My guest this week is cozy mystery author Debbie Young, and if you’re an ALLi member, you already know her as a helpful presence on the members’ Facebook page or on our blog. But Debbie has gone through a long journey as a writer to get to a place where she can give back to the indie author community.
This is the story of how Debbie has traveled from early promise, to a detour writing promotional blurbs, to fulfilling her dream as an indie author of mysteries in the best of the British tradition.
A few highlights from our interview:
On What a Cozy Mystery is
A cozy mystery is kind of like it sounds. It’s feel-good crime, in a way. You have a bit of bit of gentle murder in there. You don’t have much bloodshed. You don’t have explicit sex. You don’t have swearing. It’s the kind of thing you could read to your grandmother and she’d be comfortable with it or to your children.
On Why She Helps Other Indie Authors
I’m a sociable type. And I like helping people and, having discovered this wonderful world of self-publishing, and found what it could do for me, I’m always evangelical about it, like an evangelical religious zealot in terms of self publishing in that I want other people to know how it works, how it can work for them, to understand how to use it.
If you haven’t already, we invite you to join our organization and become a self-publishing ally. You can do that at http://allianceindependentauthors.org.
Listen to My Interview with Debbie Young
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On Inspirational Indie Authors, @howard_lovy's guest is cozy mystery author @DebbieYoungBN, who has gone through a long journey and now gives back to the indie author community. Click To Tweet
About the Host
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and has spent the last six years amplifying the voices of independent publishers and authors. He works with authors as a book editor to prepare their work to be published. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Read the Transcript
Howard Lovy: I’m Howard Lovy, and you’re listening to Inspirational Indie Authors. I’m a writer, editor and multimedia manager for the Alliance of Independent Authors and every week I interview a member of ALLi to find out what inspires them, and how they are an inspiration to other authors. Our guest this week is Debbie Young and if you’re an ALLi member, you already know her as a helpful presence on the members Facebook page or on our blog. But Debbie has gone through a long journey as a writer to get to a place where she can give back to the indie author community. This is the story of how Debbie has traveled from early promise to a detour writing promotional blurbs to fulfilling her dream as an indie author of mysteries in the best of the British tradition.
Debbie Young: Hi, my name is Debbie Young. I am a writer living in the Cotswolds, which is a lovely, beautiful rural area of the West of England. I’ve been writing seriously, writing fiction seriously, I guess since for the last nine years, I first realized that I was first and foremost a writer, actually, when I was quite little. When I was about six, in my second year at school, I’d written a story in my little exercise book about a witch, and I thought it was good. I thought it was fun.
And I was really pleased when the head miss, not only the teacher, but the headmistress asked me to take it around to all of the other classes in the school. And I remember standing in front of the class feeling a little puzzled as to why they would want to hear it, and then realizing that they were enjoying it, and what power you could have as a storyteller to hold people’s attention.
Howard Lovy: So Debbie identified as a writer ever after, and went on to study English literature. But then, she said, she let herself be persuaded that there’s no real future in writing fiction, and that she should get a real career. But she compromised and fell back on the domain of all frustrated writers, journalism.
Debbie Young: Well, it’s a funny thing, because I used to, when I used to see that a journalist had written a book I used to think, “But they’re a journalist, they’re just pretending” but actually once I got into journalism, I could see that journalists were just biding their time until they’re in that stage in life where they could actually write books, you know, whether they paid off their mortgage, and that could spend time writing, or whatever. But I’ve revised my opinion on that. And a journalist background is actually really useful because it teaches you to write to length, to a deadline, to produce a certain number of words, in a house style, to edit other people’s words. And editing other people’s work also makes you more ruthless and disciplined about editing your own.
So it’s a very good background for a writer, I think. After a few years of that I went into, I was lured over the other side of the fence into public relations, where I was writing all sorts of things from, there’s a big ice cream manufacturer over here, I wrote their pocket money report, which was defining children come in terms of how many ice creams it will buy. That was great fun, so, but I wrote about less glamorous things like kitty litter, and stuff like drainage products, all sorts of things.
