Lesbian Mysteries, Dangerous Settings, and Pond Frogs with Cari Hunter

Podcast episode 30Big congratulations go out to my guest on this episode Cari Hunter, who, a few days after we recorded this won the Best Mystery / Thriller award at the 2016 Golden Crown Literary Society awards (also known as a Goldie).

Cari is a full-time paramedic and part-time writer. As she mentions during the interview, her work informs her writing in a number of areas, including giving her a keen ear for dialogue, and an enjoyment for writing it.

In the introduction I mention that podcast guest Janel Gradowski has a new book out in her Culinary Competition Mystery Series called Banana Muffins and Mayhem. You can learn more at Janel’s site here.

And I also mention the mystery I’m reading at the moment; the third book in Paul Doiron’s series set in the Maine Wilderness. The book is called Bad Little Falls and I adore the sense of place and the deep character development that Paul brings to his books.

You can find out more about today’s guest, Cari, and all her books on her website CariHunter.wordpress.com.

Press play (above) to listen to the show, or read the transcript below. Remember you can also subscribe to the show on iTunes. And listen on Stitcher.

You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.

Transcription of Interview with Cari Hunter

Alexandra: Hello, mystery readers. I am Alexandra Amor and this is “It’s a Mystery” podcast. I am here today with Cari Hunter. Hi, Cari.

Cari: Hello.

Alexandra: How are you today?

Cari: I am absolutely fine, and the sun is shining for once which makes a change for this part of the world.

Alexandra: That’s great. Yeah, we’ve got gray skies and rain here in the middle of July.

Cari: It’s been like that, so it’s a rare occasion when the sun actually peaks through.

Alexandra: Nice. Well, let me introduce you to our listeners.

CariHunterCari Hunter lives in the northwest of England with her wife, two cats and a pond full of frogs. (I’m going to have to ask you about the frogs later.) She works full-time as a paramedic and dreams up stories in her spare time. Cari is the author of six novels and currently in the middle of writing a new crime series based in the Peak District.

The first in the series, “No Good Reason”, won best lesbian thriller at the 2015 Rainbow Award, and its sequel, “Cold to the Touch”, was published in December. A third book, “A Quiet Death”, is due for publication next year in January 2017.

Let’s start by talking about the Peak District. That’s something I’m fascinated by. I love a strong sense of setting in a mystery novel, and I really try to incorporate that in my books.

You live in the Peak District is that correct?

Cari: I live very close. I don’t actually in the Peak District. We are kind of on the verge. We’re not badly situated. We get some really good walks within about half an hour, but we are not quite so isolated as some of the smaller areas of the Peak District villages are. But it’s gorgeous.

NoGoodreasonWe started walking there really because one of our ambulance stations is based in one of the Peak District villages, and I have never been to that neck of the woods before. And my wife, I came to walk with her finally, and I just said to her, “It’s really gorgeous up there. Let’s go and explore,” so we did some low walks to start off with and then ventured a bit higher. It’s not quite as civilized as walking in sort of Switzerland and some of the alpine countries that we’ve been to. There’s no real sign posts. You’re kind of on your own out there with a compass and a map.

Alexandra: Wow.

Cari: You get the occasional way marker, which is a pile of stones, but if that what you are looking for and it’s missed it, you are in trouble if you can’t read a compass. So don’t go up there alone and always go up there prepared for the weather to change basically. We’re not talking mountains. They’re kind of ancient hills so that they are really quite low, certainly, compared to where you are. But they are quite treacherous if you don’t know what you are doing. They are not very friendly, it has to be said. Not very forgiving to newbies shall we say.

Alexandra: Yes. And the weather as you say, I’ve heard, can change very quickly.

Cari: Very much so, yeah. We often saw blue skies and been foot-bound. Within minutes, the clouds can just come in. You can usually see them coming over because of staff like high hills and valleys, you can see the weather some minutes before it hits you so you know when you’re in for a good soaking. But it’s gorgeous up there. It really is. And it’s a perfect setting for a mystery writer.

Alexandra: Yes, exactly perfect.

