Sam Blake has had a great career helping many best selling writers get published. Now she’s joined their ranks, with her Cat Connolly series about a Dublin detective that’s been described as “PD James meets Karin Slaughter.” The first book in the series – Little Bones – went to No 1 in the Irish Best Seller lists and stayed in the Top Ten for eight weeks. The second, In Deep Water, is recently published.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- How Sam became one of Ireland’s top literary scouts
- Why she has three unpublished MS still sitting in a drawer
- How she became the answer to her own problem
- The No 1 reason for Sam’s writing success
- The dark romance she self published – and why she won’t write another
- Binge reading Jack Reacher and other crime writer heroes
Where to find Sam Blake:
As an author: samblakebooks.com
Publishing and Writing: writing.ie
Jenny: Hi there: I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and today Sam Blake is talking about how she morphed from being one of Ireland’s most successful literary scouts into a best selling novelist. (It took longer than you think.)
But before we hear from Sam, just a reminder that the show notes for this BingeReading episode are available at the website,
That’s where you’ll find links to Sam’s website and books, as well as a free E book, and information on how to subscribe to our podcast so you don’t miss future episodes.
And now here’s Sam. Hello there Sam, and Welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Sam: Thanks Jenny it’s nice to be invited.
Jenny: Sam – as Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin you’ve had a very successful No 1 career as a literary scout and publishing consultant. You’ve seen at first hand how hard it is for writers to make a living. So what was the “Once Upon a Time” moment that made you decide to “join them.”
Sam: Yeah absolutely. I really only got involved in the publishing industry as a result of wanting to write. I started writing in 1999. My husband went sailing across the Atlantic in a race for eight weeks and it was November here, so long dark evenings, and I was working in event management at the time.
I was at home alone and I didn’t have any children then, so I just started writing. By the time he came back, the bug had really bitten – I didn’t even have a computer then, I was writing in long hand and then going into the office in the evenings or at weekends and typing it up.
When he came back it was Christmastime, and he bought me a computer and I never looked back. I wrote every spare moment, every minute from then on. I was on about Book Three. . . I’d finished Book One and sent it out everywhere, and it was rejected everywhere, but first books often aren’t the most amazing books ever and by the time I got to Book Three I realised I wanted to learn more.
I realised I needed to do more about actual fiction writing, and so I enrolled in a weekend workshop down in Dingle in Kerry. A beautiful part of the country, but in order to go to the workshop I had to fly my parents in from the UK – I had two small children by that stage – and I had to leave frozen dinners in the fridge and notes on this and that – it was a massive operation involved to get away for the weekend so when I came back I realised “Yes I could write” but I wanted to learn more and more and I couldn’t do the whole weekend thing again, it just wasn’t practical, and there wasn’t anyone who was doing one day workshops in Ireland at the time, which is what I felt I needed.
I looked at various courses that were available. I wanted to hear from best selling authors basically, so I set up a company named Inkwell and set about bringing in best selling authors, and finding out from them how they wrote, and why they were really successful. When I first set the workshops up we’d planned five workshops over Saturdays (the first Saturday of every month) during the winter and they really took off, far more than I expected, because I really only set them up for myself, so really everything I have done is the result of wanting to write first.
I didn’t go into publishing first and then decided to write, I wrote first and went into publishing to learn how to do it better.
Jenny: Amazing that you became the answer to your own problem.
Sam: Well that is it. I knew I wanted to do something, I knew I could do it – I was working in event management at the time, so I knew how to organise things, that was the easy bit. I was very lucky, I have a writer friend called Sara Webb and I rang her up and asked her “What do you think of this, and who should we get?” Originally I was just going to do one workshop, on crime writing, but by the time I’d found the hotel and done all the costings, all that kind of thing, I realised it was a bit silly to just do one . . .
Now we start with a ” beginning writing” workshop at the start, and a “getting published” workshop at the end, and then different genre workshops in the middle, so that was how I started getting contact with publishers and agents, because the getting published workshop was always very popular – while I was still writing myself I was reading lots of books, and I became very much more experienced about what needed to go into a book, so when I found something I liked I would send it to an editor – one of the Irish editors I knew – and I quite quickly became quite successful.
People were picking up the books and publishing them. I didn’t really regard it as part of the business, it was just something I did, helping people along the way. But then as time progressed it became a bit more formalised and now I scout for about five or six agents based in the UK and Ireland and I am always actually looking for stuff.
It’s the best feeling ever when you find something you like and you give to to someone else and they love it. too. Every single time I doubt myself – well actually sometimes I don’t, I find something and I know I love it completely and I will keep going until I find someone else who loves it too.
Jenny: And those first three books you wrote – did they become Little Bones and In Deep Water or are they still in a drawer somewhere?
