The origin of the series

My journey as a crime writer – Part 1

It started with a simple idea – could one person make a difference?

It could easily have been a woman, but I felt more comfortable writing about a male protagonist, especially one who was going to embody my values and experiences. I envisaged someone with a strong sense of fair play and justice, someone who would take action to deliver it.

But not a police officer. I’ve worked with the police, but I’ve no real idea what it’s like to be a murder detective or part of a Major Crimes Team. Besides, there were too many police procedurals in the bookshops and on TV. Even more now crime fiction is the most read genre.

Sue GraftonNot a private eye either. Though a huge fan of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, who inspired much of what I was to create, there were also plenty of PIs on the bookshelves and TV.

I wanted an ordinary person to solve murders – someone different, distinctive and original.

The idea posed quite a few challenges, namely credibility.

Ordinary people don’t solve murders, do they?

You wouldn’t wake up one morning and decide to solve a murder. You can’t go down to the police station and offer to investigate some of their unsolved crimes to help them out.

And where would you start? How would you collect evidence? What about personal safety?

Okay, Agatha Christie and writers of cosy mysteries have had ordinary people solving murders for years, but I wasn’t interested in quaint village murders, solved by a local resident who judged competitions at the flower show. I wanted something that resonated with the real world, something contemporary, but still a traditional whodunit.

The choices were simple.

  • My protagonist could have a personal connection to the victim, such as a lover or close relative. This works fine for the first book, but it would become repetitive and unbelievable after a few of books. It wouldn’t take long before my protagonist had no close family or friends. I’d also need a list of killers with a grudge against him and his family.
  • The police arrest the wrong person. This seems to be a favourite among crime writers and TV dramas like Murder She Wrote. Again, it doesn’t take long to become repetitive. And I’ve never liked the idea of showing the police to be inept. They have a difficult enough job already without me adding to their problems.
  • The protagonist stumbles across something that puts him in danger. This is more thriller territory than murder mystery and I can’t compete with the likes of Dick Francis and Simon Kernick.

Besides, the thought of shoe-horning my protagonist into solving murders didn’t appeal. I wanted my ordinary person to evolve as a sleuth, not set out to be one. This seemed more natural and credible – more plausible in today’s cynical world.

In the end, it all came down to the character of the protagonist.

I needed someone with strong principles and a sense of duty. This person couldn’t simply stand by and allow an injustice to happen. He was no knight in shining armour, but someone who felt he could make a difference, albeit a small one. This was a man who had a history of standing up for the underdog, battling for justice and fair play.

He would also need the means and time to investigate, to take action. Either he was rich and retired or he had to fit murder investigation around his day job and life outside work.

Slowly, my protagonist began to take shape in my mind.

He was the kind of person I would have liked to have been.

This realisation clinched the deal.

I was an environmental health officer – a law enforcer, protecting the public, improving health and the environment. I worked with the police, which meant I had contacts that could help me, like a Scenes of Crime Officer, for example. I had the skills to undertake complex investigations, interview suspects and build a case to prosecute offenders.

I occasionally investigated deaths – people who were killed in workplace accidents. This was part of my role in health and safety at work, protecting employees and ensuring workplaces were safe.

All I had to do was disguise a murder as a fatal work accident and my protagonist would be drawn into his first case.

There was still plenty of work to do, several false starts to overcome, and my ability to bring such a character and story to life.

Those are issues for future blogs.


In the meantime, if you’re interested in a complex murder mystery that pays homage to the classic whodunit, the Kent Fisher murder mysteries maybe for you. You can find out more on my website, where you can also sign up to my email newsletter.

Running Scared

Sometimes you have to throw caution to the wind. Doubt can hold you back as easily as an injury. Self-doubt can cripple you, making it almost impossible to throw anything to the wind.

For most of my life, it’s felt like there are two people inside me.

The first is the dreamer, the person I want to be. This is where the writer lives, creating new worlds filled with intriguing characters and exciting plots. The dreamer is by nature an optimist, believing that nothing’s impossible.

This is the guy who helped me quit smoking. He helped me to eat better, to become a runner and to keep running when injury dragged me down. He helped me pass my driving test on Friday, 13th May, my final exams to become an environmental health officer, and to get the jobs that took me from Manchester to the Sussex Coast.

This is the guy that helped me deal with the many rejection letters I had from publishers and agents, telling me I had the talent and ability to become a published writer. He was right. Back in the early 1990s, I began to publish articles in national and local magazines. Then there was my regular column on technology in Writers’ Monthly, which ran for several years until the magazine closed down.

The second person is the doubter. In a way, he’s the little devil that sits on my shoulder. The doubter sits there because it’s easy to whisper in my ear.

The doubter isn’t interested in me achieving anything. The doubter doesn’t like change. Change means I might not need him any more. Trouble is, he can be incredibly difficult to dislodge. He’s clever. He nips in at the early stages of a dream, when ideas and aspirations are vague, and covers it with a blanket of misgivings.

What if it goes wrong? What if it’s more difficult than you imagined? What if it’s not what you want? Have you stopped to consider the effect on others?

This last one is always a killer. It’s often the last throw of the dice for the doubter. When all else fails, use emotional blackmail.

