Some secrets can be deadly . . .
The featureless corpse lay like a grotesque department-store mannequin, elbows and knees flexed, fists clenched. Wisps of smoke rose from its still-burning torso.
Recently-widowed GP Zoe Moreland really wishes she’d chosen another route to walk her dog on November 6th. Had they gone away from the village, Mac could not have led her to the body lying in the remains of a Guy Fawkes bonfire.
Zoe’s move from an English city to the Scottish Borders was meant to be a fresh start among strangers unaware of her past. Instead, she is thrust into the limelight by her grisly discovery and gets caught up in the resulting murder investigation. Then someone else dies unexpectedly and Zoe herself narrowly escapes death.
Determined not to become the killer’s next victim, she digs beneath the tranquil surface of the close knit community to find out who is committing these horrible acts. But uncovering other people’s secrets puts Zoe in even more danger . . .
How did you get started writing?
I was a typical only child, an avid reader with an overactive imagination who wrote stories and poems as soon as I could hold a pen. As an adult, in every job I had, I was the one who ended up writing whatever needed to be written, often for colleagues who hated doing it themselves. So it feels inevitable – and wonderful – to have ended up writing full-time, first as a copywriter and now as a fiction writer.
What drew you to write a crime novel?
Quite simply, crime fiction is what I love to read. I can’t imagine writing in a genre I don’t enjoy, at least not for an entire novel.
Which writers past or present have influenced your style of writing?
I’m not aware of any direct influence, in that I’ve never set out to write like anyone else. But storytellers like Robert Goddard and Reginald Hill showed me how good books can be, and made me determined to write as well as I can in order to entertain the reader.
What was the inspiration behind the Westerlea Mysteries?
I knew I wanted to write a novel and that it would probably be crime, but I had no idea where to start. Then I was at a Bonfire Night party and the idea for an opening came to me: a body in a Guy Fawkes bonfire. That’s probably as far as my inspiration went: it’s been hard work ever since.
Did you find it hard to get a publisher interested?
I didn’t get as far as that! I sent out my novel to a few agents and had a near-miss with one of them, but I hated the powerlessness the submission process inflicts on writers. Having seen friends like Mel Sherratt and Peter Flannery successfully self-publish, I decided to have a go myself. Like anything, there are good and bad aspects of self-publishing, but 5-star reviews and meeting readers who have enjoyed No Stranger to Death make it all worthwhile.
There are so many interesting characters in No Stranger to Death. Do you have a favourite one?
That’s like asking a parent who their favourite child is or, in my case, who’s my favourite pet! However, I admit to having a soft spot for Kate Mackenzie, deaf genealogist and best friend of my main character, Zoe Moreland. Kate is the complete opposite to Zoe: outgoing, enthusiastic and with the confidence that comes from being supported by a loving family. I plan to give Kate her own storyline in Book 2 and explore her will they/won’t they relationship with DCI Erskine Mather.
Your book is a rollercoaster of emotions and thrills. Do you have a favourite scene that you can share with us?
No Stranger to Death is a crime novel which revolves around relationships, including Zoe’s with her ardent admirer Neil Pengelly (although for a long time she disputes that they even have one). I was surprised how much I enjoyed writing the scenes between those two characters, and I guess one of my favourites is the morning after Zoe’s car crash, when Neil is taking care of her. It’s a respite from the book’s sinister events and proof of the growing intimacy between them.
Why did you decide to set your books in the Borders?
It’s where I live, so I don’t have to go far to research locations. Also, I wanted to do something a bit different. As far as I know, the Borders hasn’t featured in a series of crime novels before. Mention ‘Scottish crime fiction’ and readers usually expect a city setting: Glasgow, Edinburgh or Aberdeen. Settings influence events and people’s reactions to them, so No Stranger to Death would have been a very different novel if it had taken place somewhere else.
What kind of research did you have to undertake for your book?
Research is far too enjoyable: I have to rein myself in or I’d never get any writing done. My brother-in-law is a policeman, so I can check facts with him. I also went to Hawick police station and a detective there kindly showed me behind the scenes, the cells and interview rooms, etc. My GP was also extremely helpful. Apart from that, I like to visit locations I’m going to write about, not just to describe them accurately but because they often stimulate story ideas.
Are the characters in your books based on any real life people?
No, I’d never do that. But I have taken elements of people I know and blended them into my characters. For example, Neil Pengelly’s shaven head (a friend kindly submitted to me running a hand over his scalp at different stages of regrowth), Paul Ryder’s endless collection of tartan ties (as worn by my last boss), and names such as Kate’s mum, Etta (which is a tribute to our late neighbour – it wasn’t until she died that I learnt her name is actually short for Janet).
Since you started writing, have any well-known authors given you any advice?
I went on an Arvon crime-writing course back in 2002 and was lucky enough to be tutored by Val McDermid, whose books I’ve always enjoyed. The advice she gave us which has stuck in my mind most is that if you want to be a published author you must treat it like a job – sit down and write every day, even if that’s the last thing you feel like doing.
Do you see any of your characters’ personality in yourself and vice versa?
A friend insists that Zoe is me, which is disappointing as I worked really hard to avoid that comparison! I purposely gave Zoe characteristics I don’t have but wish I did, such as very long hair and the courage to do things like drive a fast car and go scuba-diving. That said, it’s impossible to write without elements of oneself seeping onto the page, though I thought I’d covered that by giving Zoe my liking for taramasalata and carrot cake.
What do you see for the future of Zoe Moreland in your books?
Book 2 opens about six months after the end of No Stranger to Death, and Zoe is still dealing with the fallout from those events. One consequence in particular is affecting her life in a way she could never have imagined. I can’t tell you what that is, but I will say that I’m going to have to do a lot of research for it. And then she’s called out to examine a body of a young man who has been pulled from the River Tweed.
As a blossoming crime writer, do you have any words of advice you can share?
Being middle-aged, I love the idea that I can still blossom! With just one book published so far, I don’t feel qualified to offer much advice to other writers apart from read, read, read in your chosen genre. If you don’t enjoy a book, try to analyse why it didn’t work for you – that can be as instructive as examining books you do like. I also recommend getting hold of Jeff Gerke’s Plot versus Character and reading it from cover to cover.
Amazon link for No Stranger to Death (available as both ebook and paperback): http://www.amazon.co.uk/No-Stranger-Death-Janet-OKane-ebook/dp/B00GS1GF0E/
Amazon Author Page