Jim Eldridge has had 95 books published, which have sold over three million copies. He is also a radio, TV and movie scriptwriter. Here he introduces us to his new series, the Museum Mysteries.
When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?
When I was young I loved reading and losing myself in a book, and I thought "I would love to be able to do that". And the sight of books on shelves at my local library filled me with a desire to see one there with my name on it (an ambition realised, I'm glad to say).
Is there a book or author that has inspired you most?
Animal Farm by George Orwell struck me as brilliant when I was a teenager. And reading it again as an adult, it seemed to me even more brilliant. As you know, I was also a scriptwriter (250 TV scripts broadcast in the UK and internationally, 250 Radio 4 scripts broadcast); and when I was growing up we didn't have TV, just a radio, so my inspiration to become a scriptwriter was from listening to radio scripts by Alan Simpson & Ray Galton (who wrote Hancock's Half Hour) and Charles Chilton (Journey Into Space).
Do you have a strict writing routine?
Yes. I sit down at my computer every day by 9am to start writing, and work till 5.30. I take "thinking breaks" during the day when I go out and work in our organic vegetable garden, and this thinking time helps me work out plots and characters.
Tell us something about yourself that might surprise your listeners.
In the 1980s I was a Greenpeace/Friends of the Earth activist involved in direct action (chaining myself to drilling rigs, etc.) as part of the campaign to stop the shallow burying of nuclear waste in Britain. Our view was that once it was buried it would be "out of sight, out of mind" and would pose a lethal hazard for generations to come. We believed it should be stored safely and be retrievable and moniterable until such time as the technology existed to deal with it safely and responsibly. In 1987 that view was accepted by the Government...and the shallow burial of nuclear waste was banned in the UK. It has since then been stored in such a way that it can be monitored and retrieved when the technology exists, and we still await that proven technology.
How important is your scriptwriting background in helping to write novels?
Scriptwriting is a very different to novel-writing. In a script there is no place for the "interior monologue" from the characters – in a screenplay the emotions the character is feeling have to be shown by their expression and their movements. In a novel you have room to expand on what a character is feeling.
"I feel my long scriptwriting career has helped me when writing novels in developing plots (and sub-plots) and the vital importance of creating characters that readers want to know about."
You’ve written a wealth of books for children, how does writing for adults differ?
I love writing for both. Both have aspects that make it harder than the other: when writing for children, especially young children, the writer has to be very aware of the level of language ability the young reader may have, and not use language they may not understand. The writer also has to be aware of what children can cope with emotionally when reading, and be sensitive to that. When writing for adults, the plot needs to be more complex than that for children. The text also has to be much longer – 80,000 words minimum, as opposed to (say) 15,000 for children or up to 30,000 for young adults. And as well as being longer, the text for an adult novel has to have more depth, more layers of action and characters.
What makes the late 19th century an interesting setting for a crime novel?
That period of history has always fascinated people: Jack the Ripper, the Sherlock Holmes stories, Oscar Wilde, the later reign of Queen Victoria with British expansion across the world and its impact domestically, the politicians (Disraeli and Gladstone); the scientific and engineering advances, demands for social change, etc. It is such a rich backdrop for any story.
How do you go about researching the historical settings behind the Museum Mysteries?
The cases aren't based on real events, but I visit the places named (especially the museums) to be accurate about the setting. I also research the history of that particular area at that particular time (in this case, late Victorian).
What inspired you write a crime series using museums as the settings?
This came about during a meeting I had with the publishing director at Allison & Busby
. The idea came up in conversation, and we were both keen on seeing if we could make it work.
Do you have a favourite museum?
I love them all, but I admit to a soft spot for the British Museum
because I was born and brought up not far from it and spent my childhood and youth going there for (free) education.
Introduce us to your series character Daniel Wilson.
Daniel Wilson is in his mid-thirties. He a former detective at Scotland Yard, who was a detective sergeant (later Inspector) to Chief Inspector Frederick Abberline, who led the hunt for Jack the Ripper in the 1880s. Abberline retired from the police in 1892 and became a private enquiry agent. Daniel – who had always been seen by the police Top Brass as a maverick who challenged authority if he thought it was wrong, or being used wrongly – decided to follow Abberline's example. He retired shortly after Abberline in 1892 and set up as a private enqury agent. He is honest, tenacious, compassionate, and a searcher for justice for all. Wilson comes from a poor area of London (Camden Town) where he still lives. At the start of the first book, Murder at the Fitzwilliam, he is unmarried. There have been women in his life, but none that have developed into a long-lasting relationship.
What’s the dynamic like with Abigail Fenton?
Abigail Fenton (also in her mid-thirties) is from a middle-class family in Cambridge. At the start of Murder at the Fitzwilliam she shares a house with her slightly younger sister, Bella. She studied Classics at Girton College, the first women's college at Cambridge University, where she gained her degree. She has become a highly respected archaeologist, involved in archaeological digs in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, and Greece. She is highly intelligent and does not suffer fools (or hypcrites) gladly. In modern parlance she would be described as feisty. In late Victorian times, some view her as aggressive and domineering. Her initial encounter with Daniel is not promising, her defensiveness against him takes the form of verbal assault. But slowly they discover they have a lot in common: Abigail, like Daniel, is honest, tenacious, compassionate, and a searcher for truth and justice for all. Despite their different backgrounds and experiences, they are potentially twin souls.
Who would you have play them on TV?
This is difficult. Having been involved in 500 scripts during my scriptwriting days, I often wrote with a particular person in mind, but often the producer or director would suggest someone I'd never thought of who was much more suited. So now I leave casting to the producer and director.
"I love listening to audiobooks, the voice or voices bring the characters and the setting to life and really bring the listener into that world."
How important are libraries for an author?
Very very important indeed. For a constant supply of books for pleasure and for research. I think libraries are of paramount importance, not just for authors but for everyone, and the fact that libraries are closing across the country fills me with despair.
"Without access to libraries when I was growing up, my life would have been so much poorer in every way."
What’s next for Daniel Wilson?
Next for Daniel and Abigail is their investigation of a murder in London (Murder at the British Museum), followed by a murder investigation in Oxford (Murder at the Ashmolean).
Murder at the Fitzwilliam is available now in your local library, on CD, MP3 and to download from Audible. Murder at the British Museum is out 1st April and Murder at the Ashmolean will follow this summer, read by Peter Wickham.