Welcome back to Alchemy for Authors!
In this episode I talk with crime fiction author, Stephen Johnson, about his books, his writing process, and where he gets his ideas.
Other topics we discuss include:
- Why Stephen considers himself an accidental author.
- How the game ‘Killer’ became the seed of an idea for his first novel.
- How Stephen’s previous careers in journalism and the media impacted upon his stories.
- How he moved away from hating writing to passionately loving it.
- How Stephen finds inspiration in observing everyday life.
- Why he believes that editors have mystical powers.
- And why Stephen’s not afraid to tackle tough subjects despite imposter syndrome.
If you enjoy crime fiction or looking behind-the-scenes of another author’s process, you’ll love this interview with Stephen Johnson!
Visit Stephen’s website here: https://www.stephenjohnsonauthor.com/
Purchase Stephen’s books here: https://www.stephenjohnsonauthor.com/books
Follow Stephen on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/stephenjohnsonauthor/
Visit Clan Destine Press at https://www.clandestinepress.net/
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Find the full transcript of this episode below.
Episode 66: Writing Crime Fiction with Stephen Johnson
Jo: Hello my friend! Welcome to Episode 66 of Alchemy for Authors. As I’m recording this intro, it is the 4th of November 2023. I hope November has been off to a great start for you, and if you’re embarking on NaNoWriMo this year, I hope your words have been flowing.
In my book news, my latest novel and first paranormal cozy mystery, Hades’s Haunt, had a phenomenal Halloween. I invested in just a real basic Bargain Booksy promo. And to be honest, my life has been really too busy to invest any other money and very little time into advertising it. But, wow, like, my sales really kicked butt, which was such a pleasant surprise. Hades’s Haunt is only my third full-length novel, and it’s been so much fun watching it be a nice little consistent seller for me since its launch back in July, and without any real effort on my part, which has been fantastic. And I’m not naive enough to think things will continue this way, but I am enjoying it all the same.
Next year, I plan on kicking some proper marketing strategies into gear when I plan on releasing the second book in the Hades series, and also a sequel to my gothic suspense novel, Unspoken Truths. Right now, most of my time and energy is actually going towards writing the sequel, which is going to be called Broken Lies. And I have a deadline this month to get it to my editor and the date cannot be changed. Meeting this deadline is seriously the biggest challenge I’ve set for myself, I think, in my writing career to date. I am loving writing the book and am remarkably calm despite the fact it is not yet finished, let alone edited before I send it to my editor. There have just been so many other things competing for my time right now, so it’s been a little bit tricky to steal time to work on this novel, and yet somehow I’m still remarkably calm about the whole thing.
Some things that I think have been helping is actually just not allowing myself to overthink the story and the process too much, and just trusting that the story will reveal itself and come together. Kind of what I talked about in my last episode on how I go about writing a book, in Episode 65. So if you haven’t checked that out, you can go listen to that. I’ve also been doing this cool little meditation for fast writing by H.L. Savino, whom also has this really cool new release book called Adventures With The Universe, which is all about manifestation, which I haven’t yet fully dug into, but I am chomping at the bit to do so.
I had some lovely listeners DM me this week, about the last episode of Alchemy for Authors, thanking me for sharing my process and letting me know what resonated with them. So if you’re listening to this, just know that I really, really do appreciate you reaching out and it totally makes my day.
So, on to today’s show.
Today I’m joined by crime fiction author, Stephen Johnson, who coincidentally, when this goes to air on the 6th of November, will be celebrating his birthday. So happy birthday, Stephen! On this episode, we talk about why Stephen considers himself an accidental author. How the game ‘Killer’ became the seed of an idea for his first novel. How Stephen’s previous careers in journalism and the media impacted upon his stories. How he moved away from hating writing to passionately loving it. How Stephen finds inspiration from observing everyday life. Why he believes that editors have mystical powers. Why he’s not afraid to change genres and how he goes about publishing his books. And why Stephen’s not afraid to tackle tough subjects despite imposter syndrome.
I had so much fun chatting with Stephen and I hope you really enjoy our conversation that we share with you. So when you are ready, grab a drink, find a comfy chair, sit back and enjoy the show.
Hello, my lovelies. Welcome back to another episode of Alchemy for Authors. Today, I’m chatting with author Stephen Johnson. Stephen is a former journalist who writes crime and historical fiction in Auckland, New Zealand. His debut novel, Tugga’s Mob, was inspired by three seasons as a tour guide in Europe and became a finalist in the 2020 Ngaio Marsh Awards for Best First Novel. His crime novel, Boxed, is set in the world of animal rights activism and the media. His historical novel, Peace Stick, goes behind the Iron Curtain during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. And his new thriller, Kaikōura Rendezvous, is the third in the Melbourne Spotlight Mystery Series.
So, welcome to the show, Stephen. It’s so good to have you here today.
Stephen: Thanks for letting me join you and your listeners, Jo, it’s just always good to be talking about books at any time.
Jo: It is, it is. And you’ve had quite an interesting journey to get to the point of writing books. I would love if you could start just sharing a little bit about what brought you here to being an author.
Stephen: I call myself the accidental author because I’ve been a journalist and television producer for my professional career. And I was a journalist who didn’t like writing. I sort of fell into journalism because I couldn’t do much else. I literally was lining up to become a school teacher, waiting to do training, and stumbled into writing cricket notes for a community newspaper. And I had done the journalism degree and decided, well, that’s too much hard work for me, you know, deadlines. I hate that. And did the cricket notes. And then the teacher training didn’t sort of… uh, that was in the distance and they offered me a job, and I was broke, my brother was supporting me. He said, look, I’m sick of lending you beer money, you know, take the job.
