My Early Hour: Joanne Smedley, murder mystery writer

If murder mysteries are your thing, Joanne Smedley is your woman. She designs dinner party games, manages murder mystery events around the globe and is an aspiring mystery writer. We talk mornings, murder weapons and work life with the mum-of-two…

Joanne, 39, is the managing director at Red Herring Games, which stocks a range of small group dinner party games as well as large group murder mystery games. They also provide event management. On the side, she’s an aspiring mystery writer, and has written one book called ‘The Impossible Suspect’ which is currently under review by a publisher, and she’s in the process of writing two more. Her first radio play will be airing in November on local radio. She lives in Grimsby with her husband, two children – aged 11 and 10 – and a dog.

What’s your home like?
We have an end-terraced house just outside the town centre in a lovely area of town close to a park. We have a small garden I try to maintain, but only seem to succeed in growing weeds. I spent a whole summer two years ago cultivating what I thought was a flowering carrot, only to discover when it bloomed that I’d spent all year tending carefully to cow parsley. (Gardening isn’t my strong suit.)

What time are you up in the morning?
Every morning I get up at around 6am. This is a lie-in compared to the 5am starts my youngest imposed for the first few years of his life. He still wakes sometime between 5.30 and 6, but is now old enough to stay in his room and keep quiet.

Fortunately, I’m a morning person and even if an alarm doesn’t wake me up on a workday, I’m often up and dressed and getting on with the day by 7am. We do, however, go to bed sometime between 9 and 10 most nights, the only exceptions being nights I’m working, or when we have friends around.

I’m a creative, which means I’m aware of my moods and the tendency to dip into depression if I don’t keep an eye on myself

What wakes you up?
In all honesty, it’s usually bladder pressure that wakes me up. How old does that make me feel… If I do manage to get back to sleep, I get woken by the alarm at 6am if the youngest hasn’t already woken me up by moving about the house.

How do you feel?
I’m a creative, which means I’m aware of my moods and the tendency to dip into depression if I don’t keep an eye on myself. I suffered with teenage depression and so I know the signs, but I’m fortunate that I can manage it; there are many who can’t. So I get going quickly in the morning.

What do you do first thing?
First thing in the morning I get up, shower and dress and go down for doggie cuddles. Our current dog is very affectionate and likes a tummy tickle time in the morning. Then, it’s tea and toast (with jam and peanut butter) and reading while I munch.

 

In three words, describe mornings in your home?
Busy, rowdy, jostling.

What’s for breakfast?
Peanut butter and jam toast sandwiches for me, husband has cereal, and the kids either have the same as me, or cereal depending on their mood. Weekends we celebrate and I cook either pancakes, waffles or muffins for breakfast while my other half gets a lie-in (he needs more sleep than me).

How might the rest of your day pan out?
Weekdays I get my husband packed off for work then start rounding up the kids for school. Motivating my youngest is like something out of a Michael Mcintyre comedy sketch – with a series of time calls (“an hour to go, half an hour, five minutes…”). So I tend to feel rather frazzled by the time we get going. Then it’s off to work for me…

What’s your workspace like?
I used to work out of the loft of the house, but we moved into proper retail/office space three years ago now, and have the benefit of a cupboard, toilet, small kitchen area and a big office space complete with noisy printers.

I used to juggle childcare with printing, and would create a super wooden train track while waiting for the printer to churn out a game, then run upstairs to pack it and return in time to rebuild it or do a spot of play dough or another activity

It’s your typical shop-come-office space. Nothing special. Until you spot the odd prop lying around the office. It’s not unusual to find me and Emma running around saying things like “Have you seen the gun/sword/axe lately?” or “Do we have some blood open somewhere?”

Where are the kids when you’re working?
The kids are usually at school when I’m working, or at home with their father (in the holidays, as he’s a teacher). When I worked in the house and the kids were pre-school age, I used to juggle childcare with printing, and would create a super wooden train track while waiting for the printer to churn out a game, then run upstairs to pack it and return in time to rebuild it or do a spot of play dough or another activity. I was a LOT more tired in those days, but fortunately the business had only just launched and it wasn’t as busy as it is now.

Writing a murder mystery…

Tell us about your business…
I launched the firm back in 2013. It sort of grew out of a hobby. I had been writing murder mystery games since a youth group requested one, and we hadn’t found anything suitable on the market. After trialling that initial game with the parents, who loved it, I had written another two each year to play out at home.

