A Shining welcome to veteran British writer and journalist Stella Whitelaw, who has penned dozens of novels and a good few hundred short stories. Pray and Die introduces eccentric private detective Jordan Lacey, the heroine of Stella’s popular romantic mystery series.
Lovely to have you here today, Stella. What sparked your interest in writing?
I have an insatiable curiosity about people. I wonder what they are thinking, what they are dreaming about, why they do this and that, what is their motivation. As an only child, I had read every book in the children’s library so I moved onto the adult books and was hooked. When I was nine years old, ill with measles, my father gave me a second-hand portable typewriter. Instantly I was a serious writer, sitting up in bed, covered in spots, teaching myself to type.Clever man, your father. How would you generally categorize the books/stories you write?
I’m a cross-genre writer. I write romance, crime, how-to books and cat stories. Most of my books have a strong humorous element. Magazine stories include ghost stories, twist in the tale, funny ones and unusual occurrences.What inspired you to write Pray and Die?
I wanted to write about a private detective who gets everything wrong, follows the wrong clues and finds herself in terrible situations. So many detectives always get everything right! Then I saw a newspaper article about the missing Military bank notes. It was a gift. And the story had to be set by the sea. Everyone says I have an element of sea water in my veins. My star sign is the moon and the moon controls the tides . . .What do you feel is your biggest strength as a writer?
My biggest strength is characterisation, I think. I live inside my characters and I care passionately about them. And landscape is not merely a backdrop to my characters. I love the moors, mountains, islands, jungles, forests and of course, my beloved sea. There’s always humour in my stories. Sometimes I even make myself laugh.Not a bad thing. Do you celebrate when you finish a story, and if so, how?
A bottle of wine or a meal out. I give myself maybe an hour off before I start my next book which is ready to go. When the author’s copies of my first ever published book were delivered, there was no one with whom to share my excitement. I danced round the garden showing the cover to the birds, the trees, the cats. They were not impressed.I’m sure they were happy for you in their own way. Do you have a set writing routine?
I write every day. Only lectures, illness or visitors are an excuse for not writing. I write every morning and evening, not watching the clock. I often write till 11 p.m. Occasionally I’ll break off to watch a good documentary or drama on TV at 9 p.m. Afternoons are for chores, shopping, library, research, walking, and the dreaded housework. I talk to the cats all the time. I bounce ideas off them.Very helpful pets. What do you like least about writing?
Proof reading, mainly because it’s so easy to get lost in the story and not see the words. Getting lost in the middle when a crime plot is very complicated. Keeping my mountain of notes in order. Making note of chapter content for continuity (essential) but time consuming. Keeping track of the clerical side of short story submissions.Give us a mini-tour of your writing space.
I long for my own dream study with book shelves lining the walls. I used to work on the kitchen table but tired of having to clear it away every day. So I commandeered the big dining room table. I only vacate it once a year on 25 December. My Dell computer and Canon printer sit on it with instant reference books at hand. One cat sits on top of the printer, another sleeps in the filing tray, the other curls on my lap. Paper is piled everywhere. Email is in a different room, quite a walk away, which means a break and a stretch for back and neck.Name a few titles I’d find if I browsed through your personal home library.
I have nine book cases crammed full. The overflow breeds in piles on the floor. Favourite authors: Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Sue Grafton, Lee Child, Rose Macaulay, Thomas Hardy, Anne Tyler, Susan Howatch, Trollope, Janet Evanovich, Sophie Kinsella, Jane Green, Raffaella Baker, Reginald Hill, Patricia Cornwall, Mary Wesley… the list is endless.You’re marooned on a desert island. What’s the one book you’d want with you, and why?
Roget’s Thesaurus. Every time I look something up, I cannot stop reading. (I have been the guest on the programme Desert Island Discs on Falklands Radio.)What does your family think of your writing?
My daughter and son are amazingly helpful and supportive, bring cups of tea and coffee. Doctor son gives me masses of medical information. Teacher daughter is my best critic. She is always right. When they were much younger, they used to race down to the library on a Saturday morning, then race back to tell me how many times my books had been borrowed.What advice would you give an aspiring author?