So I became a journalist and ended up in television where pictures told the story so much better, you know, than writing, I always thought. And I worked in the news media and sports media in Australia and New Zealand for 40 years, and then, family, that sort of thing, and decided, well, when I was 61, uh, yep, I’m sick of this. I really want to change. Why wait until retirement to go off and do what we’ve always dreamed of doing, going back to Europe, uh, getting a motor home, just traveling around and enjoying that? Because travel has always been a big passion of ours. I did a lot of travel in the eighties and worked as a tour guide for three years, that sort of thing. So literally, I convinced my wife to sell the house, give up our jobs, and go to Europe and buy a seven-metre motor home and think, well, this was going to be great, you know, because our daughters had left home, the nest was empty. There’s nothing holding us down. I was due to retire in 2020. And I said, you don’t know what’s going to happen.
So we took off in 2017 and as we were sort of preparing to go, an idea came to me for a story, and it went back to my days as a tour guide. I used to work for a company called Top Deck Travel, and they used to convert double decker buses into campers in the eighties or seventies and eighties. And the company’s still going now, but in those days, it was very much for budget Australian, New Zealand, South African travellers. You would have makeshift bunks upstairs, kitchen downstairs. They would do tours all the way from London to Kathmandu, mostly around Europe, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, that sort of thing. And I worked for them for three years and that was fantastic. And we used to play a game to keep the passengers occupied at times called Killer, where, you know, you’d be in a campsite at night, it was very quiet, it was raining, whatever, and so you would nominate a killer for the bus for the night, and they had to blink or wink or catch everyone out and kill them, you know? Just as a part of the fun. So sometimes it got very real, would extend over several days. You’d be standing on the Eiffel Tower in Paris and suddenly someone’s on the ground frothing at the mouth and all these passengers are laughing and the French are saying, “Sacré bleu! Poisoning, poisoning, what’s going on?” And it was just one of the passengers, “No, no, I’m just dying.” And you still got a killer amongst you.
So I’d set this idea, well, what if one of the passengers took that for real and thought, oh yes, and started killing passengers? And because I was free of work, we were waiting to go travel, waiting to go pick up our motorhome. And the idea just sort of germinated and just kept going and going. And I thought, well, the bus would be over within, you know, a day. You know, the police would come in, shut everything down. But I just thought, well, okay, what if something happened back in the 80s when I was the tour guide with Top Deck, but wasn’t discovered until many years later?
And so from that idea, as we were traveling around Europe in the motorhome, I just started writing. And we would stop in a campsite at night, we’d go have a swim, go to the bar, have a meal, whatever, and then I’d get out there the laptop and just let the thoughts flow. And I just got so excited and I loved it. And I thought, well, here’s me who hates writing, does everything to avoid writing, and I was just frothing to put this story down. And it just went from there to become Tugga’s Mob.
Jo: Yeah, that’s just so fascinating. So you had no real inclination to write a story up until that moment?
Stephen: No, no. And that’s it. A lot of journalists will say, that’s it, when I retire I’m going to write the great, uh, Australian or New Zealand novel. They think, I’ve got that creative fiction in them, but I never did. No. If I could avoid writing, I would, you know? Because you would have a three-minute news story and compelling pictures would tell it so much better. It was a different type of writing from what we do in novels and fiction, because the pictures, you had to write to the pictures. You didn’t say the man walked across, picked up the stick, threw it, and the dog chased it. You know? You had to find a way to be descriptive for that writing.
But when I was writing Tugga’s Mob, I found myself visualizing all the scenes. And I drew very heavily on anecdotes from my travel days. I didn’t plot the trip on one of the top deck buses. So I thought, no, no, that’s a bit unfair, but I plotted it in amongst, you know, a lot of the people who did travel with us. In fact, the character of Tugga Tancred was inspired by one of my worst passengers, who was not as evil as I made Tugga out to be. And the story with Tugga, Tugga’s Mob, is that a Waikato woman, Judy Williams, goes on a big OE in 1986, like all Kiwis do, and she goes on a bus trip. And in the 80s, there were no mobile phones to record photos and trip notes, that sort of thing. Everyone had a journal. And so Judy recorded all the events, you know, sort of Paris, Rome, Istanbul, et cetera, all the exciting stuff. But it also recorded an escalating campaign of sexual harassment by Tugga and his cohorts who became known as Tugga’s Mob, a drunken boozy bunch. But at that time, Judy sort of cries for help went unheeded. Everyone said, Oh no, no, we’re here for a good time, not a long time. Don’t worry, just get along. Because Tugga and the group were very sneaky about how they did it. No one saw any overt harassment. And so it escalates the point of, you know, rape and murder. But no one understood that until 30 years later when the diary is rediscovered. And that starts a campaign of revenge that the original perpetrators don’t see coming. And so, that’s where I connected the past with the present.
The other point of difference with that is that because of my years in the media, I know the media better than I know police procedures, so I used a current affairs television crew as my sleuths. They stumble upon a couple of clues; they start tugging at them and things start to unravel. And suddenly bodies are literally falling at their feet. They go in to interview someone and they find the bus driver from the tour stabbed to death on his doorstep. So that has become the theme of that Melbourne Spotlight Mystery Series. Police are a peripheral part of it, but essentially my current affairs team are solving the crimes.
