The Story Behind Bestselling Northumberland Crime Author LJ Ross' Success
We caught up with Louise to talk about the story behind her success
Over the past nine years Louise Ross has written 26 books (all of which have been number one bestsellers), sold more than eight million copies worldwide, started her own publishing company (Dark Skies Publishing), and launched three philanthropic prizes in the North East. You may think that with that kind of success comes an equal number of failures but luckily for Louise, swapping her career in law for a life of crime (writing) has actually been reasonably smooth sailing – all whilst steering clear of the traditional route of agents and publishers.
A young woman found dead amongst the ancient ruins of Lindisfarne Priory. A killer blows up the Tyne Bridge and won’t stop until every bridge is burned, along with everybody on it. A priceless artefact that once belonged to Saint Cuthbert goes missing from Durham Cathedral. These are just some of the criminal plots in Louise’s novels, demonstrating that while most visitors to the North East see picturesque landscapes to be enjoyed, Louise spots an opportunity for crime.
‘My inspiration comes from people and places – the settings of the North East. I always think, gosh this is a beautiful part of the world, we need to try to kill someone here,’ jokes Louise. ‘I have a little book of ideas and the first thing I’m inspired by is the landscape. In terms of the North East we have a bit of everything here. We’re so fortunate as a region to have access to beaches, hills, and lakes, every kind of beautiful landscape is on the doorstep. Plus history is at your fingertips in this part of the world so for a storyteller like myself there’s just boundless inspiration.
‘And then the people. The characters, especially the North Eastern characters, will be the people that I grew up with, the people I’ve known. For example, Phillips is based heavily on my late grandfather who I absolutely adored. It’s always a joy to write his scenes and the dialogue because I have the memory of his voice in the back of my head and I can remember some of his phrases. So the inspiration is definitely people and places.’
Louise’s main series of novels centres around DCI Ryan cracking cases across the North East, with each book set at a different landmark across the region. But publishing multiple books a year, how does Louise keep coming up with new and fresh ideas? It seems it’s really not something she struggles with. ‘It’s so funny because the process of writing a book really wrings you out, but then after about a week or so the ideas start flowing again. I think it’s just a natural process for me,’ she says. ‘I also keep it varied. So I have three different series, which will be rising to four or five different strands probably by the end of this year, and I think writing about different characters occasionally can be a nice palate cleanser.
‘The Dr Gregory series for example is on more of the psychological thriller end of the spectrum and the lead character, whilst also being male, is very different to Ryan. I also do the Summer Suspense series which is based in Cornwall and they are definitely more on the romantic suspense side, so they’re lighter than the Ryan books. It’s also writing about a different area and different characters again. So it’s just nice taking those little creative breaks between the series so that when you return to whichever series you’re coming back to it feels like you’re meeting old friends again.’
Louise doesn’t read much peer-written crime fiction so that her writing voice isn’t affected. ‘This way I keep my own style really true to me. But what I do love is Golden Age crime fiction. I love hard-boiled American crime fiction and always have, so I think there was naturally going to be an affinity with that sort of stuff. The beauty of the Holy Island book was to just try and see where I went with it. It was a very free-flowing writing process and while I started out thinking, let’s just keep it a nice sort of cosy mystery style, it ended up getting quite grippy in parts without necessarily being planned that way. I think it’s got a lot of light and dark and I would say it just naturally fell into a rhythm.’
‘The North East is so close to my heart, it’s where
I grew up, and I’m always working to shine a light
on the talent that’s already on our doorstep’
Despite being born, bred and educated in the North East, Louise moved to London to study law and stayed there for 10 years, and it’s where she met her husband. Louise is grateful for her time in the capital but was pining for home and found herself thinking of the places she grew up in as a child. Initially she planned to resign from her position as a lawyer and take six months to go travelling and think about what she wanted to do. But then two things happened: Louise and husband James had an amazing surprise finding out they were expecting their son and, as a result, she started writing her first book, Holy Island.
‘It’s the cheesiest story ever but it’s true. I’d been on a train with James between Newcastle and Edinburgh and there’s a particular spot where you look out towards the sea and see Holy Island. It was one of those classic weather days where it was really atmospheric, very foggy, and as I looked across I said to James it would make such a perfect setting for one of those locked-room murder mystery novels and he said “well, why don’t you write it?”. I’m a huge reader but initially I said no because it’s a very different thing to be a reader versus a writer, and to make that mental leap. However once the seed was sort of planted, I started tinkering with it and while I was pregnant with Ethan I ended up writing the first draft of Holy Island.
‘I’m always grateful to my son because with the natural pause of maternity leave I could actually turn my mind fully to it and then I discovered that I absolutely love storytelling. That’s why my first book is dedicated to Ethan, and then the J in LJ is for James, as a permanent thank you for his support as well. He’ll always be in the name because if he hadn’t been the one to say, go on and do it, I don’t think I would have discovered how much I love the job.’