I was eight when my father died. At the time, I had no idea how to express how I felt. I’m not sure I knew how I felt, but I had this overwhelming sense of unfairness.

Why had he been taken from me?

What did I do to deserve this?

This is when the doubter was born. He told me that this is what life was like – it knocked you back if you started getting ideas, if you wanted more than you deserved. And whenever anything went wrong or I goofed, the doubter was there, giving me a sad shake of the head.

The fact I fought the doubter, strived to be better, owes much to a spirit that came from reading books. Heroes didn’t quit. They didn’t flinch at the obstacles that faced them. They found ways to defeat evil and those who wanted them to fail. They battled on, even when the odds were overwhelming and defeat was certain.

To Kill A MockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird taught me that final lesson. It reinforced the dreamer in me at the age of 16. It spurred me to write my first novel, which I sent to a publisher at the age of 17.

The doubter tried to clip my wings, of course. ‘If you tell them you’re 17, they’ll laugh, wondering who the hell you think you are.’

I didn’t mention my age. I received a lovely, encouraging letter from the publisher, praising my characterisation, realistic dialogue and the story, but no offer of publication.

Many times I’ve looked backed, wondering whether the publishers would have reacted differently had they known my age.

This is what the doubter does to you. He likes to remind you of failures because they prove him right.

Fortified by this early victory, the doubter undermined me, quick to remind me how disappointing life could be. Whenever, I had a big decision to make, the doubter was there, pointing out everything that could go wrong and how bad it would make me feel.

When I wrote further novels, I was never sure of my abilities, always afraid to really go for it and to hell with the consequences. The story was never good enough. The plot wasn’t realistic. The characters didn’t jump of the page and into the reader’s heart.

The doubter urged me to focus on real life – marriage, building a home, settling down. You’ll never earn enough from writing to pay the mortgage so why bother?

I did bother. I kept writing. I have to write.

I’m stubborn, see. I’ve read books that live long in the memory. I’ve read books that have the power to change my life.

I’ve also shown I can defeat doubt. I published articles. People wanted my work for their readers. I quit smoking. Okay, giving up smoking may not seem like a big deal, but it was integral to my life, to my writing.

Giving up smoking meant giving up writing. Oh, the doubter thought he was onto a winner with that one.

But my health meant more to me than anything else. I was overweight, unfit and still collecting rejection slips from publishers. It was time to change, to set the remainder of my life on a sensible, healthier course. I didn’t want to wake in the night, coughing and clearing my lungs. I didn’t want to die prematurely when I’d yet to achieve my ambitions.

For once, the dreamer was pragmatic. I gave up smoking with much less effort and will than I ever imagined. The doubter never got much of a look in – he hadn’t reckoned on the running.

I started running before I quit smoking. My wife and I joined the local gym. We began to exercise, to get healthier and fitter. We would come out of the leisure centre, exhausted and dripping with sweat, but invigorated. The first thing I would do was pop a cigarette into my mouth.

Six months later, the cigarettes were gone and have never returned. I learned to write again – short pieces at first.

No AccidentI wrote Fisher’s Fables, a humorous blog of my experiences as an environmental health manager. It gave me the author’s voice the doubter had always denied me. A publisher wanted my first Kent Fisher mystery novel, No Accident.

Then last year, I strained the muscles in my lower back. It was an old injury, more niggle than problem, or so I thought. It took me six weeks to recover.

The doubter saw a chance to return after years in the wilderness.

When I started running once more, I didn’t run too far. I listened to my muscles, aware of the stiffness in my lower back. The doubter told me it was futile. I would never reach the distances and speeds I had before.

I was running scared – worried I’d strain my back once more.

Almost six months have passed. I still run scared, even though my back feels fine. The doubter’s still there. He’s given up attacking my running, casting doubt on my writing instead.

No RemorseI no longer plan or plot in any detail. I started No Remorse, the third in the series, with a line of dialogue, curious to know what would develop. It became my best work at that point, a triumph of confidence and self-belief. I’ve written two more Kent Fisher mysteries without plans, never sure what’s coming next.

The doubter’s on at me from the first page. What if you can’t do it again? What if you write yourself into a blind alley? What will your readers think?

Then I have a moment of insight, when I realise what the story’s about. The dreamer returns, fed by my subconscious, telling me what the story’s about. There are no details – these come when I write – just a skeleton.

Would that happen if I didn’t have a little doubt to spur the dreamer in me? Maybe it’s a ying and yang thing. A little doubt makes me focus, work harder, unwilling to accept anything other than the best I can do.

Maybe I’m better off running scared … and writing scared.

What do you think?

Five things I learned from writing No Remorse

No Remorse is the third Kent Fisher mystery and unique in many ways.

The first two books in the series, No Accident and No Bodies were originally conceived, planned in detail and written between 2000 and 2003. They were extensively revised and rewritten for publication in 2016 and 2017 respectively, but the story and characters didn’t change.

No RemorseNo Remorse was the first new Kent Fisher mystery I’d written in thirteen years. It was a chance to write a new novel from scratch, utilising everything I’d learned in between. It was exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time.

So, what did I learn?

  1. I could write without a detailed synopsis or plan

I started No Remorse with a desire to show what the bad side of residential care homes might look like, and an opening line of dialogue – ‘They’re going to kill me, Mr Fisher, but they’ll never learn my secret.’

