Welcome to my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, scriptwriters, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with crime / thriller novelist (Ernest) John Swain. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, John. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
John: Hello Morgen. I’m a retired police officer having provided armed protection for most royals, many foreign dignitaries, worked with MI5 and briefly with the American Secret Service, specializing in protection and anti-terrorism. I now live on a small hill farm, high in the Pennines of the Derbyshire Peak District. I suppose I’ve been a ‘writer’ all my adult working life but that writing was all reports and file preparation for courts. Fiction wasn’t really an option, but I carried some wonderful material in my head that led to my story writing in my retirement. The dangerous situations I sometimes found myself in and the vile characters that I encountered simply cry out to be included in fiction writing.
Morgen: For the past eight years I’ve written a variety of genres (although most of my works have ‘bodies’ in them) but I’m now concentrating on crime and it must be wonderful to have that expertise and knowledge. What genre do you write and have you considered other genres?
John: We’re all told “write about what you know”, and so it is with me – I write crime / thrillers but with an element of a love story and certainly with a historical base. Yes, I do write in other genres, for instance I’ve written a children’s / young adult story of magical fairies and goblins but that still sits in my computer.
Morgen: Hopefully not for too long. What have you had published to date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
John: I’ve published two books so far. The first, ‘A Surprising Legacy’, (ISBN 978-0-9574852-0-4 Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com), and the second ‘The Lightning Tree’ (ISBN 978-0-9574852-2-8), (Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com).
Although everyone knows me as John, I write using my first Christian name Ernest Swain to avoid confusion with another author.
Morgen: Ah yes. It’s best to be independent. There’s a thriller author called Geoffrey Archer who I’m sure loses website traffic because his results get filtered in with Jeffrey Archer (I’ve looked). You’ve self published – what led to you going your own way?
John: Yes, both books are self published. Like most of us, rejections played a huge part in my decision. I know it’s a prejudiced view but to me it seems that most manuscripts that are submitted to publishers are rejected unread, due simply to the volume of submissions they’re faced with.
Morgen: If not unread then probably only a paragraph or so, although the larger publishing houses won’t touch an author without an agent. Are your books available as e-books? How involved were you in that process? Do you read e-books or is it paper all the way?
John: Both are available as e-books on Apple, Amazon, and all the major retailers including The Book Depository.
I was involved at a distance, being responsible for the covers and eventually the final acceptance of the appearance but 4Edge Ltd took care of the conversion and distribution for me. However, I’ve written another book, ‘Doppelganger’, which I shall be attempting to upload to the Kindle platform myself – just finally deciding upon the book cover is holding me back. I have a Kindle and I do read books on that device but the truth is that I still prefer a real book be it paperback or hardback.
Morgen: Unless they’ve tried, most people think it’s hard to publish eBooks themselves because it’s the fear of the unknown. I’ve detailed the process on http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/ebooks/how-to-create-an-ebook (and how to design covers on http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/ebooks/how-to-create-an-ebook/how-to-create-an-ebook-cover :)). Do let me know how you get on. Do you have a favourite of your books or characters?
John: No, it’s difficult to favour one above the other because the characters are the same in both but I do have a strange liking for the main character in both books who, although a very upright individual in many ways, also has a dark side that makes him risk his liberty (and perhaps more) in some nefarious activities. However, I think I have more affinity with a character – a badly-treated detective who puts himself in dreadful danger to rescue his wife and to defeat terrorists – in the current book that I’m intending to upload to Amazon Kindle.
Morgen: It sounds great. Maybe you could come back for an author spotlight when it’s available, and / or tell us about your experience of Kindleising in a guest blog. 🙂 Which authors did you read when you were younger and did they shape you as a writer?
John: There were quite a few but the one that probably impressed me most was the late Alistair MacLean, and I still have a host of his books. He always had me on the edge of my seat, unable to put the book down, and so many were turned into films. I just hope that something of his writing has rubbed off onto me. There are several current authors who have the same ability, Frederick Forsyth, Ian Rankin. Lee Child, Tom Clancy, John Grisham and for a real change the sea-faring tall ships stories of Patrick O’Brian.
Morgen: That’s what we all hope for isn’t it; that our readers can’t put our books down. Did you choose the titles / covers of your books?
John: Yes. I chose the titles and did all the artwork for the covers. Whether that’s a good idea in principal is another matter because I know that a good cover with striking impact that portrays the content sells books, so I ask myself ‘should I really employ a professional?’