And, you know, that was something I knew about, travel, I knew about. The story is set in Europe, it’s set in modern day Australia and New Zealand. So all markets that I thought the book would appeal to and all areas that I know very well. And so the story came together. I’d literally be driving around Ireland in the motorhome and I’d pull out a little notebook from the side pocket of the car, hand it across to my wife and say, Oh, quick, put this down, put this down. She didn’t know that the characters were driving along with me in the back there. She said, Oh, you’ve been a bit quiet for the last hour. Wonder what you were doing? Because your mind was just thinking about, you know, the plot. And while we were doing that one day, we were listening to a radio interview and it was talking about new authors and oh, well, this could be me. Oh, this will be great. And the radio host asked the guest, well, what can a new author expect to make per book? And they said, Oh, probably a pound. And my wife had the notebook in her hand at that point. Why shouldn’t I throw this out the window, all this sort of time and energy you’re putting into this. It’s keeping me very quiet and very happy, you know, just take the notes down, please.
But from that point, I thought, well, okay, I finished the story. I thought, what do I do? No idea, you know, from that process, not really. I’d read Kindles, I’d travelled with a Kindle, you know, 20 books on the Kindle. But I didn’t know the processes from there. And luckily I had a contact in the publishing business and I said to her, I’ve got this novel, what do I do with it? And she says, have you had it assessed? No. Okay. Go get assessed. Okay. I did that, did some rewrites. She said, have you had it edited? No. Okay. So the back end of the trip was editing. And that was very different from the assessment. I thought, oh, the editor loved it. So this is great. Really, really enjoy this. I’ve got a couple of things you need to change. Correct. And then the first edits came through and we were parked up in Scotland, waiting to catch a morning ferry to go to Northern Ireland. And I thought, Oh, this will be a breeze. You know, the rest of the story just flowed and she loved the assessment, et cetera. And then I saw the red lines, the cross outs, grammar, you know, change this, change that. Pulling my hair out. Oh, goodness me. So I just started pounding into the computer. I’m an old two finger typist because I started on Remingtons. So the whole motorhome was shaking. My wife was on the back side, for goodness sake, you know, it just doesn’t have to be all done tonight. And then everything went black. Because we were freedom camping and the battery went flat on the computer. And I was, Oh no, no, no, no, no, no. I’ve got to finish this because I want to correct it. I wanted to show her that, you know, it was all a good story. So the next morning, first in line to catch the ferry, took the laptop, went up, plugged into the ferry, started pounding away, next two hours. Then I got a tap on the shoulder, and Kath, my wife, said, are you coming to Northern Ireland? Literally, that trip, I did not see it. I did not notice anything.
And so from then on, yeah, it’s the process that every writer goes through, getting the book through editing and getting it published. And Tugga’s Mob was published in 2019. So a long journey from 2017 writing to actual publication with a traditional publisher, Clan Destine Press. But it was great. It was wonderful. And because of that, I said, look, I’m really enjoying this. I found my mojo. I found I enjoy writing. I enjoy storytelling. And when we came back to New Zealand, we travelled again for another six months until the money ran out. And my wife decided one of us needs to go back to work to keep us alive. And so I said, well, I’ll be the house husband, the domestic God. I’ll keep things going and you sort of keep some food on the table and we’ll take it from there.
Jo: That’s just so fascinating. I am just so interested by the fact that the writing bug really hit you so late. Like, you had no intention of being an author, but when it hits you, it seems like it really inspired you and was almost a bit of an addiction because once you start, and I know this myself, once you write one book, you can’t help but be ready to write the next book. And so I’m guessing that’s what happened to you because you’re three, four books in now, are you?
Stephen: Actually, up to six?
Jo: Oh my gosh. Okay. There we are.
Stephen: Yeah. So the third book in the series, Kaikōura Rendezvous, is about to come out next month, by November. I have another, the fourth book in that series, which I’ve done the first two drafts and that will go off to the editor very soon. And I’ve written the start of it, an Auckland trilogy, which is a little bit controversial. That’s the subject matter. It’s a crime fiction book, but there is a sexual theme in it that is, uh, causing a few pursed lips. But I wanted something different. I wanted, yeah, that little bit of controversy with it. I suppose it was reflection after five, six years of writing, the growing confidence, there was still a certain amount of imposter syndrome as we all experienced everywhere throughout our career. But I thought I want to stand out, you know, I deliberately designed the books with the current affairs crew as a point of difference. And I said, this one can be, the Auckland based one can be different as well. It’s about a lawyer who’s also a television presenter. She has two very high-profile careers and she has a very secret private life that is threatened to be exposed. And what will she do to protect that public career? How far will she go?
And it’s a sort of thing that I live beside a park here in Auckland. I’ve watched hundreds of people go through there every day with their dogs. But you don’t know the real people, you know? As authors, we’re always observing, you know? But we’re looking for that detail of that interesting characteristic or something that we can blend into our stories, but you don’t know what happens behind closed doors at home. And that’s where the thought came from. I just let my imagination go on that. And so, that will become self-published after Christmas, I think. And I’m happy with that because I think it’s one of my best books because it’s brave enough to tackle the subject that people will say, Oh, I didn’t know that happened.
Jo: I love how you’ve talked about drawing from real life to inspire you with your stories and things like that. And I think, um, I can’t remember if it was in an email you sent or something like that? But you had said, that it was kind of surprising how often journalists and that can sometimes be the people that stumble on dead bodies, or something like that. You’d said that you’d even had that experience yourself, coming across a body quite close to where you were. And so, it’s something that happens and has inspired some of your writing and your story ideas. Can you talk a bit about that?
Stephen: When I look back at, I thought all the books come from real experience. So Tugga’s Mob is based upon my travel days. The second book, Boxed, which deals with an animal activist with a vendetta, and the greyhound racing industry in Australia, where people might recall in 2015 the issue of live baiting was exposed. That it was widespread throughout the industry. Trainers were tying possums and other animals to lures and blighting the dogs that way. I worked for the New Zealand Racing Board producing greyhound racing programs, so I had an inside perspective on that. And so while writing Tugga, the idea for Boxed came to me, and I thought, yeah, I’ve got to continue, that’s the next one.
