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.