Morgen: Some professional covers don’t look professional at all so if you’re happy with your results and others (impartial friends!) agree then why not do it yourself. You’d then also have the “I did that” satisfaction. I’ve designed all mine (my novel’s is below in the footer) and it was great fun. What are you working on at the moment?
John: I have several projects that are ongoing. One I’ve already mentioned – the story that I shall soon upload to the Kindle platform. Again it’s a crime / thriller story of a band of illegal immigrants who’s sole intention is to avenge the slaughter of their countrymen by Russian aggressors. They plan to bring down an Aeroflot plane carrying a presidential contingent to the G.20 conference in Glasgow. I’ve now found my way around the problems of converting to HTML and then editing to add the necessary page-breaks and such.
Another project is a continuation of my autobiography. I produced the initial book purely for the sake of my children and grandchildren – unfortunately it contains a lot of restricted material that would cause me grief if released to the public. Since writing that book I realised later just how much I had failed to include and so a second book is almost ready. I’d love to put them into the public domain one day in the future if I could just find a way around the Official Secrets Act and the Libel laws without having to delete too much. I found it very cathartic in the writing but I dare say that some that are mentioned would be very upset.
Morgen: I wrote a crime novel for NaNoWriMo 2010 which I thought would never see light of day because it was a the ‘therapy’ novel but I love it and want to publish it. I will have some names / references to change, which is a shame because they’re perfect but I don’t want it to stay in the file. Do you manage to write every day, or ever suffer from writer’s block?
John: I write practically every day – of course there are exceptions if I have to go away, but in general, every day. I’ve never suffered from writer’s block but I often look at what I’ve written some days and think to myself ‘what a load of rubbish‘, delete the lot and start again.
Morgen: Oh what a shame. I hope you’ve never wished you hadn’t deleted it. I score out passages that I think I’ll be deleting but have gone back to some of them and unscored / kept (or moved elsewhere to be used in something else). Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
John: All my stories begin with an idea that I build in my head and carry about with me for ages before I set it to paper. The first story ‘A Surprising Legacy’ I carried for about seven years before it was committed to paper. However, having formed the basic idea, I find that my mind twists the plot into other directions as I write and so it never ends as I had foreseen.
Morgen: You’re fortunate that it stayed in your head for that long. I’ve always had a terrible memory (inherited from my father – I have his ‘Improve your Memory’ book somewhere but I can’t remember where – honestly!). Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names, and what do you think makes them believable?
John: To be honest, I don’t think I’ve given it much thought. The two published stories were set at the end of the 1700s and so the names obviously had to be of that era and their characters were really a product of the environment they found themselves in – disadvantaged with a will to survive but also with a desire for excitement that took them into unlawful dealings.
Morgen: It’s a shame they’re not real or they could submit to Gloria Gaynor’s call for Personal Stories of Survival. 🙂 Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
John: I think most of us would agree that the more writing we do, the better we get, but yes, I do a tremendous amount of editing, trying to cut out the weak bits and giving more impact to the story.
Morgen: And they’ll be all the better for it. Elmore Leonard is quoted as saying “I try to leave out the parts that people skip”. I do know when I start to waffle and that’s usually where the scoring icon (ABC) comes in handy. You mentioned the 1700s, do you have to do much research?
John: Yes, I like to research the history because the stories have included topical events of the time and I try to be as accurate as possible. I dread being taken to task and proved wrong.
Morgen: It does happen, and Alexander McCall Smith was proven wrong. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
John: I think ‘third person’ is easiest. I have written in ‘first person’ – obviously for my autobiography – but for novels I prefer ‘third person’. I’ve never tried ‘second person’, perhaps I should. I do try to think of other considerations in my writing like the ‘4th Wall’ that applies in acting, and I know that Dickens amongst other authors used the ‘second person’ in his writings so maybe I might try it.
Morgen: I wouldn’t recommend second person for anything longer than a long short story but it’s fun to try (or at least I enjoy it). Third person is certainly the most popular because you can get inside everyone’s head, not just the protagonist’s. Do you write any poetry, non fiction or short stories?
John: I have tried poetry – only within our local writer’s group – but nothing that I’ve thought worthwhile. Non-fiction – that certainly applies to my autobiography, and I also produced a weekly column for local newspapers on behalf of a carriage-driving club to which I belonged (horses have long been a passion), but, of short stories I’ve completed several that still sit in my computer. One day, when I have the time, I’ll dig them out and make something of them.
Morgen: An anthology perhaps, to include second person. 🙂 Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see the light of day?
