British author Holly Bell is a photographer and video maker when not creating novels. She had long-term experience with non-fiction writing before being told she could write cozy mysteries.
Holly devoured all of the Agatha Christie books long before she knew that Miss Marple was the godmother of the Cozy Mystery. Her devotion to JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings meant that her first literary creation in this area would have to be a cozy paranormal.
Having derived immense delight from the adventure of writing Amanda Cadabra and The Hidey-Hole and its sequels, Holly has more in the pipeline.
Let’s learn more about Holly Bell and her passion for writing.
How did you get from writing non-fiction to fiction? That’s quite a leap.
I’ve written a lot of reviews of films and songs, each of those is basically a story. My degree is in history, which is again, a lot of stories both fact and fiction, if you include literature. I have also been a photographer and videographer for many years and if a picture paints a thousand words then a video has an even broader canvas, but again each tells a tale. In hindsight, it was only a matter of time before my first loves, all works of fiction would find a literary outlet.
Your books are quintessentially English and yet your stories are full of characters from diverse cultural backgrounds. How do those two things go together?
I knew from the start that my stories would be set in a village, and as a city girl it would have to be one on the edge of a metropolis so that I could understand it. As a Brit, it would be an English village and one on the edge of London would inevitably reflect the diversity of that capital.
A feature of villages can be a tendency to exclusivity and Sunken Madley has that in that it distinguishes, in a humorous fashion, between those who are long-standing residents, regardless of their cultural heritage, and those who have just moved in or only visiting. Hence we have the best of both worlds, and English, or rather a British, village with essentially the characteristics of those in PG Wodehouse books or Cold Comfort Farm or the Ealing Comedies.
Cozy paranormal mysteries have a certain formula. How is the Amanda Cadabra series distinctive?
Amanda is a different sort of witch. She’s a craftsperson like some other cozy heroines, a furniture restorer but she’s asthmatic. She is, in fact, disabled. She can’t run, jump, chase villains or survive for long in dusty attics and cellars. On the other hand she has a magical familiar who is in a sense a service cat.
Sleuths are normally super-observant. However Amanda is also on the spectrum and that gives her both intellectual advantages and blind spots. Unlike Miss Marple there are a lot of things, especially about people that she just doesn’t see, and anyone of the autistim/Aspergers spectrum will l recognize and relate to that.
Her life depends on her secrecy regarding her magical powers, so she has to be unobtrusive. She can’t afford to be out there, to be sexy, sassy or snarky. Although actually it’s in her nature to be retiring and circumspect.
The genre you write within is light entertainment. Is that all that you are trying to provide or are there any deeper messages in your books?
The diverse community in which people are accepting of one another is something that I hope will inspire acceptance. Lessons I’ve learned in life I do pass on through the voice of Granny and Grandpa and Chief Inspector Hogarth. Also, the books carry a message of respect for the use of power and that responsibilities come with extraordinary abilities.
Above all though, I want to show the best of people, of the world, to encourage optimism and the belief that good will triumph. I want people to put down the book at the end and feel happier, lighter, more hopeful, empowered and complete than they did before. If they do, then my work is done … until the next book!
Cozy witches are usually at the heart of a family or community. Why have you chosen not to follow that trend?
It’s true, she’s not at the hub of the community but she’s loved. She has a very small family, just her grandparents, and her surrogate aunt. In the UK and the US a growing number of people live solo and a lot them like it. Amanda represents those. She is content and at the same time has the desire to share her life with the right person at the right time. I think that’s a healthy example, and one that may comfort and encourage readers who are by themselves in one way or another.
Also, although the villagers sometimes irritate her she’s unfailingly kind and thoughtful towards them. I hope that shows that you don’t have to be sociable to be a good person.
Are your books chick lit?
The main character is female but I think she’d be in the same boat if she were male. Romance has a back seat in the books. Amanda does meet men who are attractive or find her attractive in some way but it’s expressed in communication or her thoughts about them. There is a growing connection with another character but their professional relationship keeps them in a formal holding pattern.
So yes, there’s a romantic thread but it’s subtle and a sub-plot. If chick lit is aimed at young single women I’d say most of my readers are not in that demographic and for that reason alone the series wouldn’t fit into the chick lit category.
I see the attraction of story writing but why cozy paranormal mystery? Why is it important to you personally?
I’m a great believer in feel-better entertainment whether it’s a book, film, performance or visual art. Cozy paranormal mystery is escapist in a positive way, it combines magic, humour and a puzzle. The authors that have journeyed with me through life and give me those things are in particular CS Lewis, Tolkein, Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer. I’ve come back to them again and again. They have been the supporting trees in me that have bourne fruit and that fruit is, naturally, cozy paranormal mysteries. In this way, I can give my readers what those authors have given me.
Are there any universal themes in your books?
The triumph of good over evil, is the most obvious.
But I think many people do live covert lives of one kind or another because of being or feeling different and that those differences will be unacceptable to those around them. Even some jobs require great discretion. The main character’s need to keep her witchcraft secret is something that many readers will relate to either for themselves or someone they know.
What are the challenges of touching on serious themes in writing cozy mysteries?
It’s important to keep things light. This is entertainment after all. Even moments of tension need to be quickly followed with relief or humour. The signposts to deeper levels need to be apparent for those looking for them and easily ignored by readers who just want to enjoy the plot.
Above all, if you had to some up in one word what you want your books to inspire, what would it be?