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JJ Barnes The Table Read

Written by JJ Barnes

www.jjbarnes.co.uk

I interviewed author Alex Fisher about his work, what inspires him, and the writing process behind his new book, Seadogs And Criminals.

Tell me a bit about who you are.

I live in Cambridgeshire with my parents and two sisters (and dogs, cats and chickens) and work full time as a bricklayer. I also have experience in other trades as well such as plastering, groundworks and renovation, but I am trained and qualified as a bricklayer and, with 5 years on the trowel, I can now build houses to a quality standard. I enjoy working with my hands and being outdoors and I love working on a project each day seeing successful progress at the end of it. This, however, is my day job.

At the end of each day (I try to anyway) I write books. I have a passion for creative writing and have recently spent the past 18 months self-publishing my historical fiction series Seadogs and Criminals, with the first being released in December 2020 and the second at the end of August 2021.

I started creative writing when I was 11 years old and have continued to exercise this skill throughout school, sixth form and college so that by the time I was 18 I had written a fantasy trilogy. It was only a few months later that I picked up an issue of National Geographic and was inspired by the theme of ships, adventure and exploration and began plotting a new story. It took two years to write the story of Seadogs and Criminals, spending hours after work creating this adventure and treasure hunt, learning more about the characters and myself along the way. It was a thrill to write and has changed my life in more ways than I can imagine.

Alex Fisher, author of Seadogs And Criminals, interview on The Table Read
Alex Fisher, author of Seadogs And Criminals

Writing is not my only hobby though; I also like to paint (predominantly birds and birds of prey), and I love to cycle around the area on my mountain bike. I read a lot and I love to travel; in November 2019 I spent two weeks travelling alone in Nepal, trekking the Himalayas along the Annapurna Mountain range and discovering new cultures and ways of life within the capital Kathmandu.

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When did you first want to write a book?

I wrote a lot as a child, mainly handwriting short stories in a journal my primary school gave us, and I started writing my first book when I was 11, although I wasn’t sure what to do or how to do it, I just wanted to exercise my active imagination. I handwrote 414 double sides of A4 before I got a laptop for Christmas one year and began to write on there. It was much quicker and gave a lot less hand cramps! I was about 13 when I realised I wanted to write more books, since I had so many ideas I wanted to explore; ideas of which continued to develop and expand into adulthood.

How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?

With Seadogs and Criminals, from the first idea to release, it took 4 and a half years. I had the first idea about a new story in May of 2016, completed writing the story in August 2018 and published Seadogs and Criminals Book One in December 2020. I had originally intended Seadogs and Criminals to be one book, but during the publication process I found it to be more beneficial to split the book and make it into a two-book series, and I have ideas to make it into a trilogy.

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How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?

The latest book, Seadogs and Criminals Book Two, was an interesting journey for me. By making Seadogs and Criminals into a two-book series, I can tell where abouts the story shifted into another gear, and this happened at the start of the second book. Whilst mixing up cement on a job in February 2018, the story just clicked. I had a mad rush of inspiration and all the elements seemed to fit together and from this point, I wrote like I had never written before. The imagery was so clear and define and my focus was so intense that I was spending three and a half hours to four hours every evening after work, and I didn’t notice a thing.

Whilst I was in such a zone, I didn’t hear a thing or notice my surroundings at all. My writing was just as effortless as the time that slipped by, and I was gripped into the story; it’s hard to put it into words but I can say it was like watching a film and writing down what I saw and heard, it was that easy. From start to finish, the second book took around 6 months to write.

What made you want to write Seadogs And Criminals?

I wanted to write Seadogs and Criminals because I wanted to create a story that revolved around adventure, travel and redemption. I love adventure stories and I wanted to create one of my own that gave all the turbulence and turmoil, the beauty and the thrill that comes with such an adventure. The treasure hunt just gave the story a guideline, an aim for the characters to reach but the main moral and goal of the story was to show the transition of the characters, especially the main character Joseph Winter, to better themselves, to let go of their chequered pasts and become free to choose their own futures and fates. Something I hope the reader would begin to feel themselves, just as I felt when writing it.

What were your biggest challenges when writing Seadogs And Criminals?

I wouldn’t say I had a big challenge that topped the rest, but I certainly had quite a few challenges when writing Seadogs and Criminals. I found it difficult to work with a cast of characters that brought so much conflict. My characters are dark and gritty.

