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.

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


No MysteryIf you’d like to find out whether you’d enjoy the Kent Fisher mysteries, this free introduction to the series is free when you sign up to my monthly newsletter, which will keep you up to date news and releases. Click here to continue.

Would you turn back to change your life?

If you could go back in your life and change one decision you made, which would it be?

We’re not talking about buying the wrong car here. We’re talking decisions that could be life changing – turning points, if you like. At the time, you don’t always realise the impact of some choices or decisions.

Most people can probably find several turning points in their lives.

Last week, while I wrote about how poverty and the loss of my father at an early age affected my life, a couple of my turning points sprang to mind. (Click here to check out the post)

Friends or integrity?

My love of reading and my active imagination got me into trouble as a child.

I liked to tell stories rather than simply relate events. These embellishments may have made my accounts more exciting, but on this occasion one of my friends to call me a liar.

I’d exaggerated the facts, added a few flourishes here and there, to make the tale more entertaining, but I hadn’t lied. My friend continued to accuse me of being a liar. I fought back and the accusations and counter accusations grew in volume.

In the end, he said he had better things to do than listen to a liar and walked off. To my dismay, the rest of the group followed him.

I walked off in the opposite direction. I lost my friends, but retained my integrity.

I wasn’t to know that it would set the pattern for my life.

Would I go back and change that decision?

No way! It made me the defiant (my wife calls it stubborn) person I am today. But I learned to save my embellishments for my writing.

Age matters

My second turning point came when I wrote my first novel, Survival in the Garden. Yeah, I know it’s not the most exciting title, but it was accurate and was written for children. The story dealt with tackling bullies and oppression by banding together.

I submitted the novel, typed on my portable typewriter, to Hamish Hamilton Books, a publisher I’d found in the Writers and Artists Yearbook. I wrote an accompanying letter, as recommended, and waited for a response.

Several weeks later, the publisher wrote back, praising the characterisation and dialogue, but no offer of publication.

A few years later, when publication continued to elude me, I wondered whether I should have told Hamish Hamilton I was 17. I thought they would look at my age and not take me seriously. After all, how many 17 year olds wrote novels when they could be out chasing girls, playing football or starting a job?

With no father, no one around me who wrote fiction, and friends who thought I was weird writing stories, I probably made the wrong decision. Hamish Hamilton may have looked at my story in a different way, maybe even taken me on.

We’ll never know.

Would I go back and change this decision?

It’s tempting to imagine what might have been. That’s what writers do. They imagine new worlds and fill them with new lives. Maybe one day I’ll write about a 17 year old who gets a book deal.

The real turning point

At the age of 23, I was still living at home in Bury, north of Manchester. I wanted a place of my own and found a house I could afford. It was exciting, making plans, imagining what it would be like to live alone, to have the freedom to do as I pleased.

But the cracks soon appeared – not literally. The house wasn’t sinking into the ground. No, a small patch of dampness, caused by a blocked air brick, prompted the building society to demand a full damp and timber survey, which I had to pay for. They refused to accept my evidence as I was not a surveyor.

Neither were the people who did damp and timber surveys, but that didn’t seem to bother the building society.

I pulled out. I didn’t feel the same about the house anymore. The whole episode had turned the dream into a nightmare. It was an emotional rather than a practical decision. A decision based on principle.

It cost me the freedom I yearned.

Or did it?

No, it made me realise I wanted change, the chance to spread my wings, to live my own life. I didn’t need to buy a new house to achieve this. I could get a new job.

Three months later, a job opportunity came up in Eastbourne, a seaside town on the south coast, 310 miles away from Manchester.

Had I bought the house, I wouldn’t be here today, writing crime novels set in the majestic South Downs.

Okay, It’s a lame link to updating you on my progress with my January Challenge to complete the first draft of my latest murder mystery novel by the end of the month.

I haven’t written as many words as last week – 8,086 for those who like precision –  but I

  • moved the story to the point where everything is about to kick off
  • introduced some new ideas and twists that I never envisaged
  • wrote one scene that brought a tear to my eye – and that doesn’t happen often.

