Eva Jordan in conversation with… M.J. Lee

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Last month, in honour of Remembrance Day, I wrote about my Great Great Uncle William who is commemorated on the Menin Gate. How apt then, when writing my column, I came across author Martin Lee’s recently published novella, The Silent Christmas, which finds Jayne Sinclair, a genealogical investigator, trying to unravel a mystery concerning her client’s great grandfather in the trenches on December 25, 1914. Read my review here to find out more but in the meantime, I’d thought we’d do an interview with the author himself.

Martin, can you please tell our readers a bit about yourself? How long have you been writing? Did you always want to be a writer?

I’ve been a writer for most of my adult life, but not a novel writer. I worked in advertising for over 25 years as a copywriter and creative director. Every day, I had to go into work and, in the blink of an eye, come up with creative solutions to business problems for clients. About four years ago, I was offered a new job and I had a chat with a headhunter who asked me what I really wanted to do with my future. Without a thought, I answered ‘write novels’. And now, here I am, with The Silent Christmas being my tenth book to be published, the fifth in the Jayne Sinclair series.

I really enjoyed The Silent Christmas, which falls into the historical fiction genre, however, I also understand that you’ve recently released a contemporary thriller called Where The Truth Lies? My question being, which do you prefer to write about, the past or the present?

I’m so glad you enjoyed The Silent Christmas, I really loved writing the book. The answer is both because the challenges are very different for an author. When writing about the past, you have to put yourself in the mind of the character, his or her beliefs, attitudes and thoughts at the time. Writing in the present is much more about the observation of people and events in one’s daily life. I think what links the two is the idea of character. What made people act the way they did, whether it is yesterday or 100 years ago. That’s what I love to write about.

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

I love research, it’s where you can escape the banal and ordinary and discover something new. As I write historical crime fiction, the mores, actions and beliefs of the time are present in all my work. Readers would soon point out (and have) anachronisms for me. Research allows me to stay true to the times whether its 1920s Shanghai, the Restoration period of Samuel Pepys, or the first year of the Great War.

I’m quite methodical, probably because I was at one time a researcher in history as well as my background in advertising. I start with some general books of the period, in this case, the lead-up and first year of World War One, so that I can understand what was happening on a macro level. Then I will read contemporary newspaper accounts of what happened. In most cases these are third hand, ie reporters writing about something told to them, but in the case of the Christmas Truce, some newspapers published letters from men at the front describing what had happened. At the same time, I will look at newsreel footage, programmes or films on the subject. Some of the participants actually described what happened on film. Next, I will read memoirs or first-hand accounts of what happened. There are three or four published accounts of the Christmas Truce the best being by Henry Williamson, Bruce Bairnsfather and Bertie Felstead. Finally, I will look at contemporary documents such as War Diaries and individual diaries kept at the National Archives or, in this case, at Cheshire Military Museum.

I’m generally researching two books ahead of my writing. So at the moment, I’m looking into the Emancipation of Slaves in 1834….

What is your writing Kryptonite?

Character. Why do people act like they do?

In The Silent Christmas, what made people, on both sides, stop killing each other for one day? What made people stop being enemies and become friends? And conversely, having met and chatted with their opposite numbers, how did they return to the trenches a day later and start killing again?

And finally, what one piece of advice would you offer any would-be writers out there?

Read. Read. Read.

But read smartly.

How is the writer telling his story? What are they trying to say? How are they saying it? What would you do differently? How have they built up character and themes? What genre are they writing in? How would you describe this book in one sentence?

And once you’ve decided to be a writer, never, never give up. There will come a point when you want to stop. Don’t. Push on through to the end, because nobody will ever read an unfinished book.

Writer Martin Lee

M J Lee on Social Media:
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Eva Jordan reviews… The Silent Christmas by M.J. Lee

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Thanks to a cousin who has been researching our family tree, I recently discovered I had a Great-Great uncle who served in the trenches during WWl. He joined at the start of the war as a volunteer in 1914, and just one year later, aged twenty-one, he was dead, killed in action, his body never recovered but is commemorated on the Menin Wall in Ypres, Belgium. How apt then, I should stumble upon Martin Lee’s recently released novella, The Silent Christmas, the fifth in the Jayne Sinclair Genealogical Mystery series, which can also be read as a stand-alone.

Set in both the present day and the WWI trenches, the story centres on the informal football match believed to have taken place between the English and German soldiers during a brief truce on Christmas Day 1914. The first chapter takes us straight to the trenches on December 21st in Belgium, capturing the conditions and possible mindset of some soldiers, ‘He lay on his back on the hard ground and dreamt of England; picnicking on the grass in front of the bandstand, straw hat tipped over his eyes to shield them from the sun… A shadow crossed his face and he felt a tap against his foot. ‘Time to get up, Tom, we’re moving forward… The men began packing up… As they did so, a solitary shell from a German whizz-bang whistled overhead, landing one hundred yards past the farm. None of the men moved or even ducked; each one carried on preparing to move forward as if nothing had happened.’ We then move forward to the present day and discover Jayne Sinclair, a genealogical investigator, asked, just days before Christmas, if she can help shed light on the mystery of several items, namely a label, a silver button and a lump of leather, found in a chest in the attic of her client. Ms Sinclair, who says, ‘Our role as genealogists is to use our research to bring these lost people, the vanished people of our family, back to life,’ agrees, and the mystery begins to unravel.

Written in the third person throughout, The Silent Christmas is a fictional tale exploring the actual events that took place during December 1914, later called the ‘Christmas Truce.’ A real “feel good” story handled with great care and respect, full of hope and love, that is both well written and researched. And, as 2018 marks the 100-year anniversary of Armistice it is also particularly poignant.

You can find The Silent Christmas on Amazon 

Writer Martin Lee

M J Lee on Social Media:
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