My Two Year Journey Through The Clearwater World
Just over two years ago, I decided to write a standalone book taking the premise: ‘What if Jack the Ripper had killed male prostitutes?’ I wanted it to have elements of mystery and romance, but essentially, to be a thriller. By the time I had finished the first draft of ‘Deviant Desire’, I had realised that the story was unfinished because ‘Jack’ was never caught. Therefore, I thought I should write a sequel, and the premise there would be, ‘Why did the killings suddenly stop?’ So, I started on ‘Twisted Tracks’, and as I was writing that, I realised I had created a group of characters and a world that cried out to be an ongoing series. Two years later, there are nine mystery books in the series, one non-mystery prequel, and I am working on book ten.
Today, I thought it would be interesting to look back over the journey from Deviant Desire to the present day and see the development of The Clearwater Mysteries.
(If you click on the photos you will open up the blog posts from along the way).
Deviant Desire, Book One
March 8th, 2019
The standalone story was ready to go to publication. I had completed the book, found a cover designer, Andjela K, and a proof-reader, Anne Attwood, and had managed the layout of the book myself. Deviant Desire was published, and although I didn’t know at the time, it was to become my top-selling title and the first in a popular series. I’d hit a nerve, or tapped a seam, or stirred imagination or something, and because I thought it was the best book I’d written so far, I was more than pleased.
As well as creating the characters and the mystery plot, I also developed a world. I incorporate fact with fiction in my historical mysteries, but I change the original world because I need to take liberties and use artistic licence. For example, Whitechapel becomes Greychurch in my imaginary London, although descriptions of the place are based on authentic sources.
As I was writing book two, ‘Twisted Tracks’, I decided that I could do with some help with publicity, and so I turned to Other Worlds Ink to arrange a blog tour for me. This ran from April 29th to May 12th, 2019, and was the first such tour I had undertaken.
One of the guest posts they arranged for me can be seen on MM Good Book Reviews and was published on May 4th.
Twisted Tracks, Book Two
Deviant Desire was now building momentum and selling well. Reviews were coming in, and they were, at first, a little mixed. I must admit that one was scathing, but when I read it, I realised that it was probably written by someone who was livid because they’d not thought of the idea themselves. They gave away some of the plot twists (which is unforgivable in a review), and other plot points they mentioned were inaccurate. I wasn’t daunted, however, and book sales were better than any of my other novels, and so I pressed on.
The publication of Twisted Tracks coincided with the book tour, which helped sales enormously. Readers who enjoyed book one could instantly move on to the ‘to be continued’ story in book two and Twisted started to pick up sales, readers and reviews from the week of its publication.
Unspeakable Acts, Book Three
Come June of that year, I decided that I needed to leave the Ripper element aside (at least for now), and turn my attention to what else was going on in Victorian London in 1888. Researching the life and work of Victorian rent boys threw up little, as it is not a much-discussed topic, but I had previously read about a scandal that involved a male brothel in Cleveland Street in 1889, and had that at the back of my mind as a setting for one of the future Clearwater Books. However, I couldn’t wait until 1889. I invented my own potential scandal based in my world and employed a male brothel in Cleaver Street.
Another of my areas of fascination is the theatre. So, I combined the Cleveland Street scandal (my version), the Royal Opera House (factual) and an imaginary opera into book three, Unspeakable Acts, and this was published in early June.
The series was building momentum, and I knew that I was on a roll, but what next?
A writing retreat
Not being a great fan of writers’ workshops and getaways where strangers pick apart each other’s work and someone tells you how you should write, I don’t go on group retreats. However, that year, I decided I could do with some solo time to work on the next book. I found myself an apartment on an island near ours, an island called Tilos, and booked myself a week of solitude. Tilos is home to only 200 people, and it offers peace, quiet, a village square for evening relaxation and plenty of solo-time walking and ‘chilling.’ I went there in June 2019 armed with my laptop and a book of Tennyson poems.
Fallen Splendour, Book Four
I had so much invested in my characters by now, I wasn’t worried about books sales. It was what was going on in the lives of my Clearwater crew (as a fan named them) that was important, and the series had gathered so much momentum, it was hard to conceive it would ever finish. I sat down at my keyboard in my rented apartment overlooking the sea and laid out my tools for part four. A kidnapping, a coded message, and a race to rescue the victim. Simple, but tied up with a poem by Tennyson.
I wrote 35,000 words in the five days I was on Tilos, and work continued when I returned home to Symi. Andjela came up with another perfect cover, and Fallen Splendour was released on June 15th.
It was hard to think that this might be the last book. There is the feeling with the last chapter that suggests the series is ending, and, if it were a film, the camera would pull away from the five main characters looking down over the splendour of Larkspur Hall at Christmas as we fade out…. Cut.