They are criminals from the streets of Victorian London, so they were bound to have chequered pasts and to have had hard lives, but to work alongside these characters, some being rapists and murderers, was hard because I had to get in the minds of these people and try to make the reader feel contempt for them, but intrigue at the same time. I wanted the reader to dislike them and think they shouldn’t be out of prison, but somehow like them enough to want to know more and to follow their journey, and hope that they could change. Despite their flaws, they were charismatic and interesting, and I could see that the journey itself was becoming punishment enough for their crimes; pushing them to their limits but also giving them the opportunity to grow.

I also found the research challenging; I wanted to create a story with as much detail as possible. I learned how to sail a nineteenth-century ship in order to imagine myself there aboard the vessel with the characters, learning how to navigate the seas and master the ship as they had to. I know this is not everyone’s cup of tea and some might not care for it, but doing this research helped my imagery and to paint a clearer picture so that I, and the reader, could get the best experience possible. I also researched as much as I could about Victorian London and the places the characters visited, trying to gain as much knowledge as I could about that place at that certain point in time to, again, paint the picture as clearly as I could to help the reader see what I saw.

Another challenge I faced was motivation. I found that when a manuscript is not in a paperback format or when people do not know you write, it’s very hard to get any feedback from your writing or to get people to read what you’ve written. It was hard to keep pushing myself to write this book since there was no one apart from my parents to give me feedback for my work, to say that I was doing this right or wrong. I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t doing this for anyone, I was just doing it for myself because I felt my story deserved to be published and read and that I deserved recognition as a writer.

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Who or what inspired you when creating your protagonist?

When creating my protagonist Joseph Winter, it was mainly the setting and era that spawned the idea of him. A master of the criminal underworld, or at least he believed himself to be. I wanted a character that believed himself to be set apart from the rest of the crowd, that had the option to choose a more honest life but chose against it, that longed for something more from life. I made him a criminal so that the reader wasn’t sure how to feel about him – the reader could feel conflicted, because he was conflicted about himself. He continued to break laws and have difficult views but as the story developed, I hoped the reader could have a guilty pleasure for him and could secretly root for him and eventually like him in the end.

Plus, he was charismatic, confident and charming, with a fire in his belly that would keep the reader wondering what he was going to do next. He was unpredictable, which kept the story very gripping. Additionally, his personality and character were very similar to my own. He was a perfect vessel for me to express my own views at that time, plus his name Joseph is my own middle name so it gave me even more relatability to him and gave me the opportunity to explore this character deeper whilst also exploring myself.

Alex Fisher, author of Seadogs And Criminals, interview on The Table Read

Who or what inspired you when creating your antagonist?

For the antagonist, I created the character of Dave James. To begin with he started out friendly but cautious, but as the story developed, I needed him to create the obstacles to Joseph’s personal growth. I wouldn’t say he was an exact opposite of Joseph’s character, but he was his own and had a powerful stature within the story. He was challenging and stubborn, quiet and mysterious, hopefully making the reader wonder what had happened to him to make him as such and making them hope he had the chance to grow as the rest of the characters were. Plus, I found him a helpful vessel for any challenges I faced with people in my own life so that I could better understand and vent those events/opinions with Dave. Despite his difficulties, I found him an intriguing and, in his own way, heroic character.

What is the inciting incident in Seadogs And Criminals?

The incident that incites the story would be a choice of two events. Firstly, the character Mad Vinny giving Joseph a tip-off about a burglary in a wealthy house to claim a fabled map leading to the legendary Lost Loot. It’s given to Joseph as a choice, as a take it or leave it, but of course his greed and ego leads him to the house whereupon the burglary takes place. It’s from this scene that the reader learns of the legend between Eve and Henry Scott and of the Lost Loot, of Joseph’s family history and of his ego.

The story begins to flesh from here, and a major supporting pillar of the book is set – it provides the background, the motive and the direction / goal of the story, hopefully gripping the reader in to want to read on. Secondly, Joseph finding the map in the house. This is a pivotal moment for the story as it shows that the legend is real after all and is not just a myth or a whispered rumour. The map gives Joseph a goal to strive toward and an opportunity to take a leap of faith into the unknown. Of course, events beyond this incident push him to follow the map further and take this leap, but the story is given a vital object of legitimacy from this point.

What is the main conflict of Seadogs And Criminals?

