What do you do with a character who’s terrible at everything?
Today’s podcast guest, JL (Janet) Simpson, has a unique character on her hands, Daisy Dunlop. As you’ll hear her describe, Daisy is terrible at everything. Which is an interesting foundation for a character in a mystery novel.
But, as with so many of us, after multiple failures at finding her vocation, Daisy finally discovers an occupation she can call her own.
In the intro, I mention that the shortlist for the Arthur Ellis Crime Writing awards were announced last Friday. You can click here to see the whole list. It’s a great way to find new authors and books. The site also lists all the previous years’ short lists and winners, so you can work you way backwards, if you like.
Would you risk your life simply to be yourself?
Julia Thom is new to the small town of Horse, but she’s not new to trouble. When reclusive watchmaker James Hunter is beaten, but has no memory of the event, Julia vows to find the culprits. Even if Hunter hadn’t saved Julia herself from being assaulted, she would still be on the case; meddling helps keep her focus off her own complicated life. Julia is fast becoming a thorn in Police Constable Jack Merrick’s side and he flounders as he tries to figure out how to deal with such a headstrong woman.
When the attackers strike again and the violence escalates, Julia’s determination redoubles, putting herself in more danger than anyone could have anticipated. While Julia and Merrick grapple with finding unknown assailants, they must also find a way to come to terms with one another.
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcription of Interview with J.L. Simpson
Alexandra: Hello mystery readers. I’m Alexandra Amor, this is It’s a Mystery Podcast. I’m here today with J.L.Simpson. How are you Janet? Let me introduce you to our listeners.
Written under the name of J.L.Simpson, her Daisy Dunlop mystery series, is set on the south coast of England where she grew up. Her sense of humor is reflected in her stories, where mystery and mayhem unite.
I’m really interested to talk to you about Daisy Dunlop, and there’s one thing that really caught my eye. I’ll talk about that in a minute.
Why don’t you tell us about Daisy. I saw one of your readers described her by a curvy, strawberry blonde, bombshell force of nature. So tell us a bit about her.
Janet: Well Daisy is a woman who definitely wants to be good at something and fails at everything. So all the different careers she’s tried, she’s hopeless, absolutely hopeless. She’s set fire to chip shops, she worked for coffee shops and spilled coffee in the clients’ laps. Everything she does is a disaster and she decided she wants to be an heir hunter. Which in the UK, there’s a big TV show called Heir Hunters where the government listed estates, deceased estates where people haven’t left a will.
And as an heir hunter you can go and collect the list of those and go and try and find the beneficiaries of the estates and you get a percentage of the estate as a finders fee. So she decides after watching TV, this is what she’s going to do. But her husband, obviously knowing the history, decides that this is a terrible idea and he gets his best friend, who’s a private investigator to take her on to show her the ropes. And that’s where the story begins.
Alexandra: Okay, so yeah. You anticipated my question which is, what exactly is an heir hunter? I had never heard of that before. So it’s a real thing?
Janet: It is a real thing.
Alexandra: Wow, strange. The things you don’t know, learn something new everyday right?
Alexandra: And so it’s her husband who kind of gets her involved in this.
He matches her up with his best friend and really does he, he just wants her to have something to do?
Janet: No. The idea is that she goes with Solomon, who’s the best friend. Solomon’s plot line is he is supposed to dissuade Daisy from being, wanting to be an heir hunter or a PI because the husband thinks this is a terrible idea. She’s had some disasters before, when you’re chasing around looking for missing people, who knows what could go wrong.
Alexandra: Yes, yeah exactly. I saw her described somewhere that she can’t even cook.
Janet: No, she can’t cook. She’s hopeless. She ruins everything.
Alexandra: What was your inspiration for her?
Janet: I don’t really know. I like to read books about women who are incapable but they keep going anyway. So despite the adversity, they never give up, they never believe that they can’t do it.
I thought it would be quite funny to write that and to have a sidekick for her that was, If you remember the TV show Moonlighting? Back in the day I thought it was Cybill Shepherd and that movie star who’s name escapes me.
