I don’t know
whether I thought, I’m going to be a writer.
It’s just what I always did
Frances Brody has been telling stories all her life. She was born in Leeds and studied literature at the University of York. Over the years, Frances has written extensively for radio and for the stage and has written many novels.
Frances is most famous for writing a series of crime novels set in 1920s Yorkshire. The books feature no- nonsense heroine Kate Shackleton, a war widow and ex-nurse who lives in north Leeds. Kate takes up sleuthing aged 31 in the novel Dying in the Wool, set in the sleepy Yorkshire village of Bridgestead. Kate is ably assisted by her trusty sidekick ex-policeman Jim Sykes and her housekeeper Mrs Sugden. There are currently 13 Kate Shackleton mysteries to enjoy – and plans for more!
Frances Brody has taken a break from Kate and created a new set of characters in a different setting. Her new book, A Murder Inside, was published in October and takes place in a women’s prison in the 1960s.
Frances joined us in The Leeds Library (where her novel Death of an Avid Reader is set) to talk about Leeds, writing and strong women.
My mother always
wanted a murder,
in whichever book
So there were
Hello Frances. How did you become a writer?
I just always told stories. Even as a kid. My sister reminded me of this recently. I lived in Harehills and went to St Augustine’s school. I had a friend I would walk to school with; I could tell her a story on the way up and time it to finish at the top of Milan Road, where she went one way and I went the other. These were made-up stories. I’d just start something and tell the story. I don’t know whether I thought, “I’m going to be a writer.” It’s just what I always did. We did read quite a lot when I was a child. I was always very fond of comics. I liked Just William. There were also some books called Just Jane that I used to borrow from Compton Road Library.
I wrote some stories and then I wrote a novel. I’d gone to work in America when I was 19 so I got home and wrote a book about a girl who had gone to America. This was in the 1960s; I just sat in the attic and wrote it. I’d taken my typewriter to America and I brought it back with me again and finished the book. However, nobody wanted it! I did get a couple of nice letters, but I wasn’t interested in nice letters – I just wanted somebody to say “yes”.
Then I started writing for radio. I did some short stories. There was a morning story slot. The first story I wrote for radio was called Waters of Kowloon. I’d never been to Hong Kong – but my sister had and she told me all about it! Also, there were lots of little magazines then. A friend had a poetry magazine so I used to contribute little things to that. We had a wonderful radio drama producer in Leeds called Alfred Bradley. This was at the BBC building on Woodhouse Lane. Alfred took the very first play I did, a 90-minute piece about the Lancashire witches. I did write another novel about the Leeds clothing strike. But Alfred said to me, “Don’t write novels, it takes too long. Write plays instead! You’re good at dialogue.” So then I wrote quite a few plays. I found a little niche in the BBC Education Department. Before there was a National Curriculum, this BBC department used to effectively provide it. I used to write their history mystery plays, produced for different age groups of children.
And how did you become a crime writer?
My mother always wanted a murder, in whichever book she borrowed from the library. So there were always crime novels around. But you don’t always want to read what your mother wants to read. So I read other things, a lot of women writers. Later on, one of the things that brought me into crime writing was The Alphabet Murders, a series of books by Sue Grafton. At that point I was doing some teaching at the Building College, teaching literacy and numeracy. These Alphabet crime novels were just the right size to take on the bus to read. Sue Grafton’s detective is very different to mine. She’s the sort of person who’d go for a run in the morning, get beaten up, then get up the next morning and go for another run!
Your Kate Shackleton books have been very successful. How did you create Kate?
I started out with this idea of a man who couldn’t get home to his family. He was somewhere behind a high wall. I had this image in my head and I thought, “Who is he?” It sounds silly but I thought, “I’m not going to be able to find out myself; I need a detective.” So that’s where Kate Shackleton came in. We have lots of family albums and there was a picture in one of them of someone who looked just the part.
She’s quite a formidable character, isn’t she? Is she like you?
Oh no! I’m absolutely hopeless! I’m absolutely terrible! I went with a friend to an Assertiveness Training Class when I was teaching at Bradford College. Last time I saw her I said, “Whatever happened to all that assertiveness training?! It never worked, it never stuck!” I wish I was a bit more like Kate Shackleton!
Why do you set the books in Leeds and Yorkshire?
I just didn’t think about doing it any other way. I do like to feel that I know the places I’m writing about. I do a lot of research.
And you’ve stayed living in Leeds?
I know my way around! My family were always here. There aren’t many of us left now, just me and my sister. My brothers have died, my dad died when I was 10, my mother died. Leeds is just home. I know people here and I know my way around. I’ve got a terrible sense of direction when I go anywhere else! I’m quite settled here. There’s most of what you want in Leeds.
One of the pleasures about reading the Kate Shackleton books is recognising local landmarks. We’re talking in the Leeds Library, where one of your books is set. It was fun to read about the local pubs like The Mitre that are no longer here. Did that come from research in the library itself?
