L.B. Hathaway’s Posie Parker mysteries are Amazon bestsellers and that’s not surprising because they combine the charm of the classic Golden Age country house mystery – the Agatha Christie set – with the glamour and excitement of 1920s London.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and today L.B., or Lily as she’s called, talks about her latest book, Murder on the White Cliffs – yes, that is the White Cliffs of Dover. She tells why Noel Coward’s favourite bay and beach house feature in the story and she lets us in on the secret of how she fits her writing career around being a mum to two small girls.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- How Lily pivoted from law to novelist
- The attraction of 1920s London
- Time organization with a young family
- Learning from other writers
- Mixing fact with fiction
- The books she goes to again and again
Where to find L.B. Hathaway:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions. But now, here’s Lily.
Jenny Wheeler: Hi there Lily, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
L.B. Hathaway: Thank you so much, Jenny, for having me on. It’s such an honor to be on your show today.
Introducing L.B. (Lily) Hathaway
Jenny Wheeler: At the beginning, we’ll clarify your author name. You write under the name of L.B. Hathaway, but you are Lily, so anybody who is looking for your books, it’s under the name L.B. rather than Lily, isn’t it?
L.B. Hathaway: Yes, it is. It’s L.B. Hathaway.
Jenny Wheeler: How did you get started in this wonderful creation exercise that you’ve now embarked on. You’ve got the eighth book out soon. Was there a once upon a time moment when you thought, I’ve got to write fiction, and if so, was there a catalyst for it?
L.B. Hathaway: That’s a great question. I think storytelling has always been important to me, since I was a child. I always did write fiction, little bits here and there, poetry and short stories. I never thought I could be a fiction writer as my career to earn money, and so I studied hard and I became a lawyer, and I spent my twenties doing that. The once upon a time moment didn’t happen. It was more of a catalyst in my own life.
It was an odd time. I had met my husband and we moved to Switzerland. I had resigned from my job as a lawyer in the UK, in London, and I was starting to look for other jobs in Switzerland. I had this time, this period of time, this kind of bubble ahead of me.
It was a real gift, actually. It was the first time I had not been working or studying pretty much my whole life, and I decided it was the time to write a book. I wrote two books one after the other and they became the first two Posie Parker novels, so it came out of a career break in a way.
Career change made an opportunity
What happened was that the Posie Parker series really took off and I never did have to look for that job as a lawyer again. I also had my first child about a year later so then I became a full-time mum as well and started to balance and juggle the two together.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s a great story. It’s funny how quite often a hiatus in life’s flow like that can give people the opportunity to look at themselves and think, this is something I really want to do, so that’s fantastic. As I’ve mentioned the eighth one is just out. Posie Parker is a mystery series set in the 1920s and it’s almost a classical Golden Age type of mystery, set in country houses and that kind of thing. What attracted you first of all to the mystery genre as your chosen genre?
L.B. Hathaway: I think that to be a good writer, or to enjoy writing, you need to love your subject. It’s almost to live and to know your subject, and I simply adore mysteries and I adore Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and I think probably 90% of what I read myself are mysteries.
I like that whole aspect of puzzle – piecing the whole thing together, red herrings, putting it together – so if I was going to be writing something, it was always going to be a mystery. Added to that, I really like history. It was always going to be historical mystery.
Mysteries with a ghostly edge
And the Posie Parker mysteries carry a very slight – it’s not a supernatural edge, but there’s a tinge of otherworldliness to them as well, the sense that not everything is explainable with cold, hard facts. There’s this other gray area where sometimes events and people can’t be explained like that. It’s a slight exploration of that – of ghosts, of coincidences, of emotions – as well as there being a real mystery at the heart of each book.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, it’s a sense of inevitability about some events, or serendipity.
L.B. Hathaway: Yes, exactly.
Jenny Wheeler: What attracted you to the 1920s?