That’s it. I had no idea how the story would develop or if it would work. I had the character of Anthony Trimble, who had a secret I knew nothing about, and a luxury care home with unscrupulous owners.

To keep things fresh, Kent Fisher wasn’t at work when he visited the home. He was there with Columbo, his West Highland white terrier, as part of a Pets as Therapy scheme. When Mr Trimble dies without relatives, environmental health arranges a funeral. This brings Kent back to the words Mr Trimble uttered at the start of the novel. From here, Kent starts to follow Trimble’s life back into the past to unearth a terrible secret and expose his killer.

With no synopsis, the story was written chapter by chapter, each one prompting the events and actions of the next. As a result I kept the chapters short, which really improved the pace of the novel.

It turned out to be the most exhilarating journey of my writing career.

  1. How private investigators track down people

After Trimble’s death I had the problem of looking into his past, what he did and so on. Tracking someone down is a basic private detective function, but I didn’t know where to start.

Private investigatorGoogle came to the rescue and the answer really was quite obvious. If you know where someone lives, talk to the neighbours. If you know what someone did for a living, talk to colleagues.

People may not realise how well-connected environmental health officers are. They visit many businesses and have information on them all. Once Trimble was located in the department’s database, Kent was on his way, opening up one can of worms after another. He traced former homes and businesses, spoke to the local rector and asked around in the pub – like a good detective.

  1. The value of the right editor

I changed editor for No Remorse, based on the recommendation of a fellow crime author. Through only the medium of emails, we hit it off right away. I felt confident she would provide good service and value, which she did.

Her insights and understanding allowed me to make small, but significant changes to improve the story. As all my novels have a strong backstory with familiar characters, the main murder plot can be pushed into the background from time to time. My editor suggested Kent could still be thinking about the murders while doing other things to make sure the murder investigation remained at the forefront.

  1. How to surprise readers (and my editor)

I wish I could reveal the surprise that stunned many readers, but that would spoil the story for those who want to read it. My editor didn’t see it coming, as she put it, and loved the surprise. Many readers told me how they were surprised, shocked and stunned, but they loved the moment and thought it was one the best parts of the story.

Writing the story a chapter at a time, I knew little about the surprise until just before it happened. I had to go back and do some rewriting as a result, but it was worth it.

  1. How to write the novel I always wanted to write

No Remorse is the murder mystery novel I always wanted to write. It has elements of Agatha Christie with its cryptic codes and messages, and Kinsey Millhone, my favourite fictional private eye.

All these elements came to me as I wrote. I thought I’d be sitting there, wondering what to write next. Far from it. The ideas kept coming and at the end of every chapter, I lobbed in a complication, determined to make Kent Fisher’s investigation as difficult as it could be, and then some.

This is the way I now write the Kent Fisher novels, starting with minimal information and ideas. I discover what happens pretty much at the same time as Kent (or while I’m shaving) and go with it. Sometimes I have to backtrack a little and revise, but mainly it’s spontaneous until I start to solve the mystery.

No AccidentClick here to find out what I learned from writing No AccidentNo Bodies

Click here to find out what I learned from writing No Bodies

 

If you’d like to find out more about the series and never miss a book release, why not sign up to my Readers Group.

No doubting the doubt

When it comes to 2019, there’s only one thing I’m sure about – uncertainty.

The year began with doubts over No More Lies, the fourth Kent Fisher mystery. Despite numerous revisions and edits, the first half of the book never felt right. Whether I was pushing the characters too far, or whether I simply lacked belief in my writing, I don’t know.

Weary of looking back and analysing, I decided to complete the second half of the novel by the end of January.

While I’m not sure what prompted this, the prospect excited me. Then I paused. What would happen if I didn’t achieve my target?

I ignored the doubts and set a publication date in May. At the end of January, I would book a blog tour for the launch of the novel, as bloggers prefer at least three months’ notice. My editor was available in April, which gave me February and March for my own editing and revising.

At the end of January, I finished the first draft of the novel. It took six months to write the first half and one month to write the second.

Crazy.

(I would add that it took me much longer to edit and revise the second half of the novel, which needed far more work to bring it up to standard.)

I also know how people can write a 50,000 word novel during National Novel Writing Month, usually November each year.

Now all I had to do was take direct action marketing my work.

When I was a manager in my former career as an environmental health officer, I had a couple of mantras. Unlike Danni in my novels, I didn’t post them on a pinboard, but I often quoted them to my team.

Actions are not the same as achievements.

If only I could embrace it in my work as an author.

After completing No More Lies and booking the blog tour, my marketing efforts consisted of research, reading informative articles, and planning. Lots of planning – even a dreaded spreadsheet. (You can’t get more middle management than that.)

Lots of actions, but no achievements until the tweaks in December to improve and simplify my website.

Okay, I posted on Facebook, tweeted occasionally, and wrote a few blog posts, but it was all a bit half-hearted. Trouble is, I feel self-conscious when I write about my writing. I see other authors promote themselves in various Facebook groups with some style, able to talk about themselves without sounding unnatural or boastful.

These authors also spot opportunities to promote themselves, start conversations, share photographs and discuss problems they’ve faced and solved.

