The Silence Between Breaths

A group of strangers take seats in the same carriage on a train journey from Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston not knowing that their day will turn out to be a day unlike any other. A day of terror and the fight for survival, of horror and humanity. When I was developing the story, I knew I wanted to tell it from several different and increasingly connected viewpoints. As the journey progresses the characters become familiar with their fellow passengers, form opinions about them, strike up conversations and this lays the ground for the traumatic events that follow. I had used several narrators in some of my previous novels – usually three or four – but this time it was going to be nine. Yes, nine. That’s a lot of different voices to convey and it would be a challenge to make it work so the reader didn’t lose track and muddle them up, or want to skip over some of the sections.  Before starting writing, I spent several weeks working solely on the characters. I aimed for a diverse range of people, different ages and ethnicities, with varying roles and responsibilities, but they had to be more than stereotypes or ciphers, they needed to have some depth, to have quirks and flaws, foibles and secret dreams. It was up to me to know what they looked like on the outside (that meant browsing lots of images online to ‘cast’ the parts and printing off photographs) and what was going on inside their heads. Building, or uncovering, character is a process with all my writing but I suppose in this case there were a lot more people to create. Once that was done as thoroughly as possible, I could start writing and planning how the different stories would interweave though at that stage I didn’t know the fate of all the characters – that became clearer as the novel progressed, growing out of the writing. The nature of the story meant that not everyone would survive and choosing who did and didn’t was not easy but made sense within the logic of the story.


Summer Reading

Or any time at all, really. Here are some titles I’ve enjoyed this year and you might too:

Case Book by Monica Simpson

The American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Red Dust by Gillian Slovo

A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth

Rapture by Liz Jensen

The Past by Tessa Hadley

I Am China by Xiaolu Guo

Café Assassin by Michael Stewart

Charcoal Joe by Walter Mosley



Half The World Away


Half The World Away

‘a fascinating glimpse into modern China’ The Sunday Mirror

‘detection merges with high emotion’ The Times

This book, my twenty-second, is the first to venture outside Manchester. It tells the story of Jo and Tom Maddox, an estranged couple, who reunite in a desperate search for their daughter, Lori, who has gone missing in China. I chose China partly because my son lives there, and it would make the job of research a little easier, but mainly because China is such a fascinating country and so very different from here. A place in the throes of huge development and change and somewhere that my characters would feel completely at sea, unable to understand the language, unfamiliar with the culture and customs. I’d never been to China – or anywhere in Asia – so I’d little idea of what to expect when I visited. Once there, as I gathered background material for the book, I knew it was important to capture the particular feel of the city, Chengdu. Not just with visual descriptions but by conveying the sounds and smells, the tactile sensations of the air and dust, the taste of the spicy food, the atmosphere. Here are some of the pictures I took, and some of these locations appear in the book.


Half The World Away comes out in paperback on July 14th.

Yue Tao - poet 10cranes 10Buddhas 10traffic 10river viewing tower 1035 storey blocks 10street scene 10Construction 10river 10hot pot 10building work 10

Taking The Stand

My book Witness was inspired by two separate events. The first was a near-death experience when a car cut across ours at great speed on the motorway. I was driving but yelled at my son to write down the registration number and when we got home I rang and reported the incident to the police. They took the details and asked me if I’d testify if the case ever came to court. I agreed though I felt uneasy about it. After a few weeks I got a call back – the driver was being investigated for far more serious offences and so the police would not be pursuing my complaint. My gut reaction was a sense of relief, of having avoided something unpleasant and possibly frightening. The second event was the shooting of fifteen-year-old Jesse James in Moss Side, Manchester in 2006. Police believed that Jesse, who had no involvement with gangs, was mistakenly targeted by gang members. I was working in the area in the days after the shooting and there was great sorrow and outrage at the crime and a belief that some people in the community knew who was responsible. The plea for witnesses continues to this day. No one was ever charged with Jesse’s murder. It made me wonder what it would be like to be a witness, what impact it would have. What if you were too scared to go through with it, if you believed you were putting yourself and your family at risk?

That gave me the framework for the novel, four bystanders, people in the wrong place at the wrong time, who witness a shocking shooting. To research the book I spent time with the Witness Service at Manchester Crown Court and saw how they supported the people giving testimony. People without who our criminal justice system would fall apart. Ordinary people like you and me.

Witness is a Kindle Monthly Deal throughout June alongside The Kindest Thing.

Books, books,books.

Here are some more novels that I’ve read and enjoyed recently and I hope you’ll find something here that appeals to you. There’s all sorts, British and American authors, some historical settings, some contemporary psychological crime, a modern classic and I borrowed most of them from my local library 🙂

The Ballroom by Anna Hope

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

The Perfect Girl by Gilly Macmillan

Exposure by Helen Dunmore

The Widow by Fiona Barton

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

Stoner by John Williams

Gut Instinct


It’s no secret that the question ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ is one of the most commonly asked of writers. And I’d say it’s one of the hardest to answer. My fall-back position is to joke about a stall I know on the market that does two for one and I’ve blogged before about not wanting to analyse the writing process too much as for me it’s about letting go and acting instinctively rather than anything more consciously structured. I do sometimes try and address it more seriously when talking to readers by illustrating how ideas for different books came from a visual image, or from a situation that troubles me. Recently I’ve been developing ideas for my next book and also for radio. This involved quite a lot of time staring at blank sheets of paper, gazing into space, writing list of possible ‘topics’ or situations and seeing if any of these might be ripe for development. Each time I came back to the suggestions I was very much aware of my gut responses: which ones left me feeling a bit flat, or cornered as though I was being tugged reluctantly in that direction; which ones kicked at my pulse yet made me feel slightly sick and overwhelmed and not sure if I was capable of writing them? That latter feeling with its mix of thrill and anxiety is as good a measure as anything for selecting an idea to run with. I imagine it’s a bit like hang-gliding or parachute jumping (which I have never done and never ever intend to), stepping off the edge and hoping to land safely several hundred feet/pages later. Without throwing up.


Pick Up A Book

March 3rd is World Book Day. Here are some novels I can recommend if you’re looking for something good to read.

Girl at War by Sarah Kovic

The Darkest Secret by Alex Marwood

The Green Road by Anne Enright

Eventide (Plainsong Trilogy) by Kent Haruf

The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall

Viral by Helen Fitzgerald

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume



‘Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.’ – Ray Bradbury

February 6th is National Libraries Day, a time to celebrate the service as well as a call for action to protect libraries at a time when so many are being closed or their resources slashed. I love this quote from Isaac Asimov,‘Congratulations on the new library, because it isn’t just a library. It is a space ship that will take you to the farthest reaches of the Universe, a time machine that will take you to the far past and the far future, a teacher that knows more than any human being, a friend that will amuse you and console you – and most of all, a gateway, to a better and happier and more useful life.’

Writers are born in libraries. I certainly was. For me a love of reading goes hand-in-hand with the desire to write. I grew up in a house where we all went to the public library and returned home with piles of books to devour before next month’s visit. Beginning in the children’s section, I graduated to adult fiction, reading my way round the shelves, trying anything that captured my interest. The pleasure and excitement of stories, being in other worlds, seeing things through the eyes of different characters and sharing their emotions is what I get from reading and what I’m hoping to create when I write.

Libraries are one of the few free, public, local, cultural spaces that we all share. True community venues. As Lady Bird Johnson put it, ‘Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only entrance requirement is interest.’ For that reason alone they are precious, they bind us together. They enable any of us to become readers, perhaps to become writers. Beyond books they offer advice and information, internet access, meeting spaces, research opportunities, newspapers, bus timetables, talks and lectures, exhibitions and publicity for local events. They host community groups and councillors surgeries, homework clubs and storytelling sessions. Free to use, accessible and open to all ages they really are invaluable and if they didn’t exist we’d have to invent them. To see them under sustained attack is heart-breaking. My local library is still open (pictured here) and I’ve never lost the habit of borrowing books. I can only hope that the same provision will be there for my children and for theirs. As Neil Armstrong said, ‘How we use the knowledge we gain determines our progress on earth, in space or on the moon. Your library is a storehouse for mind and spirit. Use it well.’

If you’ve not got your library card yet, please sign up, browse those shelves and borrow a book or few and show your support.