Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Introducing "Wildfire"

I don’t remember the exact date that I decided to write crime, although I’d been mulling over it for  long time before I first mentioned it on my blog, back in late September. (Back in late September? That’s…less than two months ago).

I’m pleased, if rather shocked, to be able to say that I now have the first draft of the opening novel in what I hope will be a series. My enthusiasm for the project rather overwhelmed me. Not only did I rush to draft one crime novel, but I also have ideas for two or three more, and I’m pretty certain how the stories of the main characters will develop over the series, too. Although I wouldn’t count on that, because characters have a habit of surprising you.

But it’s here, in initial draft form, at least — 67,500 words of error-strewn storytelling waiting for revisions and the for the bugs in the plot to be trapped and eliminated. Wildfire introduces us to DCI Jude Satterthwaite and his team as they struggle to find the identity — and the killer — of a body discovered in the burned-out shell of a ruined building following a grass fire on the shores of scenic Haweswater.

I won’t tell you too much, because no crime novel ever survives a spoiler. But I will say that I enjoyed writing it. I enjoyed the puzzle, deciding who the killer was and how s/he committed and covered up the crime. I enjoyed the intellectual exercise of researching how homicides really are investigated and then trying to turn this into something that’s acceptable to a reader without being totally untrue to the process.

Most of all, I enjoyed creating a new cast of characters. Killers are real people, just like their victims and the people who track them down. To understand the crime you need to know the criminal. I enjoyed getting to know them all. And I hope that, one day in the not too distant future, you’ll enjoy getting to know them, too.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

A Note To My Scientific Self...

Because it's fiction, right?
So I decided I wanted to write crime.

Now, I have a scientific background and that means I value accuracy. All right, it’s tempered by the fiction half of my brain which, by definition, is fuelled on making things up. I’ve never been one to let the facts get in the way of a good plot and you won’t have to look far in my books to find an example, but there’s a balance to be struck. For example, I made up a series of caves along a stretch of coastline in Majorca, but it was limestone and caves are found elsewhere on the island — just not the bit where I wanted them.

Crime fiction — specifically, police procedural crime fiction — is posing me problems. I’ve been spending a lot of time in the past few weeks reading up on procedure. There are some fabulously informative documents out there — I thoroughly recommend the Murder Investigation Manual and the Guidance on Major Incident Room Standardised Administrative Procedures, (both available online). These and many other documents will give you chapter and verse on exactly how an investigation proceeds.

If you spend time reading them, you’ll learn one thing — that much of the work in policing is dull, time-consuming and anything but glamorous. If I’m true to life and have a cast of dozens in our investigation, each of whom might play a tiny part and each of whom requires to be introduced as a character, at briefing meetings, I’m going to end up confusing my reader. If I allow a realistic timescale for the analysis of forensic evidence, I’m going to leave my investigators and readers twiddling their thumbs (or looking through reams of evidence which proves totally irrelevant).

Large-scale, heavily-staffed, drawn-out investigations don’t lend themselves to gripping fiction. So what does a writer do?

The answer, of course, is compromise. We have to acknowledge that we’re writing fiction, not true crime. Reduce the cast of thousands to a core handful. Show only the detective work which leads forwards, rather than along blind alley after blind alley. And assume the all forensic tests are going to be rushed through as a matter of urgency.

I’m not sure this sits easily with me, as yet, and there’s no question that the rigours of a crime novel are less comfortable than those of contemporary romance — it’s as if I’ve been writing free verse and suddenly find myself having to write sonnets. But I shall persist…

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Where is the Whodunnit?

Dark deeds in a brooding landscape...
In my last blog I gave you a quick — and not especially teasing — clue about where I’m proposing to set my new series of detective novels. The answer, of course, is Cumbria, and the picture I posted was a well-known view of Ullswater looking towards Gowbarrow Fell, where Wordsworth saw his daffodils. Not that there were any there on that spring day, though they abounded everywhere else. Maybe one of the books should be The Case of the Missing Daffodils

Why Cumbria? Well, to begin with, it had to be somewhere I know well. There are a few options here but the most obvious among them, Edinburgh, has been done to death, so to speak. Besides, I don’t feel that the city offers quite the same range of opportunities for crime scenes. 

It came down to a choice between Cumbria and the Highlands, and the Lakes won. Why? Because there’s a range of different types of place in a relatively small area, along with terrific access and vast numbers of people coming in and out. There are wild hillsides where it would be oh-so-easy to have an “accident”. There are lakes where you can disappear, crowds in which you can be lost, a coastline into which you can smuggle your contraband — and a motorway by which you can make a sharp exit.