Looking ahead, I may even look back at my decision to ‘go for it in January’ as a turning point.

Something for the weekend

Instead of the usual wordplay, I’ve chosen a favourite song that came to mind while I wrote this post. River of Dreams by the original Barclay James Harvest was the title track on their final studio album. The track deals with looking back at your life and what might have been.

Click here to listen to River of Dreams.


If you’d like to know more about my murder mystery novels, click here to visit my Amazon page. Or you can sign up to my reader group for more insights, updates and a sample first chapter from the novel I’m currently writing.

How deception made me a writer

In my childhood I improvised to survive. At times my life was as fictitious as the stories I read. Pretence was sometimes the only reality.

That’s what made me a writer.

I was eight when my father died. Though sad at his loss, I had no idea of the struggles that lay ahead. We were poor. Unlike the children around me, I had no pocket money. Clothes and shoes had to last as long as possible. Holidays were an escape from school, not a towel on a beach.

Education offered me a way out, but grammar school brought me face to face with children from wealthier backgrounds. Envious of what they had, I had to find more and more elaborate ways to disguise the fact I wasn’t one of them.

I resented being poor, especially when I took an interest in girls. I made excuses to avoid taking them home. I could have explained the rising damp was an experiment to determine the porosity of bricks. Had global warming been in the news, I could have used it to explain why we didn’t have central heating and wore coats around the house in winter.

Instead, I said my mother was ill and kept girlfriends as far away from my home as possible. In hindsight, I should have dated the girls from my estate, but grammar school made me judge people by their worth.

It led to an interesting double life.

maskAt school, I was a loner, a studious kid, participating in a competition to see whose uniform would last the longest. Okay, I was the only entrant, but competing against myself made me work harder. I told everyone I preferred to spend my evenings reading books as TV was boring and full of repeats. This first part was true because we couldn’t afford a TV.

At home, I played football with the lads, hung around on street corners, and did my homework late at night. Many of the local kids didn’t bother with homework. There was no point when they were going to work in the paper mill opposite when they left school.

Reading lots of books carried me through tough times.

Books inspired me, gave me dreams and aspirations, brought me heroes like Atticus Finch. They fired my imagination, took me to new worlds like Narnia, and showed me every facet of human nature, conflict and courage.

Reading made me want to change the world, to fight poverty and inequality, to clean up the environment, to end ignorance and prejudice.

I wrote stories to express these aspirations and experiences. I’m not sure I did them justice, but my marks were high. But English was my favourite subject by miles.

I loved everything about words – their sounds, meanings and origins. Words had the power to mesmerise and transform. This made me unique in a school determined to drill science into every pupil’s psyche. But thanks to books, I refused to succumb, choosing artistic subjects instead.

English was also about communication, the ability to express ideas and ideals, to persuade others, to capture the beauty and horrors in the world. Unable to afford a camera, and with no TV, my imagination created adventures and worlds.

Being different and a bit of a loner made me a target. Useless with my fists, I learned how to talk my way out of trouble – often after I’d talked myself into it. Without books, the learning and the words, I would have been pummelled by bullies.

I learned to deceive, to imitate and to pretend to be just like them. The moment I discovered I would be judged by my poverty, I became an actor.

Spending so much time alone, my imagination became choked with ideas I needed to share. I had a desperate urge to express my ideas, to influence what people thought, to make them accept me as an equal.

The future becomes the past

Now, as I write, I feel the influence of the past in my words, my attitudes and values. That’s why my central character, Kent Fisher, comes from a background of poverty and loss. He fights for the underdog, for those who have no voice, such as animals, and for those who would otherwise be walked over.

Kent does what I was never brave enough to do in my youth – accept the unfairness, move on, take chances, take control.

He’s even taught me to take control.

I challenged myself to complete the first draft of my latest novel by the end of January.

WritingIt’s been a struggle, an exercise in doubt, a story I couldn’t bring to life. Doubt does that to you. Nothing is good enough. You feel a failure. But as one of my friends likes to say when she’s struggling, ‘I need to give myself a good kick up the arse.’

So I set myself a target of writing 10,000 words each working week in January. I’ve gone public, which means there’s nowhere to hide. I’ve told my readers the book will be published in May 2019.

So how did I do this first week?

I wrote 11,775 words, which surprised me, I can tell you. Better than that I

  • ignored my smartphone, leaving it downstairs while I wrote.
  • stopped wasting time on things that either distracted me or didn’t achieve anything, like checking emails, Facebook and Twitter, opening the post
  • kept a low profile on social media
  • planned the week ahead

I feel more motivated, more excited, more productive. As well as writing more words in each hour, I’ve increased my writing hours on at least three days of the week.

Best of all, the ideas are flowing once more, improving the story and I’m starting to believe I can do it.

And if you’d like to know more about the Kent Fisher murder mysteries, click here to visit my Amazon page. Or sign up to my reader group for more insights, updates and a sample first chapter from the novel I’m currently writing.

Something for the weekend

Is ‘horizon scanning’ the perfect subject for distance learning?

 

 

From looking back to moving forward

‘You were a bright lad, but you were in the wrong job.’

Two years ago, after 39 years of service, I quit my job in environmental health to write full time. I rang Ged, who was my first manager when I started as a student Environmental Health Officer (EHO) in 1977. He chuckled and said, ‘You were a bright lad, but you were in the wrong job.’

Looking back, he was probably right. But I never had the courage, conviction or support to become a writer, as you’ll see if you read my post, Alas Poor Robert.

It may have been the wrong job, but I loved environmental health. It’s one of the most varied and rewarding jobs you can imagine. You’re out and about, meeting people and finding solutions to all manner of problems and issues to protect and improve public health.

Like nursing and teaching, it’s a vocation. And like many public sector jobs, it’s suffered in the last ten years as funding cuts and the media’s deriding, but false image of local government have taken their toll.

managerI was managing a team of officers by then. I spent much of my time justifying my actions and decisions to senior management, councillors, colleagues, my team, the press, the public and numerous other government bodies. It seemed crazy to me as I was following policy, working efficiently, within budget, and providing a good service.

In the end I couldn’t take any more and quit.

It wasn’t an easy decision. I had doubts right up to the moment I pressed send to email my resignation, but I’ve no regrets.

Okay, it took me 39 years to find the right job, but during that time I was hardly idle. I wrote and struggled like many other aspiring authors, working into the early hours most nights. A couple of novels drew interest from agents, but not enough for them to take me on and nurture what talent I had.

WritingDuring the 1990s, I sold articles to national magazines and had a column in Writers’ Monthly magazine. It was a hard slog, fighting for recognition among the stalwarts and regulars that magazine editors favoured.

And I wanted to write novels – crime novels.

As the millennium stepped up to the horizon, I’d already created my protagonist, Kent Fisher. Like me, he was an EHO, but that’s where the similarity ended. Unlike me, he was ex-army, married to the wrong woman, and in desperate need of a vice to fit in with all the other detectives on TV.

Kent appeared in three novels, shifting and changing like a chameleon as ideas came and went.

I was running low on rejection slips to paper the walls at Crouch Corner, so I sent the second novel to publishers and agents here and in the USA. One agent read it from cover to cover, but didn’t take me on.

Around the same time, I was promoted to manager and once more writing took a back seat for a few years. I loved the new role to start with. There I was, in control, setting policy, leading my team. Then I discovered the joys of meetings, human resources and memos. I also spent a lot of time checking the holiday planner to make sure we had enough cover on Fridays.

I immersed myself in service plans, performance management reports, and reading my manager’s mind so I knew what his priorities were. Like many senior managers, he never felt the need to explain what he wanted done.

Fisher's Fables coverKeen to record and poke fun at these moments. I named it Fisher’s Fables after my gung-ho detective EHO and let him be my mouthpiece. I created a fictitious environmental health team, populated by imaginary officers, who worked for a mythical local authority in a town that didn’t exist.