L.B. Hathaway: For me, it’s always been a fascinating time. I’m focused very much on Britain, but mainly London, in the Posie Parker novels. It’s such an interesting time, the 1920s, between the two wars. It’s a very hedonistic time for fashion and for music.
There are people dancing to jazz on tables at the Café de Paris, it’s a great time. But at the same time, it’s a terrible time. There’s evidence of the war everywhere. There are men sitting on every street corner in London begging, back from the war, there is no one looking after them.
Exploring a very strong female character is interesting, putting her in a 1920s context as well, because it’s an interesting time for women. All these men have died and there’s a lost generation of women as well, women who might have been wanting to get married or get engaged, or have gone down that path, suddenly find themselves having to reinvent themselves as single women, having to get a job, maybe for the first time, or to carry on with the job they had taken on in World War I.
It’s a time when women are fighting for equal pay in the UK, they’re fighting for the right to vote. I think it’s a really interesting time for placing a female character there. I wanted to put Posie Parker there, I wanted to explore a character who was facing all of that. But not just facing that – facing that and thriving as well.
A famous Dover beach
Jenny Wheeler: In this book, Murder on the White Cliffs – I don’t know if we’ve mentioned the title so far – the white cliffs are those famous cliffs of Dover that are known from the old song.
L.B. Hathaway: Yes, they are.
Jenny Wheeler: And the specific bay the book is set in, Saint Margaret’s Bay in Kent, has rather amazing historical connections in itself. You do a lot of research on that bay and give some wonderful explanations at the back of the book, even with photographs, of the actual physical reality at the time the book is set. Tell us a bit about that. It’s a fascinating history.
L.B. Hathaway: It’s the part of England which is closest to the Continent. It’s 21 miles to France. In fact, if you go now to Saint Margaret’s Bay, your cell phone reception will rather be from a French provider than an English provider, which is quite interesting. It is a really fascinating place through history. It’s this border country, which is always fascinating for a writer.
It’s a place which became a very glamorous resort from the 1920s up to the Second World War. It attracted a lot of film stars and royalty, a lot of playwrights. Noel Coward had a house there and Ian Fleming of Bond fame also lived there, he had a house there as well. In fact, 007 was the local bus number, which ran from Saint Margaret’s Bay to Dover.
A short-lived era of glamour
It has this very glamorous past, but it was a very short-lived glamour, it stopped at the Second World War. The place was completely destroyed in the Second World War and it never recovered, which in a way is nice now because it never became a theme park or anything. It is a very quiet bay to go to now, but it has this kind of darkness about it, it has a whole history of smuggling as well. It has a lot of history behind it and you can feel that when you go there.
Jenny Wheeler: I found it interesting that you remark it still is a hot spot for smuggling. I thought of smugglers today more using airlines. I suddenly had this image of people landing goods on a shore. It seemed amazingly antiquated. What kind of smuggling still goes on there?
L.B. Hathaway: I can’t give you an example this year, but the most recent high-profile case took place about 2016, but it was tried last year in a court in the UK, in 2019. There is a very famous actress called Miriam Margolyes who was in the Harry Potter films playing Professor Sprout and she, among a lot of other actresses and actors, has a house in Saint Margaret’s Bay. She rents it out as a short let.
Completely unbeknown to her, she had rented it out to a drugs gang who were snuggling in huge amounts of cocaine, I mean tens of millions of pounds worth of cocaine. They were flying it in from Holland, over the Channel, and landing on the White Cliffs and then taking it on from there. It was all being done in the dead of night.
This is a case which has been reported in the Law Courts. She had no idea it was going on, was absolutely horrified, and very publicly shamed them and said how dreadful it was. That’s just a case we know about so I’m sure it is going on.
Jenny Wheeler: How amazing. I hadn’t ever noticed that in the news. That’s quite remarkable. You mentioned in the notes too, that you have used White Cliffs in earlier books. It’s obviously a location that has fascinated you before. How did it come up in the earlier books?
