdom and I have my own indie band – Boxgrove Pseudomorph – which is a bit of a side project but fun nevertheless.
How many works do you currently have published, or in development? Do you write in one particular genre or format?
I have just published my debut fictional novel – A Murderous Affair. It is an Elizabethan Murder Mystery, set in 1588 in London, and featuring a ‘detective’ called John Lovat – and is strictly in the niche genre of historical crime! It is the first in a series and I am currently writing the sequel. I also have a number of other ideas sketched out for future books.
I have published one previous book, which was a biography of a Polish woman who survived a harrowing ordeal throughout the Second World War. She is the mother of a friend of mine and the book was written for the family and I don’t think it will ever be on general release. I am proud of it, though, because it gave me incredible insight into the plight of the Poles during WWII, which I think has been overshadowed by other ghastly events of that time. It is called simply ‘Maria’.
Which authors would you compare your books to, and why? Have you reached out to any of them?
There are really only a handful of historical crime writers that I am familiar with. The ‘Agatha Christie’ of the genre is Ellis Peters, whose character Cadfael is an 11th Century Monk living in Shrewsbury, which is on the border between England and Wales. Cadfael was made into a successful TV series in the UK, starring Derek Jacobi, and I will rarely turn over when a repeat episode comes on!! The books are beautifully detailed but slightly on the dry side. Since then, there have been a number of others – my personal favourite is Lindsay Davis’ Falco series, which features a Roman ‘informer’ living in the first century AD.
When writing my book, these were the ones that I kept most closely in mind, although I stopped reading them because I didn’t want to influence myself too much. The Falco books are funny, clever, full of great characters and very evocative of Old Rome, whilst maintaining a very modern style. I really recommend them! I haven’t reached out to Lindsay, although I am planning to email her at some point, above all to thank her for the inspiration. CJ Samson is another very strong exponent of the genre, but I would say that his style is a bit more gritty than I wanted mine to be.
How do story ideas come to you? Do you map them out in advance, or let the stories unfold on the page?
This is such a difficult question to answer because there are so many sources. Sometimes ideas come from reading history books, sometimes from other crime novels, sometimes from just out of the blue. On a couple of occasions when I was really struggling with the plot, I dreamt the solution! But I would say that I usually have to stimulate my brain to get the ideas flowing – if I’m stuck, I just pick up a history book and start reading, or watch a detective series on TV, and hope that sooner or later something will pop into my head.
I didn’t map out A Murderous Affair in advance and I regretted not doing so every step of the way. My fear was that the writing process wouldn’t excite me if I knew what was coming. However, I ended up with a lot of loose ends that had to be tied together and it made the process take a lot longer than it should have done. Once I knew where the story was going I mapped out the last chapters and I wrote them in next to no time. What I learnt was that you can still surprise yourself but that you are working within a framework which you trust will get you where you want to go. My second novel has been planned much more meticulously!
As a writer of historical fiction, how do you approach researching your novels? How much time do you dedicate to the process?
Research is very important to me (and enjoyable) and I try to read as much as possible. The Internet is of course incredibly useful and I’m also fortunate in knowing two or three great second hand book shops where I was able to find a lot of useful books – although I might need to put up new shelving to house them all in the future!! I also have access to my old university history library. History of the Elizabethan period is very strong on Elizabeth herself and the court etc, but I actually found social histories of the period much more useful. I also have books on everything from Elizabethan furniture, clothing, houses, streets, shops, geography, modes of transport and so on and so forth. It is really about discovering a whole new world and I generally start with the assumption that everything would be unfamiliar to me.
In terms of time, my ideal would be to spend half a day writing and half a day researching – but it is never that simple. Overall, researching takes up more time because, once you know where you are going, writing can be relatively quick.
How has immersing yourself in history affected your perspective on what it is to live a modern-day life?
Generally, it just reminds me of how lucky I am!! We take so much for granted that people in late 16th Century London simply wouldn’t have dreamed of – above all life expectancy! The average age of an Elizabethan Londoner was probably somewhere in their mid forties. It is amazing to think how resourceful people were and also how little they had – eating meat was a luxury for most people; they’d have one set of clothes, disease and plague were a reality – the list is endless.
How do you measure success as an author?
A good question! Firstly it was starting a book, and then finishing a book, then finding a publisher and so on!! The process requires a constant adjustment of expectation in terms of measuring success. I was actually very nervous at first about publishing because you are moving from a situation where you are patting yourself on the back for finishing a book, to one where it is no longer yours anymore and will be judged by the readers. A Murderous Affair has only been out for a couple of months, and so it is a bit early to think of success in terms of sales, but receiving the odd good review definitely makes the whole effort worthwhile. I’ve had two or three people asking when the sequel is coming and that is a great feeling!