Over the years the length of the blogs increased as the number of post each year decreased.

By then, Fisher’s Fables was almost a sitcom, with a healthy following, which included the Chief Executive. I don’t know if he was disappointed to discover he didn’t feature in the stories, or relieved.

And that’s when it hit me between the eyes.

Not the blog, or the Chief Executive, but the realisation I had a cast of characters for my Kent Fisher murder mystery novels. More importantly, I’d found my author voice.

I don’t know whether it took 39 years to develop this voice, but looking back the clues were there from the age of 16. If only I’d stopped to look, to take notice of what my gut was telling me.

But that’s a story for another day.

Looking back

Over to you

Did you ever realise you were in the wrong job? What did you do about it?

If you’d like to find out more about Kent Fisher and the mystery series, click here to visit my website.

Revising my opinions

Or did I really write that?

Yes, I’m afraid I did write it. When you’re writing a novel, there’s no one else to blame for the words you choose and the way you put them together. (Ghost writers excepted.)

It’s your name on the cover and there’s no hiding.

But before we get too carried away with responsibility, let’s go back to where it all started – the first draft.

Michael CrichtonNow, in writing circles, everyone tells you the first draft is the start. Michael Crichton said, books are not written they’re rewritten. And he’s right. Of course he is. The chances of turning out a perfect novel first time must be greater than winning the lottery. The opposite’s usually true – most authors could happily tinker away at their work for years to come. (We’re talking sentences and paragraphs here.)

We grow in confidence. We get better. We expect more of ourselves.

But we’re never satisfied!

Anyway, back to that pesky first draft. There’s a pretty good chance it will be too long, too meandering, repetitive, lacking suspense in the right places, or any number of other issues that mean it bears little resemblance to the perfectly formed creation in our imagination.

Ernest HemmingwayOr, if you’ll forgive the Anglo-Saxon, I’ll defer to Ernest Hemmingway, who apparently said, the first draft of anything is shit.

While I’ve no wish to argue with someone so respected, I would say the first draft of anything can usually be improved. So, why, on the third round of editing and revising, did I come across a chapter that made me wince?

Did I really write that?

It’s my own fault. I started writing the third Kent Fisher mystery, No Remorse, without an outline, a synopsis, or a plot. The story was a simple trail from the present into the past to discover a dark secret. Kent Fisher and I started with a challenge and set off on the trail. We discovered the clues, followed the leads, and dealt with the obstacles as they occurred, never quite sure where they would take us until everything began to fall into place towards the end of the story.

I was pretty pleased with the first draft, I can tell you.

Once written, I printed out the first draft and set the manuscript aside to distance myself before editing and revising. In this case, I allowed two months to pass before I read the story from cover to cover over three days, my trusty fountain pen in my hand.

Boy, did I make some notes and alterations.

EditingThe purpose of this read through is to discover whether the story hangs together, whether it works. But in addition to the structural elements, you soon spot errors, changes in character names, events referred to wrongly, repetitions, boring descriptive passages and so on.

More importantly, you get a feel for the overall balance of the story. Does it flow logically? Do the characters behave correctly, dealing with conflict after conflict in a realistic way?

I hesitated. There were a couple of chapters where things were a little too easy, a little too convenient for Mr Fisher. I spent a considerable amount of time trying to correct the problem, trying different ideas, until finally it felt right.

I wish!

Come the second edit and revisions, I reached the revised chapter and winced. I’ve no idea what happened when I rewrote the chapter, but clearly my brain and fingers were working to different agendas.

Do you ever suffer that? You’re thinking one thing but saying or doing something else?

Fortunately, I saw a solution that not only worked better than the previous two versions, it added something more meaningful to the character and story. And now, a few days after emerging from 10 days of intense editing and revision, I realise this process was a necessary evolution to get the story where it needed to be.

No pain, no gain, as they say.