Murder at Maypole Manor
L.B. Hathaway: It’s a location for my third book, Murder at Maypole Manor, which is about as close to a closed country house murder as you could get in the Posie Parker series. It’s the location for a house, but a fictional house, on the White Cliffs. It’s quite an atmospheric book, number three. It takes place on New Year, a New Year’s party in a snowstorm. You have the sense of being on the edge, on a border being cut off.
Elements of that story echo throughout the Posie Parker series – even though each book is designed to be able to be read on its own as a standalone story, elements of that story do go through mainly because of one particular character that Posie meets on the White Cliffs in book three. He will crop up again and again throughout the series. So it’s a place I go back to in my writing and it’s a place I go back to physically as often as I can.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. You mentioned some of these key houses, Noel Coward, Ian Fleming. The book also has a house, a famous brand-new art deco glass house, which the fashion designer couple in the middle of the story have built and occupy. Although you say that this is a fictional house, it’s based on a reality house. Tell us about that.
L.B. Hathaway: Right at the end of the beach, still existing today – they are private houses so you can see them from a distance, but you obviously can’t go in – are I think three cottages together but they make one big art deco house. This was the house Noel Coward owned up until 1945 I think it was, but it’s an art deco house and it’s very much part of the landscape there. It’s designed to almost look like part of the cliffs, it’s glass and it’s white, it’s that typical concrete of the time painted to look very grand.
A Noel Coward location
I based the house in my book Murder on the White Cliffs upon that real house, but I added on my own embellishments. In the book I made it much bigger. I made it of glass, like a glass armadillo, but I tried to be faithful to the Noel Coward house in where I had placed it on the beach itself.
Jenny Wheeler: You have referred to this period as being a time of freeing and liberation for women. Posie is presented as London’s premier female detective – after a few books she’s gathering quite a reputation for herself. As we have mentioned, they are based on the classic English country house mysteries, but they do have a twist. You have a number of international settings or international themes as well that come into it.
Posie is a lead character who is both an ‘out there’ young woman but also keeping within the sense of what would be acceptable in the twenties. Especially she’s a woman of reasonably high birth, the people she meets are in the upper middle classes or upper classes. Was developing her a convincing backstory, a challenge?
L.B. Hathaway: It wasn’t a challenge at all. I did quite a bit of research before starting the series – about London, what it was like as a middle class, upper middle-class woman who’s possibly lost her fiancé or husband, reinventing herself. I did quite a lot research about what that would be like – where you would be living, how much money you would have. Posie Parker as a character came to me pretty well formed. She’s quite a strong character and she pretty much came to me like that.
Sassy, beautiful and unsettled
I think what’s important for the reader is to give the taste of history and to be very convincing on that. But as you say, you need a lead character who is out there and who your readers can sympathize with. Posie is quite sassy and she’s beautiful, but I think there’s also this sense with detectives, there has to be an undercurrent of something that isn’t quite right.
She’s actually really sad. She’s lost her fiancé in the First World War. I suppose she’s looking for somebody. She’s on her own, she’s in London, and she has other small flaws as well. She has terrible taste in men, and she has a very sweet tooth. She has a tendency to be quite jealous of people, especially girls who are better dressed or better looking than she is. And she speaks her mind, as much as I can make her in a 1920s setting.
On that side, she came to me quite fully formed. I just had to add in some things as well, to give her a convincing back story. I wanted her to have some history in World War I itself so book four, which is called The Vanishing of Dr. Winter, is all about her role in World War I as an ambulance driver. That was quite important to me, to be able to share a little bit of what that must have been like with my readers as well. It’s not the whole story, but it’s a good part of it.
Separating fact and fiction
Jenny Wheeler: That brings us to the question I’m sure a lot of readers are fascinated in. In each book, is there a nub of true events or some little nugget that starts your thought process? You have got one set in an English film studio, number five, and number six is set in Venice. Is there somewhere buried in each of those a nugget of real life that got you started
L.B. Hathaway: They’re mainly from my imagination, but there is a spark of something that sets me off. I was in Venice and it’s an amazing place. It’s so atmospheric, it’s an amazing place to write a novel about, and I love to do the research on a place. But I always like to have a little bit of a juxtaposition, so I didn’t want to write a book in Venice in which everything’s hunky dory – the weather’s great, it’s all going really well.
