Like so many of my author mates I met Mel Sherratt on Twitter. Recently, she published her debut crime thriller TAUNTING THE DEAD. Set in the criminal underbelly of Stoke on Trent DS Allie Shenton must work her way through a labyrinth of secrets and lies to uncover the truth behind the brutal murder of a wealthy businessman’s wife. It’s a cracking read, and perfect for these long, dark nights. You can read my review here. The story of Mel’s journey to publication is one of tenacity, hard work and drive, and she is a talented new writer on the crime block. You can read her account of this journey on her blog High Heels & Book Deals, and for more information about Mel check out her website.
You can buy TAUNTING THE DEAD here.
Thanks for popping over, Mel. Tell us a little about yourself. Why do you write?
Hi Laura, and thanks for inviting me to chat. I write because I don’t think I’d be good at anything else. Seriously, I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t write. Before I was made redundant I was a training consultant writing policies and strategies and workforce plans. Then every night I’d come home and write murder and mayhem.
You write crime thrillers now, though you started writing women’s fiction. What attracted you to the crime genre? Where did your interest spring from?
When I first started to write books, ahem, twelve years ago, I wrote in the genre I enjoyed reading then. I read authors such as Adele Parks, Marian Keyes and Lisa Jewell – I still do. I worked with an agent on one particular book for two and a half years but it never went out on submission. During this time, I’d started to work as a housing officer for the local authority and wanted to use this background for the setting of some new books. I wrote what I lovingly call my grit-lit series – crime for women, predominantly with women characters – with the strap line Laugh a minute. Cry a minute. Crime a minute. One novel did go out on submission with my current agent but it wasn’t deemed to be ‘crimey’ enough, even though it covered topics such as domestic violence, murder/suicide, assault, drugs etc with the odd serial killer thrown in! So I set out to write a crime thriller that hopefully would appeal to both men and women, hence TAUNTING THE DEAD.
The novel’s setting – Stoke on Trent – is your home town, and the sense of the city is so strong that, like all great crime fiction, it’s almost a leading character in its own right. Why did you choose Stoke as your setting? And what do you think the city brings to your narrative?
Thank you so much for that. I enjoy reading books where the setting is pivotal, but I think there’s also a balance to strike. As you know, having read TAUNTING THE DEAD, I’m not big on descriptive passages, tending to show not tell through dialogue, and I always fear that people won’t find a sense of place because of that.
I write sex, murder and violence. It doesn’t make a place attractive to live in, no matter where the setting. There’s no getting away from that. So I thought, why not set it in my home town and maybe the sense of place I know will fit in naturally with my writing? I’m not sure if the city I live in brings as much to the narrative as I do – to me, it’s fiction and it does fill me with dread as well as pride when I get reviews about Stoke on Trent’s underworld!
The plot of TAUNTING THE DEAD is labyrinthine, and you keep your reader guessing right up until the final few pages. There are crime writers, like Minette Walters, who don’t know whodunnit themselves until they’re a good way into their book. Did you know who the perpetrator was all along, or did you find out as you wrote?
I did know from the beginning who murdered Steph Ryder. I planned for a month before starting to write. The book is set up so that it could be one of six people on the night and before I wrote it, I worked the ‘what if’ question into every one of their back stories and kept twisting and twisting until I found the right one best placed to do it. I am, however, willing to let the book grow organically during the first draft as I know from past experience that I’m on to a winner if I do that. There’s always a reason to go ‘off plot’ when I read back.
Research. Before you write the first draft, or afterwards? And how much?
Ah, research. As this was my first whodunnit, it kind of evolved as I went along. My first idea was for DS Allie Shenton to be a family liaison officer, but as I wanted a lot of the scenes away from the house, I had to rethink. I also had to learn all the forensics and police procedures. Forensics tripped me up quite a lot of times, not particularly research wise but in the sense that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do because it was easy to prove with today’s methods so I had to rethink. And rethink. And rethink. I’m not sure if I’ll ever write another book as hard as TAUNTING THE DEAD in the sense of everyone lying to each other. It meant I always had to be thinking about what the other characters didn’t know yet – or even thought they knew but they were wrong. But then again, it’s the challenge, isn’t it?
Your villains are deliciously nasty. How did you approach getting inside the heads of such an unsavoury bunch?
