It’s Meet the Author Monday! Each week we meet a new author and get to know a little about them, their writing process, publishing experience, and tips for other writers. Today we’re talking to J A Higgins, author of Finding Ruby: A Nell Montague Mystery and A Long Time Burning: A Nell Montague Mystery.
About J A Higgins:
J A Higgins was born and raised at Porton Down in Wiltshire, and currently works for the NHS in Salisbury. She has always been fascinated by history, crime, and the unexplained. She also loves food and travel.
Her first book in the Nell Montague Mystery Series – FINDING RUBY – was a Page Turner Book Award winner in 2021.
A LONG TIME BURNING is the second book of the series which explores how horrors from the past are still very relevant today.
Nell has had a terrible year, so she travels to North Chase to find some true Christmas magic. But the town has its own problems; its solstice festival is tainted by the disappearance of two teenage boys and a witch’s curse is blamed.
Then, nine-month-old Ava is threatened. Has a medieval killer been awoken or does something else haunt the woods?
Nell must battle through horrific nightmares and face her own demons to expose the truth before another child is spirited away. There is magic in the air this Christmas, but behind the tinsel and baubles glitters a terrifying secret that one family has hidden for centuries, and only Nell can uncover it.
Author Interview with J A Higgins:
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- Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
When I was writing my first book – FINDING RUBY – I was determined to keep my identity secret. I now recognise this as “imposter syndrome.” I had written from my heart and soul, had researched, and explored some dark subjects, and the thought that someone who knew me might read my words was terrifying. But eventually as I received feedback from editors and proofreaders I realised that my work deserved to have my name on it; that I should claim it as my own, and if people I knew read it and judged me for it then that was just something I had to be prepared for. I did make one concession though and used my initials instead of my first name. I worried that people might not read a spooky mystery thriller from a woman. I looked at other writers in my genre and then decided that J A Higgins would be the name I gave my books. I expect many new authors go through this stage, but J A Higgins – the author – is a separate person to Julie Higgins – the person, and this is liberating.
- What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
There are two points in time that come to mind when I read this question. At my primary school there were biographies included in our library and when I was about ten years old, I read REACH FOR THE SKY, the story of WWII flying ace Douglas Bader. I had seen the black and white film and had been fascinated by his determination to defy the odds and despite losing both legs, to continue to fly. When I read the book, and I admit I skimmed over the long words, I remember how he described lying in bed, in terrible agony, when suddenly the pain left him, and peace descended. Exhausted, he decided to give in to it. Then he heard a nurse outside say “Sssh! Don’t make so much noise. There is a boy dying in there.” In shock he realises she is talking about him and thinks “like hell I am.” The pain returns as he decides to fight back, to live. This struck me when I was a child as being powerful. I still think it is.
The second is from a classic children’s book that I have read in every decade of my life. Each time finding something new to learn from it. THE SECRET GARDEN by Frances Hodgson Burnett describes how Mary’s bitterness and anger has a detrimental effect on her health, causing a sallow complexion and thin hair. Once she embraces her new life and finds joy in watching her garden grow, we are told her complexion clears and her hair thickens. The idea that having a positive attitude could be good for you physically struck me as a child and is something I still live by.
- As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
Definitely a cat. Any cat. My beautiful black cat recently passed away after 19 years of mischief. Her green eyes still sparkled, and she pounced and played like a kitten right up to her final days. When I was writing she would stretch out across my wrists, or trot across my keyboard. She would sit on my notebook and run off with my pen. I still miss her. I love the way a cat watches everything and I often wonder what they are thinking.
- If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
I work full time at my local hospital as a clinical auditor. I help clinicians audit their practice, analyse their results, and help them develop an action plan if improvement is required. I love the logic of auditing, and really enjoy analysing data, which is in sharp contrast to writing fiction. It means that I need to be incredibly disciplined to write when I get home from work, and I try to write every day, even if it is just for a short time. Would I like to write full-time? I’m not sure. Perhaps my day job keeps one side of my brain occupied so that it is happy to let the other side take over when I write. I certainly would miss the interaction with my work friends.
- Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I once read that an author writes the book, but the reader finishes the story. I like that; it reminds me that the reader is an essential part of the writing journey. Also, a reader will have different life experience to me, and so will interpret my stories to fit their world. It is a partnership. I don’t write to please or to be marketable. I write to tell the stories bubbling in my brain. Not everyone likes spooky mystery thrillers. But if they have at least given my stories a chance then I am happy. My books will speak to, and find a place in some people’s hearts, and even if it is just a few people who feel this, then it is worth it.
- What advice would you give a new writer, someone just starting out?
Attend a creative writing course and practice your craft with short story writing. However, to truly find your voice you need to learn to write from a place of vulnerability. If you finish writing and then fear someone reading your words, then you have written from your heart. Write as if no one will ever read it, as if you have opened your soul and let it seep out onto the page. Then you have written truth. Don’t write to please other people or because you think it will sell. Write because it is too painful to keep your words inside and letting them fall on to the page is cathartic. Be your authentic self and your readers will find you.
- How do you come up with the titles to your books?
FINDING RUBY came late on. Ruby was the central character of the book, and I realised that all the fancy names I was coming up with just didn’t fit. Then it hit me; the book was a mystery so should have a title that reflected it.
A LONG TIME BURNING came during research for the book. I read an eyewitness account from the 16th century on the execution of three martyrs in the city where I live. Apparently, they were “a long time aburning” and I realised I had the title for my second book.
- Describe your writing space.
I live in a small apartment, so my writing space is in a corner of my hallway. I don’t have room for a desk so instead I write with my laptop on a cushion. Otherwise, I scribble on my mobile, in notebooks, or on the back of envelopes. I have even dictated on my mobile when I have suddenly been hit with inspiration.
- Where do you get your inspiration?
A snippet of conversation; an odd look from a stranger. A vivid dream or disturbing nightmare. Today it was toys lined up by the side of a rough track. I think once you open your mind to the world around you, you will never be short of inspiration. As a child I was often taken to castles and stately homes. Not only did I learn to love history, but I listened to the stories which had been passed down through the centuries. And I always asked about ghost sightings. I live in Salisbury, a medieval city boasting a cathedral over eight hundred years old and castle ruins and a stately home just out of town. How can I not be inspired to write spooky mystery thrillers when I live in such a historic place full of myths and legends?