Thank you for chatting with me today, Dr. Yeoman. Please tell me about your book, The Cunning Man.
The Cunning Man is an anthology of short historical mysteries. My 16th century detective Hippo (Hippocrates) Yeoman is hired to solve devilish crimes, often at peril of his life, but the reader is given ample clues. Will you find the culprit before Hippo does?
Why Historical Mystery and how is your story different from others in this genre?
My novels are unique in that each is a ‘fictorial’. It shows the reader how to write a great story, or appreciate how it was written, while they enjoy the story. Touch a Footnote marker in Kindle and a panel opens up to reveal the craft techniques I used in that scene.
I developed the ‘fictorial’ approach, plus an interest in historical fiction, in 2001 when I self-published Gardening Secrets That Time Forgot. It was a how-to gardening manual disguised as a novel. (Yes, it was very odd!) In every chapter I had my 15th century gardener stumble on a clever new gardening idea which the ‘editor’ solemnly explained in a footnote so the modern reader could use it in their own garden.
I sold the book through ads in gardening magazines and netted around $130,000. I knew I was onto something with the ‘fictorial’ approach but I lost interest in gardening and didn’t apply the idea to fiction again until this year, with The Cunning Man.
What type of crimes that interest you most during Elizabethan England?
The misdeeds that fascinate me are not the gory ones, which are common to every period, but the clever ones. The age is full of trickery. Roguish alchemists, subtle poisoners, fraudulent, mystics… They inspired an entire genre of drama: the Trickster plays.
Elizabethan London hosted a world of tricksters – card sharps, fake lunatics, bogus beggars, and the like – and The Cunning Man portrays them, and their knavery.
What do you want readers to come away with while reading your anthology of short historical mystery stories?
I hope they’ll gain a thundering good read, with plenty of laughs on the way, plus a fuller understanding of how a good story is written. And if they’re creative writers themselves, perhaps they’ll be able to apply my copious ‘how-to’ notes to their own writing.
What is an example of the research you conducted on 16th century London? What appeals to you most about the people’s living condition during that time?
Authors of historical fiction tend to gloat on the elements in each period that appear bizarre to us. So their characters are always bumping into gibbets, plague pits, overturned chamber pots… It wasn’t like that. To capture a period you have to get into its mind, and that’s not easy. For example, a loving Puritan husband in 16th century England would beat his wife every month. Why? To save her soul. Because he loved her. Try explaining that to a modern reader!
A good historical novelist will capture a period, not in its excesses or vulgarities, but in the little details. So if you want a character in Ekizabethan London to jump out of a window, don’t have him look out of the glass first. Only the very rich had clear glass windows. (Too expensive.) Everyone else used oiled paper or cloth. Or wooden shutters. Have him crack the paper…
What do you like about writing in general?
The ability to be myself upon a stage. It’s no accident that the hero of my novels bears the same surname as I do: Hippo Yeoman. We’re the same person (although he’s more handsome than I am). I have great fun creating ‘impossible’ riddles – for example, The Cunning Man contains two solutions to ‘locked room’ mysteries that I’ve never seen published before – then my character has fun solving them. In the meantime, I hope the reader has fun too.
I noticed your passion includes Jacobean literature. How interesting. Will you tell me a little about that?
I’d done a lot of research in the pre-Elizabethan era for my gardening book so when I did my PhD in Creative Writing it seemed logical to study the Jacobethan period (1558-1623). My PhD required me to submit a novel so I created Hippo Yeoman, an apothecary cum detective struggling to make a living in 1590s London. Alas, that novel was unpublishable – I’d written it in 16th century language to impress my examiners – but it got me a doctorate, so all was not lost.
When reading historical novels such as dealing with crime it is so important for writers to build tension. I find its not always the case when I read these types of books. Do you have a bit of advice to writers on how they can do that?
Of course, there are many ways to create tension but the two simplest are: balance your pace and end each episode with a scene hanger. After a scene of high tension, packed with action and emotion, give the reader a comfort break. Write the next scene as a calm description or summary. Use longer sentences and more languid words. Then move to a new scene. Shorten the words, sentences and paragraphs. Ramp up the pace.
Scene hangers are a cliché but they still work. Don’t let a chapter, or even an episode, just fade away. End it with a note of mystery, uncertainty, intrigue or an unresolved question. Then the reader has to turn the page.
How long did it take for you to write your book and where in your home do you like to write?
Each novel took me around one year to write plus a year to edit. I edited each book a dozen times. Yes, I know that some indie authors today crank out a ‘novel’ every 15 days. And some make a lot of money. But every novel I’ve read, produced by these human ‘word factories’, has been unreadable. There’s no such thing as a great writer, only a great editor. And those authors don’t have the patience – or professionalism- to edit their work the dozen times that a good novel requires.
Where do I write? In my garden office. It has a gold-framed mirror at one end and religious stained glass in every window. So wherever I look, I see a saint.
Praise for The Cunning Man
“Why has no one done this before? The Cunning Man entertains and informs in equal measure, embedding instruction in story telling technique within gripping historical mysteries. The ingenious puzzles will keep you guessing, the droll asides will make you smile, and the tips on writing will boost your own technique. What’s not to like?” -Michelle Spring, co-author (with Laurie R. King) of Crime and Thriller Writing: a Writers’ and Artists’ Companion
“If you want a tale with idiosyncratic characters, paced to keep you turning pages, and laughing out loud, read this. In addition, if you want an insiders’ look at the writer’s art, DO read this, the first “fictorial,” designed to give new and emerging authors, (well, any author come to that), an understanding of the craft behind the magic of stories that are finely-written. Footnotes found throughout the book bring up “commentaries” that explain the how and why of the writing. I’ve never seen this done before. It’s a brilliant concept.” -Diana Holdsworth
“The author did an amazing job of placing me firmly in the 1597 Elizabethan era, with his sense of place and proper dialogue. He has created a fun read that’s both entertaining and educational. Both readers and writers alike will enjoy this book, with its clever plot line and pop-up notes that not only teach aspiring writers what to include in their own work but also allow the average reader a peek behind the curtain – something they normally would never know. It isn’t easy to create a new class of fiction, and in my opinion this author hit a home run.” -Sue Coletta
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About the Author
Dr. John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, is a total rogue. His first adventure when leaving Oxford University with an MA in English literature was to host a witchcraft cabaret in a London cellar. This so enchanted him with devilry that he took up a career in public relations. Across 42 years he has edited a newspaper, chaired a big PR consultancy and trained several thousands of people to write for fame, fun and occasionally fortune.
For fifteen years he ran Britain’s largest self-publishing business and earned up to $1.4 million annually from his own living room. (Oh, thou of little faith! If you’re skeptical, send him a nice email and he’ll point you to its accounts at Companies House.)
He founded Writers’ Village in 2009, now one of the world’s largest short fiction contests. It’s no coincidence that its blog is titled the Wicked Writing Blog and it hosts guest posts every week from every best-selling author who is not ashamed to show their face there.
He lives in central England with his wife Celia, a dynasty of children and a tortoise. His passions include Jacobean literature, heirloom vegetable gardening and antique wines.
The villain should properly be addressed as Dr John Yeoman, MA Oxon, MA (Res), MPhil, PhD, FSRS. But you didn’t want to know that, did you? Quite right. After all, in the time you’ve wasted reading his biography here you could have been enjoying his novels which are triumphs of entertainment.