I’m always concerned I’ll sound pretentious.

Net result – I did hardly any marketing last year. I read many useful articles. A few ideas popped into my thoughts, but I lacked organisation and plans. I took a short online course, which was informative, but I’ve yet to turn it into actions, or achievements.

Thankfully, there’s nothing wrong with the writing

I completed the fully edited fifth Kent Fisher mystery, No Mercy, by the middle of December. Unlike the previous novel, this one flowed from start to finish. The editing and revising were thorough and everything is now ready to go for publication on 16th January, complete with a launch team to help promote the book.

I’m feeling good.

So good it makes me wonder whether I can repeat the process with the sixth novel. With little more than a scattering of ideas and disparate events, there was nothing urging me to write.

Then yesterday morning, I picked up a pad and my fountain pen, determined to make some sense of these ideas. Within a few minutes, my imagination took over, making connections, raising questions and complications, producing a delicious twist that took my breath away.

Okay, it’s all background detail rather than a synopsis. I don’t have a plot or outline. I prefer to write the story as it happens, discovering and detecting alongside Kent Fisher as he weaves his way along, a chapter at a time, never quite sure what’s coming next.

That’s the positive side of not knowing.

Maybe I should translate that into marketing – simply have a go and see where it leads.

I might even surprise myself in 2020.

Five things I learned from writing No Bodies

No Bodies is the second novel in the Kent Fisher mystery series. It follows hot on the heels of No Accident, the first novel. If you want to read what I learned from writing No Accident, you can check the post here.

Both novels began their uncertain lives just after the millennium under different titles. After No Accident was published in 2016, I revised and rewrote much of No Bodies to bring it up to date and into line with the first.

1. Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten (Michael Crichton)

Okay, the rewrite was carried out over 12 years after the original version was written. Only the plot remained intact. The story was revised into the new style I’d developed. My newfound love of editing reduced the size of the book and sharpened the prose, allowing my characters to ‘leap off the page’ – something a literary agent didn’t find when she read the original version.

The story and treatment were similar to No Accident, but there was more purpose and drive to the investigation and a greater personal threat to Kent and those nearest to him. I also had the chance to expand Columbo’s unique relationship with Kent.

Robert Crouch Author

Robert with Harvey, aka Columbo

The rewrite proved challenging as the characters had changed but the plot had to stay the same. Times had also moved on, demanding a different approach to several of the issues raised by the story. Both restricted my freedom and new ways of working, drawing me to my next conclusion.

2. Planning was at the heart of my failures

No Bodies was originally planned in great detail. It’s a complex murder mystery with two separate storylines that ultimately crash into each other, helping Kent to solve the murders of several missing women.

My method of writing at the turn of the millennium was based on detailed planning of the plot and main events. I wrote copious notes, which filled a Lever Arch folder. Everything from character profiles, descriptions of settings, time lines and ideas for plot events found its way into the folder.

An outline of the story and main events helped me convert the many notes I’d written into a more detailed synopsis. This became the blueprint I kept beside the PC while I wrote the first draft.

It didn’t take long before I discovered how restricting this was.

My mind continued to produce ideas. Some were so tantalising, I couldn’t resist them. Many couldn’t be easily accommodated in the synopsis. It led to some bloating and diversions from the main plot that took the edge of the pace and momentum.

Looking back, I also believe the constraints of the synopsis smothered my natural creativity and immediacy. Planning dulled the prose. Planning resisted the unexpected moments that often lift a story or send it running in a new, but more exciting direction. Planning took the life out of the story and characters, as the literary agent discovered.

It also made me more determined to breathe the fire back into the story during the rewrites.

3. Nothing’s impossible. The impossible just takes a little longer.

Until the rewrite, I never fully appreciated one of my guiding principles.

Whenever life didn’t meet expectations, I would remind myself of this principle. Most of my writing failures were the result of rushing, impatience and a failure to recognise, or deal with, the shortcomings in my approach.

I hated editing and revising, which meant I often did it badly, if at all. I told myself editing destroyed the immediacy and essence of my narrative. It’s easy to make excuses for the things you don’t want to do. The trouble is, you don’t learn or progress either.

When faced with the challenge of updating a long novel I knew to be less than perfect, I was tempted to leave it and write a new story instead.

Only I couldn’t. I’d written No Accident to dovetail into No Bodies

With my guiding principle in mind, I didn’t rush the rewrite. The impatient and frustrated writer of old was replaced by a calmer, more determined one. Having parted company with the publisher of No Accident, there were no deadlines or pressures from outside.

I could even afford to make the story better and more realistic.

4. Google doesn’t have all the answers

Kent Fisher had to visit Glastonbury to confront a suspect. Naturally, things didn’t go to plan, leading to a chase across town. Having already visited and loved Glastonbury’s unique atmosphere and buildings, I’d written the chase from memory.

 

With the advent of Street View on Google maps, I had the chance to check out the route so I could describe it more fully. Within seconds, I discovered my memory was faulty. Google allowed me to plot a better route using Street View.

A few months later, Carol, Harvey and I went to Glastonbury for a break. We started to walk the Google route, but it soon went in a different direction to the one I thought I’d chosen.

