Michael is another one of those amazing writers I’ve met thanks to Twitter. He is a powerhouse of historical knowledge and even runs a regular quiz online. Here’s more about him.
Sue: Tell us about your writing journey. How did it start?
Michael: Twenty-odd years ago I hurt my back very badly, and for some months it seemed unlikely I’d be able to return to teaching. What could I possibly do instead, I wondered? And the ridiculous notion of writing a novel was the only thing that came to mind. My first attempts were awful, but I could recognize what I was doing wrong and took delight in improving my style.
Four years later I had a novel, which an acquaintance at HarperCollins kindly sent to be read by their children’s department (she thought it was a children’s book; I’m not quite sure why). A few months later (it always takes much longer than you expect) I got my first ever rejection letter:
“It is at the very least extremely good, and quite possibly exceptional. I’m not totally au fait with the genre, but this book certainly stacks up well against John Harwood’s The Ghostwriter and Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, both of which I have read and enjoyed.
“But … I really don’t think this is a children’s book—it’s highly sophisticated and complicated, and deals with very adult themes of betrayal, murder, familial conflict and loss. More Wilkie Collins than The Diamond of Drury Lane, in other words. It’s definitely not a HarperCollins children’s book.”
For a rejection letter, that’s pretty awesome! They suggested I find myself a literary agent, which took me another four years to achieve, a junior agent at David Higham Associates in London, who died tragically soon after taking me on. Since no one else at the firm was prepared to represent me, and I was exhausted by the whole process, I threw in the towel. For two years I did nothing…until a friend with a Kindle suggested I try self-publishing. I had two novels by this point, and spent the next three years editing and polishing them both. I released them in 2013, and Seventh Rainbow Publishing was born.
Sue: Tell us about your latest book and what inspired its creation.
Michael: Since 2013 I’ve been writing a series of whodunnits based on a character from Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone. He’s a fourteen-year old boy called Gooseberry (real name Octavius Guy), who fancies himself a detective. In the first one (The Case of the Thieving Maharajah) he foils a kidnapping plot against Duleep Singh, the last Maharajah of Lahore.
The fourth and latest instalment was inspired by a certain reference to a Reverend Allatson Burgh, one-time resident of Hampstead, whose name I came across whilst researching the previous book in the series. All it said of him was that he was so hated by his parishioners that they petitioned Queen Victoria to remove him from his post. She refused. What had Burgh done that was wrong? And why—if he was so very hateful—had he been appointed in the first place?
It turns out that his parishioners had no say in his appointment. At the time, the right to appoint could be bought and sold, and could end up in the hands of people who lived hundreds of miles from the parish.
I began to imagine a community that had built its own church, only to find themselves lumbered with a clergyman they never wanted nor asked for. Enter young Gooseberry to dig up dirt on the man but, before he can, the rector is found murdered with his face battered to a pulp.
Sue: What is your writing process like? And do you follow any writing rituals?
Michael: It varies from book to book. The first in the Gooseberry series was written on the fly, for instance, with one chapter per week which I’d immediately publish on my blog at Goodreads. I won’t be doing that again in a hurry!
Generally, though, it begins with a germ of an idea, and then comes a ton of research to find appropriate settings and background material for the novel. Gooseberry has large number of friends who are already fleshed out, but each new case brings with it new characters—some minor, some fairly major—all of whom need names and quirks, their own patterns of speech, professions, and back-stories.
I need to know, preferably before I start writing, who kills whom and why…and why it’s not apparent to all and sundry. It’s not as easy as it sounds. My readers are often seasoned armchair detectives who can spot the guilty party a mile away. I find it helps to compile a list of questions and puzzles which the reader is invited to solve. Some will be easy to guess at; the others less so. I try to find at least one question (even if it’s a very small thing) that no one will get…despite leaving obvious clues.
When I do start writing, I write in the morning, every morning, aiming for a daily total of 500 words. Sometimes I manage it. Sometimes I don’t.
Sue: What’s the best part of being a writer? And what are the challenges?
Michael: The best part used to be getting reviews. I still love getting reviews, but I’ve discovered that getting to know my readers is even better. I love how social media allows that to happen. I have even met up with one chap in real life: George, who runs #1PMChat. It turns out they’re a really interesting and very generous bunch.
As for the challenges, there’s that moment when you’re editing and you despair of ever getting the text to flow convincing enough so you no longer feel as if you are reading; you’re there with the narrator who is simply whispering in your ear. My novels are noted for this but, trust me, it doesn’t come easy.
Sue: Time for a quick fire round.
Your current read…
Michael: A Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson; he’s turned Agatha Christie into his protagonist
Sue: Your favourite fictional hero…
Michael: Cormoran Strike
Sue: Your favourite fictional heroine…
Michael: Robin Ellacott
Sue: Coffee or tea?
Sue: Ebook, paperback or audio book?
Sue: What do you do when you’re not writing?
Michael: I spend an inordinate amount of time on Twitter! You’ll find me there @seventh7rainbow.
Sue: Haha! Sounds just like me.
So what can your readers expect from you next?
Michael: Octavius Guy and the Case of the Recalcitrant Corpse!
Sue: Good luck!
All of Michael’s novels are FREE at the moment! Get them here: