Skip to contents
SunLit

SunLit Interview: Sheri Cobb South went deep on research for her historical mystery series

This John Pickett novel, "Brother Can You Spare a Crime?" also led the author to ask the Bank of England for the best way to rob it. They answered.

Sheri Cobb South is the bestselling author of more than 25 books. Her John Pickett series of humorous historical mysteries has been widely praised and has won several awards. Her novels have been translated into half a dozen languages. A native of Alabama, she has lived in Colorado since 2011.

Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?

The danger with any series featuring a romantic thread is how to hold readers’ interest after the romance is resolved; just look at TV shows like “Moonlighting” or “Who’s the Boss?,” and how quickly they were canceled without the “will-they-or-won’t-they” thrill of romantic tension to keep viewers tuning in. Fortunately, the premise of the John Pickett mystery series possessed a couple of built-in conflicts I could build upon.

First, there are the challenges of a cross-class marriage (from Book 5 onward) between a Bow Street Runner (London’s first professional detective force, forerunners of Scotland Yard) and the widowed viscountess whom he saved from hanging for her husband’s murder in Book 1, “In Milady’s Chamber.”

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

Then, too, there are unanswered questions regarding John’s parentage and early life that will be addressed in future books. I don’t remember at exactly what point I decided he had a half-brother he’d never met, but the introduction of 10-year-old Kit, in need of rescue from the criminal gang to which he’s been apprenticed, added a new dimension to the family dynamic that has been an element of the series from the very beginning.

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?

The excerpt I’ve chosen shows the first meeting between John Pickett and his 10-year-old half-brother, Kit. Occurring a little more than halfway through the novel, it sets up the bond that soon forms between them and demonstrates why, on such short acquaintance, John Pickett is willing to sacrifice his own future to guarantee his brother’s.

Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book? 

I already knew what would be the general premise of “Brother, Can You Spare a Crime?” even when I was writing “Into Thin Eire,” the book that preceded it. That was in 2019; I made a research trip to England in order to resolve certain questions that had arisen regarding that book.

While I was in London, I wanted to go mudlarking—that is, scavenging along the pebbly foreshore of the Thames at low tide. Two hundred years ago, only the poor were mudlarks, searching for anything they could sell; these days, it requires a permit from the London Port Authority.

The LPA recommends going out with a licensed guide, since the river rises very quickly once the tide turns. While searching on the internet for a guide, I came across an article on mudlarking in which a curator at the Museum of London was quoted as saying, “Almost everything we know about childhood in the Middle Ages comes from finds mudlarks have brought in.”

Throughout history, kids have dropped things! Since I’d already established that John Pickett had done his share of mudlarking in his misspent youth (my whole reason for wanting to try it myself), I decided to give Kit a tin soldier which he’d found during one of his own mudlarking excursions—a toy of no particular monetary value beyond what the metal might be worth melted down, but precious to a child living in poverty.

Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?

This particular book didn’t, but I have experienced it in the past, and I’ve learned that the characters are always right; if they balk at doing what I had intended them to do, I just let them have their way, and see where they take me. Writing a mystery requires a certain amount of advance planning, in order to plant clues, but I don’t outline in so much detail that there’s no room to be surprised. To me, having that unexpected element suddenly fall into place is one of the great joys of the creative process.

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book? 

I knew I wanted John Pickett, formerly a juvenile thief, to break into the Bank of England, where the nation’s bullion stores were kept, essentially trading his expertise for Kit’s freedom. Since that robbery would be the focal point of the entire book, I knew it would have to be described in vivid and suspense-building detail.

To write that scene, I needed to know the layout of the bank as it existed in 1809, including where the gold and silver bullion would have been stored—and in spite of the fact that Sir John Soane’s remodel of the bank only a few years earlier was considered his masterpiece, I couldn’t find a floor plan anywhere on the internet! What to do? Finally, I emailed the Bank of England and asked for suggestions as to how I might rob it. (Yes, really. I went on to explain that I was writing a historical novel set in 1809 and needed to locate a floor plan of the bank at that time, but it makes a much better story if I omit that part!)

Twenty-four hours later, I had an answer, in the form of a book recommendation. “Building the Bank of England: Money, Architecture, Society, 1694-1942” is the most expensive research book in my collection—only my two-volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary cost me more—but even if I never use it for another book, it’s more than paid for itself already. The book’s dedication reads, in part, “To the helpful folks at the Bank of England, who, when I emailed them and asked for advice on how best to rob it, gave me an answer.”

Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?

When I first announced on my Facebook page that a new family member would be joining John and Julia, most readers assumed that either Julia would have her baby, or John’s ne’er-do-well father would return from Botany Bay. Both of those things will happen, just not in this particular book.

Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write? 

Shortly after moving to Colorado in 2011, I contacted science-fiction superstar Connie Willis, who lives in Greeley, to ask her if she would be willing to autograph a book for my daughter, who is a much bigger fan of Willis than she is of her mother! I’d thought to mail the book along with a self-addressed stamped envelope, but Connie Willis wrote me back, inviting me to meet her at the Starbucks where she can be found writing every day from 8-4.

I did, and when I asked about her Starbucks routine, she explained that whenever she tried to write at home, she was distracted by all the other things she “ought” to be doing. That sounded very familiar to me, except that in my case, most of the distractions are phone calls from people who are way too personally invested in the status of my car’s warranty. I decided to try taking my laptop to a Starbucks near me—and astonishing how much more prolific I became!

Where it used to take me a year to finish a rough draft, I can now do it in three months or less—or I could, until the pandemic struck. Suddenly all the coffee houses were closed, and I was back to trying to write at home. Once again, it’s taken me a year to finish a rough draft. My first drafts are usually pretty clean, but because I wrote this one over such a long period of time, I tended to forget what I’d written in earlier chapters, and would either repeat or contradict myself—in other words, this manuscript was a hot mess!

Sadly, my Starbucks was a victim of the lockdown; it’s one of the few whose location doesn’t allow for a drive-in window, and it’s now permanently closed. Fortunately, I’ve found a new coffee house to call home, and so was able to write the last few chapters in a nearby Ziggi’s café.

Tell us about your next project.

As I wrote these words, I was in the middle of final edits on John Pickett Mystery #11, “Death Can Be Habit-Forming,” which was released on August 24. After a very stressful deadline in getting that book ready, I’m going to take a short break from John Pickett and write a nonfiction book for writers on marketing and growing one’s career before beginning preliminary work on John Pickett Mystery #12, which I anticipate being a 2022 release.



We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable. This reporting depends on support from readers like you.