Reverting to traditional shoe leather, written notes and photographs, we recorded the exact route I wanted Kent to take, murals included.

5. Just ask a police officer

The final detail I wanted to check for authenticity was the police interview facilities. The days of small, cold rooms with concrete floors and uncomfortable chairs, squeezed into the basement of the police station, have long gone.

The principles are the same – table, chairs and recording equipment, only the custody suite is more modern and uses video and PCs.

Thanks to a friend, who’s a former police officer, I was given a guided tour of the custody centre by the sergeant in control of the place. He took me from the area where suspects arrive, through the processing point, past the cells to the interview rooms. Along the way, he explained how they worked and used the facilities. He answered my many questions and even suggested how to improve the scene I was setting there.

Apart from the fascinating insights, the visit meant my scene has authenticity and accuracy, even if I had to lose a few of my more dramatic flourishes. To me, this equals credibility and hopefully builds trust between the reader and author.

The details are in No Bodies, as is an encounter I had with someone who walked from the suite into the waiting area where I was seated. She was bouncing along, grinning to herself when she spotted me.

“Just had some brilliant news,” she said, strolling over. “I got bail.”

I had no idea what to say, but I simply had to put her into the scene in No Bodies.


No Bodies is available from Amazon on Kindle and paperback.

Click here to learn more about me and the Kent Fisher mysteries.

 

Would you believe it?

Not so long ago, a reader asked me a question I couldn’t answer. We’re not talking University Challenge type questions that require a degree in quantum mechanics, if that exists of course.

I don’t know.

That’s the answer I gave to the reader’s question. What I should have said was, ‘I’ve never really given it any thought.’ At least that was true. ‘Let me think about it for a moment,’ I said.

My expression worked its way through several thoughtful grimaces. ‘How do I write a novel?’ I asked, repeating the question to buy more time. ‘I get an idea, make some notes and then open a Word document. I type Chapter One, and start writing.’

The questioner didn’t seem too enamoured with the response. Maybe it sounded glib, condensing a journey that can take months, years or even decades to complete. Many people never complete the journey from idea to finished novel.

My answer was an honest attempt to explain something I’d never given much thought to. I have ideas, I turn them into stories. Or the ideas sit in a file on my PC for future consideration. They’re insurance for the day when no ideas clamour to be heard.

Most questions readers ask me cause a temporary mental block.

I’m a writer so I write. I don’t generally think about being a writer. I still hesitate to call myself an author because I wonder if it sounds pretentious to others. It’s crazy, I know. It’s what I do, what I am.

I’m not ashamed of writing novels – quite the opposite. I had a long apprenticeship and decades of disappointment and rejection, like many authors. When finally I found my author voice, by accident, I would add, my confidence grew. I believed in myself. There was still a way to go, along with help from those who had made it already, but I made it.

Yes, you’ve guessed it – I didn’t believe it.

Not at first anyway. A publisher wanted my first novel.

Okay, it was not my first novel. It was about my tenth, I think. It was the first Kent Fisher novel in a series. Being the maverick I am in my imagination, I wrote the second Kent Fisher novel first. Then I wrote a prequel to explain a lot of what happens in the second story.

See, that’s how much I knew about novel writing.

So, I had a publisher who wanted my novel. Would you believe me if I said it was nowhere near ready, being too long, ponderous and unfinished? When I say unfinished, the story had a climax and a resolution. An exciting climax, if I say so myself. That I knew.

Unfortunately, as a classic whodunit, it lacked one small key feature – my hero, Kent Fisher, couldn’t solve the murder.

Can you believe it?

I couldn’t. I knew who the murderer was and why. I wrote the story, after all.

I couldn’t work out how he could unearth the clues that would allow him to solve the murder. In many ways, it was the perfect murder. That’s what I set out to write. I never expected it to defeat me.

So, what did I do?

Did I own up to the publisher? Of course not. He’d offered me a contract.

I asked for six months to ‘knock the story into shape’, hoping he wouldn’t lose interest. He didn’t and I managed to find the clues to solve the murder.

It’s surprising how the lure of a publishing contract can sharpen the mind.

When it was finally published on Amazon, I still struggled to believe it. I knew it was my book, yet it seemed to belong to someone else.

No Accident

It was the same with my first talk to promote the book. I was sitting in front of a reasonable gathering, all waiting to hear about my journey. My journey was one of struggle, lack of self-belief and more failures than I wanted to think about.

I never thought anyone would be interested. I was surprised to find people were. Worse than that, they proceeded to ask me questions I’d never considered before.

How do you create your characters?

Where do you get your ideas?

Did you always want to write crime fiction?

Honestly, I’d never considered any of these questions before. I didn’t think anyone would be interested in such details, even though I’d asked similar questions to authors at events. The trouble is, when you’re an aspiring author talking to a successful one, you’re hoping for the magic bullet that will transform you into the next Stephen King. In my case I wanted to be a modern Agatha Christie, but you know what I mean.

Agatha Christie

I quickly learned that you can’t answer, ‘I don’t know’ to every question until someone asks you something you can answer. Equally, you can spend too long thinking about an answer. Readers believe you’re an expert now you’re published.

Sorry to disappoint you, but some days I struggle to believe I’ve written five Kent Fisher murder mysteries. I’m better at answering questions, having been interviewed a few times. I’ve had the time to work out the answers.