John: Yes I do – a complete book about terrorism that I still can’t accept as worthy of publication. It’s an early attempt and although there are lots about it that I believe are better than good there is a lot that is mediocre. I’m reluctant to destroy it, convinced that at some time in the future I’ll tear it apart and perhaps use the good elements in another story.
Morgen: The more you right the easier you’ll find that. Do you enter competitions? Are there any you could recommend?
John: I have entered one competition but failed miserably. I’m a member of WriteLink who often run competitions but I have to restrict myself in what I can take on and although competitions may well be a means of public recognition, I simply don’t have the time.
Morgen: I know that feeling. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success.
John: I don’t have an agent. In the past I’ve been in touch with several but without success. If you’re to become accepted by a mainstream publisher, then an agent is probably needed first. However, within this constantly changing scenario where e-publishing is becoming a more popular and acceptable route to follow, my answer would be “No, an agent isn’t vital”. It appears to me that there’s opportunity for success in producing e-books only, and there’s always the chance that an agent will pick up on your work if it is good enough.
Morgen: The likes of Amanda Hocking, Joe Konrath and our John Locke have done well independently. Do you do much marketing for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
John: I certainly do. For me it’s the least enjoyable aspect of writing and publishing but without it the whole business would be a failure. On a purely local level I do interviews with the local press and I appear on local radio stations to talk about my work. I also tour around bookshops inviting (pleading) them to take my books. I’ve developed a really thick skin because we all have to be prepared for rejections. I was also invited to talk at a book fair which was a really positive experience and again gave me the opportunity to sell my books. On a wider front I’ve joined ‘Independent Author Network’ where I have a bio-page and my books are listed (http://www.independentauthor.com/ernest-swain) and I’m a member of their Social Network too. I also have my own website: http://www.ernestswain.vpweb.co.uk, and I use both Facebook and Twitter.
Morgen: Marketing has been the answer to ‘least favourite aspect’ for probably 95% of the authors I’ve spoken to, mostly because it’s so time-consuming. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
John: I’m not sure I’m qualified to give advice to anyone but I suppose I’d say, “Join a local writing group”, and write about what you know, and enjoy reading about. You must believe in yourself because feeling that you’re ‘not good enough’ becomes a disincentive to write and others will certainly pick up on your attitude so go out and sell yourself. I’m convinced that there’s a book in all of us. With tongue in cheek, I would finally say that to be certain of success as a writer you must either become famous or infamous because publishers know they’re onto a winner in both cases.
Morgen: <laughs> Writing groups are great. I run / belong to four, all invaluable for their own reasons. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, whom would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
John: There are so many fascinating characters from the past but my choice would be: King Richard 111 – (I’m a member of a local history group). He’d frighten me to death but having read so much about him and the time in which he lived the conversation would be wonderful. I’d want to know about his older brother Edward 1V and also George whom Edward had executed and I’d certainly have to ask him what really happened to the two young princes in the Tower. My second guest would be my late friend Sir Maurice Oldfield who was head of MI5. Sir Maurice died in 1982 but after his retirement, and already suffering terminal cancer, he was brought back by the government to become supremo of all the forces (both overt and covert) in Northern Ireland during the dreadful troubles. He was considered to be the figure that ‘George Smiley’ was fashioned upon in John Le Carre’s novel ‘Tinker, Tailor, Spy’. His tales used to leave me spellbound. The third guest would be my old faithful friend and colleague Alan Nicholls who sadly passed away a few years ago. He was a raconteur par excellence and we shared some hair-raising adventures. He was also a detective and his wealth of stories would have filled many volumes. I tried hard to get him to write down his tales but sadly his eyesight was failing and I couldn’t induce him to do so. Eventually I purchased a small dictation device but before I could use it he sadly passed away taking with him all those wonderful tales. I think the three of them would have filled a long evening and I doubt that I would have got a word in edgeways, but oh boy, would I have something to write about afterwards? As for food, I would have certainly left that to my dear wife, Margaret, on whom I depend for most things. She’s editor, agent, publicist, and much more to me, and she’s a brilliant cook.
Morgen: What great choices and having Margaret cooking would mean you could get engrossed in the conversation, until she joined you. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
John: I’ve heard it said that e-books have sounded the death knell for paper publications, indeed I heard of one school who purchased Kindles or some other similar devices for the pupils in order to do away with all their books. Personally, I can’t accept that view because as I said earlier I still prefer to read from a real book and many of my friends have expressed that same view. However, e-books have certainly provided the means for writers to reach their public far easier than the traditional route and I think that that will encourage more writers. The only reservation about e-books is that quality might well suffer.