You are calling your series “The Dark Peak Series”, and it’s set in that district.

And it…stars I was gonna say.

Cari: They’ll be happy to hear themselves called stars.

Alexandra: Detective Sanne Jensen. Am I saying Sanne right? Yes.

Cari: Yeah I think technically she would probably be a Sauna if she were actually Swedish but she’s definitely not Swedish. That’s kind of my notes, my love of Swedish and the Danish / Scandie kind of crime series that we get on the telly over here. We were really hooked on like “The Killing” and “The Bridge” and then the political one, “Borgen”.

That was kind of my little, my little love notes to those. Plus I think it’s really funny to give somebody a really Scandinavian name and have them be this little northern scamp who is not tall and not blond. And is a bit of a scrapper, I think, somebody called her once, which I think was the greatest. “Diminutive but scrappy,” I think somebody called her in a review, which is my favorite description of Sanne ever. Which is perfect.

Alexandra: Yes, exactly.

And then Dr. Meg Fielding is sort of her best friend slash on again off again lover.

Cari Hunter: Yeah, it’s kind of a friends with benefits thing they call it, don’t they?

I write lesbian fiction and lesbian fiction is very much romance orientated. The dominant genre within lesbian fiction is romance. And I’d done three before I started the “Dark Peak” books, and they were the more traditional…they were action adventure and there’s probably more bullets and gore in the romance than people would expect.

ColdtotheTouchBut they would still follow the kind of standard girl meets girl, fall in love, have an adventure, you know, happy ever after. And I wanted to just mix it up a little with this because I was definitely coming out of the romance genre with this to write crime and didn’t want to feel obliged to make it a girl meets girl, strangers, and then do the happy ever after thing because that, to me, is not how crime…I read a lot of mainstream crime, and there’s never really a love story in them.

They don’t necessarily end with a kiss and walk off into the sunset. I thought it would be fun to play around with two characters who’d grown up together and knew each other really well, and they do. They muck around together. They take the piss out of each other. They know everything. They know all of each other’s secrets basically.

And to have that shared history and to be able to play on that is really what’s made these books fun, I think, to write. They’ve just been an utter joy to write. And I think you still get that emotional connection that you would get with a romance but it’s just a different kind of romance I think.

Alexandra: One of my favorite mystery series is by a woman who lives in Shepherd’s Bush in London and her name is Cynthia Hared Eagles. And hers are police procedural like yours are, “The Dark Peak” series, and there is a romance that runs through it, but it goes through its own ups and downs. So like at one point, they break up and then they end up getting back together again.

Do you envision that kind of more sort of realistic life story running through the series?

Cari: Yeah, because I think it starting from the more realistic place. I mean, it’s not often that you just meet and fall in love at the drop of a hat. It’s usually a mutual friend or a friend that you’ve known for a long time that you came back to. That’s usually the way that love happens.

So yes, I think it is taking a more kind of natural path. And also with it being a series, it’s enabled me to take my time with it really. There’s no rush to wrap everything up within 280 pages. They’re not together at the end of the first book. They might be together end of the second book. I’m not telling. They might still be together in the third book. Who knows?

But yes, I think when these two get together, they’ll stick. I did almost give my editor a heart attack by not having a happy ever after at the end of “No Good Reason”, and she was quite keen for me to do a little bit of a rewrite and sort of hinting that direction at least to try and solve that as a bit of a soft, I think, for people who would buy it as a romance book and.

I had to turn around or say, “Well, I can’t do it because they’re not together at the start of the second book. And I’ve already written it.” I got away with it but actually it really worked well and I think that the way their relationship develops in the second book is really good as well. Like I say, you gotta throw a few obstacles in the way.

Alexandra: Absolutely.

I imagine that your experience as a paramedic comes in handy when you’re writing about Meg’s character.

Cari: Yes. To be fair, it comes in handy for writing all of it because Sanne and Nelson, Nelson, her police partner get to go into everybody’s houses.