The third book was actually the historic novel, Peace Stick, which literally came over a cup of coffee one morning, meeting a woman who grew up in East Germany. She’s a friend of my sister-in-law, who I’d met briefly, and oh I’d love to talk to Ulrika about her life living in East Germany. And so we’ve mentioned that one day in 2020, I just come back from Kaikōura, where I’ve been researching the third book, and I was sort of in the middle of writing Boxed. So I had stories juggling at the time, but it was all so exciting and I got to that obsessive stage. If I’m not writing, I’m researching and balancing that. So I said to Ulrika, well look. I have a boomer Western perspective on life behind the Iron Curtain. What was it really like?
And she said, I had a wonderful life. I lived in Erfurt, which is in sort of central East Germany. She said, you know, I didn’t lack for anything. The only time I was ever worried because of our position behind the iron curtain was during 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the teacher walked into class in the morning and said, World War III is going to start in a couple of hours. And, my sister-in-law and I looked at it and I thought, wow, you know, that’s a heavy thing to drop on any student. And, I said, well, what should you do? How do you cope with it? She said, well, my friends and I, you know, we didn’t want to die. You know? We wanted to go play with our hula hoops, roller skate. I wanted to skate for East Germany in the Olympics, um, that sort of thing. I wanted to go walking in the Steuerwald. And Erfurt is a beautiful medieval town that was preserved pretty well during the Second World War. And so she and a friend went out to the playground at lunchtime and said, well, what can we do? We need hope for a future. You know? I want to get a career. I want to have a family. I want to do what my mother and father did. You know? They survived the Second World War, but we could be dead in a couple of hours. And they’re literally looking to the skies to see if the Americans were about to rain nuclear bombs on them. So they found a stick in the playground and Ulrika said, well, look, we’re going to make this their lucky charm. And they put it in a hole in the school wall and said, if that stays there tomorrow, it’s still there by the time we come to school tomorrow, we’ve got another 24 hours to live.That Khrushchev and Kennedy have got another day to work out how to resolve this nuclear crisis, which all revolved around Russia sneaking nuclear missiles onto Cuba, you know, close to the American coast. And so, she said, we did that. And so, my sister-in-law and I looked at each other and she said it, peace stick, you know, that’s what it was. It was a peace stick.
It became their symbol of hope. And, you know, it just sort of captured us. And so the conversation went on from there. And I said, look, this is a fascinating story. It’s captivating me as a writer. I don’t have time to do anything now because of other stories, but I would love to come back to it. And I wasn’t able to get back to it until 2021. And I knew the 60th anniversary was coming up in, uh 2022, I thought I want to release a book by that stage. So literally we sat down and we just went through Ulrika’s life, you know, that week where the world was on the brink of a nuclear abyss and she just detailed her life in Erfurt, the fear, the stress. She was a post war baby. They suffered the guilt of the Nazis post war. She said she never was able to relinquish that guilt until she moved to New Zealand in 1989. They used to do concentration camp visits as part of their compulsory school curriculum. The gas ovens were made a couple of blocks away from where she lived. So that’s sort of life.
Jo: Heavy, eh?! Wow.
Stephen: Building into the story and there’s the Stasi, the secret police. So, much of it’s real, but I needed to fictionalize it to get that story out there. So, yeah, that came together and I published that October, you know, to mark the 60th anniversary last year.
And so in between time, I’d had another fiction book, which was Kaikōura Rendezvous, which has sort of, again, taken a long journey. Now that was based upon Cyclone Gita, which struck New Zealand in 2018. And we were driving the motor home around New Zealand at that point. And we were south of Kaikōura thinking, yep, we’re going to be safe. We’re going to get away from this cyclone. When it broke down, literally warning transmission light came on the motorhome, pull over, pull over. So we did, it shut down, uh, the cyclone was a day behind us. We got stuck there for 12 days. The whole hillside came down around us. Literally, there were 70 landslips which at the time I thought, oh, okay. Yep. Um, we were safe. I’d never thought much of it. We took photos and we had an adventure. My wife built a whale watch stone shelter on the beach because there was no one else around. There’s nothing to do, you know, and we just have filled it in.
But then in 2019 at Rotorua Noir, all these international authors came. It was the first crime fiction seminar in New Zealand, and they came and said, you have a beautiful country, a fantastic landscape that lends itself to, you know, dramatic and thriller stories. They said, you know, use that. Build on what’s in your backyard. Because so many authors are told, don’t write about New Zealand or Australia, the international market doesn’t want that, and here we had international authors saying, no, no, the world is ready for it. So from that, literally in the middle of that Rotorua Noir, the idea came and I built the story from that.
And, uh, you mentioned a body, finding a body? That became the current book I’m working on For Amy. In 1986, I was doing a narrow boat tour of England, the Oxford Canal, with some friends. We had very heavy night in Oxford, all a bit seedy. We got a very loud knock on the door the next morning. There’s a policeman standing there saying, do you know anything about the body in the canal behind your boat? Oops, headcount, headcount. Everyone was here. Um, and, uh, no. Someone had fallen in and we felt terrible. We didn’t know whether the body, uh, someone had been drunk or someone had a seizure or a heart attack or something? Had they been out there, we hadn’t heard anything. So, I mean, that sort of literally festered for 30 odd years until, you know, the story sort of came up. I can build that into a story, which I have with the fourth book in that Spotlight Mystery series. So yes, all the books literally have a personal connection somewhere along the way.
Jo: That is so, so fascinating. So does your writing process differ for each book or is it kind of similar? Like, are there any books that you plot out? Because I know, Peace Stick sounds like it was quite different than Tugga’s Mob. Whereas Tugga’s Mob was more inspired on the spot and getting words on paper. Whereas Peace Stick, you were kind of researching through your sister’s friend and that. So are they different, your process for writing each or? Yeah.
