Meet the author
Harriet Steel is former lawyer turned writer from Ashtead in Surrey. Her passion for historical fiction led her down that path, but most recently she's moved into crime novels and is now working on the fourth book in her Inspector de Silva series.
Hi Harriet. I love the diversity of you books – but I’m interested in how you got there. Can you tell us a bit about Harriet Steel – the person.
I grew up near Salisbury in Wiltshire then read law at Cambridge University. After I qualified as a solicitor, I lived and worked in London. I moved to Cobham in 1983 and seven years later came to Ashtead. I think I’m here to stay now! Surrey’s a great county with lots to offer. My husband and I love to walk in the gorgeous countryside around the Surrey Hills, usually followed by a stop at one of the many cosy pubs! We enjoy going to the theatre in Guildford and Woking and recently discovered the charming little Nomad Theatre in East Horsley. I’m also interested in art and history.
Our daughters are grown up; one is a vet and the other a literary editor (very useful)! We have a granddaughter and a grandson, with a new addition expected in June, so family life is a lot of fun.
You’ve written eight books – some historical fiction, some short stories and most recently the Inspector de Silva crime series. Is there a common thread that links each of your novels?
Not strictly speaking as, when I started out, I wanted to experiment with different genres, but each novel had to be one I felt passionate about writing. Historical fiction is a long-term love of mine and it was the obvious place for me to begin. My first novel, Becoming Lola, is a biographical one that tells the extraordinary story of Lola Montez. Dancer, actress, writer, business woman and intrepid traveller, she was reputed to have taken hundreds of lovers, wilder accounts claim thousands. In her short, but very eventful life, she became the most notorious adventuress of the Victorian era. It’s so strange that very few people have heard of her nowadays. When I came across her story, I wanted to try and change that.
Lola sounds like an amazing woman. Where did you go from there?
Of the three historical novels that followed, two are romantic, coming-of-age stories set in Paris in the late 19th Century, a period I find very interesting and not often explored in fiction. The third is an adventure story set in Elizabethan England. It was such a fascinating time, standing on the brink of the modern world. Who wouldn’t be tempted to set a novel then?
And then came crime?
The change to crime fiction came about quite slowly with short stories, but in 2015 I decided to challenge myself and write a novel – Trouble in Nuala. The experience is rather different to that of writing historical novels as you are creating a puzzle that readers need to solve, and tight plotting becomes especially important, but there’s the same need to create strong characters and evoke the world in which they live in. I’m glad to say that many readers have told me they loved Trouble in Nuala and encouraged me to give Inspector de Silva another outing, with the result that there are now three books in the series.
Tell us about Inspector de Silva. The series is set in the 1930s. what was your inspiration?
I’m a great fan of mysteries from the Golden Age of British crime fiction, writers of the 1920s and 1930s like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. Some of the inspiration for the Inspector de Silva Mysteries came from that time but I’ve also been influenced by contemporary crime writers like Donna Leon, Ellie Griffiths and L J Ross who have a strong sense of place in their books. In my own reading, I prefer to avoid crime novels that include a lot of graphic violence and you won’t find that in the de Silva series.
Shanti de Silva himself was inspired by various people I met on my travels around Sri Lanka and he took shape in my mind early on. He’s pragmatic but principled with a mischievous sense of humour; at times impetuous and occasionally a rebel.
The location sounds so exotic and beautiful. Why Ceylon (Sri Lanka)? Obviously, you had to visit for research – did you purposely choose a location that would make for a great holiday? Or is researching a location nothing like a holiday?
Sri Lanka is gorgeous. When I went there on holiday I was captivated from the moment I arrived. I’d been thinking about writing a murder mystery for some time but hadn’t decided where to set it. I quickly realized I’d found the place. The mixture of an exotic location, wonderful scenery and abundant wildlife, as well at the extra layer of interest provided by the British colonial heritage, was irresistible. I’d like to say I worked very hard researching for the novel, but the truth is that Sri Lanka just seeped into my bones.
In a previous life you were a lawyer… how did you make the transition from law to literature?
I know they seem quite different, but I’ve found that some of the skills I learnt as a lawyer have been a help with my writing – for example attention to detail and the ability to look at things with a critical eye, very useful when checking whether the plot of a murder mystery is watertight.
Do you ever miss your career in law? Writing is a fairly solitary pursuit.
I do miss the people sometimes and, with writing, one needs to be more of a self-starter. Yes, it is quite a solitary pursuit, but very absorbing, at least when it’s going well. I’m lucky that I have close family and good friends too. It’s important to switch off the computer and spend time with them to recharge.
How long does it take to write a book? Or is that like asking how long is a piece of string?
A bit like that! My historical novels needed a lot of research before I put pen to paper, and each took a couple of years. The Inspector de Silva books haven’t taken nearly as long because there’s less research involved.
What’s next for Harriet Steel?
I’m working on a fourth book in the Inspector de Silva series. Otherwise, a lot of people have told me that the books would make great TV, so I’m open to offers!
And finally, what advice would you give to wannabe authors?
Drop the word “wannabe” and find time to write. Even if you only manage a few hundred words at a time, it’s surprising how a working draft grows. Writing’s a craft like any other and you will get better with practice. Don’t be afraid to show your work to other people. All criticism is valuable and even if it’s not constructive, it’s still useful. One thing you’ll need as a writer is a thick skin. There’s a huge amount of creative writing advice around and many courses, but the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is ‘show, don’t tell’. Take your readers with you into your story; make them feel as engrossed as you are by your characters.
And the getting published bit?
I self-publish; I don’t have the patience to go through the tortuous process of finding an agent, and self-publishing is a very viable option these days. I have an excellent editor and a brilliant designer who does my covers and layouts. I find marketing the hardest part, but I’m finally getting better at it with gratifying results!
Harriet also writes a blog where you’ll find posts about history and art as well as interviews with other writers. ‘Trouble in Nuala’ and the other books in the series are available in paperback from Barton’s Bookshop in Leatherhead or Amazon in paperback or Kindle. harrietsteel.blogspot.co.uk