Meet the Author: Tim Symonds

It’s relatively simple to continue typing words into a computer until you’ve got 50,000 or 60,000 words down but then commences the most important task in authorship, rewriting, honing the paragraphs until you’re completely satisfied.

Tim Symonds

Tim Symonds was born in London. He grew up in Somerset, Dorset and the British Crown Dependency of Guernsey. After several years farming on the slopes of Mt Kenya and working on the Zambezi River in Central Africa, he emigrated to the United States. He studied at Göttingen, in Germany, and the University of California, Los Angeles, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Society of Authors.

Check out his website at http://tim-symonds.co.uk/

Author Insight

You came to writing later in life. What inspired you to pick up the pen? I did come to getting my novels published well into later life, it’s true, but I hankered after becoming a novelist when I was about 12. An aunt of mine married an impecunious but ambitious would-be author by the name of Elleston Trevor. Everyone really did think he should get a proper job but he persisted. And he made it on a grand scale. In the midpoint of his career he wrote The Flight of the Phoenix which became a Hollywood movie starring James Stewart, Richard Attenborough and Peter Finch. After an oil company plane crashes in the Sahara, the survivors are buoyed with hope by one of the passengers, an airplane designer who plans for them to build a flyable plane from the wreckage.

Elleston and my aunt Iris aka Jonquil ended up with a house high in the mountains of New Mexico where the movie was filmed.  I thought, ‘I’ll have some of that’.

Did you draw on any skills in your previous employment or was writing a novel a new experience entirely?  A new experience. When I was 21 I found myself in the Caribbean, mostly Jamaica. I rented a bungalow in the Blue Mountains (coffee-growing country) and made my first attempt at writing a novel, a Cold War spy story with a protagonist remarkably like me. I think it could have been good enough to get published but I had no idea how to go about it. In the end it found its way to a drawer in my mother’s house in St Peter Port and when she passed away it was probably thrown out with all the rest of mementos the house-clearing people thought of no value.

How would you describe yourself as a writer? Are you a careful planner, what is known in the industry as a ‘pantser’ who writes the story ‘by the seat of your pants’ and finds out what happens as you go, or a combination of both?

I had not heard the amusing term ‘pantser’ before but I am definitely at that end of the spectrum. I’m certainly not a writer who has to have almost the entire plot secure in mind before I turn on the computer and start. For example, I have just begun to work on a new Holmes-and-Watson novel which – going by my first seven or eight novels and short-story collections – will take me well through this winter and next summer and probably up to my birthday in September. If I have any claim to fame in the future it would be because I do a tremendous amount of research, often as much as a university course in, say, the history of the Balkans or China or Bulgaria, where I have set some of my novels, such as Sherlock Holmes And The Mystery of Einstein’s Daughter (Serbia), and Sherlock Holmes And The Nine-Dragon Sigil (Peking).

Please share a little of your writing process. Do you have a daily routine?  I do write for at least an hour or two each day. In winter this is done in a small room in the old oast house in ‘Rudyard Kipling Country’ where my partner Lesley Abdela and I live, in the depths of the Sussex High Weald. Lesley is the first to read the typescript and in doing so she gives me really useful ideas. In summer I take a laptop to one of four favourite hide-outs in the extensive forest surrounding the house where I’ve stashed a couple of canvas folding chairs. Depending on the time of day at least one of them is bathed in the sun’s rays, filtering down through the trees.  The moment I turn my laptop on I’m transported to other lands. As I mentioned earlier, in Sherlock Holmes And The Mystery of Einstein’s Daughter that was Serbia around 1905; in Sherlock Holmes And The Nine-Dragon Sigil it was a lot lot farther, to Peking’s Forbidden City and the equally forbidding Empress Dowager Cixi of the Manchu Yehe Nara clan. The research as well as the writing is escapism at its very best!

What was your path to publication?  About 12 years ago, impressed by the worldwide renewed interest in Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson (and dear rat-faced Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, and the evil Napoleon of Crime, Professor James Moriarty), I decided to try my hand at writing a Holmes-and-Watson adventure which became a typescript I titled Sherlock Holmes And The Dead Boer at Scotney Castle

Now what to do?  I googled ‘Sherlock Holmes publishers’ and up came MX Publishing described as ‘With over 400 books it’s the largest catalogue of new Sherlock Holmes books in the world’. Out of the wild blue yonder I sent the typescript to them.  An email came saying the typescript had been sent to an editor for evaluation. A second email came a week or two later saying MX would publish it. The cover would portray the ancient mill and pond at the real Scotney Castle in Kent.

Since then I’ve published about one novel a year, the latest being Sherlock Holmes And The Strange Death of Brigadier-General Delves.  A trial for murder is held in the Royal Courts of Guernsey in the Channel Islands. This really did delve a bit into my own past – I was brought up in Guernsey with very happy memories of that quite isolated little island off the Normandy coast before I left school and went to Africa and continents beyond.

