Ask Alison

Please tell our readers about your life in America with your husband and children.

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’ve lived in the US for 22 years. My husband is American while my sons and I have dual US/UK citizenship. I work at home. I visit the UK at least once a year and going forward will spend part of the year there rather than simply making flying visits. One of my twin sons is a freshman at college. We are adjusting. My other son is taking a gap year and will go away to college next Fall. We go out to eat, to the movies, escape rooms. Like most mums, whatever my boys like to do I’ll follow along for as long as they’ll let me while carrying the coats.

Do you have any hobbies?

Hah! I try. I’m something of a workaholic, although I’m getting better. The closest thing to a hobby for me is reading. I try to take two days off a week to read. I like spending other free time with my family. I walk everyday, alone or with friends. I’m also trying to get into making handmade cards. My sister-in-law makes them and I’m always so impressed. I’m hoping that by the time you read this, I’ll have made my first batch of homemade holiday cards.

All of your series have been co-written with different authors. Can you tell us about your experiences working with your co-writers? Did you write literally together? Correspond? Meet at set times? Make continual phone calls? Tackle different elements?

Gosh, that is a difficult question to answer concisely. It varies from book to book, writer to writer. Everything is done via email. I don’t like the telephone and avoid it wherever possible. We constantly send manuscripts back and forth with new sections written and many comments in the margins. We typically work together on the first draft and then I take it from there. I also write books by myself if the writer isn’t available.

We will write the parts that depend on our individual specialist knowledge like a geography or historical facts. I often write the children. Every book partnership is different, but however we get to the end of the early draft, I always take over to see the project through to the end.

I add pacing, color, description, details. I will reorganize scenes, add red herrings, and clues. I’ll amend the plot and change the murderer if I think the story isn’t working. I write whatever is necessary to bring the story to a point that satisfies me. My standards are very high. I write 7-9 drafts of every book.

I enjoy working with other writers. We put our egos aside and learn a lot from each other. I am very grateful to them. I am a better writer because of them.

Have you written in other genres?  Is there some type of writing that you’d like to tackle?

I have written non-fiction. I wrote a book on strategies for eating a paleo diet when others around you don’t. It is called The Modern No-Nonsense Guide to Paleo and you can still get it on Amazon.

As far as my fiction is concerned, I imagine writing more thrillers, perhaps some chick lit, and literary fiction, but my biggest goal is to write a series set in the 1940’s.

The Diana Hunter series has lead you away from cozies deeper into suspense. Is this where your work is headed, or do you foresee doing more cozies?

Yes and yes. The recent publication of Exposed, #5 in the series, made me realize that I want to branch out beyond the confines of the cozy mystery genre and this year I have been working to reorient my brand as an author to allow for that. In the future, I want to be able to write in other genres if I choose, although I can’t imagine writing anything too gritty. There are definitely more cozies coming, too. I have more books planned in all my series and also a new cozy series in development.

Annabelle’s life-long best friend is a Catholic nun. Are you religious? How have you gained information on the duties of the two women?

I was christened and confirmed into the Church of England. I also went to school at a time when we sung hymns and said prayers at morning assembly. Those experiences gaves me an understanding of the way the Anglican Church works. I still attend church when I’m home in England. I don’t have much experience of Catholicism but I have friends who do. (I often tap my friends for information.) And of course, there is always Google.

Detective Inspector Graham is a man in his 30s, Diana Hunter is a very young woman, and the Rev. Annabelle Dixon is a vicar.   Are any part of them from your conscious personality?

No doubt, although I didn’t consciously write them that way. It is what I know. Like Annabelle, I can be a bit scatterbrained but with thought and effort can work my way out of most muddled situations to a successful conclusion.

When I was Diana’s age, I was very much like her although I think my British manners made me a little less smart mouthed. Also like Diana, I am very driven and I have to consciously force myself to slow down. I’m introverted and hyper-focused like she is.

Graham is more like someone I know.

Two of your series are based in England, although neither are based in your hometown; another series is based in Vancouver, although you live in San Francisco. Can you tell us why you chose these locales and how you did your research on them?

