Posted in Personal life, Writing

Why I’m Writing Novels Set in Boarding Schools (For a Grown-up Audience!)

Well, what’s not to love about novels set in boarding schools? Most of us grew up enjoying the likes of Malory Towers and The Chalet School, even if we never set foot in a boarding school ourselves.

Although the world of vintage boarding school stories may seem dated by modern standards, to adult readers, they continue to grip young readers and retain the allegiance of those of us who read them as children ourselves

What’s in it for Readers?

For readers, there’s something compelling about the world of the boarding school, with its unique rules and vocabulary that wouldn’t make sense beyond its boundaries. Readers enjoy joining that fantasy world and feeling a part of it – hence the huge merchandise sales for the Harry Potter franchise.

The setting naturally throws together disparate characters with interesting and varied backgrounds, all great ingredients for a story.

The tropes of boarding school life will be familiar to adults who grew up reading Chalet School et al, which means there is plenty of scope for gentle humour built on their fondess for these vintage classics.

What’s in it for Writers?

For the novelist, the boarding school offers a contained community in which characters are thrown together with no escape. They must face challenges and overcome them together, and their characters grow in the process.

To a writer of mystery stories, the boarding school, usually segregated from the outside world by a clear physical boundary, presents a neat device to isolate victim, suspects and onlookers while the crime is solved.

In the Footsteps of Agatha Christie (but with more laughs…)

St Bride’s isn’t quite as isolated as Agatha Christie‘s famous stranded train in Murder on the Orient Express (it’s just a bike ride away from Wendlebury Barrow, the village in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, and there is some cross-over between the two series) – but you get the idea.

(Incidentally, my current work-in-progress, Murder Your Darlings, the sixth Sophie Sayers mystery, is set on an island beset by a storm, from which none can escape, and which the police can’t access – as in Christie’s And Then There Were None, although my body count will be much lighter.)

St Bride’s School provides a unique and eccentrica environment for the education of girls

Why Me?

There’s another reason I chose to write about a boarding school. It’s a world I know well, having worked in one for thirteen years, as a member of the office team rather than as a teacher. I loved the sense of community, just as I love the community spirit of the Cotswold village in which I’ve lived for nearly thirty years, so this is in part a celebration of community. The world of St Bride’s is completely fictitious, with all the characters and situations completely invented, but the school I worked at was the springboard for my imagination, just as living in Hawkesbury Upton inspired me to invent the world of Wendlebury Barrow in the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries.

What’s Different about St Bride’s?

While I have fun with school routines and customs such as the prefect system and school dinners, the focus of the St Bride’s series will be the behaviour of the staff. I remember as a schoolgirl being fascinated by the secret world of the staffroom, and the formal relationship fostered between staff and pupils.

For example, at the girls’ grammar school I attended between the ages of 11 and 14, pupils were not allowed to know the first names of staff. In Secrets at St Bride’s, the girls are running a book on the teachers’ names. One of the younger pupils speculates that Miss Bliss’s initial O in stands for “Obergine” – because she’s heard the Geography teacher, Miss Brook, complain over her moussaka at lunch that she hates aubergine.

However, at St Bride’s, the secrecy goes one step further: the staff keep secrets not only from the girls, but from each other, with potentially deadly results. With the story told by new arrival Miss Lamb (but you can call her Gemma!), you, the reader, will become slowly acclimatised to school life as she does. Together you unravel the surprising secrets that are putting the community at risk.

What I Don’t Write About in this Series

What I’ve steadfastly avoided in this series is the kind of boarding school scandal that pops up now and again in the media or in memoirs. You won’t find any corporal punishment or abuse at St Bride’s – it’s a gentle, caring environment, but not without perils of a different kind. What are those perils? You’ll have to read the books to find out!

How to Order Your Copy of Secrets at St Bride’s

The first St Bride’s novel, Secrets at St Bride’s, is now available to order online and will soon be available to order from high street bookshops too.

As ever, if you read and enjoy the book, please consider leaving a brief review online, to encourage others to read it too! Thank you very much!

Posted in Writing

Fanfare for my New Series of Novels

About my imminent new series of novels set in a girls’ boarding school

For some time I’ve been planning to write a series of novels set in a traditional girls’ boarding school, and today’s cover reveal is a hint that I’m going to be launching the first of these, Flat Chance, very soon.

