When you write a novel you create a world. It has to be realistic, believable and populated with interesting characters that have problems to solve. Tolkien, C S Lewis and JK Rowling created incredibly complex worlds for their characters to occupy. Where did they get their ideas? Was everything imagined or did they borrow from life and their experiences?
When I sat down in front of the computer, all I had was the name of a character, his occupation and he had a murder to solve. I had no idea what he looked like, how old he was or what family he had. I didn’t know where he was educated, what traumas he’d experienced or what his hopes and dreams were. Was he married or divorced? What did he care about? Who did he care about?
At the same time, I had to think about the murder he was going to investigate. And more importantly, how he was going to solve it? Environmental health officers don’t investigate murders, but this is fiction. In the world of my story, I can do pretty much what I want, as long as it’s plausible, well told and entertaining.
If he was going to solve a murder then Kent Fisher would be out of his comfort zone. He could get into trouble moonlighting, risk ridicule if he got it wrong, and he might come up against a murderer who could do him some serious harm. In the real world, if I sloped off during the working day to investigate something else, I’d be in trouble, and quite rightly so. If I was a risk taker, I’d probably be considered a liability. More than likely, I’d be disciplined in some way. I needed to protect Kent so he could do what he needed to do to solve a murder.
I made his father the local Conservative MP – the latest in a long line of Fishers, stretching back over 1,000 years. The idea came from a conversation I had with a local landowner some years before. The landowner had his DNA tested and compared to that from a 1,000-year old body found buried on his land. He told me the DNA was so similar they had to be related. Little did I know at the time, it would prove to be more than just an interesting snippet.
Kent became part of the local gentry, which automatically suggested a background, education and so on. After leaving school, he spent 12 years in the army, which meant he was well-equipped to look after himself. I spoke to people who had been in the army to find out how it changed them. Most of them said they came out the same as they went in, only they knew how to kill people.
The murder was more straightforward. Being a huge fan of crime stories and drama, I was always reading about or watching a murder. I didn’t want a murder that the police were investigating. I didn’t know much about how the police did things. If they were investigating, an EHO would leave them to it or offer them anything he’d discovered. Otherwise, he would need a friend in the force giving him information (unrealistic), or run a parallel investigation where he outwitted the police (overdone and unlikely).
That left me two choices –
1. an unsolved murder, probably historical
2. a murder that wasn’t a murder
Once again, my work experiences came to the rescue.
The department had carried out health and safety inspections of swimming pools at hotels and leisure complexes, following a number of accidents and drownings nationally. What if a drowning was really a murder disguised as a tragic accident? I let my imagination go to work and created a 5-star hotel with an outdoor swimming pool, set close to the South Downs. To add a personal twist, the hotel used to be the ancestral Fisher home, sold to a developer that Kent loathes. (Suddenly Kent became an environmentalist, voting for the Green party, which upsets his father. Kent chains himself to trees to stall developers, and so on …)
When Kent hears about a drowning at the hotel, nothing’s going to stop him investigating and prosecuting the developer for health and safety failings. Only it doesn’t go to plan as slowly Kent realises he’s investigating a murder and his own life is in danger.
When I finished the first draft of Too Many Secrets, I put it to one side for a month. Then I read it in a few days with a more objective eye. I knew the plot was sound, but the storytelling and the characters needed to be more vivid, believable and involving. A published friend of mine agreed. Though good in places, it needed a lot of revising and rewriting to bring it to life and make it more believable to an agent or publisher.
I should have revised, rewritten and improved Too Many Secrets, but I’d already remembered another work experience that could be turned into an even more cunning murder or three…