Alexandra: Bruce Willis.
Janet: That’s the one. So that’s the relationship. Solomon takes his job very seriously and of course Daisy is the worst thing that could happen to him, and I thought it would be funny to have that and set it in England which has got a very quirky sense of humor anyways. So to combine that English sense of humor with these two characters who should really never be working together, I thought it would be quite interesting.
Alexandra: And I noticed you set them where you grew up. In the south of England.
What was the choice to do that rather than set them where you are in Australia?
Janet: Despite the fact that I’ve lived here for thirty years, I still have a very English sense of humor and writing style and I actually know the south. I’ve moved around a lot in Australia so nowhere in Australia is really home for me. I’ve lived in lots of different places.
I think ultimately for me, the south coast of England is home because that’s where I grew up, that’s where my family still live there. So I go back on holidays quite a bit so.
Alexandra: And do you ever have trouble remembering places that you want to write about or finding a setting that’s appropriate for a scene or anything? Or does it all kind of come back to you?
Janet. Google Maps. Good Earth is great looking at street scenes which is really good. Other sites in the UK are really good to. To you know find out background about places.
Alexandra: Oh, fantastic okay. Yeah architecture and all that kind of stuff.
Tell us a bit about Solomon. He takes his job very seriously, he’s a private investigator. What’s his background?
Janet. He was in the Army with Daisy’s husband. So they’re both military policeman. He’s from Northern Ireland and him and Daisy have got a very interesting past. As you find out in the book, I’ll give this away because it’s quite funny.
Paul was away working over-seas and Solomon was back in the UK and he was asked to look after Daisy and Daisy was working in a bar as a barmaid. And got into a brawl, somehow started a fight in the pub, as you do, with some of the men that were in the pub at the time.
Solomon stepped in to intervene to save her when clearly didn’t need to be saved. She was fine and he completely loses his temper with her and decides the best way to keep her safe from herself is to actually chain her to the kitchen sink. So he handcuffs her to the kitchen sink. She doesn’t take that very well. So that’s a little background that whenever he’s told to look after her he takes it way too far. So really she’d rather not work with him because he’s a bit of a mollycoddler and not going to let her do anything.
Alexandra: It sounds like the perfect set up for humorous stories and that kind of tension always creates a great story line. You don’t want everything to be easy, it’s more fun if it’s difficult.
Janet: Yeah and the other thing is that Daisy is a terrible flirt. She thinks the best way to get a man to tell her something is to flirt the information out and Solomon hates that because Paul’s his best mate and he thinks it’s disrespectful that she does this. So she does it with him all the time just to really wind him up.
Alexandra: I saw one of your reviewers mentioned that, or said, move over Stephanie Plum. I knew that the books were funny and obviously they’re really tickling readers funny bones as well. Is that something that comes quite naturally to you? Do you have to work quite hard at it?
What’s it like for you, writing humor in a mystery story?
Janet: I’ve tried. I wanted to write something really serious. I can’t do it. I just can’t. This is just no good, the humor is just there. It’s not hard at all, it’s hard to be serious.
Alexandra: Ah, okay. So it would be a stretch for you to write a quite, quite a serious mystery novel?
Janet: My manager says “Why don’t you write something serious?” I’m like no. It’s too much, can’t do it.
Alexandra: Yes, exactly. Getting back to the subject of the heir hunting. I noticed it mentioned in the description for the first book and then the third one as well.
Is this something that has continued despite Solomon’s objections to working with Daisy?
Janet: At the end of book one you find out something, Daisy finds out something that means that she can blackmail Solomon to let her continue working. And so in book two they’re working together but under duress. He doesn’t really want to but she’s got this big secret she’s holding against him.
They start out as adversaries and not liking each other but as time goes on the sort of get closer in their working relationship. There’s still that antagonism and that being rude to each other all the time but it’s comfortable.
Alexandra: Do you have more books in your mind for the future?
Janet: I’m actually working on book four at the moment and I think I was going to do six in the series but we’ll see how we go. Every time I finish a book everybody’s like “Oh when’s the next one.” Oh okay another one.