Of course, there’s a whole raft of new questions to replace those I can answer.

‘How do I get more people to buy and read my books?’

How can I convince them I’m a modern Agatha Christie when no one’s heard of me?

If you know the answers, please let me know.

Failing our future?

Two recent news stories have added to my fear that we’re not planning properly for the future in this country of ours.

Image courtesy of BBC News

 

Imagine for a moment, you live in Whaley Bridge, Derbyshire, perhaps in a new development. It’s peaceful place, with beautiful countryside nearby to walk the dog, including Toddbrook Reservoir, its calm waters lapping against a mighty dam that towers above the village.

Then the rain comes and comes and comes. Torrents of water flow down the outside of the dam. There’s a knock on the door and the police ask you to leave your home. The dam’s damaged and millions of tonnes of water could sweep through the village if it fails.

It’s difficult to imagine, let alone believe that a village could be swept away in this day and age. The drama was intense, the stakes high. Could those battling to save the village empty the reservoir in time? We had pumps, Chinook helicopters and the massed ranks of the media on hand to keep us up to date.

Below the village became a ghost town. Those evacuated watched and waited to learn whether they would have homes to return to.

Image courtesy of BBC News

 

On Friday, large swathes of the country lost power around 5pm. Trains stopped running. Stations were closed. Traffic lights went out. For a while, no one knew what was happening. Power was restored, but what had caused such a massive failure in the national grid?

It appears two generators went offline with minutes of each other, leading to the failures.

While these are very different events, they share one thing in common – can they cope with the demands of today and the challenges of the future?

In our rush to move forward, to develop and build, are we neglecting the infrastructure needed to support our future?

The intense rainfall that damaged the dam at Whaley Bridge may have been unusual, but scientists say global warming will lead to more extreme weather conditions. Then there is the age of the dam, its construction, its condition, the wear and tear it faces daily.

And let’s not forget the housing developments permitted below the reservoir over the decades.

The purpose of planning is to balance development needs with their impact on the environment and local communities. The pressure to build more houses leads to encroachment into the countryside and development on flood plains. Local authority refusals are often overturned by government inspectors, which can make you wonder whether there’s any point in local plans.

Each house built needs water, power and drainage. While estates spring up, where are the new reservoirs, sewage works and power stations to sustain them? Where are the extra schools and GP surgeries for the people who will live there?

If anything, we’re losing teachers and GPs at a time when we need them more than ever.

The same imbalance seems to be building with power supply. More and more homes and businesses draw electricity through the National Grid. Are we generating enough power to meet the growing demands of more households with more computers and electronics? Can the existing systems cope with the extra power they have to move?

And what about the future, when the government imagines we’ll all be driving electric cars to reduce carbon emissions?

Do we have enough charging points around the country to tempt people to switch to electric cars? If we did, can the National Grid cope with the additional consumption?

Why aren’t solar panels a legal requirement on all new build properties to increase the amount of green energy we produce?

Existing sewage works and drainage networks were designed and built for a different age. They now have to cope with the waste water from thousands of additional properties, while ensuring the final effluents meet strict environmental standards. How many more developments can they cope with before they fail?

Water pressures are increased when more houses need a supply. Old supply pipes can only take so much pressure before joints burst. When they do, they can close roads for days, affecting the local economy and wellbeing of people.

And as many of the companies responsible for our infrastructure are privately owned, will shareholders agree to fund the new reservoirs and sewage works we need? Will developers be made to pay for and build schools and GP surgeries for the people who will occupy their estates?

During my time as an environmental health officer, I was consulted on major developments by my colleagues in the Planning Department. Many times, I questioned whether the local sewerage systems could cope with the additional volume of waste water likely to be produced.

I don’t recall newer, larger sewers ever being built.

I’ve queried the impact of development on local communities and raised concerns about the impact on groundwater and potential flooding. Years later, I’ve been called back because residents had water ponding under their floors or flooding in their gardens.

The role of local government, particularly Planning and Environmental Health, is to protect the community and the environment and foresee and prevent future problems.

But when will government and the political parties do the same and agree a long term strategy to ensure we invest as much in the infrastructure and wellbeing of our communities as we do in new development?

What do you think?

5 things I learned from No Accident

No Accident is the first novel in the Kent Fisher series of murder mysteries.

It taught me a lot, including the following five lessons.

#1 – I could create original crime fiction

Years of rejection can erode your self-confidence and make you believe there’s a conspiracy against you out there. Equally, you could take the view that you’re free to develop ideas, knowing publishers probably won’t be interested.

Publishing articles in national magazines taught me you not only have to write what people want, it has to be something that sells. In a crime fiction market, bursting with police procedurals, private eye stories and psychological thrillers, it wasn’t going to be easy.

At its heart, No Accident is a whodunit, a traditional murder mystery that owes its origins to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. Their complex plots, filled with red herrings, false trails and devious twists inspired me. They taught me how to disguise clues and mislead readers.

But it was private eye Kinsey Millhone, created by Sue Grafton, who showed me how to write a gripping whodunit, driven by a strong, highly principled lead character. You didn’t need graphic violence, language or sex to create memorable crime fiction. There was nothing tame or cosy about Kinsey, whose guts and determination shone through.

