Penelope Cress lives on an island off the coast of Kent, England, with her four children and an elderly Jack Russell Terrier. A lover of murder mystery and cups of tea (served with a stack of digestive biscuits), she writes quaint cosy mysteries and other feel-good stories from a corner table in the vintage tea shop on the high street. Penelope loves nostalgia and all things retro. Her taste in music is also very last century.
Author interview – Penelope Cress
Hi Penelope, so glad you could make it to my blog! Please let us know: when did you start writing, and why?
I was a late bloomer, so to speak. I wasn’t one of those people who said they have always wanted to write or that I have a burning ache in my heart to do so. I wrote to complete my homework, or pass an exam, or for an essay, or work project. Even if I needed to be creative, it was functional. Then one day, I was on a fan site and started to add to some fan fiction. People responded well so I set up my own parody site with a friend. A few years later, I was invited to help with a business book, which weirdly had a short story in part two as an extended metaphor. I found I quite enjoyed writing fiction and very slowly I started to do a bit more here and there, until I finally published my first book at the beginning of 2020.
At what age did you take yourself seriously as a writer?
There’s a trend on social media, particularly Facebook, where you show a lifehack or point out something in a picture or something and state ‘I was today years old when…’ I think that is my answer on when I started to take myself seriously as a writer. TBH, I am not even sure I have matured that far yet. I have three books out now. I try to write every day. I have lots of author friends. I am selling books, receiving positive reviews and have fans, but… I suppose I could also answer ‘if not now, when…’ So… I am today years old.
Ha, glad you’re finally taking yourself seriously then! How long did it take you to write your first book?
From conception, probably around two years.
What was your last book about?
It’s book three in a series of eight cozy mystery stories set on the fictional Isle of Wesberrey, just off the south coast of England. Pious Poison is about three rival walking groups and unhealthy relationships. The competitiveness and the relationships are toxic.
What are you working on right now?
A few things. I am researching for a historical short story that I hope will be accepted into an anthology. If not, it explains the background to book four in the Wesberrey series, which centres on a legend of missing treasure. I will write book four afterwards. I am also sketching out some ideas for a second series, which is fun. A very different character in a very different world, but still a cozy mystery.
What is your writing process like? Do you plot or do you just dive in? How many drafts do you go through before the work is final?
I am slowly realising that I am a diehard pantser. I want to plot more, but when I try, I find that it just blocks my creativity. I need deadlines. I am a terrible procrastinator. But when I do write, I write quick and I write clean. I edit a lot as I write, so the first draft is pretty clean. I usually only have a couple of passes before sending it off for the final edit.
What do you struggle with most as a writer?
Consistency. I am a world-class procrastinator. I know I should write every day. I know that I should be consistent in my efforts, as that is undoubtedly more productive but… I also really struggle with my mood. I tend to put everyone else’s needs before my own. I have four children and a full-time job, where I am a manager of a team. I should have stronger boundaries. I know this and I am working on it. I suspect that I use other people as an excuse for not getting on with stuff—not writing, not publishing, not marketing. Putting my writing, and therefore myself first, is my biggest struggle.
What advice would you give to writers dealing with the same or similar struggle?
I have been honest with a small group of fellow authors about my struggles. We have a self-help group, for want of a better name, that meets every Sunday for an hour to talk this through. I have found this really useful. I have other places to get support about developing my craft or my business, but this is about developing me personally. I know that many of us suffer from imposter syndrome, self-doubt, etc. Even if others are coming from a slightly different angle to you, it’s good to know that everyone has these issues in some way. My advice would be to find fellow writers and start the conversation.
Have you always had that struggle or has it changed over time?
It’s been my life’s struggle! I think I am now realising that it isn’t everyone else’s fault. I am using their demands/needs/dramas/whatever as an excuse. It’s my failure to set boundaries and put myself first that is the issue. It’s only taken me five decades to work that out.
Do you prefer the term ‘writer’ or ‘author’, and why?
Hmm, that is a good question. Writer. Author to me suggests authority, someone who is in control of their creation. I am merely the servant, the scribe. I record my characters’ lives; they live them. They are the authors.
Who’s your favourite author?
Really tough question. It’s usually whomever I am reading right now—so right now that would be Agatha Christie! I think the most influential, strangely, is Miss Read. Most people today have forgotten Miss Read, who was an English school teacher who wrote about village life. I discovered her books when I was a teenager. All my friends were reading Stephen King, Tolkien, or even Jackie Collins, for thrill and adventures. I found a copy of Storm in the Village (1958) in my school library, dusty and unloved. I was hooked. In the days before Amazon, I trawled through book shops looking for copies of anything she had written.
What’s your favourite book?
Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie. It was my first murder mystery and I love how it deals with suppressed memory and trauma.
What’s your favourite book on the craft?
How to outline a cozy mystery by Sara Rosett. This is well-thumbed and completely covered in scribbles. Without this very slim volume, I don’t think I would ever have tried to write a novel.
What’s the best writing advice you were ever given?
Know your why. If it’s to make money, many will say there are easier ways, but if this motivates you to get words in everyday, to publish, to make it happen—that’s a great why. Is it to get your stories out there? Again, money and success are not motivators here, and perhaps you are happy just to write, maybe publish, but hopefully that ‘why’ will compel you to write to market so that your stories can reach a bigger audience. The ‘why’ needs to be strong. Is it to prove something to yourself? Or to others? You don’t need to justify your why to anyone else. If you can identify it and use it to compel you forward, then you will have success.