A wonderful place to dispose of the body.
I did try to research exactly how many people are murdered in Cumbria in a year and by what method, but I failed. My guess is that the majority of homicides here are pretty run-of-the-mill , as they are in most cases. The National Centre for Policing Excellence’s informative Murder Investigation Manual points out that: “Between them, domestic homicide and confrontation homicide account for just over half of all homicide cases. Within the category of domestic homicide, killing by a current or former spouse is by far the largest group. Compared with these types of homicide, all others are infrequent. None generally have an incidence greater than ten per cent and many are much less frequent than that”.

That’s not particularly creative — but then, it’s always been this way and it’s never stopped crime writers focussing on, and extending, the very few genuinely complex and puzzling murders that aren’t committed in the heat of the moment. So if we’re to create a series of genuinely intriguing and original crimes in a single, rather steady, location, we have to step away from reality. 

So here I am, metaphorically  speaking, looking down on a broad range of environments from a Cumbrian fell, and musing. Where in this wonderful county will the first mystery take place?

Sunday, 1 October 2017

First Steps Along the Slippery Slope

Not su much whodunnit as whereisit?
Last week I shared my decision to switch genre — not, in fact, a particularly difficult thing to do, given that the writing of one type of novel shares very many of the requirements of another. Of course there are differences in the formula and the readers’ expectations, but the similarities are greater. If you ca create plausible characters, if you can structure  plot, if you can rack up the tension and produce a satisfactory ending…it doesn’t really matter what genre you write in. 

As I’ve said before I do read a lot of crime, although I avoid anything too grim and gory. And writing romantic suspense requires many of the key elements of any crime novel. With this in mind my research into crime writing of this week was a refresher rather than going in cold. Much of it is things I knew but had never thought about — such as what, exactly, constitutes a crime novel. And, under the definition that the genre encompasses everything that revolves around a crime, I’ve already written three. 

One thing that did strike me is that there seems to be a split in the how-to-write-crime ranks. One camp champion the plot as the driver of the novel, with its twists and its turns and increasingly desperate (it seems to me) ways to kill someone. The second focuses on the characters of hero and villain, especially in longer series of novels. 

Anyone who’s read one of my books will know exactly which is my dog in this fight. It’s character for me, all the way. The limitation of the romance genre was that the relationships between the two main protagonists have to be tied up at the end of the book, and moving into a different genre frees me from this. This allows me to plan a series of relationships which extend over several books, and which aren’t required to have that element of romantic love. Friendships can wax and wane, professional partnerships forged and fractured, in a realistic time frame. 

 I’ve begun with my two main characters and I know how their relationship will develop over what I hope will be the first three books in the series. And I’ve decided where to set my books. I’ll tell you that next week — but in the meantime, in true detective tradition, I’ll offer you just a tiny clue with the picture.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Turning to Crime

Whodunnit? Who knows?
I think I may be having a mid-life crisis. Not the normal sort — I don’t feel any urge to buy a Harley Davidson, have a fling with a tomboy or go to India to find myself. It’s a writer’s crisis. And actually it isn’t really a crisis. It’s just a need for change.

I write romance. That’s because I like a happy ending. But romance, like every other genre, has its rules and if you strain too hard against those rules your audience don’t like it. In a sense that’s the problem of genre, and genre is something I’ve always struggled with. But still I write romance. Sometimes it’s contemporary romance. Sometimes it’s new adult romance. Sometimes it’s romantic suspense. Once I struggled against genre and shimmied into mystery/women’s fiction, but it was still romance.

Though I like my happy endings and suspect I always will, I’ve recently felt the need to try something different. I’m having a flirtation on the side with women’s fiction, but does anybody really know what women’s fiction is? And something’s happened. A couple of people have asked me if I write crime. 

Of course I said no. In my head, crime involves hard-drinking, hard-swearing men without souls, and unflinching descriptions of gruesome violence and eventual, unavoidable death. But I love reading crime and the crime I read isn’t too grim. I read detective novels, with a fondness for the classics of the 1930s, and I love cosy crime. 

When I thought about it I realised that I’ve always written crime. My first ever attempt at a novel (that is, something longer than a couple of thousand words) was about a stolen ruby. Later I moved on to a cold war thriller which found subsequent expression in a psychological suspense based around a man who killed his best friend. None of these will ever see the light of day: they’re too ill-formed and badly plotted, though in all of them there are characters who will reappear. My second book, which I considered romantic suspense, centres on a murder. My current series of romantic suspense book features a detective as its hero. 

