Interview with E.M. Powell – Author of The Monastery Murders
Peter: Your book The King’s Justice was a tremendous success and introduced us to a medieval period in the 12th century with two unforgettable characters, Aelred Barling and Hugo Stanton. Your new book Monastery Murders is the second book in this series, also featuring Barling and Stanton.
Peter: What was your main inspiration behind writing The King’s Justice?
Elaine: The original inspiration came from my publisher, Thomas & Mercer, who are the crime/thriller/mystery imprint of Amazon Publishing. I am extremely fortunate in that as well as working with me on current projects, they also take a great deal of time to discuss future ideas with me. They said that they loved the 12th-century world I wrote in for my Fifth Knight medieval thriller novels and wondered if I had ever thought of doing a spin-off series. I hadn’t, but it was a tremendously exciting idea. They told me to go away and have a think and gave me the luxury of time to do so.
That ‘think’ consisted of a great deal of research to see if I could find something that would work for me as a writer as well as the many (wonderful!) people who buy and read my books. And I found the golden nugget. I found that King Henry II reformed the English legal system. He introduced a travelling law court, where his justices would travel the country, hearing cases where the most serious felonies had been committed: robbery, theft—and murder. The dates worked perfectly.
Peter: The King’s Justice was set in 1176, and King Henry II had introduced circuit court judges in England for the first time. How important was it to undertake background historical research with regards the time period, the laws of the land, and the process known as The King’s Justice?
Elaine: Any historical fiction writer will tell you that the research mountain is one that we all have to scale. Sometimes quite literally: the teetering pile of reference books on the desk has been known to avalanche at times! For this book, I was very fortunate in that Sir Frederick Pollock wrote ‘The History of English Law before the time of Edward I’ in 1898. It’s regarded as a hugely important work in the history of law and it’s still available.
I relied heavily, as I always do, on the expert work of current historians to help me understand my time period. Professor John Hudson’s books are marvellous and he also answered specific queries for me when I ran into a couple of research brick walls.
Peter: The two main characters Barling and Stanton are fabulous. What was your inspiration behind these characters and what dynamics were you conscious of, in developing their relationship?
Elaine: I’m so pleased you liked them, Peter! I decided on Stanton when I was having my think about my spin-off series. I wrote up a list of every single character that had appeared in the Fifth Knight series. I had killed off quite a few but there was one stand-out candidate: Hugo Stanton, the young messenger who wasn’t at all a hero but who found the courage to step up when it really mattered.
I teamed up the laid-back Stanton with a new character, the prickly royal clerk, Aelred Barling. For Barling, I did what I always do with a main character. I write the story of their life in the first person, which helps me develop their goals/motivations/conflicts. For what it’s worth, the cranky Barling is much more like me. I’ve had great fun writing him!
Peter: Do you feel an ongoing connection with these characters, are they alive in your mind, and how are you looking to develop them further?
Elaine: I can’t say too much because of spoilers, but I do feel very protective of Barling. There’s a lot more revealed about him in the second book, The Monastery Murders. I worry less about Stanton. He’s like a cat: he’ll always land on his feet, even if his tail does get a bit singed every now and then.
Peter: Do you use storyboarding or process mapping to develop your plots or do you go with the flow and follow your instinct and gut feeling?
Elaine: I’m a rigid plotter. I can’t imagine how one would write a mystery with an outline, though some very successful writers do. My tool of choice is Scrivener. Scrivener is quite simply the best writing software that there is and I thank the genius of its creators every day.
Peter: Your previous trilogy, the Fifth Knight Series, was also based around the reign of Henry II, is this an era you feel drawn to and why?
Elaine: It was Becket’s murder that I initially found fascinating and intriguing and had started to look at writing a novel around that. Becket’s murder by four knights in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 is one of the stand-out historical events in the popular imagination. But of course, when you have Becket, you get Henry. The more I read about Henry, the more interested I became. Yes, he was deeply flawed in many ways but he also had touches of genius. His introduction of the Common Law in England was one of those.
Peter: Did you have any formal education or training in literature and writing?
Elaine: I did a degree in English literature at University College Cork. I remember having a few heh-heh conversations with colleagues in my subsequent twenty career in social care in the UK, where I would remark on how useful it had been to read Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As it turns out… But as for formal training, I haven’t. Yet I learned my craft by joining excellent writers’ organisations like Romance Writers of America and others, entering contests and getting critique partners and working on my writing until I got to a publishable standard.