AQuietDeathI work in quite a bad area. It’s quite a deprived area, and there are plenty of places where you go into, you wipe your feet on the way out sort of thing. And obviously, you meet so many different characters. And I think it’s that insight into the different walks of life that’s been invaluable for writing these books because I can talk with the little smart rats. I can talk with the kind of posh and entitled. I can talk with the regular guys, the addicts.

You never know what you’re going to get when that call comes through to the ambulance. It could be anyone from any walk of life, and I think that’s given a quite good sense of realism to the books.

And it’s given me a bit of dialogue as well. I love writing dialogue, and I think having that experience just of the life on the road has been great for just adding that little extra sort of…people talk like real people talk. I read crime novels sometimes and I think this person has no experience. They’ve never spoken to a police officer. They’re never spoken to anybody, I don’t think, outside their little middle-class milieu sort of thing.

I’m a bit at an advantage because I get to talk to everybody. But with Meg…I think Meg and Sanne are a mix of me. She gets away with saying things I would love to say. I do get some of my frustrations out with the way Meg. She’s got that sarcastic kind of cynical edge that, unfortunately, a lot of us working in the NHS, especially that…that’s the National Health Service, sorry. Especially at the sharp end of it, you know, the sort of emergency end of it, you get to deal with a lot of crap really. And it does, unfortunately, drag you down. But I always say that if I ever get to the point where I haven’t got time for the 90-year old who’s been on the floor all night with a fractured neck or femur, that’s the day that I quit. And I’m not there yet.

Alexandra: I was just going to say.

Given that your job is a little bit draining, does it appeal to you to be a full-time writer at all?

Cari: Yes and no. I kind of like the balance I’ve got to be fair. I work 12-hour shifts. So because I work 12-hour shifts, it’s absolutely knackering while I’m in, but I get a lot of time off and that has enabled me to write the books in my free time.

I think I’d like to do less of my job. I’d like to be more part-time. Just free my brain a bit because the shifts do…they kind of give you a little bit of dementia. My short-term memory is not brilliant, which is kind of awkward when you’re trying to write plotty kind of thrillers. You are kind of writing and thinking, “Oh my god, what was he even called?”

So there are times in the month when I absolutely can’t write. But there are times in the month where, you know, my brain kind of kicks back in, and I’ve got plenty of time to write. Yeah, I mean, who doesn’t want to be a full-time writer?

Lesbian fiction is still quite niche, so you’re not selling thousands and thousands and thousands of copies to enable you to quit your job and live the high life. And I suppose the people who’ve come out of lesbian fiction to make it big the likes of Val McDermind, Amanda Scott started off the writing lesbian crime fiction. They had to sacrifice their lesbian characters in a way to actually, you know, hit the mainstream.

It’s very difficult to break into the mainstream with gay characters. And it shouldn’t be, but it just is. And I’ve watched those authors kind of write straight characters just for the sake of actually being read, I guess.

Alexandra: We talked about that your job as a paramedic and how it informs your work.

And what about the police procedural side? Where does that come from?

Cari: Obviously, I get to work quite closely with the police, which is great. And I have a couple of people that I work closely with on shift who are actually married to police officers so that’s also very handy. A lot of it comes from research, just down dirty research, on the internet mainly.

DesolationPointOver here, we get some really good documentaries. There was one called “24 Hours in Police Custody” that was really useful research. I used to watch it and just take notes because there’s all the procedures basically are covered in that. It’s a proper fly on the wall, warts and all kind of documentary.

I wanted to try and get it right. I wanted these to be realistic. I’m sure I get things wrong, but I don’t want them to be obviously wrong. So I have tried to get the details absolutely on the mark really because it annoys me when I read stuff, medical stuff, and they’ve not done the research. They’ve not bothered to find out whether you can shock a person whose got a flat line on the monitor. As somebody in the medical profession, I’m sure it would annoy somebody within the police profession if they read a book and somebody was writing willy-nilly rough shot all over their rules. I do a lot of work basically beforehand and as I’m going along trying to get it right.

Alexandra: Yes, good for you. That’s great. We touched a little bit on your previous books. So you have three books that came before the “Dark Peak” series and two of those are sort of a pair where the characters recur.