But again, it was good to split because it teaches you to write about all different kinds of things, whether they’re things that are in your heart, or not, things that you don’t care about, you just have to do them because it’s the paid job. So, and it was not until I reached a certain age that I suddenly realized I was having fun writing all of these different things, but wasn’t really writing what I wanted to do, which was fiction.
Howard Lovy: So Debbie decided she better get on with writing fiction. She quit her job to steer her life more toward where she wanted to go. And that way was literature. And then she discovered the Alliance of Independent Authors, or rather, ALLi discovered her.
Debbie Young: I was really lucky, because within a couple of weeks, I landed a job for children’s reading charity, which was like a sign to me of the importance of reading and books and validated my decision to devote my waking hours, really, to writing books. I self published three books of short stories initially, wasn’t really sure that I had it in me to write a novel. But then I went on a writer’s retreat, run by Jessica Bell.
Oh, by this time, I should say I was, I’d actually been kind of headhunted by Orna Ross to go and start editing the new ALLi blog, ALLi had only been going for a few months. And she, I think, had brought forward some ideas from the children’s reading charity for blog posts. And for some reason, she decided that I was the person to come and edit the blog, I started doing it in a small way. And soon that became, I gave up my part time job.
And so ALLi became my part-time job, really. And that was six years ago, over six years ago, six and a half years ago now, which was a wonderful opportunity. And I’m so glad I seized it. Because ALLi has just grown from that tiny beginning to this enormous organization with so much influence, and so much higher wisdom, it I learned so much.
Although I was editing the blog, I also learned so much from the people that, the other members of ALLi and in the posts that I was commissioning, and editing. That was a great fast track to expertise in self publishing for me. And also, it gave me the courage of, the courage to really go for it.
Howard Lovy: For Debbie, after hearing horror stories of working with big publishers, there really wasn’t any other way she wanted to go than self publishing her work. Ultimately, Debbie says it’s about control over your own vision.
Debbie Young: And I thought, “Well, this is for me.” I like the independence where you can call the shots in everything from cover design to what you actually write, what you call the book, obviously, it’s absolutely advisory to conform with certain expectations, to the reader’s expectations, you know, you have to have the cover that suits the content and so forth, you have to have the book properly edited. So there’s still a lot of constraints that you put on yourself, but it’s down to you to determine what those constraints are. And to decide how many risks you want to take.
I mean, I’ve had a couple of risks in books, where I’ve put things in which I thought could be controversial, could upset people, but all done with a light touch them with plenty of humor, humor, and so far, everybody has liked them. They’ve got the humor. And and I like being able to do that. I would hate to have a publisher breathing down my neck saying “Oh, no, this is-”
My books are mostly about 55,000 words long, the novels, they just come out at that length naturally, I don’t really force it. I guess my books are quite idiosyncratic and in a way they are merging. I’m crossing genres a little bit they’re part cozy mystery, part comedy, part satire.
Howard Lovy: Did she say cozy mystery? Debbie explains.
Debbie Young: A cozy mystery is kind of like it sounds. It’s feel-good crime, in a way. You have a bit of bit of gentle murder in there. You don’t have much bloodshed. You don’t have explicit sex. You don’t have swearing. It’s the kind of thing you could read to your grandmother and she’d be comfortable with it or to your children. It’s a reassuring comfort read. They’re usually quite short. If the average novel is about 70-80,000 words. Cozy mysteries usually 50 to 60.
It’s a light comfort read, often has humor. There are subdivisions of it weird and wonderful subdivisions. So you get on Amazon, for example, there are sub categories that are culinary cozy mystery, animal cozy mystery, and crafts and hobbies cozy mystery. And I mean, I didn’t even know that was the thing until I started trying to categorize my books.
Howard Lovy: In writing mysteries, Debbie is part of a long and honored British tradition that dates back at least to a certain detective with a deerstalker hat and a calabash pipe.
Debbie Young: I think where it stems from is, as you say, Sherlock Holmes, who then influenced what they call the golden age of crime writers, which Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, all those kinds of people started writing in the ‘20s, ‘30s, into the ‘40s. There’s more and more of them being relaunched now, because they appeal to modern tastes. They, some of them are very much off their time, but they’re still readable. They’re still fun.
