John Ellis published his first Yorkshire crime novel, The Body in the Dales in 2018. Featuring DCI Jim Oldroyd and his team of two young detective sergeants (DS Steph Johnson and DS Andy Carter) attempting to solve an almost impossible murder case, when a body is found in a difficult section of a cave beneath the Yorkshire Dales. Since then, he has published seven more books featuring the three detectives and a series of settings in and around Yorkshire. To date, he has had sales approaching two million and an enthusiastic following from readers all over the world.
I was fortunate enough to meet Ellis and ask him about his writing career. He told me he has been writing since he was a teenager, when he wrote ghost stories and other mysteries, but it is only since he retired from teaching that he has been able to focus full-time on his crime writing. So why crime fiction?
‘Locked room mysteries’
“I’ve always been fascinated by puzzles and mysteries and grew up reading Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. I also enjoyed watching stage magicians, such as David Nixon and wondering how they did the tricks and illusions. More recently, I watched Jonathan Creek which combined the two angles. This led me to the sub-genre of ‘impossible crime’; writers such as Ellery Queen, John Dickson-Carr, Clayton Rawson and Edward Hoch. Sometimes called ‘locked room’ mysteries, they combine ‘whodunnit’ with ‘howdunnit’.”
Undoubtedly, these sorts of plots take a lot of work to devise. So how does John go about creating a plot?
“With crime writing, as with any genre fiction, there are certain expectations. There is a crime, a puzzle, a process of solving the crime. Essentially, there is a form of template; the idea, a setting, what happened – I start with the whodunnit and work backwards from there. That’s fairly straightforward. It’s the false leads and the red herrings that are more complicated. I also have the support of the Otley Writer’s Group. It’s important to share your work and get honest feedback – you can get too close to your work and it can become difficult to be objective about it.”
Getting started as a writer
Otley Writer’s Group was also an important factor in John having his work published in the first place. “I was having difficulty finding an agent, let alone a publisher. Someone in the group suggested self publishing via the Kindle Direct Publishing facility on Amazon. Initially, I thought the books would be of interest mainly to people who live in Yorkshire – the places are easily recognisable to people who are familiar with the county – but I found people as far away as America and Australia were buying them!”
Sales grew steadily and Amazon then offered Ellis a contract. Since then, his books have been translated into other languages, including Russian, Czech and Estonian.
One thing that stands out in John’s books, is the way he tackles current social issues, such as sexism, sexual harassment (in The Royal Baths Murder) and homophobia (The Brewery Murders). These are woven in as sub-plots, cleverly avoiding any sense of lecturing or hectoring the reader. I asked Ellis whether he thought it was important for writers to bring in these sorts of issues.
“Yes, I do. I try to do it in a gentle way, but these are important and part of modern life. I like to make people think about them. I’ve had the odd negative review – people complaining I’m preaching or being ‘woke’ but bringing in your own views is part of being a writer.”
Clearly, Ellis has picked a winning formula with his Yorkshire crime novels. So has he thought of branching out or creating new characters?
“It’s occurred to me. One of the downsides of genre fiction is that the formula can sometimes become a bit stale or repetitive. On the other hand, readers do become attached to the characters and situations – expectations are important.”
So far, readers will not be disappointed. John’s next book – The Canal Murders – is due for publication on 30 April and he is currently working on another DCI Oldroyd novel.
My final question to Ellis, is the old cliché: what advice would he give to anyone else wanting to write?
“Write regularly. I write a minimum of 100 words a day, usually more. Also, you have to enjoy it – it shouldn’t feel like drudgery. It’s also important to join a writers’ group – writing needs to be read, so you don’t get too precious about it and see it from the reader’s perspective.”
Good advice – and a formula which appears to have worked well for Ellis. If you are interested in his work and buying his novels, then his website will give you more information.
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