When you switched to writing the “Dark Peak” series, had you been inspired by that experience of writing about characters in more than one book?

Cari: I’ve been told I’ve got attachment issues. Basically, I wrote “Desolation Point” and “Tumbledown”, again, kind of not following the rules of lesbian fiction where when you write a romance, you’re supposed to stop and do another romance. And they’re supposed to be standalone books.

TumbledownI think “Tumbledown”, which was the sequel to “Desolation Point” kind of gave me A) the series itch but B) the crime itch as well because that turned more of a procedural investigation kind of…it turned into that kind of a novel rather than…it wasn’t a romance because the couple were already established.

I knew after that that the standalone romance wasn’t for me, and I wanted to really get my teeth into the series. So I was already kind of eyeballing the crimes series, the switch to crime at the end of “Tumbledown”.

I read a lot of crime, and I read mainstream crime. And I like the way it can develop the characters. I like the way you can play with the plots. I like the kind of the twists and the turns. I find it more challenging to actually read and write, but it’s just the kind of stuff I want to read isn’t really out there. The visibility of gay characters isn’t out there.

I wrote crime series that I wanted to read. Obviously, I’m writing for a year, so I’m with these characters for a year. I’m in their heads. They’ve become a family kind of thing. So yeah, it is that kind of aspects that I wanted to develop. The series aspect, the characters taken in and out with character development. They’ve got family and background and their past histories that you can explore.

But also the fact that I could write strong women who are lesbians without it defining them. I didn’t want them to be wearing a big badge saying, “I’m a lesbian.” They just are. Sanne is out but nobody really bats an eyelid about it. It’s not a big issue. And working in the public sector over here that’s exactly how is. This is not a big issue, and there’s so many queers on my station, they call it the Gay Village.

But we just are. Yes, you go into any casualty and you throw a stick, you’re gonna hit, at least, four gay members of staff. And yet they’re invisible in mainstream crime, and it annoyed me. I’m redressing the balance a bit. It’s just whether or not you can, how to get your books out into the mainstream kind of crime audience, that’s the tricky thing, when you write in a lesbian kind of niche and your publisher is known just for publishing LGBTQ fetish.

Alexandra: Yes. What I would imagine is that now with the rise of the Kindle and independent publishing and all that kind of stuff that these kind of smaller niches have the ability to grow, perhaps, in ways that they never did before.

Do you think that’s true?

Cari: I would hope so. I mean, Bold Strokes…I don’t want to sell Bold Strokes short. They’re a huge publisher. But like I said, the main kind of demand within lesbian fiction is for the romance. But actually, it’s weird sometimes because I’ll get, like, a message from somebody who has managed to pick my…I mean, I have no idea how you managed to find me. That was the question I wanted to ask how you, how did you even got hold of my books?

SnowboundBut yeah, it is weird when you get a kind of a message out of left field and they found it from someone. And it’s really nice when you know my book gets loaned out to somebody. My hairdresser’s read it, and he loved. His wife loved it, so that is nice to know that your books can get read and enjoyed by somebody who’s not your typical audience. But then I went into my local bookstore and asked them to stock it and they wouldn’t.

Alexandra: Oh, really?

Cari: I don’t know what the reason was. They didn’t really say, but they wouldn’t stock it.

Alexandra: Oh dear, okay.

Cari: Sometimes it does feel a little bit like you’re banging your head on a wall about things.

Alexandra: Two steps forward one step back, I guess.

Cari: Yeah, basically, but as long as you are taking more steps forward than you are backwards, it’s all good.

Alexandra: Yes, exactly. I love hearing that you write the books you want to read because I do the same. And the way that I found out about you was through “The Creative Penn” podcast because Joanna Penn interviewed Claire Lydon who has the “Lesbian Book Club” podcast and she had interviewed you.

Cari: It’s a big circle.

Alexandra: It is a big circle. Yes, lots of connections.

Cari: That’s half of the battle, getting connections. Getting your contacts and getting yourself out there.

