Cath Staincliffe gave a talk at the Erdington Crime Fiction Reading Group  (see left for link) on September 1st. The talk was, for the most part, a history of her writing career. The suggestion that she should try her hand at mystery fiction came from a publisher who had received her first novella, which Staincliffe had  thought was science fiction. She went away and read a lot of mysteries and was really taken with the feminist reinvention of the PI genre by the likes of Sara Paretsky and Liza Cody. So she decided that she wanted to have a PI as her central character. The other thing she liked about these books was their strong sense of place, so she decided to set the books in the city in which she lived, namely Manchester. She realised that she needed a distinctive element and that, she decided, would be to make her PI a parent, and a single-parent to boot, thus saddling her with domestic responsibilities and story-lines. And thus Sal Kilkenny, Staincliffe’s main series character, was born.

Staincliffe entered the first book in the Kilkenny series, Looking for Trouble (1994), in a competition which it won and part of the prize was publication. On the back of that she got a book deal. Some of the Kilkenny books were serialised on Woman’s Hour which helped a lot. She then wanted to write about adoption and did so in the form of a family saga entitled Trio (2002). The Sal books are first-person and she wanted to write a third-person mystery in order that she could use different Points of View, so she wrote a book centred on a murder investigation with a policewoman as the lead but could not find a publisher. She and a few other North-West mystery writers were dissatisfied with the amount of promotion (and sales!) which their books got, so they set up The Murder Squad which established a web-site (see http://www.murdersquad.co.uk/index.php?home ): by joining together they were able to accomplish much more and the format has now been copied by several other small groups of writers.

It was another member of the Murder Squad, Anne Cleeves, who put Staincliffe in touch with Granada Television who were in the market for more crime material. Staincliffe sent in a Sal book, but Granada said they didn’t want it, as the interior monologue of the PI was too hard to dramatise [extraordinary! this shows the creative limitations of British television: can they really not think of a way to handle interior monologues/sole protagonists convincingly? Couldn’t they have just gone and looked at a few Bogart movies?] so Sal took in her police book. Granada were delighted, but they had liked Sal’s domestic life where her policewoman had none, so she was asked would she write her a private life? Staincliffe therefore developed a family for her roughly based on her own – she paid her children £50 each when it was accepted! Granada were delighted and asked for a script and Staincliffe had to very quickly learn about scriptwriting. The main difference was that where writing a novel is individual, writing a script is collaborative. Finally the go-ahead was given by ITV. Then it was learnt that Caroline Quentin the actress playing the central character was pregnant in real life so that had to be written into her character. And so the television series Blue Murder was born. There was the pilot based on Staincliffe’s original novel, then 5 more series in each of which Staincliffe herself wrote one episode. She published the first novel as Blue Murder (2004) and another as Hit and Run (2005).

Meanwhile she was continuing the Sal books, but there came a time when she decided she wanted to try something new – a book which would still appeal to mystery readers, but would also have the potential of a wider, general fiction readership. She alighted upon the notion of centring this on an ethical dilemma and chose assisted suicide as her theme and the book The Kindest Thing (2009) was born, which turned out to be a kind of amalgam of legal thriller/love story.

Q&A

The two most fascinating answers to questions really had little to do with the talk and I am using them in other blogs (one of them the next one here). Staincliffe said that Sal was something of an alter-ego.

It was interesting that neither of the two most vocal members of our mystery group (of whom I am one!) spoke at all during this evening. Indeed the majority of questions came from non-members of the group (I should say non-attendees, as there is not really a membership just a group of regular attendees) and many were concerned with the writing process. In fact the whole tenor of the talk was aimed above all at the would-be writer. I am not being critical here because no doubt Staincliffe’s experience has led her to find that it is information about the writing process, from inspiration to publication, is what her audiences demand. In fact when I first went to St Hilda’s there were a couple of talks of this kind : it is their elimination which has so improved the intellectual content and weight of the weekends. It is not something which interests me very much so I tend to be just picking up scraps.

The other amusing aspect of the evening was its politeness. Now this is absolutely as it should be and I deplore rudeness. However when we are assembled as a group of readers/critics there are very few occasions on which a book is greeted with universal acclaim (admittedly quite often it is only 1 or 2 who dislike a particular book and quite often the one is me!): but there are numerous occasions on which a book is greeted with universal dislike/derision. The criticism is acute and reasoned. I suspect that, because this kind of discussion is often hidden from writers for courtesy’s sake, many fail to understand just how well-read, critically aware and discriminating their readership is.

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