The Annabelle series is set in Cornwall, England. I spent idyllic farm holidays there as a child, the kind where you bring the cows in for milking and drink the milk while still warm, ride tractors, and visit the cat’s new kittens. I wanted a serene, beautiful setting for the series and Cornwall was the place that jumped into my mind.

The Inspector Graham series is set on Jersey, an island off the coast of Britain. I wanted another small town setting for the series, but wanted to differentiate it from the Annabelle series so chose an island. I also am interested in military history and Jersey has the unusual distinction of being a British territory occupied by the Germans in WWII, a backstory I thought I could incorporate in the stories.

The Diana Hunter series is set in Canada because I wanted to distinguish it from other thrillers that typically use CIA/MI5 centric stories.

If you had a million dollars, what would be the first thing you would buy?

A home in the British countryside which is my favorite place on earth. I would also fly only first class.

When you walk into a book store, where do you head first?

The tables in the middle of the store.

Where’s your favorite place to read?

My bed or the sofa or the lounger on my deck. Sunshine makes it even better.

If you could have personally witnessed one event in history, what would it be?

Man walking on the moon.

If you could be any age again for a week, which would you choose and why?

My late thirties because I had little ones and I loved the life.

What’s your favourite rainy day movie?

Anything my sons will watch with me. We’ve watched all the Harry Potter movies, Hidden Figures, The Full Monty, Secrets and Lies, The Orient Express, Black Panther.

What’s the best vacation you ever had?

Probably the most recent one to Seattle with my family. We had such fun and found a great balance making our activities meet everyone’s disparate preferences, not always easy with four adults. I also loved taking my 6-year-old sons to the UK for the first time and again for their first British Christmas.

What do you like to do when you're not writing?

I hang out with my friends, usually meeting for lunch or going on hikes. I go to the movies and have dinner with my husband. We also like to watch British TV dramas. I watch HGTV and comedies and go to escape rooms with my sons. I’m a bit of a neat freak and can’t concentrate if I have a messy house so I tidy up a lot. I visit the UK a fair amount and hope to travel more now that the boys are grown.

Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?

I hear from them every day. They are wonderful. Readers feedback is the lifeblood of the author. I hope they never stop contacting me. “When is the next Annabelle/Inspector Graham/Diana coming out?” is probably the most common theme. Some give me story ideas or ask me questions, or comment on something I’ve written in my newsletter.

What character would you most like to be stuck in an elevator with?

Sherlock Holmes. I think he would be interesting and quite ingenious in terms of helping me escape. I would hate to be stuck in an elevator. One of my worst nightmares.

Name the five biggest distractions from your writing.

Sleep, exercise, housework, friends and family, travel, my cat, email, food, book marketing. I have a lot of distractions to contend with!

What is the most useful tool you use as a writer?

I write in Word and use Evernote to get down my ideas. I also use Boomerang to pause my inbox so I don’t keep checking it.

What are your writing goals for the next year?

Three books. Maybe a new series. wink

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

I used to have a terrible habit of having my characters nod a lot. I would have to search for the word “nod” in my early drafts and delete most of the references. I also don’t have a daily word count goals like many writers. My mantra and daily goal is “just one word.” This means I’ve hit my goal by the time the kettle has boiled in the morning and that gets me moving. Then I write as much as I can each day. 

What does your writing process look like?

A mess. LOL. I usually spend days writing an outline, then dump everything I can think of down on paper. I usually hit a wall at that point and like to leave things to stew in my brain. Later, I’ll organize my brain dump, then start writing in a more organized fashion. I’ll go over my drafts several times, filling in holes and developing characters or the plot until I’m satisfied.

How has your writing career changed since you started?

I started out with an idea about publishing books that were not graphic in nature. Those are not the kind of books I want to read or write and I figured that there must be other readers like me. I decided to write cozy mysteries as a result and presented myself as a cozy mystery writer. However, I have found that moniker to be too limiting and not representative of all the series that I write. I write in cozy mystery, traditional British detective, and finally crime thriller genres. In the future, I feel the need to not limit myself by genre, I want to leave things open so that I can write in whatever genre takes my fancy, but I don’t expect the policy of writing clean books to change.

