I’m delighted Fiona Veitch Smith has agreed to be interviewed for my first ever ‘Author Spotlight’.
(Cartoon of Fiona busy at work by Chris Bambrough)
I became aware of Fiona in January when a friend lent me The Jazz Files, the first in the Poppy Denby Investigates series. It took me back to my teenage years when I voraciously read Agatha Christie. There’s that same sense of an era which, despite its crimes, has a certainty and confidence about morals and manners. But in contrast to Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, Poppy Denby inhabits a world of real historical characters and events. This adds extra depth to the novel, the protagonists and the plot. Here’s my review.
Of course, I couldn’t wait to read the second book in the Poppy Denby series, The Kill Fee. Once again, the fledgling journalist finds herself smack bang in the middle of a murder myster, this time connected to the political fallout from the Bolshevik revolution. You can read my review here.
I was intrigued to find out more about an author who could blend history and fiction together with such panache, and sent her the following questions.
Why do you write?
Writing is part of who I am. I would not feel complete without it. Like an athlete who does not run, or an artist who does not draw, I would not feel that I was expressing who I really am if I didn’t write. When I have not written for a while, due to other work or family commitments, I start to feel on edge and irritable. I need to write to get back into balance. For me, it’s a way of connecting with my soul. It’s a spiritual thing and a physical thing.
How long have you been writing?
All my life. I have made up stories and plays since childhood. I did a degree in journalism and worked as a journalist in my 20s and early 30s. I also spent some of that time working for a theatre company writing plays. I left full-time journalism when I was 32 (although I still did some freelance work) and have been pursuing a career as a professional creative writer ever since – I’m now 47.
What is one thing you wish you knew when you started out?
How hard it would be to earn a living as a professional writer. I thought it would just be a matter of time until my earnings picked up to the same level they were when I worked as a full-time journalist. Fifteen years later I now earn the UK minimum wage. But I can’t give it up. Creative writing is so much part of who I am now. I get frustrated at times by how little I earn compared to my professional peers – and how much better off I would have been, financially, if I had stuck to full-time journalism – but then I remind myself how much more I have gained by being true to myself and following a career I love.
How would you describe the genre you are writing in?
I have written in many genre and media. I write for theatre, film, animation, children’s picture books and adult novels. I have also written Christian devotional material and of course journalism. I have even written marketing copy for an estate agent! When you are earning a living from writing it is helpful to be able to turn your hand to whatever work comes along – and pays. However, in recent years, I have started to find the most success in writing adult mystery novels and children’s picture books. So they are now my main focus. I am currently working on a series of picture books for SPCK about the biblical Joseph (of the rainbow robe fame) and for Lion Fiction, a series of murder mysteries set in the 1920s about a female investigative reporter. I think that is where you first came across me, Kathryn, when you reviewed the first two books in the Poppy Denby Investigates series.
How did you come up with the character of Poppy Denby?
The idea came when I visited suffragette Emily Wilding Davison’s grave and thought it might be interesting to have a murder mystery set against the backdrop of the suffragette movement. I had previously started, but then abandoned, a contemporary mystery novel about a young female reporter sleuth, but I decided to try it again, this time set in 1913. However, after trying to get the story started for a month or two I felt that the period just wasn’t working for me. I decided instead to move the story forward to 1920 and instead of having the reporter as a suffragette, made her the niece of a suffragette inheriting the freedoms won by the sacrifice of others. Poppy is from Morpeth, like Emily Wilding Davison, and like the historical character, moves to London. She is also based somewhat on me as a young journalist, struggling to forge a career in what was then a male dominated world.
How often do you write and what is your process?
That varies according to how much teaching work I have on at the time (I sometimes lecture at my local universities). Also, if I have a new book out, I need to spend a lot of time promoting it. My most productive writing time is May – September when I have no teaching and usually no books coming out (my books usually come out in the autumn). During the summer I write every day, Monday to Friday. Other times of the year I snatch writing time where I can between other work; but never at night and rarely at weekends as I try to keep that as ‘family time’. I find my best writing is done in my bedroom on my bed. It’s a lovely sunny room and calming. I have a separate computer and room for my non-creative work – admin, lecture prep, editing, marking, and social media – so when I sit propped up on my bed with a cup of coffee to hand and my creative computer open, I’m ready to write.
Do you write with an outline?
Yes. It’s very important when writing mysteries that all the threads tie up. But the outline changes as I work. I still maintain flexibility within it to follow different paths and ideas.
How do you market yourself and your book?
I am active on social media via Facebook and Twitter. However, I rarely do any blogging (I used to before the days of FB, but my FB account attracts lots of followers, far more than when I blogged, so now I just maintain a website as a ‘shop window’). I also speak at writing groups, book groups and occasionally festivals. I also do interviews like this one for book blogs, websites and print magazines.
What writing advice can you give?
Be prepared to grow into your writing and work on it. And be prepared to take criticism and guidance from people who are more experienced than you. But don’t expect to get it all for free! Creativity is God-given, but learning how to craft and apply it is something you need to work at and, at times, pay for, like anyone learning a new profession. However, if you want to write as a hobby – and not earn a living from it – that’s perfectly valid too. Just write and enjoy it!
Can you create a short writing prompt?
Think of a person. What do they look like? What are they currently thinking about? Now, see them standing at the foot of a flight of stairs. What happens next …?
Fiona Veitch Smith is a writer and writing tutor, based in Newcastle upon Tyne. She writes across all media, for children and adults. Her mystery novel The Jazz Files, the first in the Poppy Denby Investigates Series (Lion Fiction) was shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger award in 2016. The second book, The Kill Fee is currently a finalist for the Foreword Review mystery novel of the year, and the third, The Death Beat, will be published in October. Her novel Pilate’s Daughter a historical love story set in Roman Palestine, is published by Endeavour Press and her literary thriller about apartheid South Africa, The Peace Garden, is self-published under the Crafty Publishing imprint. Her children’s books The Young David Series and the Young Joseph Series are published by SPCK.