Peter: Did you always feel that writing was a path you would take?
Elaine: I went to a convent school in Cork and we had a very progressive nun in charge of careers who did psychometric testing. When I was twelve, she said I should become a journalist, which I was thrilled about as I loved to write. Unfortunately, that idea wasn’t received very well at home. It only took me another thirty-five years to finally see my name in print!
Peter: What authors have you most admired and have had an influence on you?
Elaine: I love C.J. Sansom and Robert Harris. Both of these writers are masters of historical mysteries and thrillers. I first fell in love with mysteries when I started to read Agatha Christie. My very favourite was always Death Comes as the End, which is set in Ancient Egypt. I must have read it a dozen times.
Peter: What is your favourite book you’ve read this year?
Elaine: When I’m writing a novel, I tend to stay clear of historical novels so that I don’t unwittingly become influenced by that book. I read a lot of contemporary thrillers and mysteries in my role as contributing editor for International Thriller Writers’ The Big Thrill That was how I came across Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan. It’s a superb read.
Peter: What advice would you give to aspiring or debut authors?
Elaine: Learn your craft. Every master has to serve an apprenticeship. Yes, there is the rare, the very rare, individual who can write a perfect first novel first time. But the rest of us mortals have to learn how to do it. So do. It might take you a bit longer to get there, but it will serve you well.
Peter: What are the greatest benefits and restrictions of being a published Author?
Elaine: The greatest benefit is that I get to do what I love for a living. The greatest restriction is that it’s a perilous career. Basically, if your books don’t sell, you don’t earn anything.
Peter: As a published author how involved are you in finalising other aspects of the book, for example, the cover design, narration and the promotion of the book?
Elaine: I am so very, very fortunate in that Thomas & Mercer, involve me in all aspects of everything. I am consulted and listened to about all aspects of the books’ production. Yet they also have many experts heading up each of those areas. They do things far better than I can! But I have to take my hat off to the people who spend weeks sourcing the right kind of 12th Century lion and/or dragon for the book covers. That’s above and beyond the call of duty but they listen to what I say and off they go. The results are beyond anything I could ever imagine- just gorgeous.
Peter: How much time do you spend on writing compared to promoting your books?
Elaine: That really varies as the promotion time is always much greater when I have a new book out. But the promotion time is always at least 20% of my working time and often a lot more. I’m not alone in this: most writers will tell you something similar. Promotion is part of a writer’s job now.
Peter: How important do you feel narration is or will become to the book industry?
Elaine: I think the huge success of Audible has shown how popular narration actually is. One of the best things about it is that it means you can ‘read’ while doing something else. I know many people who have a long driving commute and listen to audio books. It’s also a fantastic resource for people who may struggle with written text for whatever reason.
Peter: Can you give us any insights into your new book, The Monastery Murders, which is due for release on 27 September 2018?
Elaine: In their second outing, Stanton and Barling are summoned to an isolated Cistercian monastery on the Yorkshire Moors to investigate the horrific murder of the abbey’s sacrist. They quickly discover that this is far from a quiet monastic house. Instead, it seethes with bitter feuds, rivalries and resentments. But no sooner do they arrive than the killer strikes again—and again.
When Barling discovers a pattern to these atrocities, it becomes apparent that the murderer’s rampage is far from over. With everyone, including the investigators, now fearing for their lives, can Barling and Stanton unmask the culprit before more blood is spilled?
Peter: Do you plan to write any more books in this series, or are you going to keep us in suspense?
Elaine: I’m currently working on the next one, which has a working title of The Pilgrim Murders. A body’s been found at the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral and Stanton and Barling are charged with finding the killer.
Peter: What other projects are you working on?
Elaine: Research for the next one after that, though I haven’t decided on the setting yet. I am finding lots of intriguing possibilities, though.
Peter: How can readers learn more about you and your work?
Elaine: My website and blog can be found at empowell.com
Peter: Do you feel there is a little bit of a rebel in you? Asking jokingly?
Elaine: Maybe a bit- something that’s common to most writers, perhaps. But as I’m from Rebel Cork, there’s probably quite a bit extra in there!
Peter: Elaine, I appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions and if there are other snippets of information you wish to provide, please feel free. All your books have a wonderful balance between history, plot and characters and I would like to congratulate you on their success and wish you even more in the future.
Elaine: Thanks so much, Peter! And thank you for your reviews and for your opportunity to talk about my books. I really appreciate your support and your commitment to authors. It’s very special.