Stephen: I suppose they’ve evolved to become, I suppose, a little bit more professional. Tugga’s Mob was, oh, I’ve got this idea. I’ve got these words. I’ll just write it. And I wasn’t writing every day because, you know, we’d be traveling or I was a little bit tired at night, and other times I’d think, yep, this is a quiet campsite. I’m feeling the inspiration. So I would do it. I was trying to plan out ahead, but I got to the end and I wasn’t satisfied with the ending of it. But that came with the editor and she suggested a really powerful ending and it was staring me in the face, the whole book. I just didn’t know it. And the interesting thing was the ending comes, I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler, where a parent is named at the very end of the book. And it was, uh, once that idea germinated, I said, okay, yep. And then I suddenly thought, ooh, there could be two parents. And I did not know until I wrote that name, which one it was going to be. And the editor didn’t know. She suggested, oh, this person. And I ummed and aahed literally for a couple of days, and then I wrote it and said, that fits, that works. And now that has actually come around full circle in the fourth book, which is quite interesting.
Book two was also written very much on the road in New Zealand, and we hadn’t bought another house again. So we were literally living with family members in spare rooms, uh, studio flats. We were trying to move to the Bay of Plenty. And so I was standing there in the motorhome looking for houses during the week while my wife was working and she would come down on the weekend and say, no, no, no, no, no, no, useless, useless, no, no, keep searching, keep searching. So I would look at houses and write. So it was again, the same process, but I had an idea of where that story was going from start to finish. Although I will say, it revolves around three women, three strong women: an idealistic journalist, a betrayed lover, and a woman who’s been held captive. You know, that woman who was being held captive was dead for most of the book until I suddenly said, no, no, no, no, no, you idiot, she’s more powerful in this role. And again, second book, a little bit more confidence seeping in and thinking, yes, you can do that. You don’t have to be fixed with how you’re going to do things. So I was thinking for myself as a plotter but very, very flexible, very fluid.
With Peace Stick, I had a week in history to capture, but I also had to make it interesting and exciting. Literally the kids were going to school. Initially I was thinking, oh, I can chuck a couple of murders in there, no problems, you know? And in between this, it’s all set against the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But then I realized, no, this is a story of hope, innocence, the will to survive. And I had to sort of restrain the criminal and rights within me. And I found the research process in that absolutely brilliant, absolutely exciting. Talking to Ulrika, getting her family photos, going online, going to the library, getting so many books. I couldn’t go to Germany because it was during COVID, so I had to rely upon Google Earth for maps. But also, Erfurt is such a famous town that so many people did video walkthroughs. So literally they were doing what I was going to be doing, and so they’d be walking along across the Krämerbrücke, which is this, uh, 19th century bridge with half-timbered houses, shops below, apartments above, a five-metre-wide street, cobblestones. It’s just beautiful. Everything you sort of imagined medieval Germany will be. And it’s walking down there, suddenly someone turns to the left and there’s this little narrow passage that goes down to the river. So, oh, yes, one of my carriages is going to slip away through there. The Stasi is chasing him and he’s going to go along there and get away from them. So, it was as good as being there.
And also, delving into the research, I was actually able to tell Ulrika more of her family history than she understood. Her father served in the Navy during the Second World War, and she thought he served on a minesweeper because he said the vessel had to move one night, um, it moved, the ship, the replacement was bombed and destroyed and everyone died. And I tracked that down and worked out, no, no, he was actually on a former World War One battleship which was turned into a training ship, which probably kept him out of a lot of the trouble. So she was quite fascinated to learn about that family history and so much more. So yeah, that was a really exciting project to research, and I just kept going and going and thought, I can hang on. I’ve got to write this. I’ve got a deadline. It’s got to be out and printed by October.
And so with the current book, it starts in Australia, it, as I said, goes full circle to Tugga’s Mob. Something happened at the end of Tugga that brings one of the characters back in as a target for a killer. And I started writing that just before Peace Stick last year, and then I’ve been sort of caught up trying to promote that and move that in bookshops and so forth. And then I thought, well, I’m going to promote books in Australia this year because Kaikōura Rendezvous was supposed to have been released in April. I’m still waiting. So I was going to go to England after that and go back to Oxford and again, do a bit more research where the canal boat trip was. And so things got put off a bit, put off, put off. And then suddenly I’m not going to get to England this year. So I just went on Google again and luckily Google Earth, because they love the canal so much, all the guys with their cameras mounted were walking along the canal paths, past all the boats and the pubs and the houses, everything that I would have been doing myself. So literally, in July, I said, right, get this finished. And I said, a thousand words a day, and I wrote 40, 000 words in July. Amazing. For me, it was just that stream of consciousness. It just flowed and flowed. And now I’ve got to go back and say, okay, how much do I have to cull throughout? But I completed the story and, you know, I’m happy with that.
And now it’s the editing, the refining, the improving. And that’s where I enjoy having that editor. Well, to a certain degree, the editor coming and saying, you can improve on this, or your grammar is bad here, or your passive sentencing here. You tear your hair out. What I do is I go for a walk. Storm around for an hour, come back. Yes. Okay. You’re right. You’re right. Yes. I’ll take all those changes. And I learned very early on that editors have mystical powers. Yes, they do. That goes back to editing Tugga’s Mob.