What writers inspire you?

J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith; Agatha Christie; Enid Blyton; Kate Atkinson.

Tell us about the main character from one of your books.

Meet Reverend Annabelle Dixon…

Annabelle is not your typical vicar. Charming, slightly gauche, very tall, this thirty-something vicar has been appointed to the pastoral St. Mary’s Church, in the picturesque village of Upton St. Mary, Cornwall, England.

Annabelle is beloved by her parishioners for dispensing holy wisdom with humor and charm, and her passion and dedication to her calling are matched only by her weakness for cakes and sweets.

She spends her days zipping her Mini Cooper around the country lanes, often seeking out new cafes and bakeries, while attempting to win the finicky affection of her church cat, Biscuit, dispensing pastoral wisdom, and solving the occasional murder.

Describe one of your books in 140 characters or less.

A charming bed and breakfast. A diabolical murder. A guest with a secret to hide… A secret that just might be worth killing for. ~The Case of the Screaming Beauty

What makes you unique as a writer?

Hmm, I would say my characters and their authenticity. They are not caricatures and I strive for them to be layered, flawed, and human. My goal is for my readers to identify with them, like them, and understand them.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

I was about thirteen. I would read short stories in my mother’s magazines and just thought, “I can do better than that.” I forgot all about it until I turned fifty and suddenly the idea came into my head to write fiction after years of writing non-fiction.

Where do you find inspiration for your characters?

In everyday people, their behavior, their trials and tribulations. I have always been acutely sensitive to how humans interact since I was a child and the characters just pop out from decades of observation.

How do you develop your writing ideas?

I write them out. I use Evernote and keep jotting down ideas as they come to me. I will take some time before I start writing the book proper to flesh them out and then with each revision, I keep developing them further.

Where do your ideas come from?

Everywhere. Observing people and their interactions with each other and individual behavior. The news. Activities that I do or come across. Sometimes I have conversations with my characters and see in which direction they’d like to go. Everything is grist for the mill and can generate an idea.

How much influence do you have on the production of the cover and do you have the final say?

I have almost complete influence over the production of covers and the work doesn't stop until I am happy with them. I use two cover designers plus illustrators who produce the artwork for the Inspector Graham and Annabelle covers.

When I develop the initial design concept for a set of covers, I typically contact three designers with a brief to see what they come up with. I consult with various people as to which of the three concepts they prefer, but make the final decision myself.

Likewise with the illustrations.

Once the template is set, it is relatively easy to come up with a concept for each book cover and brief the illustrators and cover designers accordingly.

If you look closely at the Inspector Graham and Annabelle covers, you will see there are story elements contained within them. The Diana covers are more of a mood concept.

I am not particularly gifted in design but I know what I like when I see it. Consequently, I hire designers I trust to guide me until it all comes together. We go back and forth, building on ideas, or in my case sometimes backtracking, and eventually we get to point where, bingo, it works.

You can learn more about the Inspector Graham covers and see the original artwork here –> http://bit.ly/2NFBsNy

Have you ever taken a gun course so to be better able to understand how your characters would react?

I have shot a gun many times.

When I lived in England, for several years I would hoist myself out of bed every Sunday morning during the season and shoot clays on farmland near my home. I was terrible at it and would end up with bruised shoulder oftentimes. I've had much better luck with smaller guns.

When I moved to the US, but before I decided to write fiction, I trained in how to use a handgun. I grew up in the Charlie's Angels era — the first incarnation — and the idea of women and guns has always fascinated me.

So I already knew how to fire a gun when I started writing. I also like archery and each time we go back to England, my family visit a range to shoot clays or arrows.

While I don't write technically about the use of a gun in my books (although Exposed is a little more detailed,) I'm keen to train further and will attend some live-fire rifle and pistol training sessions specifically for writers next year.

Do you ever find your characters taking on a life of their own and going off in directions they want to go instead of where you want them to go?

LOL, yes.

My characters often surprise me.

Two of them turned out to be murderers when I thought they were innocent and of course, the ones I had thought were the murderers were not.