Write every day, even if it’s only a few hundred words. A day without writing is a day wasted. Read and read. The way to improve one’s writing, is to read authors who are better writers than you. As Carlos Ruiz Zafon says in his brilliant book The Angel’s Game: "Routine is the housekeeper of inspiration." Words to remember. They are imprinted on my brain.Excellent advice, Stella. Thanks so much for visiting the Plain today. All right, time for a peek at Pray and Die.
Give me a book, a cat on my lap and a glass of wine and I am happy. Give me a pad of paper and a couple of pens and I am very happy.
Someone has to investigate the sleepy streets of Latching, West Sussex – and that someone is Jordan Lacey, ex-policewoman, now advertising her services as a private investigator in the local paper and working out of a junk shop in the quiet part of town. Will there be enough crime in Latching to keep her in business? Errant husbands, runaway pets… it looks like there might be.
When Jordan discovers the body of a dead nun in an abandoned hotel, along with clues to a hidden WWII fortune, she realises she may have found more than she’d bargained for. Trouble is, she isn’t exactly popular with the local constabulary. So when her life appears to be in danger, the police – in the shape of the devastatingly attractive DI James – want more proof that she’s at risk than a slice of poisoned carrot cake sent to her by a "friend". It will take an altogether more dramatic attempt on Jordan’s life to make DI James sit up and take notice.
"Look, is this really necessary? You know who I am."
"Jordan, you can't go breaking and entering premises and pretending it didn't happen when you're caught."
"But I used to work here."
"As far as the law is concerned, you are one of the peasants now," said Sergeant Rawlings, slamming the Custody Record shut. "You were found straddling the windowsill of the offices of Hemsworth & Co, Solicitors, Dayton Street, Latching. Don't tell me you were comforting a seagull with vertigo."
"I hadn't broken into anywhere and I hadn't entered," I protested, filtering my gaze on the familiar bleak walls of the station.
"Do you want a cup of tea?"
I nodded, wondering how I was going to get out of this one. It was humiliating. My first day working on my first case and I get arrested by a fresh-faced puppy probationer who should have been patrolling the streets looking for the real villains.
"Thank you," I said. It was canteen brew in the same thick cups which the Admin Officer thought appropriate for both law keepers and breakers. It wasn't my high profile Earl Gray but I needed the liquid and the caffeine. "Can I have a biscuit?" I added.
"Still not eating, Jordan?"
"Not the point. Show me food which isn't murdered, poisoned with chemicals or stuffed with additives and I'll eat it. I eat fish from the sea but it does have a chance of getting away."
Sergeant Rawlings produced some ancient digestive biscuits rimmed with fluff from the depths of his desk then showed me the way to the cells. I knew the way. He didn't have to show me.
"You'll have to wait in here, Jordan, until someone comes downstairs to interview you. It's hardly the Hilton, sorry."
The cells hadn't improved. Still narrow, rectangular cubicles with half-tiled walls, scuffed line on the floor and a bunk bed with a thin plastic-covered foam mattress. The blue plastic had unmentionable stains. I didn't want to sit on it. I was pretty fastidious.
"I'd like some paper and a pen," I said, knowing my rights.
"Want to write a letter?"
"No, my memoirs."
* * * * *About Stella Whitelaw:
Stella Whitelaw began writing seriously at the age of nine. She was ill with measles when her father gave her an Imperial Portable typewriter. Covered in spots, she sat up in bed and taught herself to type. At sixteen, she became a cub reporter and worked her way up to Chief Reporter. She was the first woman Chief Reporter, the youngest, and the only one who was pregnant. After producing a family, she became Secretary of the Parliamentary Press Gallery at the House of Commons. Secretary then meant the original meaning, Secretariat, the keeper of secrets. She was awarded an MBE in 2001 but is not sure why.
Like Trollope, she wrote books on the train and in the recesses. The Jordan Lacey PI series is her favourite and the cruise crime books. Her big romances, No Darker Heaven and Sweet Seduction, were a marathon adventure. Stella has won a woman’s magazine national short story competition and the London Magazine’s Art of Writing competition judged by Sheridan Morley. The Elizabeth Goudge Cup was presented to her at Guildford University.
Homeless cats find their way to Stella’s lifelong hospitality and she has written eight books of cat stories for the 7 – 70 plus.
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