Crime novelist D.M. Austin on setting the scene, writing dynamic characters and perfecting the Cumbrian dialect

By   Hannah Bickerton 7 min read

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D.M. Austin lives with her husband and their teenage son in their home county of Yorkshire. As a mature student, she studied Primary Teaching for two years and Education Studies for the final third year at York St John University before graduating with First Class honours. A Christmas Murder of Crows is her debut novel, introducing Inspector Gilbert Dunderdale as a Golden Age detective. When not writing, D.M. Austin can be found hillwalking, mountain biking, drawing or snuggled in her reading corner reading fiction and non-fiction across a range of genres.

Can you tell us a bit about A Christmas Murder of Crows and why you chose to set your crime novel in the Golden Age?

Set in 1923, A Christmas Murder of Crows introduces Inspector Gilbert Dunderdale of Manchester City Police as a Golden Age detective. Although the novel fits snuggly into the classic country-house mystery, it leans more towards an atmospheric Christmas whodunnit than cosy crime fiction.

The miserly baronet Sir Henry de Trouville has demanded his closest relatives join him for the festive season, but as the guests begin to descend on Crowthwaite Castle they are unaware of their arrival coinciding with a local storytelling of pagan sacrifice and its foreshadowing of murder.

So why the Golden Age? The Great War and its ending gave rise to economic, political and social change. This may have brought about a hedonistic freedom for society’s middle and upper classes but for the majority of the population it barely marked positive change and the workforce’s feet could still be found firmly grounded in poverty. The 1920s, therefore, make for a compelling time, providing the writer with a diversity of prejudices and stereotypes.


Why did you decide to publish your novel with whitefox?

Initially, I went down the route of meritocracy. Plan A had been to seek agent representation, an industry professional who believed in me and my work enough to be able to pitch my novel to a publisher. Of course, I knew it was a long shot and that in this business demand greatly outstrips supply and this proved to be the case, with my manuscript soon being added to the ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ pile. It wasn’t a waste of time, though, for I received some non-generic replies which gave me the confidence to pursue Plan B: self-investment through self-publishing. The question then was which publisher?

With whitefox’s slick, transparent website, its excellent testimonials from writers and brand-name companies, its team of industry professionals, and the all-important positive Google search results, I knew I’d found a publisher who would live up to my high expectations. This was further confirmed after reaching out and speaking with Sales & Business Development Director Chris Wold. And the biggest lesson I’ve learned is meritocracy will still prevail. If an author truly believes in the world and characters they’ve brought to life through print then it will be for the readers, the reviewers, the book bloggers to ultimately decide the book’s fate.

The story is set in Cumbria. Was this inspired by a love of the region? Is Crowthwaite, where the story takes place, a real village?

It is understandable most visitors are drawn to Cumbria for the grandeur of the Lake District, but it does comprise other pockets of beauty. Up until 1974, Cumbria was split into two counties: Cumberland and Westmorland. Within the historical county of Westmorland – very close to Crowdundle Beck, which marked the boundary, and resting on Cross Fell’s lower contours (the highest mountain in the Pennine Chain) – is Milburn, the real village Crowthwaite is modelled on.

Over the last decade I’ve made many memorable visits to Milburn and find it to be a remarkable community, with no street lighting, shop, nor pub; only a church, a village hall, the tiniest of primary schools in the middle of the village green – and a large murder of crows resident all year round. This lack of development adds to its remoteness, resulting in a ‘sense of place’ which, along with its black-feathered friends, sparked a Christmas whodunnit within me back in December 2020.

How did you find the writing process? Were there any aspects you particularly enjoyed or found challenging, such as researching, writing dialogue or developing the characters?

There’s a feeling of satisfaction when research findings fit perfectly with the story’s elements, reinforcing that initial spark of inspiration, but if pressed to choose the most enjoyable aspect of writing it would be creating the dynamics between characters. If I was found smiling to myself while writing the dialogue then this will have meant a ‘play-off’ was transpiring.

I can’t say I encountered any difficulties. I don’t know how other authors approach writing a novel but I don’t sit at my desk, staring at the monitor with my fingers poised on the keyboard. The majority of my story comes to me while walking the dog and doing the chores. Then there’s a quick whip out of the smartphone so not one word is forgotten.

If there was a challenge, it concerned the regional dialect. Dialects change over time and as well as researching the Cumbrian dialect for the early twentieth century, I had to strike the right balance as to how much of this dialect to spell out to the reader. Too many elisions, for example, makes for difficult reading and stems the flow. Fortunately, I had the wisdom of whitefox’s editor to draw on.

The book is a classic crime novel filled with murder and paganism, but it’s set around Christmas time. What inspired you to link the two?

When first visiting Milburn in 2012, I knew its remote location would make for an exemplary closed-circle mystery. I also knew the mystery would be set at Christmas time – the many Christmases gladly holed up with family at the centuries-old farmhouse, Crowdundle, had sealed this.

I’m not alone in drawing pleasure from reading a good old-fashioned Christmas whodunnit during winter’s dark days and long nights. Our ancestors also derived solace and entertainment during this season by coming together under one roof, where they would share warmth, harvests… and stories. These stories sometimes focused on the human’s superstitions, and the communal space, punctuated with soft candle and firelight, would have created an atmosphere conducive to thrill, to shock, to frighten.

The Christmas we celebrate today, even the commercial one, still has its roots in paganism. Bringing in the Yule log to burn from Christmas Eve until Twelfth Night may have oddly morphed into the chocolate Yule log, but we continue to decorate our homes with fresh or artificial varieties of greenery and winter fruits, we still revere the tree by placing it centre stage and we revel in feasting and music. Many such Christmas traditions have their origins in pagan superstitions. Once I added the ominous murder of crows to the mix then a further link with paganism was evident: the ritual of animal sacrifice.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors currently writing a manuscript for their first novel in this genre?

Research. Research. Research. Crime novels set in the Golden Age also come under the umbrella of historical fiction and when I read this genre, regardless of the era, I expect to be transported to a different time, place, and people.

As well as researching the location, dialect, fashion, industry – to name a few components – don’t forget that police procedures, laws and even forensics change over time. Without giving anything away, A Christmas Murder of Crows contains a scientific myth which, in 1923, was thought to be a scientific truth.

If your chosen genre truly brings you pleasure then the research will not feel like a chore. If anything, it should heighten your appetite for writing.

What do you hope readers take away from this thrilling tale?

Like many other crime novels, A Christmas Murder of Crows contains the moral and Sixth Commandment ‘You shall not murder’, however, this is secondary to the purpose, which is to entertain.

I would love to learn that I have introduced the contemporary reader to historical crime fiction, as I hope to prove the genre can be just as engaging, and its characters equally relatable, as its contemporary counterpart.

I’m also hoping the acute reader has picked up on DI Dunderdale’s backstory, which will be developed further in the next instalment, An Enchantment of June Suns.

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.