And I’ve just discovered a new one, well, new, he was writing in the 40s called George Valez, and they’re just reissuing his stories and they’re terrific. They’re a fun read, they’re a comfort read. They are the antidote to all the Nordic war and the grim grisly books have multiple cruel murders, all the child abductions and yeah, the really violent crime stories that are very, I, personally, as quite a sensitive person, I find them too upsetting to read.
I can’t watch a TV program or a film with lots of shooting and lots of really sad crime. I see cozy mystery more as a sort of a kind of like a crossword puzzle. You know, it’s like a cryptic crossword puzzle is a bit of fun. It’s a mystery to solve. And the cozy mystery you don’t know till the end who’s done it and why. And you have lots of red herrings along the way and it’s all a bit of a game.
Howard Lovy: So what are Debbie Young’s cozy mysteries all about? Well, she is inspired by her own small community.
Debbie Young: Yeah, well, I have two series. I’m currently writing number six in the first series, which is the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, which are based in a village very much like the one I live in, a small community. One of the reasons that I started writing cozy mystery was kind of a celebration of the collective community that I live in, where we have about 1400 people in our village.
People feel like they know everybody, people will look out for each other, will help each other. There’s lots going on. It’s a very old fashioned community in a way, and I wanted to celebrate that community and putting it into a cozy mystery was a good way of celebrating all the little quirks, the eccentricities that and the idiosyncratic characters that we have in here, in the village where I live, a fairly classic start to a cozy mystery series is to put your main character into surroundings that they’re not used to.
So I made Sophie Sayers my protagonist, inherit her aunt’s cottage in this little village, her great aunt’s cottage, she has been used to living in different cities in Europe teaching English as a foreign language. And she comes back and is thrown into this village life, her boyfriend, her ex boyfriend says to her, with kind of a reference to Midsomer Murders and that kind of story. He says “You don’t want to go live in a little village, English village. They’re all murderers there.”
So it’s all done, it’s a little bit tongue in cheek, you know, with fondness and with affection for that kind of story. And so each of the stories has been getting a little bit more involved in village life and with a different aspect of village life. And the stories run the course of the village year. It starts off in the summer with the village show, horticultural show, like the one we’ve just had in our village this weekend. And so then she runs onto Halloween, and then Christmas and Valentine’s and all the big occasions through the village year and all the big celebration. So there’s a murder wrapped around each one of those.
Although in the sixth book, I’m taking it out of the village to go on a writer’s retreat, and which because Sophie wants to be a writer, but doesn’t quite trust herself. So she’s working on a book in the village bookshop, she has a love, has a romance with the owner of the bookshop, there’s various writers involved as well, there’s lots of writing jokes, lots of literary jokes in there as well. So I’m having a lot of fun with it.
Howard Lovy: The problem with writing about murder in a light-hearted way is that sometimes the real world could interfere. And that is something Debbie tries to avoid when she creates her self-contained world of mystery.
Debbie Young: That’s very interesting, actually, Howard, because I’m writing very English stories. But I’ve also mindful of what goes on in the States. I lived in the States when I was a little girl for a year in California. And this was during the time of the race riots and we had to be locked in the classrooms for a while. Even for an eight year old, you know, that was quite an eye opener and it breaks my heart when I see about these school shootings, in fact, in the seventh book in the Sophie Sayers series is going to be set in the village Primary School, which has come into the story quite a lot in the earlier books.
And I was going to call it School’s Out for Murder with obviously reference to the Alice Cooper song. So after I’d written about the fourth book, I looked at my list of titles to write and I can’t do that. I don’t want school and murder in the same sentence. It’s just too grim and too horrible.
And so out of respect for all the people who have suffered losses in those kind of shootings, in the States in particular, I’ve changed the title to Murder Lost and Found and the body is found in the lost property cupboard, when they’re sorting out the, tidying up the school at the end of term. And it won’t be a child who’s involved in the school building, and not the children.