There are a few themes of conflict throughout the story of both Seadogs and Criminals books. Within Book One the main theme lies with the widening gap between social classes; the wealthy and the poor and how each appear and act, and between the innocent and the incarcerated and how the justice system only seems to work when it benefits those in control. Within Book Two the themes of conflict extend to racism and rape, deception and gender inequality, but the main theme lies with self-development – trying to grow through hardships, letting go of the past and to become nobler than their former selves.

Did you plot Seadogs And Criminals in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and fly freely?

I plotted a bit to begin with just to get a general idea of what to write; I knew my main character, the beginning and where I wanted the story to end but from then on, I only had brief bullet points of where I wanted the story to go. I’d write three chapters per document, and I knew where I wanted to be by the end of those three chapters, but I found it much more interesting and captivating writing freely.

What happened between those bullet points was completely improvised and I let the story go where it needed to go, only guiding the characters along their paths; in that way they were in control of what happened, not me. It sounds crazy but half the time I was as surprised by their actions as much as the reader. I know some writers like to plot everything in advance, or work backwards from end to beginning, but I work better and prefer writing freely; the story feels much more natural that way. Of course, there is no right or wrong answer though; the way you work is up to you.

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Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Seadogs And Criminals need?

I didn’t get any support with my editing; I wrote, proof-read and edited everything myself. It does get tedious reading through the same material again and again, but after a while you do get to know what to change and what would work best for that sentence, paragraph or chapter. It does get easier the more you edit, plus you get to know every detail of your book.

Honestly, I have lost count how many times I edited both books. Just when I thought I had completely finished I’d go over it again to make sure and there was always something else to change. If I found something new in my research, I’d comb through it all again to make the necessary changes. All in all, they needed quite a lot of editing, but it was worthwhile to get the book as best as it could possibly be.

What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?

To those inspired to write a story, I’d say do it. I’d say find a story that captures your imagination, that is full of intrigue and mystery and dive into it to discover what it has to offer. Plot the story, but not so much that you give yourself hard deadlines to reach or end up taking all the fun out of the story; after all, creative writing is meant to be creative. Enjoy the process of knowing, and not knowing too.

Start off with a few characters that you like and relate to the most, a place or time that fascinates you and begin the story simply; don’t overcomplicate things. Spend time setting up the pillars of the story in a gripping way; the characters, the setting, era, motive and eventual goal – the stronger these are, the more they will hold up the story so that if there is a loss, the whole book will feel the impact. The rest will snowball as the plot begins to unravel and you can then strut about the chapters knowing exactly what’s going on – up to a point. You’ve got to be as gripped as the reader will be, so you’ve got to discover the mysteries too.

Describe as much as you can about everything, walk not only next to your protagonist but become the protagonist too. Words are your paintbrush, and you must paint the picture inside your head as best as you possibly can. Become the artist of the book, but most importantly: have fun and enjoy the journey!

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Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?

Of course! I have two ideas for further books that I’d love to work on. Firstly, I have an idea of a prequel to Seadogs and Criminals, focusing mainly on Joseph’s grandfather’s travels and his part to play in the legend of the Lost Loot which leads perfectly onto Joseph’s tale in Seadogs and Criminals. I also have another idea for a fantasy adventure book that’s set in an alternate post-Roman Britain with warring tribes and mysteries, battles, legends and fantastical creatures. I have the characters, setting and plot all sorted and ready to go, I just need the time to write it.

And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?

I’m very proud of my accomplishment. After all the effort, dedication and time spent working on these books it’s amazing to finally see them published with professional covers, typeset and in a paperback format. It’s a surreal and thrilling experience to pick a fresh copy out of the box and feel the book in your hands after so long looking at it on the laptop screen or in an awkward one-sided A4 stack of manuscript. To see Seadogs and Criminals out there, available to buy and to get reviews from readers who loved the books and the story I created, is one of the best experiences of my life. Equal to, or perhaps greater than, standing back and viewing the finished house I’d just built. It’s been a wild ride so far and I’ve learned so much, but, and forgive me for the cheesy cliché, I feel that this has only been one chapter and my story is just beginning.

Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:

Title: Seadogs and Criminals – Book One, Seadogs and Criminals – Book Two.

Website/Linktree: https://linktr.ee/alexfisherbooks

Waterstones: https://www.waterstones.com/book/seadogs-and-criminals-book-one/alex-fisher/9781839753428

Facebook: Alex Fisher

Instagram: a_j_fisher

Twitter: a_j_fisher1

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