Louise did what many writers think they’re supposed to and started looking for an agent and trying to get a deal. She sent her manuscript to 12 publishers and agents – something she says is ‘a ridiculously small number when you compare it with someone like JK Rowling, who sent hers out to I think over 200.’ Fortunately for Louise she received great feedback and an offer of publication, but she wasn’t convinced by the anticlimactic offer and decided instead to do it all herself.
‘James asked if I’d heard of the Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing platform,’ she explains. ‘So I did some research and thought “is that not vanity publishing?” but he told me no, you don’t pay to publish, you don’t have to pay anyone a percent, it’s just like doing everything freelance. You’re just basically becoming the publisher as well as the author. I thought “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Worst case scenario you can always go back to the traditional side if you don’t like it. So that’s what we did – on the 1st of January 2015; we pressed publish after getting the book into shape, and by the May it was number one in the UK and had knocked The Girl On The Train off the top spot. By 2019 we decided to set up our own publishing imprint, Dark Skies Publishing, and here we are now. It’s been a crazy few years.’
Louise could never have imagined that in less than a decade she would be in the position she is, however she says the key to success is not focusing on your achievements. ‘It’s obviously lovely to be number one bestseller and I’m grateful for the support of the readership, it’s amazing. But it’s not what drives me and I don’t think it should be. That side of things isn’t really something that spurs on the creative element and I think that it’s good not to become complacent. With book 27 I’m not thinking that it’s bound to be a number one bestseller as well. I think you have to come into it fresh every time otherwise you lose a spark of joy in what you do.’
The North East became the setting for her success and Louise is determined to give something back to the region that inspired her. A keen philanthropist, she has founded various non-profit initiatives and prizes designed to support arts, literacy and local enterprise through her publishing imprint Dark Skies Publishing. ‘The North East is so close to my heart, it’s where I grew up, and I’m always working to shine a light on the talent that’s already on our doorstep,’ she explains. ‘I was fortunate to have been given opportunities and to have been encouraged in my goals and dreams but not everybody has the same and I just want to try and create those opportunities where I can now.
‘On the arts side, the Lindisfarne Prize for crime and thriller fiction has been running for five years now and we usually do it in association with the Newcastle Noir Crime Writing Festival,’ continues Louise. ‘I really love the ethos of that festival because they have it at Newcastle Central Library, everyone’s welcome, it’s very accessible. I think that one of the early observations that I made entering into the publishing profession is that sometimes very talented writers can feel intimidated by the world of literature because they somehow feel this sense of imposter syndrome, especially if they haven’t done a creative writing MA or whatever it might be.
‘One of the biggest things for me is that I don’t know if you can teach storytelling. You can be an amazing storyteller and never have gone to university or done those things. A lot of the entries that I read for this prize are just so amazing in terms of natural raw talent and things like spelling and grammar can be buffed out, that’s what an editor is for! So what we’re really wanting to do is encourage and support new, emerging and established storytellers in the North East of England whose work celebrates the area. I think when the country as a whole is going through a series of cutbacks the arts often get hit, but every element of creative arts is really uplifting and joyous for people. The storytelling side is an area we always wanted to encourage, and pay forward a little bit of the good fortune that I’ve had to help lift others up.’
'A lot of the entries that I read for this prize are just
so amazing in terms of natural raw talent and things like
spelling and grammar can be buffed out,
that’s what an editor is for!'
Louise also founded the Northern Photography Prize, which is going into its third year and is split into two awards for landscapes and portraiture. ‘It’s all about trying to bring out the heart of the North East through faces and the spirit of the North East through landscapes,’ she says. ‘It’s an award for amateur photographers so it’s there to encourage people trying to get into a profession to give them that final boost to have the confidence to go forward.’
Finally, there’s the Northern Film Prize, which had its inaugural year this year with Alnwick Story Fest in February. ‘It’s a short film prize, and again is split into a professional award and an amateur award,’ explains Louise. ‘It was linked to the theme of the festival which was transformation this year and we had some absolutely amazing entries. We’re all about lifting up creative arts in the region through these prizes.’
Louise’s plans for the future are just to keep doing what she’s been doing. ‘I’ve got the next five covers for the DCI Ryan series already done. The next one that’s going to be coming is Black Rocks which is set around Dustanburgh and Embleton Bay. After that is Poison Gardens which is obviously set in Alnwick. Then after that it’s just a question of which one takes my fancy next. I’ve got a lot of stories to tell so no shortage of ideas, put it that way. Also over the past nine years we’ve had just endless conversations with different production companies about getting the books adapted for screen, but we are now in late stage negotiations, so watch this space is what I would say.’
With a cliffhanger ending like that, it’s no wonder Louise is an international bestseller…