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BOOK FESTIVAL REVIEW: Cromarty Crime & Thrillers Weekend 4: Becoming Elly Griffiths reveals the story behind finding the perfect crime writer's name

By Margaret Chrystall

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REVIEW: Becoming Elly Griffiths

The Stables, Cromarty

Saturday, noon

The talk on Saturday morning at the Stables from the writer behind the hit crime series set in Norfolk and featuring forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway proved popular with crime writing fans, many of whom stayed on after Ian Rankin’s first talk of this year’s event to hear Elly’s story.

A writer before she became a crime writer, Elly became a writer quite clearly fulfilling a destiny that was marked out almost certainly from the moment her dad stitched together the little books she made as a small girl.

But definitely as a crime writer from the time as an 11-year-old when she created her first crime story called The Hair Of The Dog.

Elly Griffiths talking about her crime writing career at The Stables on Saturday morning. Picture: Georgia Macleod
Elly Griffiths talking about her crime writing career at The Stables on Saturday morning. Picture: Georgia Macleod

Elly tells that she had based it on a phrase she had heard her parents say, a story set in the nearby village of Rottingdean where she has returned with a series of crime books she has been writing more recently. The Dr Ruth Galloway series, of which there are now 14, is now at the 15th and possibly final one.

The Last Remains is currently being written by Elly, to the sadness of any Dr Ruth Galloway fans out there.

But the journey towards the writer’s life had several more important steps, Elly revealed to her crowd at The Stables on Saturday.

At school her fan fiction episodes based on the Starsky & Hutch TV adventures of the American cop duo taught her how it feels to have a hungry audience. Elly would pass her own episodes for Starsky & Hutch, written out in longhand, around the class. And when she passed on the episode where she had killed off Starsky, there was a big impact.

Elly revealed: “People started to cry! And I realised I could make them cry by writing my stories.”

When she left school, Elly went on to study English Literature and also did a Masters in the subject. When work came, it was at first in libraries in London, in Mayfair and Charing Cross, before moving into publishing and working with writers such as Malorie Blackman in Harper’s children’s fiction section.

But as Elly admitted at her talk, the way her job treated publishing – as a commercial enterprise, as, of course, it is all about selling books as a commodity – didn’t encourage her own feelings of wanting to write as an author.

Some of Elly Griffiths many titles, including the Dr Ruth Galloway series.
Some of Elly Griffiths many titles, including the Dr Ruth Galloway series.

It was only when Elly went off on maternity leave that she found some time to start writing, using her father’s experience as an Italian coming to England around the First World War and his later being interned during the Second World War on the Isle Of Man, before spending time in London, which proved the inspiration for her first book The Italian Quarter, set amongst the Italian community that thrived in London’s Clerkenwell area around St Peter’s Church, a place she recommended us visiting, if we were ever in the area.

Even though she worked in publishing, Elly wasn’t quite sure what to do next with her book once she had completed it, but was told to find an agent.

Elly told her listeners in Cromarty that she had been advised to contact six agents, tell them that she was writing to five others and that within a short time she would write to the others if they didn’t reply to her approach with three chapters from her book enclosed.

The writer was told this strategy would annoy the agents into getting touch!

They wouldn’t like the idea that she would pass on her work to others. Sure enough, three of them got back to her quickly.

'Don’t be too arrogant, but don’t be too timid either', her advisor had told her before she sent out her work.

The agent Elly chose to go with had a very posh name, she told the Cromarty crowd – “Tiffaly” and her suitably over-the-top word to describe Elly’s manuscript was “Faborific!” – the word bringing delighted laughter from the audience.

Elly went on to write four books for publisher Headline Review, looking at Italian families and relationships.

But when eit seemed that almost very Italian cliché anyone could think of appeared on one of her book covers with the sub headline ‘Falling in love Italian-style’, – and “The book was about the Resistance!” Elly told us – the writer decided she would like to try writing in a different genre.

Meanwhile, she told the Cromarty crowd that she had fallen for a young lawyer in a pinstripe suit called Andy. He told her he had a secret wish to be an archaeologist, which Elly said she thought was sweet.

But having married, had two children together and gone on holiday to Norfolk where Elly’s aunt lived and owned a boat, Andy was describing to Elly how Prehistoric people saw marshland – as a border between worlds – and before Elly knew it, she saw her character Dr Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist came walking towards her!

And though it had never happened to Elly before – and as a creative writing teacher she admits she wouldn’t want her students to claim their characters walked towards her rather than being properly created by her writing students! – that is what happened to her with Ruth.