Murder in Venice is a book where Posie Parker is supposed to be getting married, but it’s terrible weather, it’s November. The Fascist Party have been in power in Italy for two or three months and nobody’s quite sure what that means for their daily lives except they can see all these people swanning around in these very shiny black uniforms looking quite menacing. I usually like to explore a situation like that, or I see something and I think, what if? And I try and take the situation on from there.
Jenny Wheeler: And the English film studio. Were there really film studios operating in England at this time?
L.B. Hathaway: Yes, there were. Murder of a Movie Star, which is book five, is set in Warton Hall, which is just outside of London, and at that time, in 1923, it is the premier film studio in London. I think that was probably the book I had to do the most research for, even in terms of the exact kind of makeup they were wearing and the lights they were using. I haven’t actually been able to visit it because it’s been either flattened or the little bit of it that is left has been turned into a housing development, I think.
Early days of London movies
But it’s quite easy to get the sense of it – there was a lot written about it at the time. Later studios like Pinewood become very important, but it was a really thriving industry and a really exciting time to be making movies in England. They thought for a very brief period of time that they might be able to rival America. Of course, they couldn’t, but it was a very exciting time to be in and it was an exciting time to research as well.
Jenny Wheeler: Moving away from the specific books and turning to your wider career, you have mentioned that you were a lawyer for nearly a decade, and then you moved on to writing with young children, so I guess you had a period where you were trying to write around another job or even being a mum. You had those times of early morning starts or late-night finishes, and possibly they are still going on. Tell us a bit about your writing schedule.
L.B. Hathaway: My writing schedule at the moment is a little bit mad. I have a six-year-old and a two-year-old and I am a full-time mum. I write around my girls, but I do write every day. I usually write when my daughters go to bed.
I’m quite disciplined. I try and write for between two and three hours a day and I literally just write. I don’t edit, I don’t research in that time, I put the computer on and I write. I’m a night owl anyway, but it does mean I have some quite late nights.
Learning from other writers
At the moment it suits me, and it makes me quite disciplined as a writer to do it like that. When the littlest one goes to school, I think I’ll work more with it being my day job again, but it has its challenges.
Jenny Wheeler: Do you do a lot of research before you start?
L.B. Hathaway: It depends on the book, but I would say yes. I would probably spend about a month doing research, three weeks to a month, every evening researching. Then I get all my notes together and I literally just start and I go with it like that and then I check my sources right at the end again when I’m editing.
Jenny Wheeler: Is there one thing you’ve done in your writing career, more than any other, that you see as being the secret of your success? How did you break through to get a publisher, for example?
L.B. Hathaway: I am a self-published author and that came about because I didn’t know which route to go down. When I was on this little career break and writing my work, I went to a really interesting talk in Zurich, which was run by the Zurich Writers Group. There was a writer there called Joanna Penn, and she has a really great website, which is thecreativepenn.com. She’s a British thriller writer and she was talking there.
It was when self-publishing was just beginning and she was talking about how quickly you could get your books out there as opposed to waiting for an agent, waiting for this, waiting for that. That was the route I chose to go down then, but I was incredibly lucky also.
A luck break with Bookbub
About six months after I had released the first two Posie Parker books, I got picked up by Bookbub, the big American promoter of books, and that was a pivotal point in my career in that, suddenly overnight, they had pushed the first book to millions of Americans who were very kind and liked the book and wrote lovely reviews. It took the first book onto another level and gave me a whole platform of new readers. That was the point at which the whole series really took off.
Jenny Wheeler: Was that like a book club feature deal or one of those?
