Today I’m interviewing Debbie Young, who writes cozy mysteries and manages to find time for an extremely busy literary life on the side, as you’ll discover.
Debbie has lived for most of her adult life in a small Cotswold village, the inspiration behind her mystery novels set in rural communities. Raised in London suburbia (Sidcup, to be precise), she has worked as a journalist, PR consultant, admissions director of a girls’ private boarding school, and administrator for Read for Good, the children’s reading charity. She now writes full-time in the Victorian country cottage and rambling garden that she shares with her Scottish husband and their teenage daughter.
Tell us something about your books, including your genre and your characters and/or themes.
I write in various genres, but my bestselling books are currently my cozy mysteries. Fortunately this is also the genre I most enjoy writing! I have published five in a planned series of seven Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, and this summer will launch the first in my new Staffroom at St Bride’s Mysteries.
Although they are crime stories, they are predominantly lighthearted and upbeat – “rose-tinted murder” and “feel-good murder” as reviewers have described the Sophie Sayers series! – celebrating rural communities, friendship and family. They also have strong comedy elements and some gentle romance, so a bit of a mashup really. All these books are set in the Cotswolds, the beautiful, peaceful region of the west of England where I’ve lived for most of my adult life.
I hope my novels will not only entertain readers but also encourage people to be more caring and tolerant of those around them, to take time to get to know their neighbours, and to be kinder to each other. And preferably not murder them!
What inspires you to write? Who are your favorite writers?
The things that trigger most of my story ideas are overhearing snippets of conversation between strangers, throwaway lines in conversations with friends, or reading quirky news stories. I can’t stop myself conjuring up a back story.
For example, my Sophie Sayers series was spawned by a chat with an old schoolfriend from Germany. I was describing to him the annual horticultural show held in my village. I served on its committee for 13 years, so there’s not much I don’t know about running a village show.
“That sounds like something straight out of Midsomer Murders,” he said. “Do you have any murders in your village?”
“Now there’s a thought,” I replied. “We could add a suitable prize to the list of show winners: Best Murder in Show!” And so the title of my first-in-series was born, and indeed the whole of the Sophie Sayers series.
As eagle-eyed readers may already have guessed, one of my favourite writers is Dorothy L Sayers, author of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective stories, written in the Golden Age of Crimewriting, hence my heroine’s surname of Sayers. (I had already called my cat Dorothy, so her first name was taken!) I love her books for the combination of intriguing crime, vivid characters and sense of place – something I aim to emulate in my novels.
I’ve long been influenced by George Orwell, although my books are nothing like his – but as with Dorothy L Sayers, I first read all his works in my teens and he is a huge influence on me.
More recently, I’ve enjoyed reading MC Beaton’s (pictured here with Debbie) two comedy crime series about Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth. I’ve been lucky enough to meet her a couple of times, and her vivacious spirit and astonishing work ethic are a real inspiration.
I enjoy reading all kinds of books and try to take myself out of my comfort zone. Still haven’t embraced fantasy or sci-fi beyond the classics, but I do love Jules Verne, HG Wells and Ray Bradbury, and am a great admirer of Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley.
How do you start writing? Do you have a process or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
I’m essentially a pantser. For me overplanning is a sure-fire way to sap the excitement out of the writing process. However I do like to have a rough map of where I’m going with a book. A title, plus a sentence per chapter, is enough to get me going. Then I just sit down and write the first draft, a chapter at a time. My novels are quite episodic. I also write short stories, and one reader commented that each chapter is almost like a short story in itself. This approach makes the huge task more manageable.
Later, during the self-editing process, I may move chapters around, or add chapters that I hadn’t planned, so my plan is flexible, but provides a valuable framework as a starting point.
I go through many rounds of self-editing before involving my editor, Alison Jack. We’ve worked on six novels together so far, so we are a real team now. She spots things I’ve missed and points out things that jar, such as someone behaving out of character, as well as tidying up the sentence structure and grammar. For example, I inadvertently changed the sex of a cat half way through a story! Not only did her comment about this make me laugh, it gave me a further idea for plot development – you’ll find out exactly how if you read Flat Chance when it comes out this summer. Alison’s input always makes my books much better.
How has your writing process changed since you started writing?
Having come from a journalistic and PR background, I was used to writing very short pieces and polishing them hugely as I went along.