As far as titles are concerned, I was advised by people who understood how to catch the electronic world’s eye that I should start a novel’s title with ‘Sherlock Holmes And…’, advice I have mostly followed – except for my new book coming out this December which I have titled The Torso At Highgate Cemetery And Other Sherlock Holmes Stories.  In my London days I rented a flat not far from Waterlow Park and Highgate Cemetery, and almost every day my routine was to walk to the park and then go out the far side straight into the wonderful cemetery. With its umpteen graves going back to the 1830s and a large part left almost to nature, overgrown graves and tumbledown Victorian gravestones, it’s a ‘must visit’ for anyone going to North London, including all the Russians and Chinese who go to stand in silent awe at Karl Marx’s grave with its immense bronze head.

How involved have you been in the development of your books?  A lot. Although MX Publishing have about 140 authors in their ‘stable’ they are a registered charity, profits going to help support a school for children with special mental and physical needs located in Arthur Conan Doyle’s old home ‘Undershaw’, and an orphanage in Nairobi for babies literally left on the streets of Kenya’s capital. The authors therefore get a modest amount from sales but are happy to see money going to those good causes. It also means everything the authors themselves can do to publicise their novels is very welcome, in addition to professional online promotion of the books by MX.

What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? Not so much told as being reminded!  It’s relatively simple to continue typing words into a computer until you’ve got 50,000 or 60,000 words down but then commences the most important task in authorship, rewriting, honing the paragraphs until you’re completely satisfied. This may mean rewriting perhaps 10 times, but if you don’t you may find a publisher just sends it back with a soulless but legally-advised ‘thank you but no thanks’ slip attached.   

What’s the best aspect of your writing life? Choosing how to divide up your day. And people who’ve read one of your novels being nice. And doing the research. Research may take two or three hours a day, require reading perhaps 15 books on the subject of your novel, and transport you to faraway places into a faraway time, in my case mostly the Edwardian or Victorian era when Holmes and Watson were riding in fast Hansom carriages, Watson’s trusty service revolver in a pocket, almost yelling out ‘Hooray! The game’s afoot!’. 

What’s the best advice you were ever given? Remember, you only live once. Ie. don’t keep on doing what you’re doing if you really don’t like it.  

What’s your top tip for aspiring authors? Obvious as it may seem, to become a novelist you really do have to write a novel. (Then you really do have to get a publisher to publish it.)

How important is social media to you as an author? I need to learn a great deal more about it and how utilising it could expand coverage of my novels. Two of my novels are included in Amazon UK Top 100 Amazon Best Sellers in Sherlock Holmes Mysteries. (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Best-Sellers-Sherlock-Holmes-Mysteries/zgbs/books/270416). I’ll bet my old walking boots getting known via social media would be extremely favourable to sales.

Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? I have never experienced this tricky state of affairs. I’m a chatter-box and I wonder if that means I have a brain which doesn’t freeze when the PC’s screen comes on, blank and perhaps a bit forbidding!

Reviews are important to attract readers. What has been the response to your book? It’s been wonderful.

How would you describe your writing? Simply conjuring up adventures I’d have liked to have been party to, ones most certainly not likely to win the Booker Prize! 

If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life? It has to be Ernest Hemingway. He combined writing his stories with making sure he was seeing the world, pity that included all that Big Game hunting, but those were the times.

I’d like to know how he came up with some of his works, such as The Old Man and the Sea, often cited as Hemingway’s best novel.  I myself set off for a similar adventurous life, leaving Guernsey at 16, working on a large farm high up on the slopes of Mt Kenya, hiking down through Africa, spending a year in deepest Mexico in the shadow of another great mountain, Popocatapetl, emigrating to California and becoming an undergrad and graduate at UCLA before returning often to every quarter of my favourite continent, Africa. I never met Hemingway though I must have walked over his footsteps when I walked up Mt Kilimanjaro. My writing style doesn’t copy his – he was the master of the short sentence – but through my twenties I usually had one of his novels with me at all times, for example his first novel, The Sun Also Rises.

Book Byte

Sherlock Holmes and the Strange Death of Brigadier-General Delves

It’s 1898. Kismet brings about a chance reunion at a London club between Dr. Watson and Colonel “Maiwand Mike” Fenlon, former military comrades from their Northwest Frontier days and the desperate Battle of Maiwand. A week later an urgent cable seeking Sherlock Holmes’s help arrives from the Bailiwick of Guernsey, a British Crown Dependency 30 miles off the coast of Normandy. A retired high-ranking British Indian Army officer who commanded the troops at Maiwand has dropped dead. Colonel Fenlon is in a holding cell awaiting trial for his murder.

What role in the Brigadier-General’s death was played by a phial of patent medicine developed in India to treat cholera? Why are Colonel Fenlon’s forefinger and thumbprint on the neck of the phial when he swears he has never seen it before?

Above all, why is Fenlon refusing to enter a plea or even to tell his Defence counsel what took place the evening the Brigadier-General dropped dead?

This tightly crafted tale about Watson shows that war is a tool for the rich and powerful; less about glory than self-interest.

Professor Vincent Golphin

Due for release December 2022. Buy the book here.

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