We were in Wales at the time and we were down on a windy rough coast at St. David’s, and more edits come through every couple of chapters at a time. And I looked, opened them up and my wife said, oh, for goodness sakes, go for a walk. You know, just walk along the cliff. I’ll go this way, you know, come back when you calm down. So I went off and walked and agreed. Yes. Yes. Ruth is right yet again. So I came back. My wife hadn’t returned. Our motor home had a very big garage. You could fit four bikes in there, but it was quite massive if you wanted. We’re kayakers, and so we had paddles and other things in there, and I wanted to get in to get something, and it was right in the middle of the motorhome, and the wind blew the door shut. So I’m stuck inside this motorhome, my wife’s nowhere nearby, it’s the end of the season, October, no one else in the campsite, so I’m sitting there, wanting to get out, couldn’t do that. Yeah, it was only about 15 minutes, but by that stage, you know, I’ve sort of calmed down and admitted, yes, yes. Okay, just let me get back to the computer and do the rewrites. And then Kath came back and she’s tromping around upstairs. I said, hello, hello, let me out, let me out. So she’s opening all the cupboards. I said, where the hell are you? And, uh, I think she debated for a while whether to leave me for another hour. And then when I told the editor, she said, yes, no, just always listen to us. We do have strange and wonderful powers.
Jo: They do. They do. I wouldn’t have any books published without my editor. Oh my gosh. She is just a godsend. She absolutely is.
So you have done some really interesting things where you have jumped genres a little bit. So you’ve done the crime and thriller, and then you’ve got your novel Peace Stick, which is more historical fiction. And you’ve also had your books published both traditionally and independently as well. So can you talk a little bit about the kind of the mindset that goes behind jumping genres and also publishing differently?
Stephen: I think it was a journalist in me that recognized Peace Stick. It’s just a fascinating story. I could have written that as a newspaper article for any of the newspapers in New Zealand or, you know, I did a wrap to send it around the world and made a little bit of money from it. But no, no. That is a much more fascinating story and exploring life behind the Iron Curtain, that Ulrika was saying, no, it was a fascinating and enjoyable childhood. And they didn’t even know. Now there’s a huge nostalgic feeling among former East Germans for that time. They would quite happily go back to that lifestyle. The Berlin Wall didn’t exactly sort of enhance their lives. I just felt that story deserves to be shared. And that’s why I pressed on with that. And I did present it to my traditional publisher and she said, yep, I love the story, but it’s not really my market. Her focus is Australian authors and stories. And I said, no, that’s fine. I’m going to do it out there.
So I love the fact that a traditional publisher published my first couple of books and has my third book and will take the fourth, because I can write them, get them edited, say, right, over to you, Lindy, tell me where I need to turn up to talk, do radio interviews, do that sort of stuff. I love that meeting people. Talking about books. With Peace Stick, I had to learn the process of self-publishing, indie publishing, and it was daunting. It still is scary. I haven’t done it probably as well as I could, and I’m actually going to a seminar this afternoon to learn to do more because I want to do it with this other crime fiction book that traditional publishers are saying, you know, we don’t know whether this will be too confronting for some people. The subject matter that the Me Too movement may sort of come down upon us, because it’s dealing with the issue of, you know, submission and, you know, that is real eye popping experience for people. So in coming to this very late, I suppose I have a bit more, um, I wouldn’t say bravery, but I don’t have to worry so much. The story. It’s what motivates me. I’m a storyteller. I want to get it out there. I will do what I have to, to get it out there. If a publisher takes it, that is great for me because it saves a lot of the time and work for me. I can just move on to the next project because literally I’ve got another dozen books there that are just waiting to be written that I just need to find the time. So I’d rather say, here’s a book, please, get it onto the bookshelves. Let me move on to the next subject.
As far as crossing genre, I was asked last year, oh, are you planning another historic fiction novel? And I said, oh, not really. But I did have an idea at the back of my mind but it’s more a novella. And after that, I literally, within a couple of days, I, well, this one novella and another novella, and they’re both involving history, one involved Gallipoli, one involved the Melbourne Cup. And I worked out a way, oh yes, I can make this work. I can really make this work. It might be another two years before I get to that. As the ideas come to me, I just go back into the laptop. I have the files. I just keep updating and refreshing them. I do a lot of walking. I do a lot of kayaking. And that’s where my thinking comes from. When I walk, I carry a notebook. I’m a bit of a Luddite. I’m a boomer technophobe. I have a phone, but I answer, I talk, I text. That’s about as much as I do. I’d rather write my notes, come back, transcribe them into the computer. And just store it. And then I might say, oh, okay, I’ve got another idea for this one and this one and this one. So I might spend a couple of days just going back and fleshing different stories and then coming back to the work in progress. And that has sort of motivated and inspired me to continue with the next work. So I don’t see it as a distraction. I’m not scared to cross genres. And with this other book that will come out next year, I’m not scared to tackle tough subjects. Which again, surprises me because as I say, imposter syndrome creeps up so frequently.
I think there should be almost imposter syndrome anonymous that we can go to little meetings and say, oh, please, you know, my name’s Stephen Johnson. It’s been 10 days since I had an attack of imposter syndrome. Um, you know, please, you know, sort of just boost me up and get me back out there again. But I’ve started this very late in my life, I suppose, and I’m just eager to get as many stories out there as possible. My publisher says, well, I’ll take the books. I like you. Write the books, you know, do what you want to, and that’s a good arrangement.
Jo: I think that is just so exciting that having that freedom to just follow your passion, write the stories that inspire you and appeal to you and then throw them out there to be published traditionally, and if not, then going the indie route, I think that’s just, yeah, that’s a cool mindset. I really, really love. I think that’s fantastic.
So what then, for yourself, have you found is the most challenging aspect of either the writing or the publishing process?
