Excalibur Books is proud to host an interview with mystery author Flora McGowan, contributor to the Tokyo Olympics anthology “Dimensions Unknown 2020: The Phantom Games”!
- Could you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
I grew up on the English south coast. As a child I remember listening to a radio broadcast at school of Homer’s “Odyssey.” I was spellbound by the story and could not wait for the next weekly installment. My mother always encouraged me to read, and also “suggested” I take English as one of my ‘A’ level subjects. She also tried to persuade me to read English at university, however there were other subjects I wanted to study.
I have always dabbled in writing. My first published short story was the winning entry in a competition run in a small fanzine about thirty years ago. I wrote about a group of specialist veterans from WW2 being drafted in to help fight in Vietnam.
At that time I wrote for my own amusement, but on the whole most stories remained unfinished as I would move onto the next idea that interested me, a habit I still have. I yearned to be able to write the kind of novels that I read – serious, intriguing crime and mystery stories, and if anyone had said I would end up writing ghost stories I would have laughed. However, when I had the idea for “Material Witness” I realised after a couple of rough drafts that it would work, although its current form now is very different to the original outline.
- Tell us a little about the Carrie and Keith Mysteries. What genre is this series?
My stories are ‘cozies’ in style, but they are all a little different – “Material Witness” is a ghost story with a mystery, whereas “Thirteen in the Medina” is a mystery, with a tiny dash of romantic suspense and “Playing With Fire” is a (clean) romantic suspense novel. The next installment is a ghost story with some mystery and romantic suspense as well. “Seasonal Shorts” is a collection of ghost stories.
I try to write about normal everyday things that people can relate to, such as buying items over the internet and ending up with something you had not quite expected, a trip to the seaside, a short cut through the park. My short stories cover such diverse subjects as thinking you are being followed, to problems knitting and a persistent carol singer, although admittedly carol singing is not as prevalent as it used to be.
- What draws you to this genre?
It just happened! I read an interview with a best-selling author who tried his hand, unsuccessfully, at writing horror stories but he was told his characters were too likeable. I longed to be able to write mystery/suspense novels but whenever I tried to get serious I found it metamorphosed into tedious and boring, so I no longer try and fight what comes naturally. Having said that, the books may be light-hearted but they are not light and fluffy; there is still emotion in the stories; Carrie and Keith argue, she is ravished by jealousy in “Thirteen in the Medina” for example, and while my ghost stories might not strike fear into people I would like to think they leave them a little unnerved, especially tales like “All At Sea” with its underlying moral dilemma.
- Which writers inspire you?
As a child I loved the Three Investigator series who investigated things like haunted houses, whispering mummies and vanishing treasure, and I still have a complete set of the early books written in the late 1960s/early 1970s. As I grew older I read more traditional whodunits – Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner (Perry Mason), Dorothy L Sayers (Lord Peter Whimsey), Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels, and also some science fiction; Arthur C Clarke and particularly John Wyndham – “The Kraken Wakes,” “The Day of the Triffids,” “The Midwich Cuckoos,” “Web” etc. One feature of his books I admire is that he often uses simple but very precise language; he knows exactly what word to use when other authors might use two or three.
Now I read more mystery stories – the Roman series of both Steven Saylor and Lindsey Davies, Donna Leon’s Venetian detective and of course, the Inspector Montalbano books by Andrea Camilleri, as well as Alexander McCall Smith’s “No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.”
- Many of your stories are set in Dorset. What is it about the landscape of Dorset that inspires you?
I think basically because that old adage – write about what you know – is true. The idea for “The Way to Nowhere” came from a news story some years ago about a road I believe somewhere in the Midlands where people driving along would suddenly veer off course for no apparent reason and there were at various times several fatal accidents. I took this idea and adapted it to a footpath in Poole Park.
Some time ago I wrote a story about Corfe Castle, which is a favourite place of mine and has recently been in the news as a possible location for this year’s “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here” as a derelict castle reputed to be haunted, and I am planning to relook at that and adapt some of the ideas for a Carrie and Keith jaunt.
The South Coast has inspired many writers from Thomas Hardy to Enid Blyton, so I am in excellent company.
- What other locations have you traveled to and featured in your novels?
I like to travel once a year – I wish I could afford to go more often! I take a little notebook (similar I realised to the one used by the young Inspector Morse and I wonder if my local shop sold ex-police notebooks) to jot down thoughts, little incidences and local colour, to add authenticity. “Thirteen in the Medina” is based in Morocco, “Playing with Fire” in Sicily, which are (romantic) suspense novels.
I wrote an outline for a story and then went to Tunisia to fill in some more detail, but when I got there I realised the storyline would not work, however one of my hotel rooms had a strange grill covering the windows and I took that and wrote the short ghost story “At the Edge” which I included in “Seasonal Shorts.”
- What book are you working on at the moment?
I am returning my attention to the follow up to “Thirteen in the Medina” and the aftermath of the deterioration in Carrie and Keith’s relationship. I broke off to complete the prequel, “Playing with Fire,” as it involves people mentioned in both the Moroccan novel and its follow up. Colin is back, it’s a return to Poole and is rather darker in tone. It begins at Halloween and continues over the (rather depressing) winter months, however Carrie gets a new boyfriend, courtesy of Father Christmas and she feels things are finally looking up. Being Halloween it is also a return to a ghost story but there is a more mundane answer to Carrie’s current woe.