You’ve recently written a piece for the Huffington Post, How is Spying and Surveillance Evolving?, that contrasts Elizabethan spying networks with the NSA. How have readers responded to your article? Have you considered writing a spy novel set in the present, centered on the NSA?
The article largely went under the radar – which is not surprising as the Huffington Post publishes so much and it was written by an unknown author! However, the NSA revelations appears to be a story which will keep on running and so the article may be viewed again in the future. I haven’t considered writing a modern day spy novel – I think it sounds like an exciting prospect but would probably require as much research as an historical story.
Your novel, A Murderous Affair, is published by Endeavor Press Ltd., an indie publishing company. What factors did you consider when deciding which path to take: traditional, indie, or self-publishing? What advice would you share with as-yet-unpublished writers who have a manuscript ready for publication?
I was very fortunate in that I was introduced to Endeavour Press by a friend and author. Up to that point I hadn’t actually sent my novel to any publishers and only one agent. Once Endeavour had offered me the deal, I had the option of going with them or starting to search properly for another offer. I decided to go with Endeavour because there was no guarantee that anyone else would offer me anything and I felt that it was important to get on that first step of the ladder. Endeavour are a pretty straightforward company and there are no frills – so if your idea of being a writer is getting taken out to lunch by your publisher and having book launch parties (as mine certainly used to be!!!) it is probably not for you. It has given me a very interesting perspective on publishing, though, and really helped me to understand how the digital market works.
I still feel like a bit of a novice to be giving anyone any advice. I think that it a good idea to send your manuscript to as many people as possible, despite the fact that I didn’t do it, but it is also worth bearing in mind that the barriers to getting published have largely disappeared now. Self-publishing is an attractive option provided that you have an exceptionally good proofreader and you are prepared to become a bookseller as well as writer. To a large extent, the Endeavour Press deal feels like a self-publishing deal because I spend a lot of time marketing the book over and above what Endeavour themselves are doing – and I honestly think that that is a good thing and the way it should be. Of course there is a part of me that hopes a large publisher will come in and offer me a deal to write four more John Lovat stories (!!), but at the same time I know that if there is nothing on the table when my next book is finished I still have strong options available to me.
How do you market your books? Do you have a formal plan? Do you blog, or use social media? How regularly?
I have a loose plan, which is constantly evolving! Obviously I have support from Endeavour, such as the Huffington Post article and one that is coming up soon in a local London newspaper, and other stuff that they are doing behind the scenes. Social media is very important – I particularly love Twitter (and tweet every day) because it gives you access to such a wide network of people and has allowed me to connect with hundreds of other indie authors – not to mention great indie supporters such as Indiebookweek!! Although I’m not a great fan, Facebook can’t be ignored – I tend to post the book on there but I don’t as yet have a FB book page. I do have a website, where I am planning to blog but it is in the development stage at the moment – should be up and running by Christmas. I am going to take themes and places in the novel and blog about them in relation to the 16th Century. The first piece is about Cuckold’s Point on the Thames, where the body of the murdered Portuguese merchant, Don Alphonse de Souza, washes up in the novel. Apart from that, I am looking at other social media platforms such as Pinterest but haven’t made any decisions yet. I think the secret is to find a time saving way of dealing with all of the options available and I haven’t quite worked that out yet!!
Tell us about your writing environment. Do you listen to music? Are you surrounded by stacks of research? Do you write best at a particular time of day?
One of the great pieces of writing advice that I heard recently was: ‘try to be able to write anywhere’, and I try to work by that mantra. When writing A Murderous Affair I wrote in lots of different places. At home I write in the sitting room surrounded by books – I usually listen to music but also find silence useful at times too. If I’m getting distracted by the internet too much, I often take myself off to a café in Camden where I live. I wrote at my parent’s house, in pubs, in restaurants – as long as I have a seat, a table and a computer, I am happy!! I quite like to be surrounded by people and bustle when I am writing, although I don’t like to be interrupted – because that can break the flow – so actually cafes and restaurants are quite good places because people are around but they tend to let you get on with it!!
How do you know when a story is complete? Do you work on more than one project at the same time?