Sam: No there’s three still in a drawer. . I did start writing a detective fiction series with a male detective and I did send it into a publishing house Town House Country House and they loved it, and it was back in the days when if an editor liked a book she sent it out to her readers to test it and I got reader’s critiques back on the manuscript and I saw how much work it needed, but that was OK, I got stuck in.
But in between the jigs and reels the company got sold to Simon & Schuster and they decided they weren’t going to do any more publishing in Ireland so that was a deadend. That book was great, in that I learned a lot – especially the value of reader reports, which we do a lot of at Inkwell. One of the things people need to understand about writing is that often it’s not the first book you write that gets published. Some people are very gifted, but nine times out of ten the first book is the apprenticeship and about finding your voice.
It was by that third book I think I had found my voice, so Little Bones was Book Four and I took my time writing that, obviously I was doing other things – having children, setting up businesses – and then I decided I would write a dark romance in the middle, a book called True Colours.
I had an agent by then in London and she sent out True Colours and we had “rave rejections.” Lots of people loved it but nobody wanted to buy it.
So I went back to Little Bones and finally decided a couple of years later that I would publish True Colours myself, and it went really really well. I think the first day it went live we had 25,000 downloads, that was my first foray into publishing, but I always held out for the traditional deal. Then I got another agent, one of the agents that I scout for in WME, I said something about someone “being very influential in my writing” and he turned and said “Oh, do you write?”
I had forgotten to mention it. And when I told him Little Bones, was about the bones of a baby being found in the hem of a wedding dress he wanted to see it straight away, which was quite a scary moment to be honest, because I had known him in publishing for a long time and he trusted my judgement. I went home and read the book through, because I hadn’t read the manuscript for a long time and I thought “My credibility could be totally blown away here…” but anyway I duly sent it and he loved it and he found me a publisher and that was all good.
Jenny: You obviously had that success with self publishing, so why do you still pursue the traditional model?
Sam: I could continue to self publish successfully, I run a business and self publishing is very much about running a business, but I like other aspects of traditional publishing. I like having the support of an editor who knows what they are doing and a marketing team, someone else is worrying about the cover, it gives me the chance to just get on with worrying about the writing the story and really that’s where I want to focus – on producing the best book I possibly can. It’s great to have the team behind you, it’s not just you going out, there is a whole gang involved in the production
Jenny: Was True Colours published under the name of Sam Blake or another name?
Sam: No True Colours was published under Vanessa Fox. My maiden name is Vanessa Fox. My full name – my married name is Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin. That’s far too long for a book, and we’d already come up with Sam Blake for my crime name. With a writing name you really want something people are going to remember. We didn’t want to use that because it’s not crime, and that’s what I want to write. Crime is my passion, because of the mystery.
Jenny: There has been a tremendous flourishing of women writers in Ireland writing crime. You just have to mention a few names – Tana French, Alex Barclay, Jo Spain and yourself to just name a few – all writing successful crime. Why do you think there has been this creative surge in women crime writers?
Sam: We are not very sure. Alex Barclay was one of the first. Yes – and there’s Liz Nugent too. When we girls are on a panel we are always asked this question and we’ve been sitting around debating it. I think perhaps the women were always writing. We are all of a quite a similar age and I think we might have all got to the point where we started to submit work our work was at the right level to be published if you like.
Most of the male crime writers seem to be in the north of Ireland and most of the women seem to be in the south – I don’t know why that is. But it’s really good because nobody really understands what you do when you’re a writer, so much of it goes on it your head and especially when you are a crime writer researching fairly gory things so it’s great. It’s brilliant we have great fun chatting and we are all interested in the same kinds of things so its great. I think if you research our internet histories we’d all be banned!
Jenny: You are needing to research grim topics and your husband is in the Irish police force. Did his work help give insight into the way the police work or was it a bit of a banned topic at home?
Sam: No, it was definitely useful. He is supportive of my books, but I usually go to colleagues of his for advice so I can get an unbiased opinion. The culture of the police force is a very definite thing and I’m sure it would be a similar thing in the UK or in New Zealand.
I wanted to get that right, to capture the feel. I wanted a detective to be a detective, with all the details right, it wasn’t just fictional because these people are real people with real jobs and I wanted to get a sense of reality. I’ve just finished Book Three and in the middle there is a traffic accident. I wanted to get all the details right and I was able to speak to the traffic guys and find out how they reconstruct scenes and create three dimensional images – all the forensic stuff. I am fascinated by the forensics.
In fact when I first started writing my husband was working closely with the state pathologist – Dr – now Professor Marie Cassidy and she was tremendously generous in reading early manuscripts and giving me books and helping me along the way. Everybody has been very helpful. To me, crime readers are intelligent people. They are into crosswords and puzzles and solving things and they will probably read more crime than I am ever able to and are very well versed in forensics, so you want to get it right. If the detail is wrong it is going to jerk them out of the story.
Jenny: Is there one thing more than any other that has attributed to your success as an author?
Sam: Writing and re-writing and taking time over it. One of the things you have as a debut writer is the luxury of time. You don’t realise it at the start because you are desperate to get published. When I came to write Little Bones I knew the bones were in the dress, but I didn’t know why they were in the dress, and actually I didn’t start with the detective, Cat Connolly, I started with the artist who is in the book.
It was having the time to play around with it. There are lots of chapters that never made it, there was a whole draft of the book where the Angel character didn’t appear, and that is only something you can do when you have time. When I sold Little Bones I was contracted for a three book deal. You then have to trot out the subsequent books quite quickly. One of the key things – the benefit of being able to write, re-write and enjoy it.
Jenny: Yes there is quite a pressure in self publishing to churn out books
Sam: Yes – it is a benefit to have a lot of books if you are self published, and that’s great, but there are some books which probably would have benefited from more work. There are some fantastic self published books as well.
I have a great friend called Hazel Gaynor, she wrote an amazing book called The Girl Who Came Home which she had an agent for. They sent it out to all the London publishing houses. It was a book based on the Titanic and it was too close to the Titanic anniversary, so they couldn’t get it to work in their publishing programmes so they turned it down. It’s a brilliant book, so she decided to self publish.
She sold 100,000 copies, she got offers from two New York agents, and it went to auction with William Morrow and became a Harper Collins book. So there are some fantastic self published books out there as well. Take time, think about your story, listen to your sub conscious mind. I am a great believer in the subconscious mind, if something doesn’t feel quite right, listen to it and make changes.
Jenny: If you were going to organise a magical mystery literary tour for any of your books, where would you suggest readers go?
Sam: Okay, so if you were coming from your part of the world and flying into Dublin city, there is a little train called the DART, which runs around the coast. Dublin is set on a big bay, Dublin Bay, with the River Liffey flowing out to it. You follow the coast down, particularly if you take the train, it’s a beautiful train ride and you pass through some beautiful places, and you get to Dun Laoghaire (sounds like Dunleary- edit note) and the police station where Cat Connolly works is literally the police station where my husband used to work, I know it very well.
Dun Laoghaire has a beautiful harbour, a beautiful pier and some lovely walks in the area, (about 20 mins from the centre of Dublin) and then you could go on down to the coast a bit further to Dalkey, you are passing the Terrace Houses in Monkstown where Zoe’s grandmother lives, you can see the Wicklow mountains and you go down to Dalkey on the coast again. Dalkey used to be an important harbour in medieval times but it is only small today. This is where Zoe has her cottage, literally from Zoe’s cottage, Cat Connolly has a run up Killarney Hill. It’s all quite a wooded area, there are lots of places you can visit around there, it’s quite beautiful.
And then if you wanted to go further afield, part of Little Bones is set in London, in the East End, so you could visit Whitechapel Market and Bethnal Green, all the places are real. and if they go there and wander around they can see where I am talking about.
Jenny: In the second book, In Deep Water you have mentioned that it was sparked by the disappearance of an American student who went missing very soon after you arrived in Ireland in the mid 90’s. What initially took you to Ireland? I imagine quite possibly a romance with an Irish police officer – where I gather you have lived ever since . . .
Sam: Yes quite right, I married the policeman and I’ve lived here ever since. Annie McCarrick was the student . . . I was living in a town called Bray, a little south of Dalkey, and she disappeared from a little village at the foot of the Wicklow Mountains called Enniskerry which was literally only about five minutes from where I was living.
It was a really remarkable case because at the time there were a whole lot of women disappearing, I think in the end there were nine altogether, and they became known as “the missing women”, although at the time at first they didn’t realise Annie was part of that. .
It was a huge Guard operation, she was traced on a couple of busses, it was late in the afternoon, it was March and it gets dark early, there were a number of odd things, but I think because she was an American and I’d arrived very soon beforehand – I think I arrived in the September and she disappeared in March – so close to where I lived and because she was a foreigner and I was too, I have always wondered what on earth had happened. I studied the case in a lot of detail and many of the landmarks of her case are mentioned in the book. In one part Cat goes to Johnnie Fox’s Pub in the mountains and that was one of the last places that Annie was seen alive. I’ve always been very interested in what happened to Annie. We’ve never found out.
Jenny: What do you hope readers take away from your books? Is there a deeper message than sheer entertainment?
Sam: Very much entertainment. You read to take yourself out of the place you are in, and I hope they take people in whatever part of the world they are in, to a little part of Ireland and see what it is like. Hopefully they’ll be drawn into the mystery and want to keep turning the pages. I want them to feel they know Cat Connolly as well as I do. I feel she is one of these pen pal people, who you don’t see for years, but you can pick up with her and know really really well everytime you see her. I hope the reader by the end of the books feel they know her really well too.