As a child, like many of my generation, I loved books set in schools. Mavourite was Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings – what was yours?

But my series will be for adults, and the focal point will be the staffroom rather than the classroom or dormitory.

Led by a charismatic maverick headmistress, each of the eccentric staff is hiding a different secret, including new recruit Gemma Lamb. Gemma’s other potential career choices included lighthouse keeper and nun – any job, in fact, that provided a roof over her head.

About the Staffroom at St Bride’s

The Staffroom at St Bride’s series will be lighthearted and gentle, with a touch of romance and a lot of comedy. But I’m not planning any murders, not only on the grounds of good taste but also for credibility.

Would you send your child to a school in which the school roll keeps reducing due to assassinations? I certainly wouldn’t.

Besides which, I don’t really like killing people – which will reassure my family and friends!

But there will be crimes and misdemeanours in which the culprit will live to tell the tale…

Another Rachel Lawston Design

I’ve commissioned the wonderful Rachel Lawston of www.lawstondesign.com for the series’ cover designs, because I am so pleased with her treatment for my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series.

She has cleverly come up with something that echoes the branding of the Sophie books, making it clear that these come from the same stable, while establishing a new and different setting – just a bike ride away from Wendlebury Barrow, home to Sophie. And yes, Gemma and Sophie will have the chance to meet!

On the Flat Chance cover, you’ll spot the details of the black cat and the bicycle. These are pivotal features in the plot. We’ll be playing with different details against a similar backdrop in each of the future books in the series, which currently have the working titles of Past Master and Near Miss. (I almost always know the title before I start writing a book, which helps me believe in it as a project and set myself deadlines!)

And speaking of deadlines, I’d better get back to inputting my edits to the final manuscript!

More news on Gemma Lamb and friends soon…

Posted in Writing

‘Tis the Season to Do What, Now?

cover of Springtime for Murder
My latest novel – published in November, set at Easter (Available in paperback and ebook)

In this column for the December 2018 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I get ahead of myself with the seasons

In the retail trade, buyers plan at least a season ahead. While we’re Christmas shopping, they’re planning their stock for the spring.

I share their sense of being out of step with nature’s calendar. Today, for example, the deadline of the Hawkesbury Parish News’s December issue, I launched my latest novel, Springtime for Murder. I wrote it in the summer months, edited it in the autumn, and it’s set at Easter. Now I’m about to start writing a novel that takes place in May. No wonder I have to stop to think what month it is in the real world.

It doesn’t help that I can’t rely on the weather to give me a natural steer on the seasons. With it often so unseasonably hot/cold/wet/dry, a glance out of the window can be misleading.

Image of first four books in the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series
The first four books in the series run from midsummer to Valentine’s Day

Taking a break from my desk to go grocery shopping does nothing to put me straight. Why are supermarket shelves still full of fresh summer fruits in the winter? Every time I go to Waitrose lately, there are punnets of strawberries reduced for quick sale, because the shop has more than it can sell. Still, at least I’m full of Vitamin C to guard against winter colds.

Thank goodness for the man-made visual clues around the village. Impressively carved pumpkins dotted around the village heralded Halloween. Mid-November, the poppies on the Plain and in St Mary’s ensured we remember the date we should never forget. Now the Christmas lights will soon be upon us.

Even so, if you see me shivering in a summer dress in December, now you’ll know the reason why: I’ll have simply lost the plot.  Which really shouldn’t happen to an author.

I wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

PS And if you fancy some seasonal reading that is just right for December…

Cover of Murder in the Manger
In the third Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, her school nativity play goes off-script from the opening line

cover of Stocking Fillers by Debbie Young
12 short stories that are the perfect antidote pre-Christmas stress

cover of Lighting Up Time
A sweet but spooky story the longest night of the year

Cover of The Owl and the Turkey
A fun short story inspired by mishearing a snippet of news on BBC Radio 4

Posted in Reading, Writing

On Box Sets and Books in Boxes – to Mark the Launch of Sophie Sayers’ First Box Set

images of covers of first 3
Is it a box set? Is it a trilogy? Whatever you call it, it’s a bargain!

 

It’s perhaps an inevitable phenomenon of our digital TV-on-demand era, with voracious viewers binge-watching whole series of their favourite shows at a sitting, that the equivalent should happen in ebook publishing.