Howard Lovy: But because she lives in such a small community, she tries not to use real events and people for her stories. It all comes from her imagination but where her work touches real life is when she helps other authors whether through her work with ALLi, or literary festivals.
Debbie Young: I’m a sociable type. And I like helping people and, having discovered this wonderful world of self-publishing, and found what it could do for me, I’m always evangelical about it, like an evangelical religious zealot in terms of self publishing in that I want other people to know how it works, how it can work for them, to understand how to use it. And to debunk the myths, there’s still so many misconceptions and misunderstandings about it, that are stopping people from using it, from gaining their full, its full power for them.
So as well as loving helping people on the ALLi Facebook forum and through the blog, and the website and I’m a co-author of some of the guidebooks I wrote the guidebook for ALLi in the wonderful series they have, I wrote the one about how to get your self published book into a bookstore. And I realized there was a need, really, a gap in the market to have local authors groups that were talking specifically about self publishing.
So I set one up, really under the ALLi banner, initially, although it’s not officially an ALLi group, because ALLi is an online organization, of course. But I got in touch with ALLi friends who I’d met online through the forum. We started meeting regularly in Bristol, and Cheltenham, two big towns that are quite close to me, those have grown and brought more people into the fold, really, run them on meetup, which enables anybody to find them. But we give priority to ALLi members because they’ve become so popular, the numbers are getting too big. But almost inevitably, anyone who comes along for a trial to those meetings, and hears about ALLi, they want to be a part of it. So they generally join, I find that really rewarding.
I’ve been doing it for about three or four years now. And it’s been so rewarding to see people go from knowing nothing at all, coming to it quite new or scared. And to be able to have sort of talked them through finishing writing the book, getting it properly edited, getting it to publication point and then starting to sell and market it. And that has been really personally very satisfying. It’s so rewarding, because they’re also nice people as well, you know that they’re good sorts that come along to these meetings. And it’s a pleasure to help them.
Howard Lovy: From helping ALLi members, she branched off to running literary festivals.
Debbie Young: Each year, it’s got a little bit bigger, a little bit broader. So we now have an art exhibition. We had our first poetry slam this year. We have talks, we have panel discussions, we have workshops, children’s festival within the festival now, and it’s all free. And this is sort of quite pioneering, I think, in that it’s, I wanted it to be completely accessible to everybody no matter what their budget. So that would also encourage people to come who might think, “Oh, well, I don’t want to spend 15 pounds on going to see somebody talk at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, for example. But I might do this for free and see if I like it.”
It’s action packed, there are four or five events running in parallel, all day long, different strands of events running all day long. So people can come and dip in and out. There’s no green room, the authors mix in with the general public, they all like speaking to each other. They like meeting, the authors like meeting readers, the authors will give that time for free.
Howard Lovy: So Debbie has gone from her teachers telling her to forget fiction and get a real job to becoming a successful indie author in her own right, while she’s also giving back to the indie author community. Now, she’s in a position to advise other indie authors on how they can do it too.
Debbie Young: They should ring fence some time. And even if it’s only half an hour a day at weekends, you know, we all have our family pressures, as well as social pressures as well as work, just find that time and protect it and make it your writing time. And if you do it consistently, you will get a book, eventually you’ll get to a book length, don’t worry about perfecting it, don’t worry about trying to make your copy perfect first time through.
Best thing to do and one of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given was just write the first draft through. Plan it a little bit so you know where you’re going. But don’t overplan if that’s what you, plan it more if that helps you, but do what feels comfortable for you. I don’t plan terribly much, I have a broad outline. And then just sit and write it because that’s the only way you’re going to get it written is to put those words on the page or the screen or however you prefer to write and just get that first draft done, then you can edit it.
When you’ve got it done, go take a break, come back to it fresh. Edit, edit, edit, edit, edit until it’s as good as it can be, then involve a professional editor. It’s an expense, but it’s the best money you’ll ever spend because you’ll also learn a lot from your first professional edit, and you will write better in the future after that. So just go for it. Life’s too short not to.