Author Malcolm Noble is the winner of the BRAG Medallion for his story, “Peggy Pinch.”
Thanks for including me in your blog, Stephanie. It certainly needs to be a regular stop for anyone interested in the world of books. You have a knack for interviewing authors who have something to say, so I guess I feel a little out of place!
Malcolm, thank you for this lovely interview and my apologies for the delay. Please tell me about your book, “Peggy Pinch.”
It’s a murder story set in an English village at the time of the General Strike. Peggy Pinch, the policeman’s wife, knows that any investigation by Scotland Yard will uncover village scandals that will discredit her husband, so she sets out to solve the murder herself. It’s my favourite.
What inspired you to write this story?
I had already published eight Timberdick Mysteries and I wanted to break out a little. However, I felt a different book would disappoint the readers who had been with me from the beginning, so I started out by writing a back story for one of the minor Timberdick characters (Boy Berkeley in the book). However, Peggy’s character quickly became so strong and developed so unexpectedly that she soon grabbed my enthusiasm. The book became hers.
Initially, I wanted to set the story in the Hampshire village where I grew up (Stubbington) but that didn’t work out because I kept picturing the book’s location on a hillside with a stream at the bottom of the village.
What is the most challenging when it comes to writing novels set in the early 1900’s?
Peggy Pinch is set in 1926 so it’s on the margins of being a historical novel and the challenge for all historical fiction is use the research properly. The story and the characters come first. Research should do no more than underpin them. Your characters and story should never be built around the research. Someone once told me that if I used more than one tenth of any research, I was using too much. Even that 10% needs to used carefully. In Peggy Pinch, many of the episodes rely on reminisces told to me by my grandparents (who died in the 1960s). My grandmother once told me about a young woman who insisted that sexual intercourse couldn’t lead to pregnancy. I didn’t look for an opportunity to include that confusion but when I needed to show the naivety of an appropriate character, the story came to hand. But I would never change a personality to suit the anecdote.
I like to think that I’m as careful as I can be about getting little details right but that doesn’t stop me making howlers. In The Case of the Dirty Verger I allowed the characters to drink tea from paper cups on Waterloo Station in 1947. I could kick myself, because I know that crockery was used well into the 1950s. I simply wasn’t paying attention. My books do produce some lovely debate about nostalgia, and I always join in. I am still arguing (light-heartedly) with one reader about how many brands of king size cigarettes were available in the UK in 1963.
My comments show how important it is for me to keep notebooks with amusing anecdotes and curiosities.
What is your next book project?
The Poisons of Goodladies Road is published this month. I am currently working on a sequel to Peggy Pinch, Policeman’s Wife. I’ve got to the stage (about 30,000 words) where a lot of rewriting needs to be done before I can take it further. Although this part of the process seems like hard work, it’s also very stimulating because the story and the characters become a lot sharper. Several minor characters won’t make the cut and some sub-plots will be lost but, by Christmas, I hope the script will begin to look something like the book I had in mind when I started. That always feels good.
When do your best ideas for stories come to you?
Very often, snatches of conversation. These can be things remembered from years ago, especially if I’m thinking about friends and family I’ve lost touch with, or they can be snippets overheard in the street.
On other occasions, it can be one phrase that seems to describe a scene just right. The scene develops into a colourful episode. The episode opens up a storyline. Timberdick’s First Case happened like that. The book grew out of the first sentence.
Once again, my writer’s notebook is very important.
What books have most influenced your life?
Two writers, William Hazlitt and JB Priestley, produced several essays that have got me thinking. That’s not to say that they are my favourite books, but probably they have influenced my perspective on things.
From Shakespeare, I learned the value of words. Dickens taught me to read slowly and enjoy the journey. My favourite reads at the moment are the detective novels of Cyril Hare and Beryl Symons. Also, I have read Treasure Island so many times and over so many years that it’s hard to think that it hasn’t influenced me in some way. I read it still, at least once a year.
Are there any occupational hazards to being a novelist?
You know, calling myself a novelist seems a little pompous. I’m an overweight bloke in his sixties who runs a second-hand bookshop and likes to write murder stories that some other people want to read. Some people have been very kind about my books but I know that I could never live up to the comments they’ve made. Novelist? No, really, I’ve just slopped coffee down my trousers; real writers don’t do that.
The occupational hazard is that people now worry that I’m going to include them in one of my books. I want people to react with me in an ordinary way, not as potential characters. But I have always been a spectator. I enjoy looking at and listening to people. When people are cross or feel strongly about something, they come up with the most superb phrases. (Straight into the notebook before I forget them.)
A more serious hazard comes from my own personality, I’m sorry to say. Because I can always be found in my shop, readers do travel quite some distances to meet me. Of course, this is very flattering and rewarding for me, but I simply don’t come up to scratch. We sit in the shop’s courtyard and share a coffee, and chat about books in general or the work I’m doing. But I’m conscious that I’m not like a proper writer and people must be disappointed. The problem is that I want to do the listening, to learn about one of my readers, but that’s not the point of the visit. Usually, they drive away and I’m left thinking ‘I hope I was worth the bother.’
But there are so many up sides to writing. The relationship with your readers is something unique. I will always get a kick when someone says that they’ve read one of my books from cover to cover without a break. I don’t think there’s higher praise. And I’m tickled when readers send me little presents. I’ve received a model of the car that my policeman drives and an old pipe lighter for him to use. The jar of date chutney was a something of a puzzle, but I’m sure PC Machray enjoyed it. It wouldn’t have been to Timberdick’s taste, although she has always wanted to be vegetarian. (We’ve argued about that.)
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Be very clear (and be honest with yourself) why you are writing. That focus will help you achieve your best.
Listen to advice about structure, pace and character development but then, when you are at your writing place, forget it all. Produce the prose and story that you’re inspired to write. Let the characters grow in your mind until they govern what can and cannot happen. For that to happen, you have to spend time with them. (How many novelists had imaginary play-friends when they were toddlers?)
Above all, be confident. If you like the story, the characters and the sounds of the words, someone else will.
Please tell me how you discovered indieBRAG.
I’m not too sure about this. I know that I googled ‘bragging stickers’, wanting to find a cheap supplier, and BRAG came up and I looked briefly at their website but, of course, it wasn’t what I searching for at the time. It was Helen Hollicks, I think, through the Historical Novels Society, who recommended people should recognise what BRAG was doing. I was impressed by their set up. I think it’s interesting how “indies” are becoming more assertive, forming professional alliances and establishing quality gateways. I know that having a BRAG label on the cover of Peggy Pinch has sold some copies, so I would recommend anyone to offer their book to their assessors.
What is your favourite quote?
“Authenticity is boring. Credibility is important.” I’ve heard this attributed to Raymond Chandler, although I’ve not been able to track it down. Can anyone help?
May I have a second one? Freeman Wills Croft wrote, “If we were all as wise as we should be, we’d have no stories to tell.” I think that’s great!
Stephanie, thanks for asking the right questions. You definitely know how to get someone to rabbit along.
Malcolm Noble was born in Nottingham, England in 1951 and grew up on the shores of the Solent. As a young man he served in the Portsmouth Police, a chapter in his life that provides some background for his crime fiction.
Malcolm lives in Market Harborough where he and his wife run a secondhand bookshop. He has written ten mystery novels .
A message from indieBRAG
We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Malcolm Noble who is the author of, Peggy Pinch, one of our medallion honorees at http://www.bragmedallion.com. To be awarded a B.R.A.G. MedallionTM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as Peggy Pinch merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.
Video of Malcolm discussing his answers to our interview: