Blog Tour: The Body in the Boat - Author Interview with AJ MacKenzie

Today I'm delighted to welcome author duo Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel, who write under the pseudonym AJ MacKenzie and have just published their latest novel, The Body in the Boat.

Hi Marilyn and Morgen and welcome. First of all could you tell us a bit about yourselves?

We’re both from Canada, though we’ve lived in Britain for over 30 years, and we’ve been married for…[counting on fingers] 38 years this year. We met while we were at university in Canada, and discovered among other things that we both love writing. The rest, as they say, is history (and we both have more than one degree in history .

When not writing, we do various things. Marilyn makes the occasional foray into the world of academic medieval history, is a trustee of a multi-academy trust and also sings with an acapella group called The Briars (look them up on Facebook – they are great 😉). Morgen writes really dull non-fiction books about business and lectures occasionally at business schools in Britain, France and Slovenia. We’re both very fond of many different types of music, we travel whenever we can, often to places where we would like to set novels (which often are places with warm weather and good food – strange coincidence, that). We’ve also written some non-fiction history together, and have a book on the Battle of Poitiers coming out later this year.

I'm very curious to know more about how your writing process goes. Is it easy to work together? 

It is easy to work together, perhaps surprisingly so! It helps that we know each other well and know how each others’ writing minds work. At the beginning of a project we spend a lot of time talking and thinking and trying things out, sometimes at home, sometimes walking on Dartmoor or on the beaches in North Cornwall. Fresh air is very good for the creative processes! We bounce ideas off each other, pick up each others’ trains of thought and then sort of weave ideas together. We also sometimes work separately and email ideas to each other even though work in adjacent offices. We are also often working on more than one project at a time.

After that, we sit down to write. There’s no set formula, we don’t write alternative chapters or anything like that. Who writes what depends on a) who has the time to do it, and b) who feels strongly about a particular scene or chapter and wants to grab it. Sometimes one of us is particularly good at writing in the voice of a certain character, while the other is drawn to write the descriptions of extreme cold. 

Once we have a first draft together, one of us then runs a rule over it and makes sure it all fits together and has a single voice and tone. Then comes a process of picky editing, where we both sit down with the manuscript and read it aloud to each other, looking for flaws and hopefully catching most of them.

The process is never the same twice. Each book evolves in a slightly different way. That’s one of the things that makes it all so fascinating, and fun.

How do you research the period for your novels? Do you think that in historical fiction, the time period and setting is as important as the story itself?

Time and setting are very important, of course, but they can’t be allowed to dominate. The story is the most important thing, and too much period detail can easily swamp a good story. 

That said, however, the Romney Marsh landscape was one of the inspirations for the Hardcastle and Chaytor mysteries. The thought of setting something in that bleak, isolated place was immensely appealing, so we looked around for a set of stories that would suit it. Places with extreme landscape often breed a particular type of ‘enclosed’ community which always an interesting thing to write about. We already knew the Marsh fairly well, and knew a little about the time period as well, but we did some more background research to help us find some realistic stories. Walking through the Marsh even today bring its uniqueness into strong focus.

After that, we did a lot of the research as we went along. The planning and writing process kept throwing up things we needed to know about, but thanks to the miracle of the Internet, it is much easier to find them. Need to know what a revenue cutter looked like, or what date the Battle of Camperdown was fought, or what the price of gold was in the 1790s? The information is only a few mouse clicks away. We waited until the questions arose, and then went looking for the answers. There are also many excellent contemporary diaries and letters that help to colour the language and setting; we use these as well as the electronic resources. Follow visits to particular places are a great thing too, especially if you can visit at the correct season. We discovered on one visit that a house that we wanted in a specific spot in Hythe actually exsited and was perfect for our purposes.

Tell us a bit more about The Body in the Boat. How did you come up with the idea for this story?

The first idea came out of the background research we mentioned earlier. One thing which kept popping up in historical timelines was the Restriction Act, a government measure that heavily restricted the trade in gold and also introduced small denomination paper banknotes, £1 and £2 for the first time. We read a little about the reaction to this, and the financial crisis in the country generally, and started thinking about possibilities. What opportunities did the Restriction Act open up for smugglers and other criminals? What might people have done to get around the law? And then, once they were in danger of getting caught, to what lengths might they go to protect themselves? Combine gold, greed, desperation and some ruthless and dangerous criminals, and out of the mix a story begins to emerge. We felt that a story about corruption in financial circles would also have a resonance with our readers 😉 

For readers who are new to the series, what do you think make these books special?

Goodness, that’s a tough question. It’s hard for us to say what makes the books special because we are so close to them, but we think – hope? – that people read them for a combination of interesting plots, fascinating characters, the wild beautiful landscape and the sense of atmosphere, of time and place. We want to make readers feel like they are actually there, living through events along with the characters, experiencing the late eighteenth century and the dangers and tensions of that perilous time. If we have done that, even for a few people, then we will be very happy!

Finally, what are you working on now? Do you plan to continue working together?

Absolutely! We’re working on several projects at the moment, another historical novel set in 1905 about anarchists, and based partly on real events – one section takes place during the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin – and also a modern-day mystery novel set in Brittany. This is another case of the landscape inspiring the story; we love Brittany, and the idea of setting a book or a series there has always appealed. We have a good heroine for the story, too, a young Englishwoman whom we really like. She’s a real one-off, there’s no one quite like her out there in fiction, and we’re really excited about taking this project forward.

About the Book:

Title: The Body in the Boat: A Hardcastle and Chaytor Mystery
Author: AJ MacKenzie
Published: April 5th 2018 by Zaffre

Blurb: A gripping tale of murder and mystery in eighteenth Century England, for fans of S.J. Parris

Across the still, dark English Channel come the smugglers. But tonight they carry an unusual cargo: a coffin. Several miles inland, a respected banker holds a birthday party for his wife. Within days, one of the guests is found shot dead.

What links this apparently senseless killing to the smugglers lurking in the mists? Why has the local bank been buying and hoarding gold? And who was in the mysterious coffin?

Reverend Hardcastle and Mrs Chaytor find themselves drawn into the worlds of high finance and organised crime in this dramatic and dark Georgian mystery. With its unique cast of characters and captivating amateur sleuths, The Body in the Boat is a twisting tale that vividly brings to life eighteenth-century Kent and draws readers into its pages.

Did you miss any of the stops in the Blog Tour? Go check them out for more interesting content and reviews for The Body in the Boat:

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