Then, when I went on maternity leave and left the NHS, I decided I didn’t want to go back, and friends suggested I try selling the games as a way of raising a deposit for a coffee shop or something. I found a firm in the USA who were taking authors, but it didn’t quite work out for me. They had their own templates, and their own way of working which was very different to the way I wanted. So with the help of friends who ran a website business, I set up my own firm and started selling the games I’d written, and helping other authors to break into the market.

What’s the greatest challenge of running your own business?
Cashflow. I’m in the lucky position of having a husband who works full time. He’s been supporting the household while I grow the business and get through all the expensive mistakes most new starters experience. I’d never run a business before and I’ve made my fair share of bad decisions. But I’ve learned from all my mistakes and we’re just about to see the biggest growth phase in our business to date.

What makes it all worthwhile?
The customers. I love getting feedback from people who’ve used our products and had as much fun as I have. I also have the privilege of acting for some of our events, which means I get to see people enjoying themselves first hand.

 

Are there aspects of the job that you delegate to others?
I’ve always delegated bookkeeping. I HATE Excel spreadsheets and I’m a little number dyslexic too, which means I make simple mistakes all the time putting numbers in wrong columns etc (I could do some really creative accounting if I was left to myself).

There are lots of roles in the office that are more boring than others, but we’ve always shared those roles out. Some days I print and pack, other days it falls to another person in the team, and we take turns doing the orders and post runs.   Because it’s my own business I tend to volunteer for the boring jobs, but I also have my fair share of fun. This year we needed a volunteer to run an event in Hawaii… so I made sure I was first in the queue!

Are you a happy lone worker, or do you enjoy the buzz of a shared workspace?
I always prefer having people around me. Lone working was essential when the business started, but it’s much more fun to be part of a team. When I was working by myself I went to regular networking events so I socialised with other business people. This helped with training as I wasn’t a businessperson before, but also gave me some social contacts in what was otherwise a very solitary role.

It is hard juggling everything, and I think you will always feel a failure. It’s drilled into you

What’s the secret to career success?
Stick with it and find joy in what you’re doing. If you speak to most entrepreneurs they’ve been knocked down, and simply got up again. Your first plans might not be the right one, but if you treat each “failure” as a learning experience, you’ll eventually find success.

Is the juggle real for you… do you find it difficult balancing motherhood/ relationship/me-time/time for friends/career?
It is hard juggling everything, and I think you will always feel a failure. It’s drilled into you. You have to do AB and C to be a good mother… if you’re a wife you must be AB and C, and to be a good business person you need to be AB and C too – you can’t do all the As Bs and Cs in each role. Those are three different jobs! So it might be you excel in A for one, B for another and C for something else. Decide on your priorities and let the rest slide. If you decide what’s important and just do those, then if you find time for the unimportant as well, great, and if not… well, it wasn’t important anyway.

For me cleaning is at the bottom of the stack. So when mother-in-law comes to visit for whom cleaning is her ‘A’, I blitz the house, or if I have money, I hire a cleaning firm, so it looks like I’m juggling all the balls while she’s here, and I just drop them all again once she’s left.

Describe an ideal weekend?
Get up before anyone else is really up, have a cup of tea and breakfast alone, go out, give the dog a walk along the beach with the tide out so I can walk miles, come back, to find everyone still in bed, make a nice breakfast so the kids are happy on rousing, and then allow the day to roll out as it wants, no pressure. If I can find time to write another chapter of my book, or cook something spectacular (I love cooking) that the kids WILL EAT, or have friends around later that day, all the better.

If you could wake up anywhere tomorrow, where would it be?
I went to Hawaii on business this February and it was lovely waking up there: the air was fresh, the scenery beautiful and I could spot whales in the sea as I ate breakfast.

Any future ventures?
We’ve got lots of plans… it’s just a case of finding the time and money to make a start.

  • Team building video-led games, with facilitator’s guides and on-line support.
  • Setting up a new TEAFL course involving murder mystery investigations
  • Mobile Aps to support our murder mysteries
  • Digital support packages for all our customer orders so that they can email invites, and get more info on planning.
  • Franchising within the UK, and across into the USA and down to Australia.

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