Morgen: It does, unfortunately, and I know of authors who have had no second opinion before publishing which is always a mistake. Even if there’s aren’t any writers groups nearby there are plenty of online options (I have two http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/feedback and http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/online-writing-groups). Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
John: Thank you for affording me the time and opportunity of this interview.
Morgen: You’re so welcome, John. It’s always great chatting to other authors, especially ones from my home country because you never know, we could meet up at a writing event someday. 🙂 Is there anything that you’d like to ask me?
John: Yes, probably the same question you’ve been asked before, “How do you find the time to keep this site going and still manage to write yourself?”
Morgen: <laughs> I find very little time for writing, unfortunately, it’s the lure of the ping of the email (which I try to constantly keep on top of or else they’ll get out of hand) but I do write a short story for my 5pm fiction blog slot, although I’m also writing my seventh novel (the second in a crime series) for Camp NaNoWriMo this month so plenty of writing currently (although I’m already 7,000 words behind). The best thing to get me writing is a deadline and whilst Camp NaNo has a minimum word count of 10,000 rather than NaNoWriMo’s 50,000, I’m aiming for the 50 minimum. Thank you for joining me today, John.
I then invited John to include a synopsis of his novel ‘A Surprising Legacy’…
Set at the end of the 1700s, ‘A Surprising Legacy’ is a tale of romance, hardship and a dangerous flirtation with a counterfeit coin racket that is entwined in folk-lore, myths and legends that abound this Godforsaken and lawless moorland area.
Amos Carlisle is a young man forced to lead an itinerant lifestyle because of the implementation of the Enclosures Act. He travels the countryside in his vardo (a gipsy caravan) pulled by his mare Maggie, picking up casual work.
He is drawn to the remote and bleak village of Flash in the Staffordshire Moorlands where life in general is hard and winters extreme. Pulling him back to this place is the excitement generated by the risk of being involved in a counterfeit coin racket.
Sarah Fletcher, raised in an orphanage was placed in ‘service’ at the home of wealthy people at an early age. Her treatment there was harsh but she fell in love with the son of her employers and became pregnant with daughter, Ruth. The relationship is not acceptable to her employers and a commission is purchased in the army for her young lover in order to separate them. Unfortunately he is killed in action in the New World.
Sarah finds herself destitute with a child to support. She begs for food and is gaoled as a vagrant. At this point Amos finds the child, Ruth, hiding in a barn and cares for her. When Sarah is released from gaol she joins Amos in his caravan. Together they experience ghostly happenings, a violent robbery, cock-fighting, bare-knuckle fighting, become involved with a mining tragedy and a death caused by an illegal abortion.
Amos narrowly escapes discovery and arrest with his counterfeit coin, but his nefarious enterprise is abandoned when Sarah hears news of the legacy she and Ruth have inherited in the will of her former lover.
and his novel ‘The Lightning Tree’…
In a previous novel ‘A Surprising Legacy’ Amos Carlisle becomes a victim of a land grab by the aristocracy at the time of the Enclosures Act. Taking to the road in a horse drawn caravan, he befriends a small child, Ruth, whose mother has been jailed for vagrancy. When her mother, Sarah, is eventually released from prison he offers them a home.
Fortune befalls them when Ruth and Sarah inherit a legacy from Sarah’s former lover and Ruth’s father, Joseph Craven, who dies as a soldier in the New World.
In ‘The Lightning Tree’, set in the late 1700s, Sarah and Amos marry and settle in a country cottage but are soon faced with a challenge that could divest them of the legacy and threaten their marriage.
Sir Duncan Carew MP., and his son Matthew, bring news that Sarah’s former lover and benefactor, Joseph Craven, did not die but actually deserted from his post in the army. A character is introduced who purports to be Joseph Craven but he has such severe facial disfigurement that even Sarah cannot be sure whether or not this is her former lover. This person is very ill with tuberculosis but Amos installs him in the caravan in the garden of his home and he is nursed back to a healthier state. Together the family face the dilemma of whether or not to return at least some of the legacy to him. The matter is both a question of legality and of Christian morality. They are implored by the Carews to keep his existence a secret because of the threat of capital punishment hanging over him. Sarah becomes inclined to be benevolent towards him – half convinced of his story – whilst Amos, more down to earth, increasingly believes him and the Carews to be imposters out to swindle. Ruth, who was still a baby when her father left for the New World, desperately wants the man to be her real father. In this dilemma the family risk being torn apart.
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on the mixed blog but everything else (see Opportunities on the main blog) is free.
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