I might have known about The Mitre because my mother had been brought up in a pub: The Lloyd’s Arms, which was near the railway bridge, opposite the bus station. And I had 3 brothers and they would go out to pubs. But I would also look at newspapers from the time and see what was going on. The Leeds Mercury and the Yorkshire Post. The Leeds Library is a very special place – and it was when I heard that there was a ghost here that I thought, “I’ve got to write about that!”
Where do you start with a detective story? Do you start with a body?
Because I’ve got my main characters (Kate Shackleton, Mrs. Sugden and Jim Sykes) I just need a place. I need to know where something might happen.
Do you know who know who the murderer is from the start?
I should do, but I don’t always. I try to plan it all out but it never quite works! Often at the end, I need to go back and cut out the bits that aren’t relevant.
How do you write? Do you write 9 – 5?
I wish! I try to have a timetable. At present it’s not working very well! Life is always tripping you up, isn’t it?
What sort of feedback to you get from readers?
People like them. I had a young man on Twitter – he’d been going through a really difficult time. He was really low and he said that he couldn’t read anything except the Kate Shackleton books. Another reader, she said that she went to chemotherapy and the nurse said, “You must like that writer, you were reading one of her books the last time you came.” If I can just cheer someone up or know it’s diverting someone who is having a hard time, that’s great.
Your books feature strong female characters, don’t they?
Strong women are more interesting to write about than wimps!
There are certainly some strong women in your new book. Tell us about “A Murder Inside”.
It’s 1969 and Nell Lewis, 41-years-old, takes charge of HMP Brackerley. It’s a former borstal that is to be transformed into a women’s open prison. Nell wants to replace punishment with rehabilitation. But when a man is found murdered in the prison grounds, the future of this brave attempt at change is in jeopardy.
I’d just been reading various things about women in prison. I was quite active in the peace movement and I’d been at Greenham Common. You knew then that you were always watched. You’d be in Harrogate (near Menwith Hill), you’d park your car and a policeman would come up to you and call you by your name – just to let you know that they’d looked up your number plate and they knew who you were. I was never arrested, but a lot of women were. They went to Holloway. So I’d read various accounts of women in prison. I thought that a lot of them shouldn’t be there.
Also I thought, “What is it like for the people who work there, who voluntarily go into prisons?” Especially one of those great big Victorian prisons, like castles. What is it like to go into those prisons every day? As I started to look into it, I tried to meet up with people who had done that. There’s a woman called Veronica Bird and she was the first woman governor of Armley prison. I was very fortunate to meet Veronica – she lives in Harrogate.
I also met another woman who lives in the South and had been a prison governor, who left in 1969. And Veronica started in 1969, so I got the whole span. From Judy Gibbons I learned that a lot of women who had been in the forces during the war came out and didn’t know what to do with themselves, so joined the prison service. There were all sorts of little things she told me, like the prevalence of nicknames. This was because it was very hierarchical and formal – and it was easier to talk to people if you gave them a nickname. I also knew about Askham Grange, a women’s prison near York.
I did have in mind certain characters – people I’d met. I thought, “Where might they have fallen foul of the law? Why might they have ended up in prison?” Then I thought, “I can’t have a huge prison with a vast set of characters. Who would be able to follow it all?” So I pulled off this trick of saying this place used to be a borstal, now it’s an open prison for women. And we’re in the very first weeks, so there are only 4 prisoners!
Nell Lewis is very different to Kate Shackleton. It’s a different period and she has a different back story. A bit nerve-wracking to introduce a whole new set of characters.
How do you feel about getting older?
It’s just what happens, isn’t it? I’m very pleased that I have something to do. And after a life of flitting about, I’m pleased I have some income finally!
What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just finished The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Beryl Bainbridge said she didn’t read anything after 1945. I think I’m turning into Beryl Bainbridge! I’m reading Winifred Holtby and a lot of Yorkshirewomen writers. Storm Jameson was a very, very clever girl from Whitby. She passed her scholarship, did a degree and was very active in the inter-war years with the United Nations and the peace movement. She didn’t rate her own novels very highly, but they are good. There’s one set around the time of the general strike and you can almost see how skinny people are, how hungry they are. She’s just brilliant. There’s another one called The Deep River a bout someone who goes back to France after the second world war. He stirs something up in this family he goes to stay with that changes things forever. It’s just so beautifully done.
What advice would you give to older people who want to write?
Just do it, just sit down and do it! It doesn’t matter how old you are. Some of the books I like best are often tucked away in the local history sections; they’re little books where people write about their lives. There’s one I have called Dancing Down the Corridor. Really interesting books about ordinary lives. Because, as we know, there’s no such thing as an ordinary life. I was asked once what I’d do if I was given a million pounds. I’d set up a publishing house for people’s own stories.
Thanks Frances! You can find Frances Brody’s latest novel A Murder Inside at most libraires and bookshops in Leeds.
To find more about Frances’ books and life visit her website at www.frances-brody.com