Alexandra: Exactly yes, and the thing I really like about being an independent author, and I know you have a publisher, I don’t.

But it’s that the Internet enables us to make these connections in a way that never would have been possible for and to find an audience, you know, that may not have been possible before as well so, I really like that.

Cari: Absolutely, yes. I think we’d all be lost without the Internet to be fair. It’s so important days those to be on Facebook. I wasn’t on Facebook before I started with the books, and I’ve got so many so friends and connections. And we do the blog as well.

We do a UK lesbian fiction blog and that’s made inroads in sort of all the connections and little spaces that we possibly wouldn’t have otherwise. So that’s great. It’s pulled a lot of the UK writers together. Small and large to be fair. We’ve got some of the bigger hitters on the site as well as the smaller writers, the indie writers, the smaller publishing companies.

Alexandra: Fantastic. So one last question before we wrap up.

Tell us about the frogs. What’s going on there?

Cari: Well, we have a little pond just at the bottom of our garden. And it’s a very healthy little wildlife pond. It’s not a fish pond or anything like that. We dug it out ourselves and built it ourselves. And we designed it for wildlife, and then we went and pinched a load of frog spawn from somebody’s pond that they were actually closing over. And yeah, it’s gone a bit bonkers. We get a lot of frogs.

At the moment, we have a lot of tadpoles. So I’m just looking at our grass now, and it needs cutting because, in a couple weeks’ time, it’s going to be jumping quite literally when all my little frogs graduate from Pond Academy. It’ll be a no-mow zone for the rest of the summer because you just can’t do it safely without blitzing a million frogs.

We have newts as well. They’re not supposed to be able to co-habitate, but they do quite happily. I think it’s because we get so much frog spawn, even if the newts kind of dine out on a few, it doesn’t really affect the numbers. My cats like chasing them.

Alexandra: I was going to say, what about the cats?

Cari: Yeah, we’ve had a few in the kitchen and under cupboards. Because they don’t taste nice, so they’ll bring them in with their little legs kind of sticking out the side of their mouth and then just drop them wherever. So we’ve…yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve had a hopper in the kitchen, but it has happened.

Alexandra: That’s awesome. All right, well, thank you so much, Cari. It’s been great talking to you today.

Cari: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.

Alexandra: Oh, my pleasure. Why don’t you let everyone know where they can find your books.

Cari: Okay, we have the Bold Strokes website, which is a publisher. And it’s www.boldstrokesbooks.com. And I’ve got a blog which is carihunter.wordpress.com. And that’s full of pictures, actually.

You can get “Dark Peak” pictures if you’re curious about what the hills look like, and translations of weird sort of northern English slang, and weird foodstuffs around there. So basically it’s a bit of a pictorial guide to the “Dark Peaks”. It’s quite a fun time to mooch around on there if you’ve got 10 minutes to spare and you’ve ever wondered what a chip buttie was, or bamboozled. Bamboozled by some of the slang.

Alexandra: Yeah, exactly. Nice. And then your books are available on Amazon as well?

Cari: Yeah, they are on Amazon. That’s our main market is on Amazon, Kindle, and paperback.

Alexandra: I noticed one, you made an announcement on your blog, was on audio as well.

Cari: Yeah, the very first one, “Snowbound”, which is also set in the Peak District, in the very snowy Peak District. So yeah, that one’s come out on audiobook.

Alexandra: And do you have plans to bring the other ones out on audio or does your publisher?

Cari: If it does, that’s a Bold Strokes thing. They were in a sort of a conjunction with Audible, and Audible were doing the decision making. And I think Bold Strokes got a bit frustrated because they weren’t…they knew that some would sell better than Audible were and Audible were ignoring them. So Bold Strokes is going to be doing their own as well. Well, they’re still being sold by Audible. So yeah, I don’t know whether they’ll pick any of the others up. Let’s hope.

Alexandra: Yeah, let’s hope, exactly.

Cari: Never say never, right?

Alexandra: No, exactly. Well, thanks again so much and take care.

Cari: You’re welcome, thank you.

Alexandra: Bye bye.

Cari: Bye bye.

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