Crime does pay
Monday 23 July 2012 ~ Romance Matters
You will go a long way to find a more enthusiastic member of the RNA than Lesley Cookman – and yet Lesley doesn’t write romance! She did try her hand at writing category romance novels when she first joined, after reading about the RNA in Mary Wibberley’s book To Writers with Love in the mid 80s. ‘I’ve always written shorter pieces for money and at first the idea of writing a full-length book was daunting.’ But that didn’t stop her trying and through NWS second reads she earned herself an editorial consultation with M&B. However, despite initial encouragement, major changes at M&B meant her work ‘no longer fitted their requirements’ and she went back to the day job.
In fact Lesley has had several successful day jobs, including being an airline stewardess and a model, which have recently been well-documented not only in a double-page spread in the Daily Express last September but also on television in ‘The One Show’ and more recently when she appeared on ‘The Alan Titchmarsh Show’.
But writing was always a part of her life. ‘Even though I realised I was not a romantic novel writer, I never stopped writing. When I was young I filled exercise books. I used to write pony stories – in the days when I went riding. Later I wrote some short stories, though the market for those is dwindling. But mainly I was a feature writer for business and trade magazines. I even edited Poultry Farmers’ Weekly.’
She also wrote and directed Pantos which were published, including a How To… book on Panto writing. And she performed in them too.
‘I’ve been a professional actor since I was 15 when I played Laura in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. I made the front page of the Evening Standard!’ She still occasionally acts in Panto and although performance is more of a hobby now she will be part of the upcoming 200th Dickens’ anniversary celebrations in Kent playing Mrs Steerforth in a big production of David Copperfield.
But in the early part of the new century, after successfully completing an MA in creative writing, Lesley turned to crime! ‘Some time before I went to the University in Wales I was selected to enter The World One Day Novel Cup; a competition that was only held twice. It was at the Groucho Club in London. You had to take your own computer – before the days of laptops. Over the two twelve-hour sessions on the Saturday and Sunday of the event I wrote 24,000 words and I was shortlisted for the prize. Later I revived what I’d written on those two days and used it for one of my MA dissertations about detective fiction. I then adapted it and it was published – as Murder at Steeple Martin, introducing Libby Sarjeant’; the first of Lesley’s successful series of ‘cosy crime’ novels which have all recently been re-jacketed for the second time. After writing two a year, the tenth, Murder by Magic will be published in June, with three more still to follow.
Having written so many books with the same protagonist does she ever get tempted to ‘kill her off’? ‘Definitely not, I love the character of Libby. Though it’s sometimes difficult to keep finding areas where she can stumble over, or be invited into, a situation. You’re always asking your readers to suspend their disbelief.’ And what made her invent Steeple Martin, the fictitious setting used in the books? ‘It was much easier to design my own made-up village than to describe a real place. I would have needed to insert new houses between real old ones. And it would be too easy to inadvertently offend the local vicar or residents who were determined to identify themselves and the place, despite my reassurances to the contrary. It’s a topic that often comes up when I’m giving talks. People are always trying to “recognise” themselves, or people they know, in the characters. And incidentally Libby isn’t me. She is not like me at all even if we do share a few opinions….’
Following her degree, Lesley teamed up with fellow student Hazel Cushion, who went on to found Accent Press, and in 2003 she became the commissioning editor for the first book of Sexy Shorts. Lesley has always been a voracious reader, mostly of mystery and crime fiction: ‘Ngaio Marsh, Carter Dixon, Marjorie Allingham, Rex Stout and onwards. Reading is my hobby really.’ She also enjoys books by some of the RNA’s leading writers. ‘I love their lightness of touch which is what I strive for.’ And she enjoys romance with a mystery, ‘old houses with lots of secrets.’ She advises others to read a lot too, ‘to learn what works on the page.’
Along the way Lesley has been a teacher of creative writing as well as a student, although she believes people are either natural writers or not and there is only a limited amount that can be taught. She has worked in WEA and adult education settings teaching Writing for Pleasure and Profit. ‘If you’re serious about getting published then you must learn the rules. You can learn techniques and find out what is and what is not acceptable, for example lay out.’
As a published writer, she was encouraged by Marina Oliver to rejoin the RNA. ‘It was about the time the Cyber chapter first started.’ And she cannot speak highly enough of the Association. ‘I remain a member and will probably be a member all my life, because I love the people. Their kindness and generosity has been beyond belief. I’ve made so many friends. It is the most supportive of any association I’m involved with. Thank you to everybody.’
Does Lesley have any words of advice for up-and-coming writers? ‘Yes. Don’t give up! Look at what’s happened to so many NWS writers even recently. Look what happened to me. I gave up on novels for a while but I was still scribbling all the time. I never stopped writing fiction, I just didn’t intend doing anything with it. But as my children say, “If you didn’t write, what would you do?” So my best advice to every one is to keep on going.’