When I started writing fiction, short stories were a natural progression for me, and I still love writing small pieces of prose. However, I had always wanted to write novels, so when I finally got to novel writing a few years ago, I had to train myself not to polish the prose as I went, but to write the first draft without revisions, so as to get the story down on paper.
Otherwise, if you stop and polish as you go, you lose momentum and continuity, and it’s much easier to get stuck. Now all the polishing happens only after the first draft, and that works really well for me.
How long does it normally take you to write, and what proportion of the time is spent doing what?
I have so many other things going on in my life that there’s no typical routine for my writing, but it tends to be all-or-nothing.
I write fast, a chapter a day when I’m working on a novel, and I get completely immersed in it, working all hours and ending the day physically and emotionally drained, but buzzing with adrenaline. But then I might I write no new fiction, or maybe just the odd short story, for a couple of months while the edits are under way.
I can write the first draft of a new book in about six weeks, assuming the ideas have been bubbling away in the background for a while, but the editing process will take a couple of months. You also need in-between time to step away and get some distance from the story before you start self-editing. Once I’ve set the self-publishing process in train, formatting, uploading, etc, and then I’m back to the beginning of the cycle.
Now that I’ve got two series on the go, I’m planning to alternate between them. I’m hoping it’ll be possible to edit one while writing another, but I’ve yet to put that to the test!
What is your favorite part of the writing process?
Definitely writing the first draft, because it’s pure fun! No holds barred, I just get on and tell the story, enjoying seeing what the characters get up to, (they often surprise me), laughing at their banter and their antics. At this point, I’m completely immersed in the worlds that I’ve created for my stories, and the time flies by in the company of my characters.
Do you involve other people in your writing, as collaborators or editors? How do you make this work?
As mentioned above, Alison Jack, as my editor, is an invaluable resource. As we’ve worked on so many books together she really knows me, my characters, and how my imagination works.
I also have a couple of trusty beta readers (whose names I’ll keep to myself so they don’t get a flurry of requests!) They provide really useful feedback from a reader’s perspective. One is British and writes historical crime and non-fiction, and the other is an Australian novelist who is very useful for making sure my language is intelligible overseas! Both are wise, sensible and experienced writers, and kind and generous people, so they keep me and my characters in line, and haul us back in if we do anything unbelievable or silly, without denting my confidence.
I am enormously grateful to all three of these wonderful people and have learned and continue to learn so much from them with every new book.
Do you have any writing tips you’d like to share with readers?
Just do it! Don’t wait for the muse, just sit and write anything rather than nothing.
If you think you’ve got writer’s block, you’re most likely just trying to write the wrong thing. Abandon that project and start another one that excites you more.
If you’re not sure what to write, try the Free Writing method, which goes by various names and in various formats, but essentially means write a set quantity of words a day (three pages is a good rough guide), preferably first thing in the morning, about anything you like. It encourages fluency and confidence and unearths from within your subconscious what you’d really like to write about. Plus it gives you a feeling of achievement. If you write nothing else for the rest of the day, you’ve still written three pages.
Don’t self-edit as you go along – it holds you back and interrupts the flow.
Keep your writing simple. As a naturally chatty person, I have a tendency to overwrite, as do many people. My self-editing rounds always reduce rather than increase my word count as I eliminate superfluous words. Do one pass through your ms where all you are doing is looking to cut out unnecessary words. Every word should be there for a purpose. If it’s not, delete it. Beginners are often astonished at how many words can be removed without losing the sense of a piece – and that it makes the writing more powerful rather than less.
Anything else I haven’t asked you about?
The rest of my writing life!
Although writing novels is the biggest component, I do lots of other bookish things. I’m a regular guest on BBC Radio Gloucestershire’s monthly book club, and I run two writers’ meet-up groups in Bristol and Cheltenham. I also run a free annual event in my village, the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival (www.hulitfest.com).
I enjoy speaking at other litfests and writing events around the country too. I’m UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), which I recommend every indie author join, for expert advice, networking opportunities and moral support. I also belong to the Society of Authors and the Romantic Novelists’ Association.
For the last six years, I’ve been manager of ALLi’s Author Advice Center, including its fabulous daily blog, but have just stood down to free more time for my own writing.