And that’s why editing and revising are so important. I only discovered how important a little over two years ago while working with a publisher’s editor for the first time. We batted ideas, solutions and revisions back and forth for a couple of months. She showed me a different slant to my words. She helped me improve whole sections of the story, like polishing a tarnished surface to a shine.

It was fun. It boosted my confidence. It showed me how to distance myself from my work so I could look at it with an objective eye.

If only I could do the same with my life … but that’s probably a story for another day.


No Remorse is scheduled for release in May 2018.

If you’d like to know more about No Remorse or the other Kent Fisher mysteries, you can visit my website by clicking here.

Or if you want to learn more about the characters and stay up to date with new releases, you can join my Reader Group by entering your details below. I’ll never share your information or spam you, and you can unsubscribe any time. You’ll receive a free copy of A Health Inspector Calls, filled with humorous tales from my work, if you do.

U will be sadly missed

I have to confess I had to blink back a couple of tears when I wrote my review of Y is for Yesterday, which has turned out to be the last novel in the Kinsey Millhone series by Sue Grafton.

(Click here to read my review)

A is for AlibiAs I’m sure I’ve written elsewhere, I discovered A is for Alibi, the first in the series, in the late 1980s. The moment I began reading, I loved the feisty private investigator with her sardonic asides and no-nonsense attitude to life and criminals. But the stories were about much more than crime. Kinsey had an intriguing backstory concerning her family.

This began to play out over the series, adding an extra layer to the books.

Then there was Henry, her neighbour and landlord, who was her sounding board, protector and best friend throughout the series. From time to time, his colourful brood of relatives popped in to lighten a story.

We had Rosie, the owner of Kinsey’s local eatery where Hungarian dishes, made with various cuts of offal, complemented by cheap white wine, never failed to raise a smile. Then there were the police officers she knew, the detectives who helped her and vice versa, and an enormously entertaining support cast that you looked forward to meeting again in future stories.

I think G is for GumshoeSue Grafton brought something new and different to the private detective novel. There was no room for world weary detectives with smoky offices and cynical asides. She created a protagonist, who on the surface was not much different from you and me. She didn’t come with excess baggage, worried about taxes and parking while she struggled to make a living. She was a sucker for hard luck stories, fiercely independent, but loyal to her friends. But she had attitude and balls, tenacity and wit, often putting her life on the line as she did her job.

You felt you knew Kinsey. She was someone you could talk to, someone who would support you. She was someone you wanted as a friend. But she’d tell you straight if you were wrong. And fight for you if you were right, whatever the odds.

Sue Grafton showed me a different way to write the private detective novel, inspiring me to create Kent Fisher, an ordinary man who would learn to solve murders. He had wit, humour and tenacity, a love of animals and the underdog.

When a small independent publisher in the United States published the first novel, No Accident, in June 2016, I sent a message through Facebook to Sue Grafton. I never expected her to read it. Let only reply, but she did, wishing me a long a productive career.

I couldn’t believe it. My favourite author was talking to me.

It was the start of a conversation that ran for six months. I asked her lots of questions, she replied candidly, sometimes surprising me with her honesty about her early struggles as an author, about the problems of writers’ block and how long it took her to write a book.

I believe she was an intensely private person, who still seemed baffled by her success and struggling with the pressures it brought – as if there weren’t enough challenges, having to produce 26 novels eventually.

Sadly, she didn’t quite make it, but her legacy will live for many years. I’m sure new fans will discover Kinsey Millhone and come to enjoy her adventures as much as I have. While not every story reaches the same dizzy heights, the novels never fail to entertain. They offer a glimpse of life in 1980s California, in a fictional seaside town, lapped by the Pacific Ocean, where the smell of Henry’s baking beckons you over for a chat and a glass of wine as you try to solve some of the most intriguing and original crimes you can imagine.

U is for undertow

U will be missed, Sue Grafton.

 

Talking authors

It’s easy to lose sight of what matters, isn’t it?

You’re focused on editing and revising your latest novel, maybe wondering how to raise your profile on social media, hoping someone will notice your books on Amazon. It’s easy to become isolated and frustrated, especially when your attention’s focused inwards.