I needed to return to my other series, The Saddling series (by James Collins, my real name), because it should have four parts, and I’d only written three. I tried to leave Clearwater alone and work on part four of Saddling, but after plotting, researching and putting together 40,000 words, I realised that what I was doing was transporting some Clearwater elements into Saddling, and they are two completely different worlds. The message-to-self here was that I needed to continue Clearwater. I wasn’t done with it yet. I was having too much fun. I’d covered the Ripper, the Cleveland Street scandal, Opera, Tennyson, kidnapping, coded messages, train crashes, what else was there?
There was Larkspur Hall.
Bitter Bloodline, Book Five
So far, Clearwater had existed mainly in London, but the Viscount also owns a massive country house with 16 bedrooms, a tower, a ruined abbey, a village and everything else that went with great stately homes of the past. I was also hooked on the idea of involving real people, and so, Bitter Bloodline (which has a bit of a Dracula influence without the vampires) was created to showcase Bram Stoker, Henry Irving and others.
So, during the latter part of 2019, I worked on Bitter Bloodline, broke into the Lyceum theatre, researched poisons and how the Borgia’s managed to poison dinner guests (not that the Borgia’s were in the story), planned a rough landscape of Larkspur, bought an OS map of Bodmin Moor, where the house is, and learnt a fair amount about Transylvanian wine. Bitter Bloodline was published in early November 2019.
That’s five books in only eight months. Five very successful books, I should add, and full length at an average of 95,000 words each. Clearwater was taking over my life.
And now we take a siding because, while I was writing approximately half a million words into five books, I had also retired. Rather, semi-retired on a private pension scheme from years ago which allowed me to take a holiday of a lifetime.
As Neil and I left Symi in March 2020, rumours were spreading that due to covid-19, towns and cities might have to close down, and the world was in for a pandemic. We had booked a trip to Canada and had been looking forward to it for 14 months. It didn’t feel like the best time to travel, but at the same time, our insurance wouldn’t cover us if we cancelled.
We went via Athens and London, where I could visit some of the Clearwater scenes, the Lyceum theatre, for example, and the National Gallery where book six’s opening was to be set. We had a fantastic time crossing Canada by train, but by the time we reached Vancouver, the epidemic had become a pandemic, and all those places we’d seen had closed behind us. We were among the last to have dinner atop the CN Tower, we were on the last cross-Canada excursion train, on one of the last flights out of Vancouver, and had an adventure of our own trying to get home that was worthy of Clearwater himself.
Artful Deception, Book Six
But reach home we did, and it was straight back to work for me. Book Six in the series, Artful Deception, was released on May 30th, 2020. I wanted this one to finally finish off the Ripper story of books one and two, and again, there was a feeling that it would be the last in the series. I wrote it, released it, and that was, in a way, that. I don’t know why I didn’t give it the same attention as the others, I think my mind was on what to write next, but it didn’t matter. The series had picked up so much momentum, it had a life of its own, but I wanted to write something… calmer.
Home From Nowhere, Book Seven
This story grew out of a character we briefly met in Artful Deception – a hall boy working for the evil Earl Kingsclere. What would it have been like, I wondered, to be a young man of 17 trapped in the world of working below stairs with no hope of going anywhere? What would happen if that young man had an incredible talent from birth? How could this be a mystery? Not only did I want a cosy, not too tense mystery, I also wanted a love story.
Clearwater exists in the world of Victorian Britain when to be gay meant disgrace and imprisonment, and that is the confine of everyone in my world; all the gay characters, I mean – and most of the leading players are gay. For the mystery, I once again turned to music and real people. For the love story, I turned to two opposing characters: a cheeky, rough-diamond Cockney, Billy Barnett, and a mild-mannered slightly ‘on the spectrum,’ hall boy, Jasper Blackwood. (The name came first, and as I wanted him to be a dichotomy, I gave him a name you might expect of a Penny Dreadful villain.)
There is a lot of historical fact in the background of Home From Nowhere, particularly around who the parents turn out to be. By now, my reference bookshelves were bulging with all the books I’d bought to inform my Clearwater world.
I think Home From Nowhere has received more praise and more five stars than any of the other books to date, and Jasper and Billy are currently playing significant parts in book ten, which is still being written.
One of a Pair, Book Eight
And still, the momentum continued. We are into August 2020 now, and as it is the month of my brother’s birthday, and as he was a chemist before he retired, I innocently asked him about unusual poisons, as you do. He gave me the idea for the slightly unlikely but completely possible twist I needed to make One of a Pair work, and once I had that the rest of the mystery more or less wrote itself. My scatter-brained character, Doctor Markland, appears in this book by popular demand, there was much research to do on chemicals and train travel, and this, like Fallen Splendour, was a book that more or less wrote itself.