Stephen: I suppose getting your books… well, I was lucky with Clan Destine Press that I had the contact that I was able to send it to the publisher. Publisher who, okay, we used to work together on the same newspaper many years ago, uh, we shared a flat together in Melbourne. I was the world’s worst flatmate. I couldn’t cook. I couldn’t, well, didn’t clean. Absolutely useless and lazy until I got housebroken by my New Zealand wife. And, 30 years later, Lindy and I sort of, you know, I thought you had forgiven me. Yeah, yeah, of course. But she saw the story. She saw the potential straight away. Now getting publishers to read that, to see that, you know, there’s so many, we know, they’ve been bombarded with manuscripts, uh, daily. Um, everyone believes that they have the best seller there.
So it’s getting it read, getting them beyond that first page, getting beyond, you know, the first three chapters sometimes, because we know they can always be rewritten. They can always be changed. It’s getting them to see the potential. That’s the frustrating part I think in that process. But the beauty of Amazon and all these other formats, now that we can get our books out there… until eBooks and Amazon came along and Barnes and Noble and Kobo and Toledo. I’ve got a German company there that does the eBook. Until they came along, they’d be still sitting on our laptops. These stories will not be read apart from family and friends who say, oh, we think it’s really great. It is good. But you’re not a publisher. So that’s a frustrating process. I’m lucky I have a traditional publisher at the moment.
I’m only as good as the last book. She loves the book, Kaikōura Rendezvous, which is great. Yep, it’s magnificent. We’re going to get it out there. I’ve got to keep the quality up. And For Amy, which I think it has, you know, I think it’s there, and I think the others are there. So you need that touch of self-confidence to keep pressing through. And if they say, no, it’s not gonna work for us, well, I still think it’s a good story. I’ll go the indie process and you know, there are readers out there, there’s so many books that bypass traditional publishers and the public loved them and said, yep, give us more of this, please. Yeah. Yep. Yep.
Jo: Yeah. Yeah. Now being in a small country like New Zealand, what are you doing to market your books? So how are you going about marketing your books or getting them out there into the hands of readers?
Stephen: It’s a tricky process because Clan Destine Press is Australian. So for me to get them here, it’s expensive, and the publisher wasn’t that interested in New Zealand, so I would buy the books from her, and get them here. I didn’t go down the bookshops, because I would have to sell them for so much just to even make that $1 for myself. It was just too expensive, so, it was sort of promotion, radio, podcasts, et cetera, meeting people, going to book events, Hamilton Book Month, that sort of thing, and trying to get as much of that process as possible.
With Peace Stick, I got into the bookshops, I got into independent bookshops, I got into Paper Plus. That has been a slow burner. It’s not a topic a lot of New Zealanders were aware of and I still think it’s a great story because it deals with two young women, you know, just wanting an everyday existence that we can enjoy now. We’ve got the war going on in Ukraine, Russia, potentially, if one of them goes nuclear, you know, we’re in that situation we were in 1962. So I thought the story might have resonated a bit more with people here, and it has more of a resonance in Europe and elsewhere, because they’re confronted with that nuclear reality much more than New Zealand. So a lot of that is online.
But as I say, I’m going to a seminar after we finish here, I’m going to learn more and better ways to be able to market myself, but I love going out and talking books. I do a lot of library visits. And different events. That’s the fun part, talking to you now. Absolutely love this, you know, time flies by. My family roll their eyes and say, oh god, dad’s talking about the bloody books again. But that’s what the passion that brings all of us together, the people to your podcast that want to hear about books, and also that writers, you know, feel passionate about our stories.
When I was on holiday in Samoa and different people coming up and saying, well, how do you write? I’ve always dreamed about writing. How do you do it? And I said, you just have to sit down. You have to put the words down. And you have to, you know, believe in yourself. I’m a plotter but I’m flexible. A lot of other people are pantsers. You know, they think, oh, here’s an idea, just go from there. I need to have an idea of structure. It’s my television producer background. I need to know where the production is going from start to finish. It doesn’t mean that, uh, I’d say the killer I have at the start of the story or the plot, whatever’s going to end up there at the end, but I have an idea how things are going to work out, and I love having that flexibility within myself. Oh yes, this works better. And as I said, I played Lazarus in Boxed and I brought a character back to life because it was much, much better for the story. And when people finish reading it and I say, oh, I can tell you this now.
Jo: That’s so good. So what then would be your advice for somebody? Cause you’ve talked a little bit about when people ask you, you know, how to go about even writing a book, but if somebody’s on the fence and they’ve got that idea and they’re just giving themselves every excuse under the sun, why they couldn’t possibly write a book. What would you say to them?
Stephen: Sit down. Write. Just write. Keep writing. You don’t have to show anyone, that’s the beauty of it. You can just keep writing until you think, yes, this is forming something that I like, or this is something interesting, or no, delete, delete, delete, you know? You can sometimes go back to delete whole pages, whatever, or else you just put it aside, or you find that trusted confidant, and you say, look, I’m bouncing this around. The other thing is, I’m a member of the Auckland Crime Writers Group, and we meet for coffee once a month, and we have other events, and that, and there are a lot of indie and traditional published authors in there. And we all again have that imposter syndrome. We come along and say, what are you working on? Oh, I haven’t been working hard enough. I haven’t been doing this and that. But it’s mutually supportive. And at times I’ll say to people, if crime fiction is your genre of interest, come along to one of our Monday, monthly Monday meetings. Meet the people. Now, we’re just ordinary people like everyone else. Same insecurities, same doubts, that sort of thing, but we support each other, encourage each other, and you’ll know the processes we’re going through, and you can raise ideas, and we can sort of help give you that encouragement. So it is a lonely process, but you don’t have to be alone in doing it. So there are writing groups, there’s a group that used to be every Saturday morning. They would go and write and present their latest manuscript or just bounce off each other. The library’s just undergone a renovation, so I hope they’ve gone back to their meetings. So, yeah. Reach out to one of those groups and, you know, just keep adding to your thoughts and do like I do. Go for a walk, come back, just let that idea… I come back with a notebook, pages and pages of it, and particularly if I reach, I wouldn’t say an impasse, but, oh, I’m a bit tired, yep, a walk will just clear the head a little bit, and I come back just chomping at the bit to get back into the story.
