Today, I’m delighted to welcome Helen Hollick to the blog with a post about her new 1970s murder mystery, A Mystery of Murder.
Thank you so much for inviting me onto your blog – I think my Coffee Pot Book Club tour for A Mystery Of Murder has gone well so far!
So, what is the hardest thing about writing a cozy mystery series? They are usually short, novella length stories (between 40 – 70 thousand words) with an amateur sleuth protagonist (often female) and a ‘light-hearted’ feel to them. They should not contain anything too explicit for language, sex or situations – and must be an enjoyable read of course. (Even though there’s a murder involved, not necessarily an ‘enjoyable’ topic!) I won’t say ‘easy-peasy’ to all that but as I was having fun writing the first in the Jan Christopher Mysteries (A Mirror Murder) and this second instalment, A Mystery Of Murder, everything fell nicely into place.
The difficult bits were ensuring the period detail was correct.
The series is set in the 1970s, which is when I worked in a north London public library as a fairly shy, latter-end teenager. And I was amazed to realise how much I had forgotten about the early ’70s – either that, or I was more naïve than I realised back then! I remember the three-day week here in England, caused by strikes which then led to scheduled power cuts, but I don’t remember evenings without TV or using candles to light the house. Mind you, we only had one black and white TV back then, no additional sets in the bedroom or kitchen. Only one phone as well – a landline mobile, cell phones were only a gadget on Star Trek. MacDonald’s was still a novelty, package holiday trips were only just becoming popular, and my monthly wage was about £100. £25 a week. That doesn’t sound much now, but back then, I felt rich.
I‘m finding that I have to be as diligent researching my facts for this series as I am with my ‘serious’ historical fiction or for my nautical Sea Witch pirate adventures. Get the facts wrong and there’s bound to be at least one reader who spots it.
I did make one blooper in A Mirror Murder, but I’ve let it be, as the person who mentioned the error also said ‘I doubt anyone else will know, I only do because I worked for the company.’ Flash floor cleaner. The original cleaner that is. I put ‘lavender’ as the aroma. Apparently they only had pine in 1971. Who’d have thought!
I like putting a few little titbits of information in these books as a sideline of flavour for the period, or just for interest. For this second episode, for instance, do you know where the term ‘bonfire’ comes from? Or why you see so many daffodils in the hedgerows in the Devon and Cornwall countryside? No? Well, I’m going to be mean – you’ll have to read (and enjoy, I hope) the book to find out the answers!
So it only goes to show that memory is not always a reliable research tool. Where to go for ‘fact checking’ though? I was lucky enough to track down a few people who remembered enough to at last set me on the right path. I needed to know when our nearest railway station became ‘unmanned’ and a ‘request’ stop, (yes, today you have to request the train to stop at Umberleigh.) I browsed the internet, found some 1960s footage of the station, from there, contacted a lovely chap whose father used to be the station master. Then my chimney sweep happened to be a local policeman in the 1970s, and several people in my village recalled various bits of information. Off to the library for any books that had photographs of Barnstaple and South Molton (two North Devon towns). I’ll be chatting to our next-door farmer soon for background information for my planned book four of the series – while haymaking this summer he happened to mention that he bought a new tractor in 1969 (information duly squirrelled away for possible use…!)
Google for ‘1970s’ and lots of things pop up, but I specifically looked for fashion, kitchens, living rooms, and furniture. A lot of it was very ‘modern’ back then (very old fashioned now!) and much of it was plastic or vinyl. Bright colours, too, especially orange, which was something my cover designer, Cathy Helms of www.avalongraphics.org researched. 1970s popular colours. Hence the orange on the cover.
Flared trousers, fake fur hats. Plastic handbags… Thank goodness for the internet!
If anyone has any specific memories of everyday life in the 1970s I’d love to hear from you! I can be contacted on email@example.com.
Thank you so much for sharing. Yes, I think memory can be a bit hazy sometimes, but it can also bring the delightful little details. My Dad was keen to inform me about the payment ‘shoots’ in the 1940s, whereby there was no til on the shop floor. Who knew? Good luck with the new book. I do like a good mystery.
Here’s the blurb:
‘Had I known what was to happen soon after we arrived at Mr and Mrs Walker’s lovely old West Country house, my apprehension about spending Christmas in Devon would have dwindled to nothing.’
Library Assistant Jan Christopher is to spend Christmas with her boyfriend, DS Laurie Walker and his family, but when a murder is discovered, followed by a not very accidental accident, the traditional Christmas spirit is somewhat marred…
What happened to Laurie’s ex-girlfriend? Where is the vicar’s wife? Who took those old photographs? And will the farmer up the lane ever mend those broken fences?
Set in 1971, this is the second Jan Christopher Cosy Mystery. Join her (and an owl and a teddy bear) in Devon for a Christmas to remember. :
Will the discovery of a murder spoil Christmas for Jan Christopher and her boyfriend DS Laurie Walker – or will it bring them closer together?
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Meet the author
Helen Hollick and her family moved from north-east London in January 2013 after finding an eighteenth-century North Devon farm house through being a ‘victim’ on BBC TV’s popular Escape To The Country show. The thirteen-acre property was the first one she was shown – and it was love at first sight. She enjoys her new rural life, and has a variety of animals on the farm, including Exmoor ponies and her daughter’s string of show jumpers.
First accepted for publication by William Heinemann in 1993 – a week after her fortieth birthday – Helen then became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen (titled A Hollow Crown in the UK) with the sequel, Harold the King (US: I Am The Chosen King) being novels that explore the events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy is a fifth-century version of the Arthurian legend, and she also writes a pirate-based nautical adventure/fantasy series, The Sea Witch Voyages. Despite being impaired by the visual disorder of Glaucoma, she is also branching out into the quick read novella, ‘Cosy Mystery’ genre with the Jan Christopher Mysteries, set in the 1970s, with the first in the series, A Mirror Murder incorporating her, often hilarious, memories of working for thirteen years as a library assistant.
Her non-fiction books are Pirates: Truth and Tales and Life of A Smuggler. She also runs Discovering Diamonds, a review blog for historical fiction, a news and events blog for her village and the Community Shop, assists as ‘secretary for the day’ at her daughter’s regular showjumping shows – and occasionally gets time to write…
Connect with Helen
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