I had a story out for the first three books, so the next three it sort of concludes at the end of book three but this one sort of starts a new three book story. Which the first ones are sort of Daisy’s story. I think the next three are going to be more about Solomon.
Alexandra: Oh interesting.
Did you find when you wrote the first three that you knew what that arc was from beginning to end for the three books? Or did it come as you wrote?
Janet: I knew that there was one big sort of secret that would be revealed at the end of book three. So you go at the end of book one you think you’ve found the secret but it’s not the real secret and at the end of book two it sort of leads to what happens in book three. And then you find out what’s really going on with Solomon’s secret. You find out what’s really going on with Solomon. So for the actual story I had an idea, a plot at the beginning of the book and then I just write.
Alexandra: Really? Wow. I’m always so impressed with people who can do that because I’m such a plotter myself and I was talking to somebody the other day [Ed note: Kim Hunt Harris in episode 32] who described it like starting out with a jigsaw puzzle. She said you get the straight edges and the corners and then she just writes scenes and then gradually that fills in the space in the middle.
Is that kind of how you work as well?
Janet: I’m not even that organized. I just have an idea of a crime or what the crime is being solved and then I’ve got no idea. I don’t even know who did the crime when I start writing. I just start writing and it sort of just falls into place.
I have to go back a bit occasionally and fix bits and say that bit doesn’t fit now that I’ve changed what’s happening. I have tried plotting. I did plot a whole book once and I looked at it and thought I don’t want to write that I already know what’s going to happen, it’s boring. It’s like watching TV for me. You start watching a movie and you’ve got no idea what’s happening. So it’s just as much a surprise to me when I get to the end as it is the reader.
Alexandra: Oh, that’s lovely. I’m so impressed when writers can do that, that’s amazing.
What are your favorite parts about writing these characters? It’s probably the humor but maybe you can tell us differently.
Janet: I love Solomon. He’s absolutely fabulous to write. He’s got such a dry sense of humor. So sarcastic. It’s just the more you write, the more I kind of get reeled back in and I think it’s interesting. His background and stuff is really interesting.
Alexandra: Do you known anybody in the military or are you googling that as well?
Janet: My husband was in the British Army.
Alexandra: Ah, okay. So you’ve got the inside scoop.
Janet. Yeah I just say, “What would I need to blow up a car?” And he just looks at me funny. What? Don’t you own a gun? What?
Alexandra: Well that’s great to have that source of information right there in the house with you.
Alexandra: What’s your writing schedule like? Do you write everyday or every week?
Janet: I actually have a full-time job. I normally get up at 5:30 and write for an hour, which when it’s winter it’s really hard work because it’s so cold. And then I sit in my car for an hour at lunch time and write. I write about two hours a day and on the weekends if I can squeeze in a bit more.
Alexandra: Oh, fantastic. Good for you. And so when you’re writing is it on a laptop?
Janet: On a NetBook.
Alexandra: Oh okay, yeah. And I mean sitting in the car in the winter must be cold too. Do you have it running?
Janet: Yeah I have the engine running. In the summer too because it gets like forty degrees. So I have the air conditioner on.
Alexandra: Of course yes. Wow.
Janet: My work used to wonder where I was “Where you going?” “I’m going to sit in my car for an hour.” It took them a few months because I’ve only been there for a year. “What is it you’re doing in your car at lunch?” “I’m writing a novel” And they’re like ” Yeah sure and I’m like, “No really I’m writing a novel!”
Alexandra: Oh that’s amazing. Roughly how long does it take you then, to write a book?
Janet: Probably about seven or eight months.
Alexandra: Okay, and do you find that you have to cut out some chunks? I mean you did say that you go back a little bit sometimes and you have to adjust things based on what’s happened next.
Do you ever find that you go down a side road and you don’t end up needing that?
Janet: I think the last book I wrote, I had the relationship between Daisy and Solomon was quite different and a couple of better readers read it and said, “No don’t write it the way you’ve taken the relationship.”
