Today I’m chatting with MR Porter, who has stepped away from her brilliant historical fiction world, and is entertaining us with The Custard Corpses, a historical mystery set during WWII. Join us for a great talk about what she enjoys most about writing, and how her latest novel came as a result of NaNoWriMo. First, the blurb:
The Custard Corpses
A delicious 1940s mystery.
Birmingham, England, 1943.
While the whine of the air raid sirens might no longer be rousing him from bed every night, a two-decade-old unsolved murder case will ensure that Chief Inspector Mason of Erdington Police Station is about to suffer more sleepless nights.
Young Robert McFarlane’s body was found outside the local church hall on 30th September 1923. But, his cause of death was drowning, and he’d been missing for three days before his body was found. No one was ever arrested for the crime. No answers could ever be given to the grieving family. The unsolved case has haunted Mason ever since.
But, the chance discovery of another victim, with worrying parallels, sets Mason, and his constable, O’Rourke, on a journey that will take them back over twenty-five years, the chance to finally solve the case, while all around them the uncertainty of war continues, impossible to ignore.
What a great mystery! That takes a lot of plotting. Does writing energize or exhaust you and how do you wind down / recharge?
I love writing, but there are always elements that are exhausting, and elements that are energizing. It’s not always possible to tell what’s going to happen when you begin writing each day. I can say I love every process, once it’s complete. I do struggle to not think about writing, and sometimes a character does demand my attention when I’m trying to fall asleep.
What does literary success look like to you?
This is a hard one. I’m an indie author, in my time, I think I’ve been turned down by every agent going (I started writing fantasy, a decade ago and only made the move to historical fiction three years later). I’ve written many, many books and yet it’s only been quite recently that I’ve felt successful in terms of sales. But, I get to tell the stories I want, and people want to read them, so I feel privileged to be doing something so enjoyable which people want to share. That’s a fantastic feeling, and success for me. I know there are people, who like me, want to read the sort of stories I create.
How important is working with your editor or beta readers, and how would you describe your relationship?
I’ve slowly grown a group of beta readers over the years, and come to really appreciate working with them. New eyes pick up all sorts of things you might miss – in The Custard Corpses I’d been using metric measurements, and I was told that only applied from the 1970s. Some of my beta readers have been there since the first book, and others have come along the way, so I have a different experience with all of them. I value all their comments, even if I disagree with them sometimes, and sometimes we will argue, and I don’t always win.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
The majority of my stories are based in Early England before 1066, and the UK as a whole, including Denmark and I’ve also visited East and West Frankia, in my books. I studied the period at university, and I have an MA as well. That said, writing historical fiction requires different skills and allows me to work beyond what’s ‘known’ and to question just about every implied ‘fact’ about the period. So, I feel as though I’ve been researching for decades, but I still try and keep up with current thinking and there’s always new information coming to light. For instance, The Last King, developed from an archaeological coin find made in the 2010s, so I couldn’t have written it before then.
For The Custard Corpses, I didn’t do as much research, and do feel a bit of a fraud, but I read books set in similar time periods, and had the advantage of being able to speak to people who remembered the time period, or knew people who lived through it. That ‘witness’ view was a fantastic new addition to my research.
What’s the most challenging thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
I don’t find it particularly challenging. I have beta readers who are both male and female, and they would tell me if I didn’t hit the write notes for the characters, or if I said something they wouldn’t think. They wouldn’t be backwards in telling me I’d done it wrong, I can assure you.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
I don’t. There’s always something to write about. If it’s not working out, then I’ve realized that there’s something flawed with it, so come at it from a different angle, or miss it out entirely. If it was meant to be, it will get written.
Tell us more about The Custard Corpses.What was your work schedule like when writing this book?
I wrote The Custard Corpses during November – or rather NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. The idea behind it is that writers, new and established, try and write 50,000 words in 30 days.
I first took part in NaNoWriMo in 2013. It was a real eye-opener. Since then, I’ve taken part every November. It’s a time to reset and remember all the things about writing that you might have forgotten in the last year, the importance of routine, of setting aside some time each day to write, and most importantly, how quickly you can write the required number of words that day (if you’re lucky). And also, how enjoyable the creative process can be when you’re just having a bit of fun and working outside your usual genre.
I use NaNoWriMo to write something different from my usual historical fiction – often fantasy, but this year I went for a 1940s mystery. I completed 50,000 words in November, and then set it aside, returning to it when I’d completed another project. It was at this point that I realized I didn’t want it to be a ‘cozy’ mystery, and I started to add much more historical detail. This took much longer than I would have thought – so November 2020, and then January 2021, with a heavy dose of editing in February.
How do you select the names of your characters?
For The Custard Corpses, many of the names are based on family members who once lived in, or close to the area. I also discovered the joys of the 1911 census records on line, and picked through some of those. And, the ONS also has records of the most popular names in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s so I made us of those as well.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I do read my book reviews. I think it gets easier to absorb everything people say about your books when you have more confidence and the ability to appreciate that not everyone is going to love everything you write. Some reviewers make excellent points which are worth considering in the future, and others make you realize you might not be hitting your target audience correctly. Of course, the fantastic reviews are amazing, but even they can put a new spin on what you’ve written. All reviews, good or bad, normally have something worthwhile in them. And if not, then there’s often something to lessen the blow, for instance, a spelling mistake in a review complaining that you’ve made a spelling mistake in a book of 90000 words!
What was your hardest scene to write?
It was actually the scene where I drew all the details together for the ‘victims’. I realized that I’d messed up names, and places and had even missed someone out at one point. It’s not even the most important scene in the book, but I wanted to get it right, and spent a great deal of time finding out details about the places my victims were found to ensure they would have existed in the 1920s-1940s.
Are any of your characters in this book based on real people you know?
No, they’re not, but I did ‘borrow’ many of the names from family members, so they felt quite real to me.
M J Porter writes historical fiction set before 1066. Usually.
This is M J’s first foray into the historical mystery genre and the, relatively recent, twentieth century.
M J writes A LOT, you’ve been warned.
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