Knowing when a story is complete is partly a gut instinct thing but, because I had mapped out the final chapters for A Murderous Affair, it was also a question of getting to the end of that and then filling in any gaps in the edit. Of course, you can keep editing forever and I still find things now that I would like to change – but there becomes a time when continuing to edit is ruled by the law of diminishing returns. I do tend to work on different projects at the same time – for example at the moment I am also writing a film script and translating a friends film script into English from French (this is to help me improve my French as the second book in my series is set in France!). I personally like having things to flit between so that when the inspiration dries up for one of them, you can move onto something else quickly without getting frustrated. I think it does mean, though, that projects take longer than they should/could!!!
Is there anything else about your experiences as a writer and published author that you would like to share with readers?
The best advice I could give is form a writers group with some other writers. I started a group with five others and four of the six of us are now published. Not only did it make sure I kept producing submissions, but I also got a great editing service absolutely free. It is important to get committed people on board and be strict about deadlines etc but it’s also a way of staying sociable whilst writing. The writers group also led to my deal with Endeavour Press and so there is networking value in a writer’s group too!
What does the year ahead hold for you?
Hopefully the second book in the series and on top of that some acting work and some new music! I’m keen to get my film script finished as well because hopefully if that works out, I can look at adapting A Murderous Affair for the screen too. TV detectives are a passion of mine and I would love to turn A Murderous Affair into a TV series!!
Thank you for visiting IndieBookWeek.com, Jonathan. As we close the interview, we would like to invite you to share an excerpt from one of your published or upcoming works with us!
Thank you so much for inviting me to ramble – I really enjoyed trying to marshall my thoughts and engaging with the writing process, and I hope your readers enjoy reading about it!! Here is an excerpt from chapter 1 of A Murderous Affair:
‘In men of base degree may raign the very same vertues that are in Gentlemen.’
(Castiglioni; The Book of the Courtier)
Thud, thud …
London. City of fortune. Where cajouxs and cants are kicked aside to starve in foul ditches, while those more fortunate in birth glide forth on their quest for riches and influence …
Thud, thud, thud …
London. City of barrators and broggers – the dark underbelly that each day breaks out of its iniquitous haunts – the gaming inn, the trugging-house, the conyman’s lair – and brazenly roams the streets, facing down the constables, who would rather pitch a guiltless man into the Clink than deal with these fiends …
Thud, thud, thud, thud, thud …
London. City of the dispossessed. Burgeoning each day with foreign refugees, landless countrymen and disbanded soldiers. Where a cuttle-bung can cut a throat as quick as a purse, innocence be blackened for the price of a few angels, and a fortune conjured from the Indes or sunk to the bottom of the jewelled sea …
Thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, THUD!
London! Where, on a frosty and foreboding day, I found the interweaving threads of my troubled dreams harshly interrupted. Which one of the city’s dark hearts had wended its way to my door?
Already assaulted by the twin hammerings of excessive liquor, and the churn of the waterwheels some thirty feet below my bed, it took a while for my addled brain to register the knocking as something quite distinct.
My first conscious thought told me it was wrong side of lunchtime. Through the criss-cross pattern of the mottled glass, I could discern with, admittedly blurry vision, a low sun poised to start its cheerless descent towards evening. The only movements against the muted, marble sky were the effortless swoops of raptors, circling high above the rich pickings of the rancid city.
Gradually, my fractured senses became aware of an unholy blend of smells hanging in a fug around my bed. Hungary Water, Dutch brandy, tobacco – the remnants of a night of excess – all conjuring vivid, but broken recollections of the previous evening. I tried to push these unwelcome memories aside. With each new bang, I felt fresh sweat pricking on my nauseous brow and a rising tension growing in my empty gut. Suddenly alert to the threat, I threw off the crumpled sheet and reached instinctively for my dagger. Just as my fingers grasped the hilt, the banging on the door ceased.
Stock still, head swimming, I noticed the cloudy interaction between my breath and the cold draft that was seeping through the gaps in the window’s lead casing. With any luck, whoever it was had decided I’d got lucky and stayed out the previous night. I listened intently for the sound of footsteps carefully negotiating the narrow flight of rickety stairs, of the brief bustle of the street outside and the door banging shut – but there was only a stillness to match my own. It must be someone who knew of my reputation, or lack of it, with the ladies.
‘Master Lovat? Rouse yourself, Master Lovat?’ A nasal voice squeaked through the keyhole. ‘It is I, Nesbitt.’
Nesbitt – chief steward to my aristocratic brother, the perennial ghost at the feast. My shock at the abrupt awakening morphed quickly into a gnawing sense of unease. There was no likelihood that the persistent and dogged Nesbitt would desist, but his visit could only mean some onerous chore for my brother. I tried thinking of an alternative, but my head hurt too much. There was nothing else for it – I opened negotiations.
