JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I have to confess, I thought I "discovered" S.J. Bolton. Last year, I picked up Now You See Me, the first mystery in her DC Lacey Flint series. I ripped through it and went looking for the next, Dead Scared. I was recommending the books to friends, patting myself on the back on being able to introduce people to this great unknown British author... until I found out she wasn't really that unknown. In fact, she's been shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger, the Theakston's Old Peculier prize for crime novel of the year, the International Thriller Writers' Best First Novel award and the Mary Higgins Clark award (four times in a row! Her thriller Awakening won that one.)
Okay, I wasn't the first to find out about Sharon Bolton. But - and here we get to today's theme - I wouldn't have discovered her if I hadn't been reading out of my comfort zone. Like a lot of us, I had fallen into the habit of picking up a narrow range of books. British police procedurals (excepting our own Deb Crombie's series) were not on the list. But last year, I challenged myself to dig into books that I normally wouldn't seek out. And you know what? It was a great experience. Here's S.J. (Sharon) Bolton to tell us about her pushing the envelope moments.
On Mothers’ Day this year (10th March in the UK) I ran a five km race through ankle-deep mud. I scaled hills, fell down slopes, crawled through drainpipes, clambered over hay-bales and waded through waist-deep water. I didn’t cover myself in glory (I finished 4th from last) nor did I behave with great dignity. ‘Feel free to give me a shove up the arse,’ I told the man who was coming up behind me in the pipe. ‘Can’t,’ he replied. ‘My shorts are coming down.’
I’m not a natural runner. But my son runs, and I’ve learned that the key to family cohesion can lie in common interests; even if this invariably pushes parents way beyond their comfort zones.
I run so that I can share something with my son. Physical fitness is a fringe benefit. Another is the emotional growth that comes from the willingness to embracing a new challenge.
Now, life lessons can often be applied to writing, I find. Writers who grow are those who stretch themselves. Not so long ago, I met another writer at a dinner. She described herself, several times, as an ‘unsuccessful writer.’ After a while I asked the obvious - what kind of writer she might consider to be successful? ‘Someone whose books are in shops, not just libraries,’ she replied. I was tempted to feel sorry for her. Until she went on to tell me that for the last twenty years she’d written and published two books a year. ‘Stop it, now!’ I wanted to yell at her. ‘Take a break, clear your head, and then WRITE SOMETHING DECENT!’
This was a writer, forever trapped in her comfort zone, forever doomed to be disappointed.
I will not be one of these, even though, ultimately, I may end up shooting myself in the foot. (I thought my publishers would dump me over my third book BLOOD HARVEST – three major re-writes before it was accepted.)
I didn’t want to be labeled a writer of English rural gothic so with my fourth book I went urban. I wanted to see if I could pull off a credible police procedural, so made all my main characters police officers. I wondered if I could write an engaging series character, so created Lacey Flint. It was a major change and not everyone liked it. A writer friend accused me of going over to the dark side, because of the book’s twin themes of sexual abuse and violence against women.
It’s hard, isn’t it? When you’re living the life you dreamed of, (that plenty of others still long for) when armed with a reasonably successful product, you find yourself on the book-a-year treadmill. It’s hard to step off when you know you might never get back on again. Thunderous applause, therefore, to Gillian Flynn, whose first novel came out six years ago. GONE GIRL followed a four year gap. Flynn took her time. She had confidence in herself. She produced an absolute masterpiece.
I’m not that brave. But I do feel the time has come for a change. I’m finishing off my fifth Lacey Flint story and it’s been an effort. Not that I’m tired of Lacey, but I think I’ve gone as far as I can with this series for now. Time to move on.
What I’m reasonably good at is plotting (although it has been suggested that my readers don’t so much suspend disbelief as throw it gleefully out of the window) and my books are totally story driven. I’m less good at characterization. Most crime writers veer naturally towards one or the other, I find. If they’re character led writers, they write psychological crime. If action led, they write thrillers and action-packed mysteries.
I want to see if I can write a book in which very little happens. A book that’s success hinges on whether the characters work or not.
So, there will be no subterranean chases, no helicopter rescues, no mythical creatures lurking in the shadows and no rural communities haunted by the mistakes and ghosts of their past. There will be three people, whose lives have been destroyed by a single event, and who deal with it in very separate ways.
You know what, I think I’d rather be stuck in a muddy pipe with a half naked stranger.
Are you willing to step out of your comfort zone, dear readers? How have you challenged yourselves in the past year - and in the year going forward? Let us know, and one lucky commenter will win the hardcover of Dead Scared!
Sharon's new Lacey Flint short story, IF SNOW HADN’T FALLEN, is published on 2 April (ebook only) and the new book, LOST, is out in June. You can find out more about S.J. Bolton, and read excerpts from her books, at her website. You can friend her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter as @authorsjbolton, share reviews with her on Goodreads and enjoy her writing on her blog.