So it was brilliant to look outwards and engage with readers and authors on one of UK Crime Book Club’s Author Chats on Facebook last Wednesday.

It’s a simple premise – for an hour, the author answers questions posed by those taking part.

It didn’t stop me wondering if it could be that simple though.

As this was a new departure, I joined a chat with author, David Videcette, to discover what was involved and hopefully get a few ideas. He made it look easy, posting quizzes and games in between answering the flurry of questions fired at him. I clung onto his shirt tails, following the questions and replies on all manner of topics.

Fortified by this experience, I drew up some quiz questions, tracked down a few humorous quotes, knowing that preparation is the key.

But what if no one showed up after all that preparation? Having read an article about an author who did a book launch where no one turned up, I felt a little apprehensive. While a few people said they would take part in the author chat, few people have heard of me and what I write.

Murder mysteries, if you’re interested. A traditional whodunit with a modern twist, ‘unique in crime fiction’, according to one reviewer.

HarveySo, after walking Harvey, my West Highland White Terrier, and eating a somewhat rushed tea, I pulled up my chair a couple of minutes before 7pm. I logged into Facebook, opened the file on the PC with my quiz questions and humorous quotes so they would be easy to access, and waited.

Was there anybody out there?

There was no way of knowing until people posted questions. Caroline from Admin, who was hosting the chat, introduced me and promptly fired off a number of questions to get me going. Tell us a little about your writing had me foxed for a moment. How did I sum up my aims, goals and aspirations into a few short sentences?

Then more questions from those who had joined the chat. My fingers flew across the keys, I scrolled back and forth, trying not to miss any questions as more came in.

It was so full on, I almost forgot my quiz questions.

It was great to chat with readers and other authors, replying to comments, answering diverse questions that made me think hard before answering.

What was the easiest part of writing? That was a tough one.

What was my favourite method of murder? What’s your favourite book? Why write crime? Do you map out your plots? Are your characters based on people you know?

The hour whistled by, leaving me tired, but exhilarated. It was brilliant and so much fun, engaging with people who have a genuine interest in books and authors, but most of all learning what interests them. As Caroline closed the chat, I felt a little sad that it was all over so quickly.

I hope everyone who took part enjoyed the experience. I would certainly encourage other authors to take part. And it’s a great way for readers to discover new authors and what they write. After all, we need each other, so it’s a great way to get to know each other too.

But I’m still not sure what’s the easiest part about writing.

Any thoughts?


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Authors who inspire me to write better

Last weekend, I wrote about the authors who inspired me to move from the ideas buzzing around my head to putting fingers on the keys of a typewriter or word processor. (You can read the post here.)

Sue Grafton’s alphabet murder series, featuring Kinsey Millhone, helped me believe I could create my own detective and write crime fiction. Now, with two books published and the third scheduled for May this year, my inspiration comes from other crime writers who bring their own style and ideas to the party.

Plenty of choice

Let’s face it, there are millions of books out there, each vying for your attention as you scan the results on Amazon, Kobo or your local library bookshelves. But out of those millions, how many will appeal to you? How many would you class as ‘essential reads’? How many books would you buy on the strength of the author’s name?

There are so many good writers out there, offering different spins on the same themes and subjects. Why do some capture your imagination more than others? Why do they talk to you in a way that others don’t? What is it that draws you to a particular writer?

I’ve no idea, but I suspect it has a lot to do with the author’s voice and style. The author talks to you in a way you like and understand. The story and characters still have to be good, and familiar settings can help, but there’s something about particular authors that strike a chord or two.

I could list well over twenty authors, whose police procedurals, psychological thrillers or private detective novels have entertained me over the past few years. (There’s a similar list of authors whose books were dumped after a few chapters or pages.)

But at the moment, there are only four authors who inspire me, who make me want to write stronger and better to reach the benchmarks they set. They all write police procedural series with strong central characters, imaginative plots, and dramatic storylines. Yet each author is distinct, bringing something different to the table. I’ve listed them in the order I discovered them.