The digital book box set allows readers to stock up on a whole batch of books in a series by their favourite author, or in some cases a collection of books each by a different author in the same genre.

Box sets are usually priced significantly cheaper than it would cost to buy the books separately.

Catching the Box Set Omnibus

I confess I’m jumping on the box set bandwagon myself this week, with the launch of my first box set of the first three novels in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series. If you buy the box set, you effectively get the books as a 3-for-2 bargain, as the price is the equivalent to what you’d pay for books two and three if bought alone.

As these are ebooks, the box is of course only notional. Although I have to say I do loved physical boxed sets too – and single books that come in their own little slipcase, the sort that the Folio Society is so good at, not so much a box set as simply a book in a box.

There’s something very comforting about physical box sets of books. My mother’s gift to me of a P G Wodehouse collection of Jeeves novels twelve years ago was as much a cure for my pneumonia as prescription drugs…

P G Wodehouse box set

…and I only have to look at this box set of the complete Sherlock Holmes to feel better.

Sherlock Holmes Box Set

When I was little, I only had one box set of books, a beautiful Disney-themed collection for my ninth birthday and still treasured.

Disney box set

But I did have several omnibuses – a collection of single books in a single fat volume.

Mary Plain's Omnibus book cover

In fact, I was quite grown up before I realised that an omnibus was “long” for the word bus, despite the handly clue provided here by Teddy Robinson.

first page of Teddy Robinson's Omnibus book

Climb Aboard Sophie Sayers’ Omnibus

images of covers of first 3
The first three Sophie Sayers books are now available in a virtual box set – a single ebook

If you’re an ebook reader, and have not yet climbed aboard my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, I hope you’ll enjoy her first box set. And if you’ve already read these, and the following book 4, Murder by the Book, I’ve got something for you too: the fifth in the series, Springtime for Murder, will be launched in November. More news on that book coming soon…

  • If you’d like to be among the first to know when I’m about to publish a new book, and to keep up with other news about my writing life, just sign up here to join my free Readers’ Club. You’ll also receive a free short story. (Of course, your details won’t be shared with anyone else or used for any other purpose.)

 

Posted in Writing

On Becoming an Amazon Bestseller

screenshot showing orange bestseller flag on Best Murder in ShowThere are worse ways for a writer to start the week than discovering that overnight one of your books has been awarded the coveted orange “bestseller” flag on the Amazon store serving your home turf (UK in my case).

I admit I’m chuffed, even though I know the flag will disappear as soon as another book knocks it off the top spot. And that’s just as it should be. If every Amazon bestseller flag remained in place for ever, the system would lose its value – and authors would become complacent and vain.

What This Means

To be clear, the bestseller flag doesn’t mean it’s top of the whole Amazon UK ebook chart, but top of a particular category. In this case, Best Murder in Show is currently #1 in the “cozy culinary mystery” list. Over the weekend, it also hit #2 in the “cozy crafts and hobbies mystery” class.

Both of these are sub-genres of the larger “cozy mystery” chart. All four Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries usually float about somewhere in the top 100 of that list in the UK Amazon store.

If the Category Fits…

With the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series featuring plenty of food and drink (a large part of the book is set in a tea room or the pub, with Hector’s hooch a popular feature) and hobbies (amateur dramatics, writing, dressmaking, gardening, etc), it’s a good fit for these two sub-genres.

illustration of bookshop and tea room
Hector’s House, the village bookshop and tea room where Sophie Sayers works (Illustration by Thomas Shepherd of http://www.shepline.com)

That’s a relief, as Amazon’s classifications can be a bit hit and miss, confusing readers and frustrating writers. A recent bestseller in “non-fiction dog-care” was a detective novel in which the heroine’s sidekick is canine. I hope she is an exemplary dog-owner.

What’s Next for Sophie Sayers?

But for now I must set aside such distractions and press on with this week’s writing priority: preparing for my proofreader the manuscript of Sophie’s fifth adventure, Springtime for Murder.

More news of Springtime for Murder will follow shortly, when I unveil its new cover and set it up for pre-order in the run up to its October launch.

You can buy Best Murder in Show in paperback or ebook online here

or order the paperback from your local bookshop quoting ISBN 978-1911223139.