She’s the inspiration behind Kent Fisher, an environmental health officer like me, who investigates a fatal workplace accident and discovers a murder, only to find it’s the least of his problems.

Blending my knowledge and experience of environmental health with a complex plot and story led to an original murder mystery that paid homage to the traditional whodunit while remaining firmly rooted in today’s world.

When the first review for No Accident was posted, I knew I’d learned to write original crime fiction.

#2 – you can’t do it alone

friends

Unless you collaborate with another author, writing a novel is a solitary discipline. It’s you, the computer and your ideas. Sometimes a blank screen taunts you. At other times, you wish you could type as fast as the ideas coming out of your mind.

But what do you do when you’re struggling, when you need help or information, or simply a few words of encouragement?

You could talk to your partner, your friends or your West Highland white terrier, Harvey. He’s a terrific listener if you reward him with treats and attention. He was so helpful I put him into the novels as Kent Fisher’s dog, Columbo.

But pets aside, in the real world no one understands like another author. In the days before the internet brought us together, authors met at Writers’ Groups. They still do, but social media offers a more instant and accessible place for authors to gather and share.

In the case of No Accident, it was a chance meeting with a fellow author that nudged me towards publication. I first met him on my environmental health rounds, unaware that the man who ran the tearooms also published historical naval fiction.

We talked about writing. He read the first couple of chapters, gave some encouraging feedback, and suggested a few revisions. Not long after, he offered to introduce me to a publisher, who was setting up a new company and looking for authors.

One email later, the publisher offered to publish No Accident.

I read the email several times in stunned silence. Then the panic set in.

#3 – when a publisher wants your novel, there’s nowhere to hide.

hiding

The novel was a mammoth 145,000 words long, at least 50,000 words too many for a crime story. I also had a bigger challenge – Kent Fisher couldn’t solve the murder, essential in a whodunit, you could say. While I read through the contract, I wondered why I didn’t deal with these issues before approaching a publisher. I didn’t because I never expected anyone to be interested in my novel.

That’s what years of rejection do to your self-confidence.

To cut a long story short, I had to cut a long story short.

As I removed unnecessary scenes, characters and subplots, the novel became sharper. Suddenly it was clear how Kent Fisher would solve the murder. I wrote a new ending, reducing the word count some more.

Finally, after five months revising and editing, I sent the completed manuscript to the publisher, hoping they still wanted to publish it. They did, but it needed professional editing.

#4 – editing is fun

editing

For someone who would rather move on to a new project than rewrite something and submit it again, I took to editing like the proverbial duck and its fondness for water.

It’s not straightforward or easy, but once someone points out some of the flaws in your writing, your eyes are suddenly opened. The issues that let down your writing leap out at you. Sometimes, so many jump out, you wonder whether you have any talent at all.

Did I really write that?

I asked myself this many times as 100,000 words became 90,000. The manuscript went back and forth across the Atlantic five times before the final proof edit. Even then, I uncovered errors we’d missed before.

But what made it fun?

Simple – I could see the story getting better and better with each revision. Not only did it boost my confidence, I think it made me a better writer. And nowhere through the process did I feel like I’d lost or sacrificed anything valuable.

#5 – never give up …

… you never know what’s over the horizon.

Apart from being Kent Fisher’s core belief, this lesson fits me too. People who know me will tell you I’m stubborn. I prefer to call it determination. At school, I once filled 14 pages of an exercise book with calculations to solve a maths equation. The teacher wrote, ‘Well persevered’.

Not all challenges in life can be solved in an exercise book, though I suspect many can.

I could have quit writing many times over, but a lack of success doesn’t make you stop loving something. It’s frustrating, sure, but so are most things in life at one time or other. You don’t stop living when things don’t go your way.

If you believe you can, which is not always easy when no one wants what you write

if you learn from your mistakes

if you find people who share your passion and are willing to share their secrets

if you work hard and try to be better

you can probably achieve anything you set your heart on.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments box below.


No Accident is available from Amazon

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River of Dreams

5th July 2019 – Songs that changed my life

Sometimes you listen to a song and it has a special significance, a deeper resonance. It touches you in a way that makes your spine tingle.

That was my criteria for selecting songs for my appearance on the Martina Mercer show on Hailsham FM recently. We had two hours of conversation, punctuated by my favourite songs. (Click here if you’d like to listen to the show and some great songs).

River of Dreams by Barclay James Harvest is a song about regret, about looking back at what might have been, about hopes and dreams unfulfilled. This was the original band’s last studio album in 1997, so I guess it was inevitable that they would look back on their career.

Ironically, River of Dreams stirred me to look forward, not back.

Up until then, I sometimes wondered if my life had been a series of missed opportunities.

Don’t get me wrong, I was happily married with an interesting and fulfilling job in environmental health, a gorgeous wife and a lovely home on the south coast. But my success as a writer amounted to a few articles published in national magazines and a regular column on technology in Writers Monthly magazine.

When I wrote my first novel at the age of 17, I dreamt of becoming an author like Graham Greene or Harper Lee, writing books that could change people’s lives. The unimaginatively titled book, Survival in the Garden, was written for children as my life experience was mainly the wishful idealism of a teenager.