- Do you have a special time to write? How is your day structured?
I tend to write in the evenings after I have finished my day job. My day is structured similar to most people, I guess; I have a regular day job, eat early evening, maybe watch 30 mins TV, then it is time to write a little, but I don’t force it; if all I can produce is boring rubbish then I give up, I find struggling through very non-productive. I know some writers advise to write every day, whatever you can manage but if it is no good I find that disheartening and I am better taking a break and doing something else. Then for the last 45 minutes of the day I read.
- Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just to see where an idea takes you?
I have an idea for a story; sometimes it can just be something small, like being stopped by a man riding a bicycle in Sicily and thinking that could be the start of a story.
Often I have a vague idea of how the story is going to progress and I might write the beginning and the end before filling in the middle bits, working out how to get to the denouement, laying the red herrings (that’s the fun part). I often think through various plots and problems whilst taking long walks. And of course, as the story progresses, if it is a good story, it takes on a life of its own and everything changes. For example, in “Material Witness” Colin was originally only supposed to make a brief appearance, but he kept coming back, until I realised he made a perfect foil for George; Colin was the much loved child, doted on by his uncle as his mother was unable to cope, whereas George, whilst loved by his mother was abused by his stepfather; one could be found trying his hand at gardening surrounded by green plants, the other had a barren existence.
In “All at Sea” I really wanted to feel sorry for the two small children that they meet at the beach, that had been my original intention, but as the story developed I found that I could not, as they were horrid!
However, “Just Add Water” developed very quickly. Having already submitted one story for your Olympic book I had not planned on writing a second, but the idea kept going around my head until I thought, ‘it’s no good; I’m going to have to write it!’ I wrote the beginning and a few notes and then one Sunday morning I was trying to make the most of the fine weather in the garden, cutting the grass, when a thought occurred to me and I had to rush indoors, fire up the laptop and add it in. I went back outside, and continued cutting the grass but the idea expanded so I went back inside, fired up the laptop again and wrote some more, and so it continued all morning. The basic story was very quick and easy to write, but then I had to backtrack and do some research and check the facts.
Do you let the story stew – leave it for a month and then come back to it to edit?
My stories typically get left mid-way through, and often for a year or so. Sometimes, as in the case of “The Hungriest Man on the Hill” because life intervened and I was not in the position to do any writing, however usually it is because I have become distracted by another idea. The story I am working on now I started some time ago. I went through a phase where I more or less started a new book every year and I decided it was about time I finished one and so I went back and finished “Material Witness.”
I find that leaving a story and then going back actually helps because I know if I am on the right track. With “The Hungriest Man on the Hill” I changed direction very slightly; with “Playing with Fire” I brought the Excalibur element more to the forefront of the story; in the hiatus new ideas developed bringing depth to the story, adding layers and more intrigue.
However, once I have finished a story I want it published ASAP, I want to put it to bed so to speak. I read it through a couple of times, from start to finish, checking spelling, plot inconsistencies etc, then it goes off to be edited/proof-read. I make any necessary corrections/amendments and then read it through again and that’s it.
What was your inspiration for “Just Add Water” and “The Hungriest Man on the Hill”?
On the “write about what you know” basis I thought that winter sports would be easier for me on which to base a story and as Japan has a strong tradition in ski jumping that seemed the logical choice. I cannot really say anymore without revealing spoilers.
As to what – or who – inspired “Just Add Water” I am embarrassed to say – you did! A friend of mine mentioned a Facebook post where you joked about knitting patterns containing alien DNA and I thought I could tweak that idea a little into a story.
What book/s are you reading at present?
I have just finished “Hard Frost” by R D Wingfield. It is very funny; I can hear David Jason’s voice whenever Frost speaks, proving he was perfectly cast.
I think my next choice will be “Pyramid of Mud” by Andrea Camilleri, English translation, of course! I am always amazed by how many of my books are sold/downloaded in countries where English is not the native language and I admire people who can read a book in a foreign language.
How do you relax?
Reading! Normally I read for an hour or so in the evenings just before bed. I also like to read in the garden, especially if it is sunny. I normally take a book (or 2, experience has taught me) on holiday to while away the time spent waiting for delayed flights etc, books usually chosen based on size to fit in hand luggage.
I watch a bit of TV; I like detective dramas, some comedies and period dramas. I used to belong to a local archaeological society and I would join them in their annual dig in the New Forest, however that has not been possible since I moved house.
Once a year I love to go on holiday, somewhere with some sun, a few historic sites, meet new people, get some ideas. I hate packing though.
How can readers discover more about you and your work?
I write a blog usually about once a month via my Good Reads page and that is linked to my American Amazon author page (it’s a shame Amazon don’t make this facility available for other countries). I also have a Facebook page and an Instagram page where I post photos from the locations that inspire me (often some holiday photos) and Victorian mourning wear etc.
Excalibur Books would like to thank Flora McGowan for finding the time to take part in this interview!
Two of her stories can be found in the Tokyo Olympics anthology for 2020/2021, “The Phantom Games”, which you can find here.
You can find “Material Witness”, Book 1 of the Carrie & Kieth Mysteries, here …
The “Seasonal Shorts” short story collection is here …
and the “All at Sea” short story is here!
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