L.B. Hathaway: Yes, it was at the time. It’s changed slightly since then, that was seven years ago.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s a wonderful story. The best and worst advice you’ve got for young writers – well, not necessarily young, but writers starting out. There are quite a lot of people who start writing when they technically retire from their first or second or third job. But for new writers, what would you think is the best and worst advice you’ve heard given?
L.B. Hathaway: A couple of things. This talk I went to with Joanna Penn, she said, write what you know, and I really took that to heart. It’s true. You need to write something you love, something you’re convinced by because otherwise your readers are going to know you can’t be bothered and you’re not really into it. So that’s important advice. I’d say another important piece of advice is to get a good editor. Not somebody you know, not somebody who is very close to you. A professional, to look through what you’ve done.
The worst piece of advice I think could be – there is this big common perception about getting your first three chapters absolutely perfect in order to send to an agent, to send to a publisher or to send wherever. If you’re going down that route, that’s great, but I think a lot of people get very stuck with that idea.
Finish the book the best advice
They think they’ve got to make these first three chapters absolutely perfect; each sentence has got to be absolutely right and then what happens is they get into this cycle of doing these first three chapters. I know people myself who have done this, and they never get on to finish the book.
Another important piece of advice would be if you want to write that book, write it and finish the book and then at least you’ve got it in your hands and you can edit it or get it edited. That’s my advice.
Jenny Wheeler: So more or less do a first draft with your internal editor turned well and truly off, and then worry about the internal editor once you’ve got the whole manuscript there.
L.B. Hathaway: Yes, I think so. There’s this tendency to get stuck on these first three chapters and then you never move on – there’s not chapter four, there’s not an ending, and before you know it, you’ve given up or got a bit frustrated with it. It should be fun at the end of the day.
Jenny Wheeler: This is the Joys of Binge Reading, so turning to Lily as reader – I like to see this podcast partly as a place where people can go to discover new writers, to discover new books, the unputdownable books that they will keep reading into the night when they should be going to sleep. What writers do you read when you’re wanting a binge read like that?
Lily the reader – what she likes
L.B. Hathaway: I’m a really avid reader. I read every day before I go to bed and I read lots of different things. When I am writing myself, I tend to read nonfiction, and that can be anything – biographies, political biographies, whatever. I’ve just finished reading two books by Shaun Bythell who is a Scottish writer, and they are so funny and so astute. He is a bookseller in a small town in Scotland, and he’s commenting about the book trade in general but also about his customers and about stories and books.
The first book is called The Diary of a Bookseller and the second book is called Confessions of a Bookseller. Both were amazing and really kept me up. Most of those nights, I didn’t want to go to sleep. I think he’s about to bring his third book out, which is called Seven Types of People You Find in Bookshops. They are really excellent.
In terms of fiction and series, I like a lot of different things, but I always come back to mysteries. I like quite dark Scandinavian mysteries like Arnaldur Indriðason. They are Icelandic stories. I always come back to Agatha Christie though, especially Poirot, and I like Agatha Christie writing as Mary Westmacott as well. I have enjoyed all her novels. There is not one I wouldn’t read again.
When I want a quiet binge read, I like reading Barbara Pym. She was writing in England between the thirties and the seventies. They are not mysteries and they’re not romances but there’s something of both in all her novels.
They are novels about women put into strange situations and they again are really lovely books, very funny, very astute, the kind of thing that will keep you turning the pages way too late at night. Of all her books, I would say the most enjoyable one for me is a book called Excellent Women. That’s my book I would always come back to again and again. And I have come back to it again and again. It’s absolutely brilliant.
What would she change?
Jenny Wheeler: Sounds great. I am not familiar with the Icelandic writer. I’ll have to make some inquiries there.
We’re nearly coming to the end of our time together, so circling around and looking back – you have been writing for seven or eight years now, have you, since you were published?
L.B. Hathaway: Yes, I have been writing seven years professionally.
Jenny Wheeler: Looking over that seven-year period, if you were doing it all over again right now, is there anything you would change and if so, what would you change?
