I live in the English countryside in the north of England, and have recently retired after working for many years as a lecturer at the Norwegian Study Centre at the university of York. In this job I co-wrote several textbooks for Norwegian schools, and many graded readers for foreign learners of English, published by Oxford University Press. To my delight these short, carefully edited books still sell well all over the world, and writing them gave me lots of practice in how to tell a good story in clear, simple English.
So when I came to write the first of my series of legal thrillers, a book called A Game of Proof, I tried to use a similar style – fairly short, clear sentences, so that the story is easy to read and understand. A Game of Proof is the first of three books (so far) in a series of legal thrillers about a barrister called Sarah Newby. Sarah Newby is partly modelled on a real barrister who I read about in the Daily Mail one day: like Sarah, this lady started life as single mother on a poor council estate in the north of England, and with sheer determination dragged herself up by her bootstraps to go through the Inns of Court and become a successful criminal barrister. It wasn’t easy, not at all. There were lots of trials and pitfalls along the way, and my heroine, Sarah Newby faces them all.
That’s why I called the series The Trials of Sarah Newby: it’s not just that she earns her living by fighting and winning trials in the criminal courts; she also faces many trials in her own life, which are tough and emotionally draining. She’s not a particularly likeable character, Sarah Newby, but I admire her. I guess I’m attracted to difficult, opinionated women! My favourite review of A Game of Proof was written by another tough lady, a former American murder detective called Suzy Ivy. She wrote:
‘I sometimes didn’t like Sarah Newby and other times I loved her.’
That’s how I feel about her too: she’s prickly, awkward, aggressive, stubborn, difficult , determined – but her heart’s in the right place, and that’s why I love writing about her. (You can hear just how difficult she is on the audiobooks, too, read by Susan Edmonds)
I have always been interested in history, which I studied at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and I love reading historical novels, so I decided to try writing my own. The first book, The Monmouth Summer, was inspired by a wonderful school play which I saw in Colyton, Devon, about a rebellion against the Catholic King James II in 1685. The more I learned about this tragic rebellion, the more I was moved by the courage of these ordinary villagers, misled and betrayed as they were by the hopeless ambition of the King’s bastard son, the duke of Monmouth, and I focussed my tale around a young woman, Ann Carter, and her father Adam. Both came from the village of Colyton, where I saw that inspirational school play.
Part of my job at York university involved teaching – and therefore learning about – the tragic conflict between Britain and Ireland which dates back over so many centuries. Much of my reading focussed upon the extraordinary early years of the twentieth century, when Ireland finally became divided and partially separated from Britain. But this was only one of many dramatic events which were turning the world upside down at this time: there was a world war, the collapse of four empires, the first communist revolution, and the rise of militant suffragettes – brave women battling for the right to vote. My attempts to imagine what it must have been like to live through these turbulent times led to two more historical novels, The Blood Upon the Rose and Cat & Mouse.
In these books, as in The Monmouth Summer, I found myself imagining the story more through the eyes of women than men, and so, although it is still possible to buy the books separately, I have recently reissued the three books together as an ebook box set, entitled Women of Courage.
My fourth historical novel, however, Nobody’s Slave, is a story of two young boys, one African and one English, involved in the transatlantic slave trade during the time of Queen Elizabeth I. This book can be read by anyone, of course, but it’s particularly aimed at younger readers of historical fiction – the sort of teenager I was myself, once – so I was particularly delighted when it won a prize – first prize in the young adult category of the Kindle Book Award 2014.