Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Lure of England

Please welcome my Wednesday guest, Marni Graff, the author of the Nora Tierney mystery series, set in the UK. The Blue Virgin, described below is first. Second is The Green Remains, which follows Nora’s move to Cumbria where she’s awaiting the publication of her first children’s book and the birth of her first child. When Nora stumbles across the corpse at the edge of Lake Windermere, she realizes she recognizes the dead man. Then her friend and illustrator, Simon Ramsey, is implicated in the murder of the heir to Clarendon Hall, and Nora swings into sleuth mode. The Scarlet Wench finds Nora once again involved in an investigation when a theatre troupe arrives at Ramsey Lodge and a series of pranks and accidents escalate to murder.

Graff is also co-author of Writing in a Changing World, a primer on writing groups and critique techniques. She writes crime book reviews at and is Managing Editor of Bridle Path Press. A member of Sisters in Crime, Graff runs the NC Writers Read program in Belhaven. She has also published poetry, last seen in Amelia Earhart: A Tribute; her creative nonfiction has most recently appeared in Southern Writers Magazine. All of Graff’s books can be bought at or at and are available as eBooks.


Choosing to set my mystery series in England was a deliberate choice, yet one I knew would present challenges. An admitted Anglophile, I always feel I’m coming home when I visit the UK, which is frequently but not as often as I’d like!

 My American protagonist is Nora Tierney, a Connecticut-born writer living and working in England. While I have Nora appropriate common Brit words into her language, like “loo” for a toilet and “buggie” for a stroller after years of familiarity, her voice has to remain distinctly American versus the other characters in the books. I read UK authors continuously to keep the cadence and slang of that country in my ear for my other characters. The influence of the Golden Agers I read in my teens sometimes has me using outdated slang, so I use my English friends as beta readers who help me to pump up the “Britspeak” and keep it modern.

Because of my lifelong affinity for England and its environs, I originally choose Cumbria, the county containing England’s glorious Lake District, as the setting for the opening of the Nora Tierney series. My visits to the land of Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter gave me a fascination for the area, one of the most beautiful natural areas I’ve ever seen.

            Then life intervened with an opportunity to study at Oxford, and I found myself in the hallowed halls of Exeter College, studying Wilkie Collins and Daphne Du Maurier, two of my favorite writers. Sworn in as a reader at the Bodleian Library, I was able to read the original broadsheet reviews of The Woman in White.

            Oxford is a jewel of a town encircled by the lush green countryside of the Thames Valley. Its mellow limestone “dreaming spires,” as described by nineteenth-century poet Matthew Arnold, change color with the light and weather. Magnificently preserved architecture reflects every age from Saxon to present, all exhibited somewhere amongst the federation of forty-odd independent colleges which make up the University of Oxford.

            This mix of “town and gown” is noticeable at once when visiting: The university has its dons lecturing in sub fusc, scouts bringing students morning tea, an historic tutorial system, and those forbidden grassy quads (with their tradition of only being walked on by dons), while the town has its own muddle of traffic-choked streets, packed with bicycles and pedestrians, pubs and shops. Both exist alongside green meadows with grazing cattle and rivers teaming with punters and canal boats.

            Small wonder then that I fell in love with the place. I could picture Nora here, too, and suddenly the idea for a new mystery, one that had Oxford at its heart, took over. I set aside my original idea for a Lake District manuscript and started writing The Blue Virgin, a combination of cozy and police procedural. Trying to clear her best friend, Val Rogan, of the suspicion she has murdered her partner, Bryn Wallace, Nora quickly becomes embroiled in the murder investigation, to the dismay of DI Declan Barnes, the senior investigating officer. And did I mention Nora is four months pregnant with her dead fiancĂ©’s baby?

            I took great care to be accurate in describing Oxford’s history and the colleges, as well as the various locations and sites my characters visit. After all, this is the town that gave the world Lewis Carroll, penicillin, two William Morrises, and graduates spread across the centuries whose influences are still felt. And Oxford exudes mystery, as any Inspector Morse fan can tell you. I carefully described favorite student pubs, shops, and the wonderful Covered Market and tried to give the reader the sense of that ancient town, and how living in it affected Nora’s actions.

            When I was writing the book, I kept an enlargement of the town map taped to my desk--no sense describing a cobbled lane if I had the name wrong. I referred to research material, as well as my photos, so in the book my characters move within the real town, have tea at The Parsonage, and brunch at The Randolph Hotel. Only a few settings, such as Nora’s flat, are fictional. I found a local contact in the guise of the head of Oxford’s CID unit. It’s always amazing how helpful people will be to writers for a promise of getting their name in the acknowledgments page!

            When I left Oxford, I stayed in the Lake District for an additional week to gather information for Book Two in the series and took updated pictures to refresh my memories from my previous trips. I’d chosen the village of Bowness-on-Windermere on the shore of England’s largest lake for the next book and I talked to shop owners, visited pubs, and wrote down some of the Cumbrian slang I heard.

            By the time The Blue Virgin was in print, I had started writing The Green Remains, where I’d moved Nora to that Cumbrian setting. My local contact was a newly retired police officer from the Kendal Station, Cumbria Constabulary, and here I struck gold.

            Steve Sharpe grew up in the area, and is something of a local naturalist and fisherman.  Besides answering my questions about policing and proper titles for everyone from my detective to the pathologist, he gave me wonderful information about things like: what is in bloom in autumn? What birds would be around? What is the weather like at that time of year? Steve continued to answer my questions for the third book in the series, the recently published The Scarlet Wench.

            But I’m turning to another friend for the book I’ve just started to write. The Golden Hour finds Nora at a book signing in Bath for the children’s books she writes, and this time a friend living just outside Bath in the Wiltshire countryside will do the honors and be my contact for the town where Jane Austin once lived and where Peter Lovesey has his detective Peter Diamond do his policing.

            Wherever I send Nora next, I’ll travel alongside her, visiting my favorite places in my mind and through my photos, checking facts and weather, verifying seasonal issues and local police procedures through my email contacts. It’s a great way for me to get in a visit to my favorite place without ever leaving my desk, one of the nicest perks of being a writer.




1 comment:

Gloria Alden said...

What a great series it sounds like. I'm an anglophile, too, although I've not been lucky enough to spend the time you have there. I've only been there twice, but long to go back. I read a lot of English mysteries and plan on adding yours to my list. I also like watching all the British mysteries on PBS. I am also lucky that one of my critique partners is from Saltdean close to Brighton. I plan on visiting her someday.