L.B. Hathaway: That’s a really hard question. Because of the way I have written and the way I write, with the children, I don’t think I could have changed anything. I also quite like the way my writing story and Posie Parker in particular as a character has come on.
Especially when you’re writing a series and developing a character over time, it’s all part of the story. It’s all part of the journey. There will be dead ends and there’ll be slightly wrong characters and she’ll choose the wrong person sometimes. But it’s all part of the journey, so I don’t think I would change anything at the moment. But it’s a really good question.
Jenny Wheeler: That leads us on to the penultimate question, and that is, what’s next for Lily as writer? What have you got on over the next 12 months, and do you have a sense that Posie has got quite a lot of life in her yet? She’s coming up to a critical point in her own life, isn’t she, where she’s about to get married again. When that happens with characters, sometimes it changes the whole dynamic of the story. How are you planning to negotiate that change in her life?
Marriage Is Murder?
L.B. Hathaway: That’s a really interesting question. Book nine, which is already published – it’s a very short book, a two-hour read – Marriage is Murder? is when she gets married. I got a lot of emails from my readers asking if that was it, and I would like to say, no, it’s definitely not it. At the moment I’m writing a book which is set in 1925, and she’s a detective of the 1920s, so my plan is to take her right up to 1930.
It’s an interesting one, when she gets married. She is going to marry somebody who is wonderful and who is very forgiving and understanding of her career, so I need to balance that with her being a good detective and a sort of good wife at the same time. That’s a challenge for me.
But in terms of the next 12 months, in 2021 there are two Posie Parker books coming out at least, plus a short Christmas story. That’s next year. After that, as I said, Posie Parker is supposed to be carrying on through the 1920s, so she hasn’t stopped and she’s not stopping yet.
I would like to develop another series, which is slightly later in time, around the time of the Second World War, a bit of a spinoff from Posie Parker, so a couple of the same characters will be in that series. It will be a series which will come out in about two years’ time, and it’s slightly under wraps at the moment.
A “spinoff’ series coming
Jenny Wheeler: It sounds as if you’ve got a very good marketing nose as well. Is it something that comes naturally? The idea of a spinoff from Posie Parker is very good, I’m sure a publishing house would love that idea, it’s very strong in its marketing foundation.
L.B. Hathaway: It’s something I’ve been asked about. I’m quite open to suggestions from my readers as well. It’s always interesting. I have wonderful readers who like to communicate, whether that’s through reviews or emails or whatever it might be. Quite a few people have said they would like to read something set in the Second World War but in the same area, that Central London area.
I’m quite led by my readers as well and somehow it’s all worked out so far. Hopefully it will carry on like that.
Jenny Wheeler: That brings us beautifully to the closing question I like to ask and that is, how do you interact with your readers and how can they find you online?
Where you can find Lily online
L.B. Hathaway: Yes, of course. I get quite a few emails from my readers. I get emails to me and I get quite a few messages on Facebook or people tagging things on Facebook, and on Goodreads. But mostly people email me, and I try and respond. I do one day every week when I try and respond to everyone in one go.
If people want to find me, my website is the best place to visit and it’s www.lbhathaway.com. There are links there to my Facebook page and Twitter, but I think Facebook is where people tend to go at the moment. You can find me there. It would be lovely to hear from people.
Jenny Wheeler: We will have links to all those sites on the show notes that are published with the podcast, and you’re quite happy for us to put your email on as well?
L.B. Hathaway: Yes. Could you put the email you’ve been using with me, which is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, we will make sure it’s the right one.
Lily, it’s been great talking. I’m very impressed with the straightforward, focused way in which you’ve tackled this series, and you obviously have developed a very strong following for it. All power to you – two books out next year. That’s pretty amazing with two young children as well.
L.B. Hathaway: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.
Jenny Wheeler: Bye for now.
If you enjoyed Posie Parker you might also enjoy Nicola Upson’s Josephine Tey mysteries.
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