It also competed the love story begun in Home From Nowhere and is another ‘cosy’ mystery, though with a little more tension.
A cover note: One of a Pair was also the first time I have found a photo of a character and based the character’s description around the image. Usually, it’s the other way around. Jasper Blackwood appears on the cover.
Looking forward to the past
We are up to September 2020, and I am in a more literary mood.
I wanted to try a book that was not reliant on a complicated, twisting mystery plot. I also wanted to know more about the two characters who began the series, Silas Hawkins and Andrej Kolisnychenko. Or, as they are known to each other through nicknames, Banyak and Fecker (Fecks). Silas is the son of an Irish immigrant, Fecker is a Ukrainian refugee. They met in 1884, lived together as friends, and worked together as renters, but when we meet them in Deviant Desire, they already have a strong bond that you might these days call a bromance. Fecker is straight, Silas is gay, and nothing happens between them sexually (not these days), yet they love each other.
So, I thought, how did that all come about?
Banyak & Fecks, The Prequel
That’s how Banyak & Fecks was born, and it is probably the most researched book in the series. It’s a prequel, and by the time One of a Pair (book eight) came out, Banyak & Fecks was already in the first draft stage. By now, my assistant Jenine was on board and doing all kinds of magical things to boost sales and develop my website and reputation. That’s why we now have interviews with other writers, more in-depth articles like this one, cover reveals and competitions. She keeps busy while I write books.
But for all that, I wasn’t sure where to go next. I wanted the series to continue because I didn’t feel like I was quite done with it yet, and I didn’t want to say goodbye to my characters. But was it running out of steam?
During 2020, apart from travelling across Canada and narrowly avoiding a pandemic, I had also started on a Clearwater mystery titled ‘Men of a Similar Heart.’ This involved a murder at a boarding school in 1877, and I reached the 60k word mark relatively quickly. Then, it did run out of steam and was going nowhere. I had four different openings of the story, but none of them fitted. I had some great characters, but I had seven main characters and loads of secondary ones by now. There were subplots of forbidden longing between my main couples, Silas and Archer, James and Thomas, but because I’d stepped away from 1889 and gone back in time, something was getting in my way…
Negative Exposure, Book Nine
It turned out to be pornography. Well, erotic photographs of the past.
There is an incident in Banyak & Fecks that moves the Andrej/Silas relationship forward. I hit upon the idea that this incident from 1886 might come back to haunt Silas in 1889, and that’s how Negative Exposure came about. Once I realised that was where the story was going, it was easy to write, and while I was writing it, I became aware that a new series was now waiting in the wings.
However, before I can get to that, I need to finish the Clearwater collection, and book nine, Negative Exposure, lays the groundwork for the plot of book ten and plants the seed for the next series.
Onwards to the Beginning
Negative Exposure was released in February 2021, 20 months after releasing Deviant Desire, and brought the series up to just under one-million words in total. (I have been through four keyboards in that time.) The story is more akin to the earlier ones, with a mystery leading to a deadline and a chase. It is tenser than the likes of Home From Nowhere and ends with the crew gathering for Christmas at Larkspur Hall, as they do at the end of Fallen Splendour. However, it also ends on a twist that I only decided upon when writing the penultimate chapter. It was one of those ‘light bulb’ moments, and as soon as I wrote the last line, I thought, ‘Oh bugger. How do I get myself out of that?’
The Clearwater Inheritance, Book Ten
Book ten will pick up where book nine left off. What Lord Clearwater said in his last speech means it has to (damn the man!), so, as I write, I am researching all manner of things from European train travel in 1890 to personal telegraph systems, legal entails and inheritance law of the 19th century. I have several scenes plotted, some including a selection of my favourite characters from the past. I am referencing people and events from ten previous books while getting to grips with the imaginary Larkspur Hall layout and its 50 + rooms. I am also making parallels with today’s pandemic, as there was one ravaging the world in January 1890, and all the time, laying more groundwork for the series that will follow.
For this, the future of Clearwater, I have decided that my Clearwater characters will still exist and appear but will be the background to a set of new people and others who we might already know who will play larger parts in a slightly different series. I can’t say much more than that right now because this is still very much in the planning stage, and, speaking honestly, I am not 100% sure how it will start or where it will go. But it’s there somewhere in the recesses of my imagination and only needs some kind of deviant desire on my part to bring it out.
It has been two years since I wrote the first line of what was meant to be a standalone romantic thriller; Silas Hawkins was searching for coins in an East End gutter when a man four miles distant and ten years older sealed his fate. I didn’t know it then, but young Mr Hawkins had sealed my fate, at least for the time being.