Robin Roughley – DS Lasser series

Tethered to the DeadRobin has written fifteen of sixteen books so far, set in and around Wigan, but I’ve only just finished reading Tethered to the Dead, which is No 3, but I love the character and his fearless pursuit of criminals. The plots are complex and explode in all directions from a simple crime. There’s social comment, an unflattering view of the seedier side of life, and a wonderful optimism and wit that reassures you that the world will be all right once DS Lasser gets the killer.

But best of all, I like the way the author takes you into the heads of his characters, good and bad, revealing there essence in a few paragraphs.

Peter James – Detective Superintendent Roy Grace

Not Dead EnoughAgain, I’m only on book three, Not Dead Enough, but I can see why Peter James is one the top crime writers in the country. Not only is he an excellent writer who can create memorable characters and brings them to life in a few paragraphs, his plots are wickedly clever. He portrays all shades of Brighton and offers plenty of social and political comment in his investigations, but it’s his attention to detail and police procedure that lift his stories above most of the others. That detail about how the police operate, the systems they use, the buildings they occupy and the rules and regulations that govern their work add great credibility and authenticity to the novels.

LJ Ross – DCI Ryan

I’m a newcomer to this series, set in Northumberland, but again, it’s the story and characters that matter, including a touch of romance, which we all enjoy, don’t we? Holy Island, had a distinctive plot, laced with an undercurrent of ritual and mysticism, to tax the charismatic lead characters in a tale filled with suspense and drama. The style leans more towards the cosy end of the crime market, but remains modern and relevant, which appeals to me.

Book two, Sycamore Gap, is my next read.

Rachel Amphlett – DS Kay Hunter

Will to Live coverI’ve only recently discovered this series and enjoyed the first two books, Scared to Death and Will to Live. Rachel has a no-nonsense, economic style of writing that engages you from the first paragraph. Like Peter James, her plots are different and deftly delivered with a touch of wit and humour to lighten the tone.

While she tackles gritty subjects and hard hitting crimes, she manages without littering her stories with profanities and gratuitous descriptions or violence, which proves it’s the story that counts. I also like to write this way.

These authors all have distinctive styles, but share a number of characteristics that heighten their appeal and inspire me, namely

  • strong central characters who will do whatever it takes to bring the villains to justice
  • complex, twisting plots that baffle, intrigue, entertain and fulfil
  • realism and credibility
  • humour and wit, often dark, that’s often lacking in many novels.

 

Though a newcomer to crime fiction with much to learn, these are the characteristics I strive to bring to my novels, and I’m delighted I’ve found such fantastic examples to show me the way.

I’m sure there will be many more authors in my ‘To Be Read’ pile that will entertain and hopefully inspire me.

That’s the joy of reading.


Click here for reviews of the novels mentioned in this post.

If you’d like to find out more about my novels and lead character, Kent Fisher, please check out my website at http://robertcrouch.co.uk or my Amazon page.

If you’d like exclusive previews and insights, sign up to my Reader Group by entering you details in the form at the top right of the page.

The authors who inspired me to write – Part One

“If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
Toni Morrison.


Reading inspired me to write. The discovery of exciting new worlds, memorable characters and epic conflicts made me want to create my own. I wanted to bring as much enjoyment and pleasure to others as reading had brought to me.

Early stirrings

Famous Five seriesFrom the moment I learned to read, words captivated me. They offered me imaginary worlds, characters I knew better than my friends, and exciting stories that brought me every emotion you could imagine. From books, I learned about life, friendship, courage, good, evil, and love.

The first books to grab my imagination and feed it with possibilities were Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories. I wanted to join their adventures, to fight the bad guys and defeat evil, making a difference to the world.

The short stories I wrote for English homework mimicked these adventures, allowing my imagination to flourish.

The Narnia series by CS Lewis took me to more mystical worlds, where the fight between good and evil was much sharper as the future of mankind seemed to be at stake. For the first time I discovered betrayal and consequences, further feeding my developing imagination. