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  • Jacci Gooding

Meet the Author: Susan C. Law

This year’s festival welcomes local author Dr. Susan Law who will be reading from and being interviewed about her non-fiction work, The Dark Side of the The Cut: A History of Crime on Britain’s Canals (The History Press 2023). Dark Side of the Cut reveals the dark and dangerous past of the waterways in 19th-century Britain, when alcohol abuse, theft and violence were facts of everyday life.

'Evocative snapshots of rough justice uncover the secret world of the waterways, set apart on the edge of society, and reveal the real human cost of the Industrial Revolution.'

Welcome, Sue. Please tell me a little bit about yourself.

I’ve always found life stories fascinating – whether I’m in a supermarket queue, in a taxi, at work or chatting with friends, people seem to tell me about their lives, often in amazing detail, and can be really open about all sorts of things. I think they know I am genuinely interested in what they have to say.  


A good listener then! So what drew you to the discipline of writing?

No idea! It’s just part of me and something I’ve done for as long as I can remember. I often wish I was drawn to do something easier, but I can’t help it – a bit like an addiction I suppose.


When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I was one of those strange kids who loved doing English homework, and spent ages writing short stories and little plays. I even sent off one to BBC Radio Children’s Hour, when I was nine, and can still recall how upset I was when the rejection letter arrived!


Ah, the good old rejection letter! An author’s nemesis! Obviously not put off then, at what point did you decide to be an author and what was your path to publication?

About 20 years ago I started looking into my family history – there was an intriguing story about my great, great grandmother which I researched and eventually wrote as a historical novel. I submitted it to agents and one phoned back within 24 hours – probably unheard of today! But I had the same disappointing experience of many new authors, and despite her best efforts my agent couldn’t get a publisher to take it. That’s when I decided to become a ‘real’ historian and went back to university to study for my Masters and PhD.

As a journalist, tell us what drew you to the subjects covered in your books - Through the Keyhole: Sex, Scandal and the Secret Life of the Country House for example

Well for a start, all journalists know that sex and crime sell papers, just as they sell books! But they also get right down to the brass tacks of human nature, the basic instincts, and that’s when you can really understand what makes people tick.

Do you have a favourite era to write about and why?

So far I’ve written about Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, partly because they are recent enough to give plenty of accessible material for research. It get much harder, the further back you go, but I’m insatiably curious - the English Civil Wars, and colonial Far East are both intriguing destinations, so you never know where I will go next!  

Isn’t that just the joy of writing - no passport needed. Have you always been interested in the past and stories it holds?

Yes. Human nature doesn’t change, but people react to specific events in different eras, so there’s always something fresh to find out, and I love the complex historical detective work of discovery.

What makes good non-fiction?

A cracking good tale to tell, and quality of writing.


Where or how do you find your inspiration?

Reading, talking, visiting historic places – a chance remark, an intriguing paragraph, or a fleeting impression of times past in an old building can all lead you to unexpected new places.  

Which do you enjoy most - the research or the writing?

Both! I usually get so involved with the research process that it is tempting to go on and on, but eventually you have to confront that first page and start writing. Then the writing takes you into a world of its own – completely absorbing, but never easy.


You’re not wrong there! So, please describe your writing process for us.

When I’ve committed to a new book, I’m very disciplined and write regularly. Before each session I re-read and edit yesterday’s pages, which then get me into the flow to write the next section.

Would you say it was easy writing historical non-fiction?

A definite No! The difficulty is that you have to stick to the facts, and can’t insert the sort of creative plot-lines or dialogue you want to. There’s so much more freedom when writing historical fiction.

What in your opinion are the magic ingredients to make NF appealing to your readership? 

No magic here, for history it’s just trying to find the best ways of bringing the past vividly to life, so readers can empathise with your characters – it’s all about adding enough factual detail for authenticity, but not so much that it dominates the story.

How do you find time to write? 

Make sure I get the writing done first, before I’m side-tracked into doing other things. And keep off social media.

What is the best time of day for you to write?


Do you have favourite writer? 

An impossible question to answer! What I love most about literature is the incredible variety of writers, like a delicious ‘pick ‘n mix’ selection of goodies you can choose to suit your mood, situation, or phase of life.


Very true. What book are you currently reading?

I’ve just finished Matthew Richardson’s The Scarlet Papers and loved the fast-paced narrative. I also read a lot of crime fiction.


What do you think is the best part of being a writer?

Living in your imagination – it’s great to escape from modern life.

Do you edit your own work as you go along?

Yes, I re-read and do a quick edit at the start of each morning’s work. Then when the book is completed I will do several slow, detailed edits of the whole manuscript.

How often do you think you have failed with a piece of work, if at all?

How do you define failure? I tend to be my own harshest critic, so of course I usually think I could have done something better or differently – that’s par for the course.


Do you like to share your drafts? 

No, I think the creative process works best when I keep everything safely inside my head, to develop slowly in its own time.


How long does it take you to write a book?

Fiction is much quicker, and writing my historical novel was a rapid process. My latest history book Dark Side of the Cut took far longer, with two years of combined research and writing.

What do you think is the most difficult part of writing a non-fiction book? 

Sticking to the facts, and not allowing your imagination to run away, while at the same time making sure your writing style is lively and engaging.

No pressure then! How did your book deal come about?

My two history books have been published by a specialist history publisher, and each time I emailed with a detailed proposal, outline and target market.


What advice would you give a first-time non-fiction author?

Just go for it! Trust your instincts and if you have a strong story that you are longing to write, then start writing it!


How important are book reviews? 

They can be useful in getting the word out there about a new book, but don’t underestimate readers as they can see through all the exaggerated hype and hysterical quotes you get on many books today.   


Is social media important to you with regard to how you feel about your success?

Social media is undoubtedly a powerful force, especially for some genres, but it’s not the whole story. Being out and about in the ‘real’ world chatting to someone who has read my book, is the most satisfying part.

Dr Sue C Law’s books are available from The History Press and Waterstones

Interview by Jacci Gooding, Festival Director

Photos: Author's own


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