Oh, Lord. I’m not sure I can answer this one apart from saying that as a writer of several books before this one, maybe it comes naturally? Which is a really weird thing to say! I read a lot of crime novels for research and I suppose my own style came out while writing TAUNTING THE DEAD.
I wanted my villains to be good looking, butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths type of men. Ones you can imagine raising thousands of pounds for charities, not necessarily taking a hammer to anyone’s shin! I wanted to have the shock factor in the book.
Although she is a vacuous and self-centred drunk, I found myself feeling deeply sorry for your main victim, Steph Ryder. Was this your intention?
Several people have mentioned this to me now, which is an absolute joy to hear. Because, yes, I wanted to show someone who had become selfish in her ways, similar to that of a spoilt child. It’s why the book is in two halves – before Steph is murdered so you can see why everyone would have a motive to kill her and after to see who actually carried it out. Steph did like her life, but she was bored. Her husband spent a lot of time working away from home and because of this she chose alcohol as her friend. It ultimately became her downfall as she kept saying too much and acting foolishly.
There are some extremely violent scenes in the novel. Were these difficult to write?
Dare I say no? I think I must go into character as I write as they certainly don’t come from experience! I can’t however watch the vicious stuff. Me and the fella argue all the time when I ask him to switch off a violent film as he can’t understand why I can write it but not watch it. I think it’s just because as a reader you can detach yourself from the visual images. You imagine them but also get caught up with reading the words.
I also like sentences that say so much in a few words – ‘Terry pulled his arm back as far as he could and with brute force, brought down the hammer on Phil’s right shin.’
Your lead, DS Allie Shenton, is a happily married woman. This struck me as unusual (in a good way) because the protagonists in so many thrillers are loners, with lots of personal baggage. Allie does have issues and she is vulnerable, but I wondered if you could explain your choice to give her such a solid home life.
A bit of a long story this one. When I first started to draft out TAUNTING THE DEAD, the initial idea was for Allie to be a family liaison officer and stay close to the main suspect. But as I like to write about lots of characters, I found that more things needed to happen outside the house. So I changed her into a detective sergeant. In that first draft, Allie did split up with Mark and go to stay with her mum. Through the book, Allie noticed that her mum was suffering from dementia and that was her back story. I moved Allie out of her marital home so that I could show how she realised her mum had dementia by being around her more. But TAUNTING THE DEAD became too big to keep this sub plot. And as I got to know Allie and the main suspect, Terry Ryder, I thought it would create more sexual tension if she was in a loving relationship. I also wanted to go against the norm.
And something happens to Allie’s husband at a later date, because of her job, that would test even the strongest of marriages…
How do you manage your writing time?
I get up early and once the bloke is out of the door at seven, if I haven’t already started by then, I get cracking. I can work until he comes back in at tea time and often continue into the evening, depending on what I’m working on. If I’m first drafting, I aim for 3-4000 words a day. If I’m editing, I aim for twenty pages. That’s not to say I spend all that time writing, that would be insane. To get to my target for the day, a lot of time in between is spent on Twitter or chatting to people online as I use this as my virtual office to stop me going stir crazy. Emails and blog posts are done at the end of the day or at weekends, when the belly of the writing is done.
I am also great at setting myself daily word count/pages to edit targets and failing to do them. But I somehow manage to always do the full thing by my self imposed deadlines. The mind is a powerful tool. It can, however, fill me with self doubt too. Swings and roundabouts.
TAUNTING THE DEAD is the first in a series following DS Allie Shenton. So what’s next? Can you give us a taster of what’s to come? Your writing ambitions?
Actually, I can’t. I do have ideas for book two and book three – as you know, the first book ends on a cliff hanger so more to this series can be added. But the whole purpose of self publishing TAUNTING THE DEAD is to try and get a traditional deal. However, I do aim to write book two by the end of this year regardless. I’ve had some fantastic comments about it and I’m itching to get going with Allie and her team again. I also might bring out the grit lit series as an ebook trilogy.
My writing ambitions? To get that print copy! And to keep on enjoying what I do.
And finally, a daft question I ask everyone here.
Coffee or tea? Coffee – with Coffee Mate.
Beer or wine? Wine.
Marmite or Bovril? Euuewwww!
Dark chocolate or Milk? Milk.
High heels or flatties? Purlease! High heels. Thought I might know the answer to this one!
Blusher or mascara. Mascara, definitely.
Many thanks to Mel, and the very best of luck with TAUNTING THE DEAD.