Interviewed by Rachael Pegram on behalf of the Book People

What inspired you to start writing novels/where did your interest in writing originate?

I was inspired to start writing by the prospect of looking for a “proper” job. For years, while we moved frequently, I had a wide variety of part-time and temporary jobs–child-care, market research, construction (from foundation to roof), building design, copy-editing, and finally writing definitions for a dictionary of science and technology.
Absolutely anything sounded better than starting a job hunt, so I postponed the evil day by sitting down at the kitchen table and writing my first book—longhand, in an exercise book.
I wrote a Regency because I love Georgette Heyer’s. I’d read them so many times that I knew what was coming on the next page. I wanted more. I tried some of those being published at the time—the late ’70s. Some of them were so excruciatingly bad that I thought I could do at least as well myself.
All the same, I was surprised when I actually reached THE END, and even more surprised, after the manuscript was typed up, when a publisher bought it. I’m happy to say Toble thorpe Manor is still selling, now in ebook form.

How do you go about planning a book/storyline?

I’m not much of a planner. Something sparks an idea: For instance, Miss Jacobson’s Journey—the first book of the trilogy in The Book People’s promotion–was written because I happened to read a book about the Rothschilds and wanted to use part of their history. Lord Roworth’s Reward and Captain Ingram’s Inheritance each came about because I had hero-worthy young men left over from the previous book. Also, I couldn’t fit some of the best Rothschild anecdotes into Miss J. but they were useful for Lord R.
My stories develop as characters, setting, and plot ideas interweave, inspiring each other. I often—though not always—know roughly how a book is going to end. Starting a Regency, I always knew who the heroine and hero were, but not necessarily how I was going to bring them together. Obviously, Regencies end with Happily Ever After. Mysteries end with unmasking the villain; I don’t always know who the villain is when I start out. When I wrote Sheer Folly, for instance, I didn’t decide till the next to last chapter which of two people had “dunnit.” (One reviewer claimed to have known almost from the beginning—she beat me to it.)

How long, typically, might one novel take you to write?

It varies enormously. Regencies, in spite of all the historical research, were quicker to write than mysteries. You don’t have to worry about providing enough clues and red herrings to mislead but not cheat the readers who like to work out whodunnit for themselves. For three years, for financial reasons, I wrote 4 Regencies a year for two publishers. In spite of the hurry, I think they hold up well and they still sell as eBooks and in reprints. In fact, Miss Jacobson’s Journey is from that period.
At present, I’m writing about a book a year, all mysteries.

Could you tell me about your research process? (How you go about it, how long you spend etc.)

I spend far too long on research. I’m sure most authors will tell you the same. You’re looking for something specific and it leads you on to intriguing discoveries. Sometimes, serendipitously, they’re useful; sometimes they add to your understanding of the subject/period but remain in the background; sometimes they’re of no apparent use whatsoever: but you can never be sure they won’t lead to ideas at a later date.
The internet has, of course, made a huge difference to research. Starting with Google, you can find immense amounts of information on the web. Wikipedia often gives a place to start, though its articles have to be taken with a pinch of salt.
The internet also facilitates getting in touch with experts, which I started doing long, long ago by post. Yes, write a letter, put it in an envelope, stamp it, and entrust it to the post office. When I wrote Murder on the Flying Scotsman, I corresponded with a gentleman who had worked on the Flying Scotsman AND was a member of the historical model railway society. He could tell me anything I wanted to know, down to the colour of the seats in first class and the pictures on the walls of the compartments.
Email is much easier and quicker. For The Bloody Tower, I got in touch with the librarian at the Tower of London. She kindly answered my questions, and when I went to visit—I hadn’t been since I was a child—she had ready for me a box of books she thought might help, including the Governor’s Day Book for the week Daisy, my sleuth, was there (1924).
I use the Oxford English Dictionary and Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang a lot to make sure words and phrases are correct for the period. The website http://www.phrases.org.uk/ is also useful.
Some of my research for the general background of the Regency, the 1920s, and 1970ish (the Cornish Mysteries) comes from reading fiction written during the period. It gives one a feeling for the times that can’t be matched by non-fiction.
I must also mention my ever-helpful Facebook friends. When I needed to know about life-saving methods in 1970, several people who had learned at about that time came to my aid. And when I needed to know (for the latest Daisy book, Heirs of the Body) whether I had ever in the previous 20 books mentioned Daisy’s mother’s first name, a Facebook friend knew it at once and several others tracked it down.
There comes a moment when you simply can’t find a detail you want. You have to cut your losses and write around it or invent it. After all, if you’re stumped, how many readers will know it? And you are writing fiction after all.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging when writing?

Thinking up names is always difficult! They have to be suitable for the period concerned. You have to make sure a given book doesn’t have any characters with similar names, or even too many beginning with the same letter, which tends to confuse readers. As I’m writing about historical England, I have to consider class, too—some names are more appropriate for one level of society than another.
Odd things can happen when you decide to change the name of a character when you’re halfway through. In one book I had a Frenchman called Louis; I decided he ought to be Alain and did a global replace, having forgotten my heroine’s parents met in Louisiana—which came out as Alainiana, though it was caught before printing! In the book I’m writing now, there’s a character who’s either Isabel or Isabella. I want her to be Isabel, but my fingers have a mind of their own and she keeps appearing as Isabella. I just hope she ends up in print with the same name throughout.

What do you use to write? (Typewriter/computer/dictate)

My first 4 or 5 books I wrote longhand and then typed. I couldn’t concentrate on both the creative process and whether I was going over the end of the line or bottom of the page on the typewriter. Then I got my first computer. It was heaven, and I’ve been using computers ever since.

What are you currently working on?

I’m writing the 22nd Daisy Dalrymple Mystery, tentatively entitled Superfluous Women. Its theme is the 2 million women who, mostly because of the appalling death toll of the First World War, could be pretty certain they would never find husbands. The newspapers labelled them surplus or superfluous women and some suggested they should be encouraged to emigrate to the wild colonies where women were scarce. They had to learn to embrace a life quite different from what they had grown up to expect. The words also suggest—I hope!–that someone is killing women he considers superfluous…

DUNN