‘I’m here Nesbitt, what the hell do you want you great clucking Margery-prater? Keep the noise down, can’t you, for pizzle’s sake.’ This time the silence spoke of reproach at my insult. I sighed, dragged my disconnected body to its feet and began inching my way across cold, creaking floorboards.
After fumbling with bolts and lock, I opened the door to reveal a skeletal, serious man, with a closely cropped head of thinning, grey hair. He was a good foot taller than me and had a natural stoop, doubly accentuated by the low-slung ceiling of the attic corridor. This and the black cloak he was wrapped up in reminded me of the popular image of La Mort. All he lacked was a scythe.
‘What do you want?’ I said, glaring at him with as much hostility as a half-naked, unwashed inebriate could manage. The doleful figure in black appeared unmoved.
I took a couple of unsteady paces and flung open the window, acutely aware of the lack of fresh air in the cramped space. Another wave of dizziness washed over me, as I looked down at the wooden roof tiles of the house jake, which jutted out over the river. Below that, the swirling waters of the Thames were fighting their way through the narrow arches that supported the bridge. I momentarily contemplated pitching myself in – the dangerous waters looking far more inviting that anything Nesbitt might have in store for me.
‘Get dressed, Master Lovat.’ Nesbitt’s tone was terse, insistent.
I glanced wearily over my shoulder, the resistance draining out of me. Nesbitt was standing in the doorway as if loath to set foot in the room. ‘You realise with all that noise you’ve been making, you’ll have woken Father Thames himself.’
‘Father Thames is unlikely to be asleep, nor are most Christian souls at this hour.’
‘What hour would that be?’ I said, just about mustering a scornful laugh, knowing that it was hardly likely to be an hour to make me proud.
‘The time, de facto, is half past the hour of one.’ There was no disguising the contempt in Nesbitt’s voice. A chime from the nearby bell of St Magnus-the-Martyr neatly emphasised his point. ‘Sir Robert sent me. He requests that you accompany me. Immediately.’
‘Requests? Ha!’ I staggered back onto the bed and sat with my sore head propped in my hands, the room swirling around me. ‘But where, Sir Apple-Squire? Can’t you see I’m …’
‘There’s a body in the river.’
A momentary pause, while I searched his inscrutable face for more clues.
‘There are always bodies in the river, what does this particular one have to do me?’
‘His Lordship is concerned he might know the man.’
‘I see.’ I said, though I didn’t. ‘And fishing him out is deemed a suitable task for the bastard brother?’
Nesbitt ignored this remark, letting my words hang in the frigid air. Instead, he fetched a bowl of water from the corner of the room and dumped it roughly in front of me, water splashing onto my naked feet. ‘You’d better hurry. We’ve the best part of a league’s journey ahead of us. Tempus neminem manet.’
Defeated, I glared bitterly at a black knot in the floorboards, before reluctantly splashing water onto my face.
The next ten minutes were farcical. Whilst I stumbled around my lodgings collecting various items of strewn clothing, Nesbitt stooped in the frame of the doorway, studying me contemptuously. Occasionally, he would cast his eyes disdainfully around the room. The man’s puritan views were well known in my brother’s household and, judging by the curdled expression on his cadaverous face, the state of my lodgings suggested that it was dissolute young men like myself who were putting his immortal soul in peril.
I found myself blearily following his gaze, as though Nesbitt’s disapproving eye was helping me to see the cramped, angular space for the first time. Clothes strewn about the place, half empty glasses and half cleaned plates scattered with no discernible pattern. I had to admit that it was hardly an advertisement for clean living. The lodging, four floors up on London Bridge did, though, merit a couple of strong points. One was the tremendous panoramic view of the wide river and the teeming city along its banks, which always caused maids to gasp with appreciation, but was wasted on Nesbitt. The second was that, due to its claustrophobic nature, I belonged to that tiny minority of Londoners lucky in the privilege of not having to share their bed. Unless I wanted to, of course.
This latter advantage also meant that, with no one to borrow them, it was a complete mystery as to why I should be missing any of my possessions –chiefly amongst them a pair of new boots. After searching in vain, they failed to materialise. Nesbitt’s impatience reached its limit and he said we should go, regardless. Reluctantly, I pulled on an old pair found under the bed, which had grown stiff with age and sported a number of gaping holes. As an afterthought, I began buckling on my short sword and dagger.
‘You won’t need those where we’re going.’
‘I’ll take them all the same,’ I said, meeting Nesbitt’s gaze evenly, ‘if it’s alright with you?’