So I basically went back in every scene and had to adjust for the scene to take what I was doing with Daisy and Solomon out and change it and I think it worked well. I’m glad I did that.
With book one I actually took out the whole first three chapters. I sort of wrote myself into the book, I think it’s the same with the one I’m writing now. So I think there’s a couple of chapters that might disappear as well.
Alexandra: Yeah I think that’s actually quite common. I know I do that as well sometimes too. Even though I’ve plotted it all out and I think the beginning looks great, I’ll often end up cutting out a couple of chapters at the beginning and just jumping right into the action or whatever.
Would you ever write another series as well or another set of mystery books?
Janet: I’m great at starting books. I’ve got lots of half written books all over the place. I’ve actually got more of a romantic suspense that I’ve started with about 50,000 words in. Which is sort of a young, Daisy’s in her thirties and Solomon’s forties. So they’re a bit older.
But these people are a sort of early twenties set around an English pop band. Boy band. I thought would be quite interesting, and they’re on tour in Australia and sort of trying to work out what happens with them. So I’m about 50, I thought that would probably be a series. One for each of the members of the band but we’ll see how we go. That might become one I just stick in the bottom drawer and never finish.
Alexandra: How did you decide in the end that Daisy was the character that you were going to focus on? That you were going to focus on this series specifically?
Janet: I think because I kept going with this one till the end. I’ve actually written other books before like romance novels. And one side of this one I really liked the relationship as you got the end of it. I thought this book actually works, so I thought I’d keep going and publish it and try another book. See now we’re three books in and I’m still writing it so I’ll keep going.
Alexandra: Yes. Exactly, that’s great. Just kind of in the behind the scenes of a writers life stuff, which always intrigues me.
What are your favorite parts about writing and what are your least favorite parts about writing?
Janet: Well, I love starting. I love the beginning of writing a book. I love where they’re getting into the beginning part of it and I also love the last few chapters. I really think the middle is horrible, I really slog through the middle and I sort of pick it up later. It becomes really mature.
But I just love writing the humor. I actually don’t mind editing. I like editing, I like reading it through when it’s finished and editing it and tiding it up and thinking that really went together, that actually works so. Most writers they might not like the editing part but I quite like it and it’s easy because you’ve actually finished the job and that’s just tiding it up.
Alexandra: Yeah, I actually find the same thing. I actually really like that part of the process as well and what I’ve found sometimes is that it’s like almost.
Even though I’ve plotted it out, I find the book during that process. Do you, have you found that as well?
Janet: Yeah I always wonder. When I get to the end of a book and because I write it like an hour in the morning and an hour at lunch time. I tend to go back and read the previous chapter before I start writing to make sure I’m not going off on a tangent but until, because I actually don’t plot.
Until I’ve actually finished the book and go back start editing, I won’t have an idea if it actually hangs together as a book. If the story works, whether there’s a plot that even works. So when I actually read it I think, “It’s actually pretty good, that actually works. That’s actually a good book.”
Alexandra: Yeah that’s, exactly. That’s good to hear because I feel a bit sometimes the same way, and it’s almost like discovering it again for the second time when I go through and read it from beginning to end.
This has been amazing Janet. It’s been so great to talk to you today. Thank you for taking some time out of your Saturday morning to chat with me. Why don’t you let our listeners know where they can find your books?
Janet: Well they’re on Amazon and the Barnes and Noble website, buy books, Kobo. So any of the places you can normally find books you can find them.
Alexandra: Right, and your website is jlsimpson.com? Is that right?
Janet: Yep. That’s right.
Alexandra: And we should mention too that the first book of the series, Lost Cause, is free.
Janet: It’s free on Amazon, it’s free everywhere.
Alexandra: So if people want to check that out and give it a try they can and you also have a box set with all three books in it. Is that right?
Janet: Yeah, it’s a bit cheaper than if you buy them individually.
Alexandra: Exactly, right. Great, okay. So lots of options for people who are interested in trying your work. Well thank you again so much for talking to me today and enjoy your Saturday.
Janet: Thank you.
Alexandra: Take care. Bye bye.