I also have a character who has insisted on coming to the fore when I thought they would stay less prominent. I have recently found out that this character's background is very different from the one I understood it to be. They have also surprised me with some of their decision making. It's been great fun learning more about them.

I can't tell you which characters these are because that would give the game away, but I can say that the murderer surprises occurred in the Inspector Graham series, and the character that has evolved in a way I wasn't expecting will feature in a book to be published soon.

Do you ever just not feel like writing and what do you do to get motivated again?

Often! Writing is hard on the brain. Combine that with the idea of a book being a big project, a writer with a tendency toward perfectionism, and the loneliness of the profession, and it is very easy to procrastinate.

To deal with it, I don't do what many writers do and set myself a word count goal, I do the opposite: I set myself a goal that I can achieve effortlessly.

My goal is always to write just one word.

That's it.

I tell myself first thing in the morning to write just one word and once I've got the first one down, many more follow. Once a momentum is built, it all comes a lot easier. I stop when the words stop and move to another task, coming back to writing again after that task is completed using the “one word” mantra.

This morning before I wrote this email, before I had a cup of tea, but after I'd put on a load of laundry and set the kettle to boil, I told myself to write just one word and ended up writing a paragraph.

As I go through the day, I naturally build up the number of words I write in a burst, but I never force it and I always start with the “one word” concept. It is a useful procrastination buster for any project.

Which books did you read as a kid that most influenced your writing today?

I very quickly devoured the Famous Five books by Enid Blyton as a child. I was insatiable and from there bounced through the Secret Seven and Malory Towers series, also by Blyton.

I moved on to Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys series, then after a chance find at a rummage sale, started to plough through Agatha Christie books. I liked her Miss Marple the best, but also enjoyed Poirot and the others.

As an adult, I have continued to enjoy mystery genre the most. I'm sure it is a personality type/brain thing.

I liked the ensemble pieces of Famous Five and Secret Seven which I think you can see play out in the Inspector Graham series. There is perhaps a little Poirot in the Graham character.

Nancy Drew and Miss Marple inform Annabelle and Diana; characters with a depth that you wouldn't, at first glance, expect.

Unlike many mystery readers, I don't like to guess the murderer and enjoy letting a book unfold, but reading Dickens and Austen in high school gave me an appreciation for literature, and I like to include some literary twists in my books where I can.

Which of your characters do you identify most closely with?

I think I am a mixture of Annabelle and Diana.

I can be klutzy, forgetful, a little ditzy, and funny. But ultimately I am organized, fair, and honest. I like to think that I can get people on my side.

I can also be stubborn and act against my best interests at times, like Diana. I can be a perfectionist and argumentative. My kids might tell you I nag, although I prefer to call it “coaching.” 🙂

I can get caught up in pursuing my goals and need to be reminded to stop and take a breath. I try to read an hour in the middle of each day in order to slow myself down. Diana should try that.

How many books do you write at once?

I used to have two or three on the go at once, but I've slowed down and now focus on just one. That doesn't mean I only have one unfinished book, though. Currently I have seven in various forms.

Do you eat oysters?

No, but my husband loves them.

What does a basic lunch look like for Alison?

I don't typically eat until 3 or 4pm, I find my brain gets foggy if I do. Mid-afternoon I usually have a snack (nuts!) to tide me over until dinnertime at 6pm. I do drink a lot of tea and occasionally will have lunch with a friend, preferably a salad.

Do you like jelly beans?

Not much. I don't eat any sugar.

What is your writing process on a first draft? Do you plot it or just write?

I'd love to pants it (just write) but I've learned the hard way that mysteries are hard to write like that. Now I do a detailed outline. 95% of a book is plotted before I start.

Where is your favorite place to write?

At my desk at home. Sometimes I move to the dining room for a change. For final drafts, I walk around my bedroom or, if the weather is warm, outside on the deck.

How do you take your coffee?

I don't drink coffee very often but when I do, it's a decaf full fat latte.

Do you have any pets?

Yes, an orange (ginger) tabby named Star. Unlike most ginger tabbies, she's a girl, and she's very persistent and nuts.

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