Louise Ross had spent a lifetime being told that she might never be able to have children so when the regulatory lawyer became pregnant it came as a wonderful surprise and seemed like a kind of miracle.
She had taken some time off from her long-hours City job just before she got pregnant and was looking to retrain.
Thanks to her son Ethan’s arrival she decided to start writing a story she had first conceived on a train journey between Newcastle and Edinburgh, looking out across the North Sea to Holy Island. “It was an overcast stormy day. There were low lying clouds. The island was cut off twice a day. It was an ideal setting. It practically wrote itself,” she says.
She had always been an avid reader, but she could never have imagined that her first novel would go on to knock The Girl on the Train off the top of the UK Kindle chart.
Imagining something different
Louise had taken the decision to have a career break with her husband. The break and her subsequent maternity leave in 2013 gave her the head space “to imagine something different”. She had been toying with different career options, including switching to a career in forensic psychology, but in the end she chose to start her novel. She sketched out plotlines and did a few drafts in the first six months after Ethan was born.
Louise says that she didn’t have to do a lot of research as she was familiar with the police and criminal justice from her legal work. Holy Island was also near where she was born so she knew it well and still had family living there. She wrote while Ethan slept and found it quite cathartic. “When you have your first baby it is a whole new world and it can be all-consuming. Writing helped me to remember who I was before and it didn’t feel like work,” says Louise, who writes under the name LJ Ross.
While she could only sketch out the novel in snatched moments at first, Ethan started nursery at nine months, meaning she had ring-fenced time to write something more professional. She focused totally when she had time alone and the novel occupied a lot of her mind generally. “It worked quite well. You need thinking time. During those quiet moments feeding the baby I had time to run through things in my head,” she says.
Louise finished the book when Ethan was one, but kept tinkering with it as she was a bit nervous, given it was her first novel and she was still trying to find her voice after switching from dry legalese to a more accessible, conversational style. “It was quite liberating,” says Louise.
The world of publishing was alien to her. She tried the traditional approach of sending the novel to 12 agents and publishers. She had an offer from one publisher, but when she was reading through the contract, her legal brain kicked in. She could see that publishers favoured established authors and that new authors would get very little attention. Her husband told her about Amazon’s Kindle Direct publishing platform. The terms were much more favourable to new authors. Louise couldn’t see the down side so she gave it a go. She paid for her book to be professionally edited and covered and published it herself.
She says the process of self publishing was very straightforward and stresses that it is not the same as vanity publishing. Holy Island was released on 1st January 2015 exclusively to the Kindle Direct platform. Louise had set up a blog to promote the novel and released a chapter before publication. She got 40 sales on release and thought that would be it. Once she had sold a few copies on word of mouth and the book had gained some momentum, Amazon offered her a promotional opportunity to include the book in one of their regular Kindle sales, which helped to increase its visibility. Sales started edging up. By May the book was selling 5,000 copies a day and took the number one slot. “I was shocked to the core,” says Louise.
The feedback was great. People wanted to know what happened next to the characters. Louise had not intended it to be a series, but she had enjoyed writing the characters a lot so it was not difficult to imagine a second book. However, writing the second book was much harder due to the success of the first one. She didn’t want to disappoint her readers. In the last few years, she has written five more books in the DCI Ryan series and sold one million copies – around 1,000 a day.
She has just published her sixth book, Cragside, released today [10th July]. Her fifth was a high octane man hunt while her new novel is back to an old-fashioned whodunnit style, set in a country house in Northumberland.
Ethan is now nearly four and about to start school. Louise says she is busier as a writer than in her legal job, but she has flexibility over where and when she works. Now based in Bath, she has also had occasional approaches from TV production companies. “It would be the icing on the cake, but for now I just love writing,” she says. “I’ll always be interested in the law, but I don’t miss my old career. This is more creative. Law now feels like a former life.”