Andy swapped law for archaeology and Elly began to write the Ruth Galloway crime series.

As well as that, there are several standalone crime novels, and also now a second crime series set in Brighton – close to Elly’s own real home – based on the life and world of her grandfather who was an entertainer/ magician in rep theatre and at seaside resorts just after the Second World War, and her mum who grew up with him in boarding houses and later boarding school. Her schooldays when she wrote spy stories have now also inspired a series for children by Elly about a schoolgirl detective called Justice.

It was while first establishing the Ruth Galloway series that the issue of Elly’s name came up, she said.

Domenica de Rosa aka Elly Griffiths. Picture Sara Reeve
Domenica de Rosa aka Elly Griffiths. Picture Sara Reeve

Called Domenica de Rosa in real life, that name had worked very well with her Italian and relationship novels. But agent Tiffaly thought there must be a different one for the Ruth Galloway series, for several reasons. Domenica chose “Elly” she explained because it was after her grandmother Ellen Griffiths, who would have loved to have her name on the cover of a book, Domenica decided. And Griffiths was also a good name because according to publishing, the letters F and G often come at eye-level in bookshops, attracting the eye of readers looking for a new name to read!

And having won an Edgar prize, The Crossing Places, the first Ruth Galloway book may not have had the success – Elly laughed – of a Richard Osman-style Thursday Murder Club which took the TV presenter straight to the top of the bestseller lists when the book came out.

But Elly paid tribute to all the independent bookshops and libraries across the country that championed her book and got interest going in Ruth and the Norfolk crimes she helps investigate.

Lockdown had proved a dilemma for Elly, she told her audience at Cromarty – would she bring it into the latest Ruth book to be published, The Locked Room, or not?

And Elly felt that though she could set that book either in the final months of 2019 before Covid – or after – bearing in mind even in 2021 we were still very much in the thick of it, she went with her instinct to include it. And it brings some testing moments to some favourite characters …

Perhaps not as testing as The Last Remains, the new Ruth Galloway out in February, which may or not be the last. Slightly depressingly, Elly mentioned at her talk that the title “is a bit of a clue”!

But she also mentioned she has lots of other ideas she would like to explore, is writing a new Miss Marple story and will have another now third outing for her detective Harbinder Kaur, with Bleeding Heart Yard.

There were some great questions from the audience for Elly – returning to the subject of a name. The writer said she believed that “what people are called gives an instant back story” to a writer – and that is what she tells her creative writing students.

Elly’s Starlight author Jonathan Whitelaw, having opened her session with a sparkling introduction, had first introduced himself and read a short extract from his own latest book, the new cosy crime The Bingo Hall Detectives.

How did Elly go between her different series, he asked her? – “I write them one at a time!” she said, though she mentioned a writer who writes one of his series in the morning and another in the afternoon!

Returning to the subject of first and third person storytelling from Ian Rankin’s talk, Elly revealed the previous four of her Ruth books are written in the present tense, which is unusual for crime books.

With both archaeologist Ruth and her colleague and occasional love interest, the police detective Harry Nelson, both being dominated by facts, where did Druid Cathbad come from, an audience member asked Elly – She shared that he had only been a minor character in the first Ruth book, The Crossing Places, but by the latest The Locked Room, was very much a major character.

Elly laughed: “I have a friend who lives in Glastonbury and is a Druid and she says she is psychic – but she has not worked out yet that SHE is the inspiration for Cathbad!”

Do you have to empathise with characters to write about them, Elly was asked – taking Ruth’s boss Phil as an example of someone she didn’t like very much, until the character comes across After Eights which remind him of feeling posh as a youngster and drew her sympathy. But she added: “I have never really written from the point of view of a murderer.”

Elly was asked about the Blackpool background she had created for detective Harry Nelson – or Nelson, and told the audience her brother-in-law from the town had been useful for his knowledge. But she had done her own research when it came to testing out the famous rollercoaster there and exclusively revealed it required 10 Hail Marys to get through!

An encounter with a scary fan brought one final funny story to Elly’s entertaining talk. The wife of Nelson, the beautiful Michelle, gets in the way of any possible romance between Ruth and Nelson, and in America a fan shared her rather drastic solution to that problem with Elly – “Kill her!”.

Elly laughed: “Every time during that visit that I caught her eye, she just mouthed the words “Kill her!” at me!” MC

More Cromarty Crime & Thrillers Weekend reviews at whatson-north And also on the website's book section!

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