Jenny: This podcast is called The Joys of Binge Reading and we do focus on books people like to binge read. Have you authors that you’ve binge read – either now or in the past If so who – any recommendations for listeners?
Sam: Yes definitely. When I stumbled across the first Jack Reacher by Lee Child I just couldn’t get enough of them! I think I read about ten books in that first week. I was mad about him. I love Lee Child and I have been blessed to interview him as well, and talk to him about what goes into those books, he is an amazing, amazing man and I adored Jack Reacher.
I did the same with Karin Slaughter when I discovered her books, I’ve no idea why it took me so long, but once I found her I read book after book of hers. The same with Stephanie Plum – by Janet Evanovich. They are hilariously funny and the agency that I am with now also represents her. I think her latest book is just about to come out – Hard Core Twenty Four (Stephanie Plum book #24) I think – and I love her. I think when you discover a character you love you stick with them.
I remember the same thing happening years and years ago with Patricia Cornwell, and sitting down and reading all the books back to back! As authors of commercial fiction we have to get out one book a year, but as a reader that’s a long time to wait! If you liked Little Bones then you have to wait another year to read In Deep Water – that’s quite a time to wait. Hopefully when the third one comes out they may be able to read them all together.
Jenny: So what is next for Sam Blake the writer? I believe Book Three in the Cat Connolly series is due out soon?
Sam: Book Three is called No Turning Back and it’s all about the Dark Web, set around Trinity College in Dublin. It’s about web cams and and hacked web cams and a good bit about the dark web, a mystery story again. Two students who know each other but whose cases are apparently unrelated, wind up dead and Cat Connolly has to find out why. Hopefully it all works,
I’ve just sent in the third draft and I’m pleased with how it’s turned out. and then I have to wait and see what my publisher wants me to do next, whether it’s another Cat Connolly or something else. In the meantime I have a little gap because of publishing schedules and they want me to do a stand alone novel.
In Deep Water is just coming out in some parts of the world, and No Turning Back will be coming out between now and 2019 in various parts of the world, so now I am working with various ideas for a stand alone novel.
It’s funny because something similar happened (working with various ideas) with both the other books – In Deep Water and No Turning Back but at least I had characters I knew there. The relationship between Cat and Dawson O’Rourke changes in Book Three, Cat is really quite mad about O’Rourke and things change there, Book Four – I have to wait and see. I have a title and a couple of characters. You have to just write your way in . .!
Jenny: Quite a challenge!
Sam: It certainly is! I was doing an event this weekend, at the Dublin Mystery Festival and Julie Parsons and I were doing a workshop together called Cracking Crime and Julie said a great writer, John Mortimer, had said that the best plots came from the tapping of the keyboard. You need to write your way into another story.
Jenny: Are you an outliner or does the story develop as you write?
Sam: I feel more comfortable with a strong outline. I come up with an idea and I need to plot it out to see if I have got a whole book. I have a lot of ideas, but sometimes when I start plotting them, they fizzle, there isn’t enough there to carry a whole book.
But having said that, when you start writing, you do need to let your characters have space to take off on their own and allow your writer voice to come through. When that happens you will go down a route you never expected or it takes a twist you didn’t see coming. It’s fantastic when that happens. It means its working really well, The key thing is to just get something on the page and then you can shape it afterwards and then if there are plot holes or issues you can work on them. So there is a bit of both, its not one or the other.
Jenny: If you were going to do it all over again, what, if anything, would you change?
Sam: Not really anything. I am very happy with the way things turned out. It would have been great if I hadn’t have taken so long. It was quite a long time from when I first started writing to when I got published, but it wasn’t as if I wasn’t doing anything else. I was having children and getting businesses set up, and I edited a couple of books and had lots of short stories published in that time.
It would have been lovely if it had happened a bit quicker, when I was younger and I could enjoy it but no I am quite happy, I am loving it and I am thrilled with how it’s worked out. When Little Bones was published it was Number One in Ireland for the first four weeks and stayed in the Top Ten for another four weeks. Its wonderful to have a best seller like that. If I could have more ideas on tap! It’s just a matter of working out which you’re going to run with.
Jenny: Sam we are coming to the end of our time. Where can people find you and your books online? Are you active on social media?
Sam: Yes I am very busy on social media. I have a lot of websites and a lot of different bits and pieces going on. Sam Blake has a website, Samblakebooks.com. and I am @samblakebooks on Twitter. I run a very big writing website, Writing.ie (The complete online writing magazine) which is very useful for anyone interested in writing – with articles from getting started to getting published and marketing a book – it’s a huge magazine site that has thousands of articles and various Facebook pages.
And then there is the publishing side,
and @inkwellhq under my own name
Jenny: It’s been great to have this chance to talk to you Sam and I am really confident that the third in the series is going to to be as good as the others have been.
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