This month, I continue my series of crime and thriller fiction author interviews by welcoming Jason Monaghan to the blog. We discuss his northern background, his fascinating and varied career, and, of course, his writing process and inspiration.
I started by asking him to tell me a bit about himself.
My life has followed a zig zag course which would be hard to make up. I was a bit of a northern stereotype, born into a family of coal miners and steel workers, attending the local comprehensive and being the first generation to go to university. Completely unprepared, I dropped out of a high pressure Chemical Engineering course, then in a life-changing moment found a hardback archaeology manual in a second hand bookshop. I gained a PhD in Roman pottery, went on digs, and began to publish textbooks and papers while trying to reach my ultimate goal of being a novelist. Starting out writing science fiction, I shifted to thrillers and won a London agent who suggested that writing archaeological mysteries was the way to go.
Unlikely turns of events led me onto two shipwreck excavations, handling insurance complaints, working in financial regulation, becoming an anti-money laundering consultant, head-hunted to become an offshore banking director, and finally Museum Director for the island of Guernsey. Ups and downs in health and relationships led me to retire early and move back to England intending to write and to travel…just before the pandemic! Two books rolled out during lockdown, and I aim to write a novel a year interspersed with non-fiction. Since we have been allowed out, the restless urge to travel can be satisfied and I spend a month annually running an excavation on the Island of Alderney. One really enjoyable part of life is attending Crime Writers Association events and other conventions and meeting lovely writers and readers.
You’ve written the Agents of Room Z series and the Jeffrey Flint archaeological thrillers, how easy was it to shift between the two? How do you approach the writing process (do you plan or go by instinct)?
Jeffrey Flint was a left-wing archaeology lecturer investigating offbeat mysteries in the 1980s and 1990s. His adventures were heavily based on my own experiences during those years, and friends chipped in anecdotes to add colour to the stories. Hugh Clifton becomes an agent of Room Z in the mid-1930s, a time when social attitudes were so much different to Flint’s world. They are both young and kick against authority, but Hugh is a man of action whereas Flint is a pacifist.
I do a lot of research for the Room Z books and this seeds ideas, especially for the sub-plots. First I write a timeline for the year in question, then as the book takes shape I add extra columns to insert what is happing in each plot strand on a particular day. I draw a ‘plot spider’ on a wipe board, where characters and events are connected by lines and boxes as a visual tool to help map the story. My first draft is a set of key scenes, not written in any particular order, rather like I’m remembering snatches of a film I saw a long time ago. So I know where I’m headed, I write the last chapter quite early. A series of redrafts follows, first addressing the plot, so the story has a beginning, middle and an end with all the clues and twists in the right place. It is then worth investing time to improve the prose, sharpen the characters, to do a continuity edit versus the timeline, and finally a clean-up. At this point there is a story fit to show an editor.
In your opinion, how important is historical accuracy in a period-set thriller novel? How do you research the period (if you do)?
Research is crucial to fully understand a period and the setting, even if much of the detail never makes it onto the page. I have two shelves full of reference works about the Blackshirts and their world, ranging from biographies to fashion books. It is tempting to add factoids into the prose but in the end I’m not writing a textbook. One of my challenges is that I’m writing alternative history and readers may not even notice that I’ve tweaked a fact here and there- it is quite subtle in the first book, less so in the second and third. My philosophy is not to change anything that does not need changing for the purpose of the story arc and to chase out inaccuracies in facts I have not invented. I add an author’s note at the end explaining where I’ve bent history and support this with blogs and articles.
You have a new book coming out soon, could you tell us what it’s about and the inspiration behind it?
Blackshirt Conspiracy is set against the Abdication Crisis of autumn 1936, where king Edward VIII’s determination to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson threw the British Establishment into turmoil. Originally it was conceived as the first in the series but I decided to write Blackshirt Masquerade to explain how Hugh Clifton ended up working as an MI5 informer inside the British Union of Fascists intelligence unit. Hugh and his lover Sissy are tasked to investigate a murder somehow connected to a plot to depose the king. Although alternative history, it is inspired by real events which presented the Blackshirts with their best chance to make a bid for power before WW2.
What advice would you give to others embarking upon their author journey?
Initially, write what you enjoy writing. If you intend to get into print one day, it is worth remembering that although writing is an art, publishing is an industry. You must write the best book you can, not skimping on the editing process in the rush to send your manuscript to an agent, publisher or KDP. Rsearching historical periods, exotic locations and interesting ways to kill people is half of the fun - although your internet search history may look distinctly dodgy!
I’d like to thank Jason for taking the time to chat with me. It’s been fascinating to learn about his approach to research (and how he incorporates the information he learns into his writing) and the writing process in general. You can buy Jason’s new book Blackshirt Conspiracy from Amazon and discover more about him and his writing on his website, links to which can be found below.
~ T.G. Campbell,October 2023
ENTERING ROOM Z:
An Interview with Jason Monaghan