Reader, if this isn’t crime, what is?

In the past my view of myself as a romance writer has held me back. I’ve allowed it to tie me to genre. I’ll never give up on romance but I’m not going to be tied to it. 

I’m turning to crime.   

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Me and Stephen King

Well, no. Not really me and the maestro of horror. In fact, not even remotely me and the King. But there’s a bit of a connection. I’m not a horror fan, nor a ghost story fan, though as a reader and writer of romantic suspense I do enjoy a tightening of the strings, an increase in the heartbeat as the inevitable events draw to a climax. And actually, me and Stephen…Stephen and me… well it appears that we do like an historic hotel.

On holiday in the States recently, I fetched up in one of America’s finest old hotels, the Stanley in Estes Park. It’s historic, no question (over 100 years old). And there’s definitely something paranormal about it. The first clue was in the packed lobby, full of people waiting to take a ghost tour. Then there was the sign for Madame Vera, the hotel’s resident psychic.

Resident psychic? I’ve heard of a writer in residence, but…

So, I decided to pass on Madame Vera’s services. Dodging round the ghost tour parked outside my room (“…and on this very spot a strange and unexpected explosion took place…”) I tried to settle down. But frankly, my dear, even if every piece of wood in the vicinity doesn’t creak in a non-existent wind, it’s hard to get comfortable when the guide is spinning tales to freak out people who don’t have to sleep in the place (“…where the actor Jim Carrey saw something so terrible that he’s never spoken of it, to this day…”).

Fortunately there was an alternative to this scenario (the tours came round every hour in the afternoons, which didn’t make for much relaxation). On a bitterly cold afternoon, with the snow blowing around outside, t was time to decamp. Pick up the notebook and pen, stop by the coffee bar for a very large cup of something stimulating and grab the comfy leather armchairs in front of the fire. 

And here, dear reader, Stephen King and I found something in common. Although I never heard whether he took advantage of the beautifully dark-panelled lobby-cum-lounge — or, indeed, whether he was driven out of his room by the ghost tours — I do know that somewhere in the Stanley he’s said to have been inspired to write. And so was I.

There the similarities begin and end. He wrote The Shining; I came away with the plot for a romance. Even so, there’s something about sitting where he sat (maybe) and writing. 

You can’t beat it.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Finding My Tribe

New friends! Image courtesy of John Jackson
All right, I confess. I sat in the car park at Lancaster University on Friday in a state of complete dread. I even contemplated turning the engine back on and driving away. No-one would have known. The organisers would have assumed I hadn’t turned up and hadn’t told them (which, of course, would have been true). And I’d have holed up in some little guest house in the Lakes and phoned home from noisiest part of the local pub, pretending I was surrounding by a chattering crowd of writers.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know anyone. I had many good friends-in-the-flesh among those on the list, and a host of other friends-in-the-ether whose full acquaintance I was dying to make. There really should not have been a problem. But here’s the thing. There were over 200 of them. That’s 200-plus writers. That’s lots and lots of people like me.

Now that’s scary.

I’m glad to say that my courage not only prevailed but was immediately vindicated. I queued to register next to a couple of old friends. Within minutes I’d found new ones.  And that was always going to happen.

Why? It’s because these — writers — are my tribe. Of course those two-hundred-odd can’t all be my very best buddies. Among them there will be those with whom I have profound differences over everything from politics and religion to whether to go out for a Chinese or an Indian or whether it’s okay to have characters in your novel swearing as much on the page as the might in real life.

In the end I did more than survive the weekend. I thrived on it. I discovered that, after just a moment or two of conversation, writers reach common ground. They get each other. I might share the same things with my non-writerly friends but somehow they don’t quite grasp what I mean when I talk about writer’s block; nor do they understand the irrational, gut-wrenching intensity of killing someone. (Not in real life, of course. Not in real life.)

Any group will be the same. I’ve heard complete strangers suddenly spring to life when one of them mentions cutting fabric across the grain; I’ve been at a very serious meeting when two people suddenly discovered the supported the same football team and suddenly found themselves locked into a heated debate about who “we” should have as the new manager.

Your tribe is the group of people who get you. You may disagree, fundamentally on a lot of things. But they understand you. Two hundred and twenty people who understand you, all in one room together, is a terrifying prospect. But if you can face it, the rewards are unbeatable.