(See update at the bottom. If you’re here because you want to know about my new crime series, starring HM The Queen, check it out at www.sjbennettbooks.com.)
Just over a year ago, after the launch of The Bigger Picture and a wonderful panel event at the Oxford Literary Festival, I went to work on a new book. A new kind of book. An adult crime novel, in fact. These were the books I read growing up: Dorothy L Sayers, Rex Stout, PD James, Dick Francis, Robert B Parker … The first books I tried to write before I was published were mysteries.
I’d had the idea for this story in 2018, when I was travelling to friends to lock myself away and write a different book. What if the Queen solved crimes? I couldn’t shift the thought and the character of Queen Elizabeth II as a secret modern-day Miss Marple developed super-fast in my head. Soon, there were enough ideas for a series. I started to write the story and instantly struggled with point of view. I had a go, and then another, and showed the best of these to my husband, and he said it wasn’t up to my usual standard. I trust my husband’s judgment, so I laid it aside.
Then, in the summer of 2019, it all came together and I wrote like a demon. I was recovering from radiotherapy after a successful operation to remove a very small tumour from my breast. The treatment hadn’t felt traumatic at all, and yet once it was over, I had that cork-bobbing-to-the-surface feeling that powered me through the story. It helped me through my wonderful husband’s life-threatening illness and weeks in intensive care and on the wards in our local hospital. It powered me through the intensive writing course I taught that July – with some of my best ever students. It got me through the long, hot summer and into the autumn, and then … it was done. My husband’s fastidious about tailoring suggested the title: The Windsor Knot. The title in turn suggested the plot. The rest came with practice, and a year of having thought about what I wanted to do.
My idea was to self-publish, with my husband’s help on the marketing side. We knew nothing, but we were willing to learn. However, first of all I submitted The Windsor Knot and the series outline to half a dozen agents I really admired. Several said no, but a couple were interested. In January, I signed with Charlie Campbell, of Kingsford Campbell. That turned out to be a pretty good decision.
What happened next coincided exactly with the steady progress of COVID 19. Charlie and the international agencies he worked with sold the series to Italy, the UK, and then to nine other territories. In four of them, the deals were six-figures, and in one it was what the industry, I now know, calls ‘strong six-figures’. Which means life-changing, if you’re a typical writer – and I am.
How we would have celebrated at the London Book Fair if it had gone ahead! But just as I was hearing from editors about how much they’d enjoyed my little crime story, travel was shutting down. I was self-isolating to protect my husband. Plans for parties became email threads. Life as I knew it – on the brink of changing anyway, thanks to the deals – transformed into something none of us (except maybe Bill Gates and the WHO pandemic team) could have anticipated or recognised.
I signed with Charlie just under four months ago. As I write this in mid-May, the main edits of book one are done, the UK copy edit is in, the US one is due any minute, the German translation is lined up, and I’m three quarters of the way through the first draft of book two. My lockdown has been different from most people’s lockdown, I recognise that. It has been truly truly TRULY weird, but strangely productive so far. It helps when your day job involves isolating yourself in your garden shed anyway. And helps even more when the book you’re writing is set in 2016, long before the virus made its fatal leap from animal to man. 2016 has its own craziness to contend with, but it still feels quaintly historical compared with the live apocalypse we’ve encountered since.
And so, I suppose, all this is a long way of saying that I won’t be writing children’s fiction for a while, although I still teach it at City Uni and podcast about it at Prepublished, and read it, and care about its essential impact on young lives as much as I ever did.
If you enjoy my writing, look out for my crime books, which will start to appear in a few months’ time, in the new post-COVID world. I will have a different website for those, which I’m sure you’ll find when the time comes.
If you’re one of my regular readers, thank you so much for your love and support for all these years. I’ve been truly privileged to have encountered so many fabulous readers, writers, librarians and teachers over the last decade. Keep writing to me! It’s always wonderful to hear from you.
UPDATE – March 2021. I see I wrote the above post in May 2020, so nearly a year ago. A lot had already happened by then, and a lot more has happened since. The Windsor Knot is out in the UK, Germany, the US and Canada. It’s shortly to appear in France in May, and lots of other countries later in the year. You can read The New York Times review here. And please check out the illustration while you’re at it – it’s one of my favourites. I’ve finished book 2, which is called A Three Dog Problem in the UK and will be out here in November this year, and in the US in March 2022. I’m now working on book 3 in the series, with plenty more to come. Find me over at www.sjbennettbooks.com for the latest news, and you. can sign up for my newsletter on that website for an exclusive short story.