And, well, these days are supposed to come back into more structured life that, you know, we have a family home again. My wife goes off to work, supports me, I do the domestics, so tidy the house, do the washing, make sure we’ve got shopping, so do my walk, do all the emails, read the news. By late morning, I’m ready to get into the manuscript or into the editing, get myself some lunch, a lot of the time I think, Oh, what did I just have for lunch? I don’t know, but Hatchet is doing this to the story, so you’re focused on that. And then my wife might come home about five o’clock, um, six o’clock. If I haven’t gone downstairs to start preparing My Food Bag, you know, sort of a little thump, hey, hey, where’s the domestic guy to cook dinner? And then, you know, we’ll sort of have the… if I’m really, really right into the story or a particular point, I’ve just got to keep going. I’ll come back up after dinner and do a bit more, but most of the time I’m sort of late morning, early afternoon, because there’s no one else in the house. Now that’s not possible, you know, everyone has families, they might have children, that sort of thing. Find the time that works for you. I’m a late-night owl. I’ll be up reading or watching a documentary or something. But I’ve found my happy space where I can write, where I can read, I can walk. I can, yeah, my life’s in a good position for a fledgling writer. Maybe sometimes that, uh, I wouldn’t say instability, but that daily activity can incentivize you to find the time or, no, I’ve got to get this out now. And I know some women do the, okay, the kids are around home doing their homework. I’ve got an hour and I’ll just bash out a few things on the laptop. So it’s finding the time when you can put the ideas down and don’t be scared to put them down. No one, you know, needs to read them until you’re happy.
Jo: Yeah. I think that’s really wonderful advice because I think we do get stuck in our own minds of it’s not good enough or anything like that. And if we can push all that aside and just get those words down on paper and know that we’re in control of others reading it or not reading it, and then we can make that choice later on. But yeah, I think that’s really, really sound advice. Cool. So how can people connect with you then and where can they find your books?
Stephen: https://www.clandestinepress.net/ is the traditional publisher for my Spotlight Mystery Series. Peace Stick is available on Amazon and certain Paper Plus stores. So, if you go to a Paper Plus store in New Zealand, you can ask for that. Or it’s on Tolino, Barnes Noble, they’re online sites. And of course, the Spotlight Mystery Series are also on Amazon, and Booktopia, etc. And I have an author website, https://www.stephenjohnsonauthor.com. So, hopefully from this afternoon, I’ll be getting more motivated to just giving more of a writer author experience for people coming to that website. And there are links to where you can buy the books on there.
And the new book coming out very soon, Kaikōura Rendezvous, which is, as I said, set about Cyclone Gita. And again, that is my Spotlight Mystery Group. The story there is that the cyclone is coming to New Zealand. I’ve got a down on his luck fisherman in Kaikōura who’s been offered the deal of a lifetime if he’s prepared to go out to sea to pick up something. No questions asked. And I’ve got my characters from Boxed, to one who’s suffering post-traumatic stress, another who is carrying very heavy emotional baggage of an incident that happened in New Zealand a couple of years earlier. And they’re all converging on Kaikōura and everything is going to arrive the same time as the cyclone. And my publisher said the other day, I said, my goodness, that is an explosive little climax in a very, very awful little house and I said, yep, that’s what it was all coming about. So that one will be with Clan Destine press very soon.
Jo: Well, that’s exciting. Those stories sound absolutely amazing. I’ll make sure that all those links are in the show notes, too, so that people can check them out and go visit your website and everything like that. That’s really, really exciting.
Well, thank you so much, Stephen, for being on the show. It’s been such a blast chatting with you.
Stephen: Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure talking to you and, and talking books. It’s been great.
Jo: Takeaways from today’s show:
1. Spend time observing people and looking for those interesting points of difference that can fuel story or character ideas.
2. If you are a New Zealand author, know that the world is ready for a story set in New Zealand, despite what naysayers may say.
3. Even if you plotted a book, be flexible in allowing it to change shape as you write it.
4. Tools like Google Earth and YouTube tours can be useful for researching settings if you can’t physically visit a place.
5. If a story speaks to you and you want to get it out in the world, do what it takes to make that happen, whether it’s by traditionally or independently publishing it.
6. Move through imposter syndrome to write the story that speaks to you. Don’t let imposter syndrome or tough subject matter hold you back.
7. Stephen’s advice for writing a book is to sit down, put the words down, and believe in yourself.
8. Consider joining a writing group to be around other like-minded people and to support, and be supported, and grow your author network.
9. If you’re feeling stuck with your story, go for a walk and sit with your story.
So I hope you enjoyed my chat with Stephen today. He was so very generous in sending me a copy of Kaikōura Rendezvous, which I cannot wait to dive into once my book deadline is out of the way. It is top of my reading pile and a big incentive to get my book written. If you’re near Auckland in New Zealand, Stephen is having a book launch for Kaikōura Rendezvous on November 12th at 2pm at St Chad’s Community Centre in Meadowbank, if you want to support him and grab yourself a copy. Otherwise, all the links to purchase his books are in the show notes.
As always, if you’ve enjoyed the show, please consider supporting it by leaving a rating or review or by buying me a coffee at https://www.buymeacoffee.com/jobuer. Your support helps me keep the show going and just means so much to me.
Right, well, I will leave off with wishing you a wonderful writing week ahead, my friend. Bye for now.