Publishers, Hamish Hamilton, wrote me a lovely letter, complimenting me on my realistic dialogue and story. It was a shame I’d used anthropomorphic characters as they felt the story would have had more appeal with human characters.

Had I known better, or had anyone to advise me, I would have revised the story and used human characters.

I would also have told them I was 17 years old.

I didn’t mention this because I thought they wouldn’t take me seriously or think I was precocious.

I guess this was my first experience of regret. Every rejection letter took me back to that missed opportunity, which seemed to set the pattern for my life.

rejectionWhen I wrote, I always felt I was a notch below where I needed to be. But what did I need to do to lift my writing a level? What was the secret ingredient that years of searching had failed to uncover?

Even my modest success writing articles didn’t translate into better novels. I kept trying, though my output was minimal since my first flurry into novel writing – five or six finished novels in 30 years. Many unfinished, I suspect. Plenty of short stories and humorous pieces though.

Life got in the way – marriage, creating a home, my career as an environmental health officer. If I couldn’t make it as a writer, I could succeed at these.

But I couldn’t help looking back, regretting chances I could have taken. I resented the success that others had, wondered why they got all the luck. My writing was as good as theirs, wasn’t it?

Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. I never tried hard enough to improve. I joined writers’ circles on the internet and at home, critiquing while others critiqued me, but I never believed in myself.

I thought success happened to others, that I was fated to feel frustrated and a failure.

failureHadn’t a careers teacher at school destroyed my dreams of becoming a journalist?

Hadn’t I made a childish mistake with my first novel, writing about animals and insects?

And then I listened to River of Dreams. This was me, getting bitter and resentful because I hadn’t had the life I deserved.

Only I had. You get out what you put it, right?

Had I really tried to improve my writing by editing and revising my work when it was rejected?

Had I really learned from the articles I sold to national magazines? I succeeded through hard work and preparation, market research, revising and honing my words.

Couldn’t I do that with novels?

Why not? All I had to do was apply myself, work hard and learn. If I stayed positive and believed in myself, I would find a way. Better that than looking back with regret over what might have been.

I did the market research. Crime was filled with detectives of all kinds, but no one had an environmental health officer solving murders. It sounded ridiculous at first, but it’s not as daft as it may sound.

I created Kent Fisher shortly after listening to River of Dreams. It was a turning point that eventually led to an independent US publisher giving me what I’d always wanted – an offer to publish my novel.

Would I have got there without River of Dreams? We’ll never know.

River of Dreams


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Silent Running

unless you count the panting.

23rd June 2019.

Race for LifeThe highlight of the week was last Sunday’s Race for Life, when Carol and I ran 10K around Hampden Park in Eastbourne and raised £265 for Cancer Research UK.

It was the twisting course of two laps through woodland and around fields. My abiding memory will be the first time I turned from the main lake to be met by a stream of pink, four or five people wide, heading in the opposite direction. Young and old, some in fancy dress, some with their dogs, one or two in wheelchairs, all taking part to raise money for charity.

This was the first year men were allowed to take part and it was lovely to see families going round together in what was a carnival atmosphere. The noise drowned out my panting as I pushed myself hard to run as fast as I could around the course.

It wasn’t a race – it’s what I do. I set off faster than intended and keep it going for as long as possible.

Only this time, it was fun.

It’s a pergolette

On a less serious note, the works in the rear garden were completed on Monday with the construction of a small pergola over the start of the new path. As it only has four posts, I’m calling it a pergolette.

It also means no more distractions from the writing.

It’s long been my belief that cups of tea are an essential part of any construction job. I won’t tell you how many I go through while I’m writing, but I use those moments when the kettle boils and the tea bags release their magic to think about my story and what I’m going to write next.

I’ve lost count of how many good ideas I’ve had while watching hot water darken to a golden tan.

With another cup to brew for Chris, who’s done a wonderful job of transforming the patio and garden, and decisions to be made about layout, how many cross timbers for the pergolette, and why soil always finds it way inside your trainers, my mind hasn’t always been on writing.

But if I ever want to bury a body in a garden, I know how many cubic metres of soil I’ll need.

Mercy Me

Released from brewing duties and topsoil traumas, the writing picked up with the usual crop of complications that I can’t help throwing in at the end of chapters.

It stems from wanting to make Kent Fisher’s life as difficult and complicated as I can. It creates a more interesting story, if nothing else.

I don’t like stories where protagonists get what they want too easily. Every step forward should be an obstacle to overcome, leading to another, preferably more difficult one ahead. It means I often wonder ‘what’s the last thing Kent needs at this point’ and then throw it into the mix.

The ending of No More Lies, if you’ve read it, should confirm that.

That’s why I don’t always know what’s coming next when I’m writing, but that’s how I like it.

Talk about making life difficult!

Anyway, with just shy of 20,000 words written, No Mercy is shaping up well with an intriguing subplot that’s crept in under the radar, adding to his misery.

And in case you’re wondering …

or even if you’re not, I’m going to use the titles of songs for my future blogs. The aim is make the song title appropriate to the content.

Silent Running by Mike and the Mechanics features the wonderful, silky vocals of Paul Carrack, and was the best of many songs I could have chosen about running.