My guest today is Chris Nickson, writer of noir historical mysteries set in Leeds. I met Chris through an online British historical novelists group and we connected because his books are set just a few miles from my fictional Kirkthorpe where The Monastery Murders have their beginnings before Felicity and Antony race further afield chasing and being chased by murderers.
I got to know Leeds and the area around it when my daughter and son-in-law were studying at the theological college that serves as a model for my College of the Transfiguration so I found getting acquainted with the historical Leeds to be very interesting. Chris says below that he likes to think of Leeds as a character in his books and that is exactly the feeling I had when reading Cold Cruel Winter.
Chris, welcome to "Deeds of Darkness; Deeds of Light". As I said, you've done a wonderful job developing the background in your novel COLD CRUEL WINTER. I understand that you chose to set your book in Leeds because you live there, but why the 18th century?
I haven’t lived in Leeds since 1976, actually. I was born and raised there, and my family’s been in the city since the late 1700s. I spent three decades in the US and returned to England in 2005. But I’d come back often, and my interest in Leeds and its history developed over that time, picking up as many books on the subject as I could.
In the 18th century Leeds became the centre of the wool trade in England, and in the 1730s, the period of my novels, it had established its supremacy already. But there was a huge discrepancy between the rich – effectively, the merchants, who also ran the Corporation, and the poor, who lived in desperation. That interested me as something to explore, a real class divide. So many historical novels, crime or otherwise, deal with the rich. It’s the lives of the ordinary people, and the way things were at the time, that fascinate me.
This must have required a lot of research. Were you able to get most of your information at local libraries or museums? Are many of the buildings you write about still there? Is there a history book you would recommend to readers who want to know more?
Sadly, little of Leeds from that period remains. A couple of churches, a couple of inns and that’s about it. The Thoresby Society, which is the historical society in Leeds, was useful, both in its library and its publications. eBay was a godsend, as I was able to find a number of old books there – although, living in Seattle at the time, postage was kind of expensive. There are now a couple of good brief histories of Leeds published for anyone with an interest in the city’s development.
Your plot just purred along seamlessly. I was especially impressed with what a strong story question you started out with. I'm wondering how you work. I've heard it said that fiction writers tend to be either an architect, planning every detail, or a gardener, letting it grow organically. Which are you?
Definitely organic. I know how it starts, more or less how it ends, but no idea how I’ll get from one place to the other, and that’s part of the fun for me. Sometimes it’s like hiking through deep woods, and you have no idea what’s coming next. Sometimes the path opens up and you can see a mile or two ahead. It’s discovery. I let my characters lead me. In many ways, all I’m doing is writing down the movie that’s going on in my head.
There is a wonderful tradition of Yorkshire writers— perhaps going back to the Brontes— more recently including Peter Robinson and Reginald Hill. Do you feel you've been influenced by them?
Honestly, no, I don’t. I’ve read all of them, and more, but I think my books are very Leeds-specific rather than Yorkshire. Leeds itself is a character in my books, I hope. I write the books I’d like to read, nothing more than that.
Who do you like to read?
I read all sorts, really. Plenty of crime fiction, with admiration for Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson and Mark Billingham, as well as Chris Brookmyre, who writes gloriously funny books which have depth. Plenty of history, plenty of everything. And I regularly return to Joanne Harris’s novels.
Tell us about yourself.
I’ve made my living writing since 1994. I write a great deal of music journalism, combining my two passions, although these days it’s mostly roots and world music. I’ve always written fiction, but it’s only more recently that I think I’ve fully found my voice. The words are in me, I have no choice but to let them out.
Richard Nottingham has the makings of a great series hero. What plans do you have for him?
There are two books out in the series, The Broken Token and Cold Cruel Winter. The third, Come the Fear, will be out in hardback in the UK in January (just as Cold Cruel Winter appears in trade paperback), and I’m waiting to hear from the publisher about the fourth. So, it’s fingers crossed time…hopefully, he’ll be around for a while yet.
Yes, I hope so, too, Chris.
Readers can learn more about Chris, read excerpts from his books and order books from his website: http://chrisnickson.co.uk/index.html
And here's my ***** review of Cold Cruel Winter:
COLD CRUEL WINTER by Chris Nickson is an 18th century noir mystery offering superb characterization, excellent period detail and masterful plotting. Nickson writes with authenticity for his native Leeds and his period and great humanity for his characters. The outcome isn't always what one would wish for--but neither is life. The ending is satisfying and you feel, "That's the way it really could have been."
Donna Fletcher Crow (US) is the author of forty-some books, mostly novels dealing with the history of British Christianity. She is the author of The Monastery Murders series; The Lord Danvers Victorian True-Crime series; The Elizabeth & Richard literary mysteries, GLASTONBURY,A Novel of the Holy Grail and more.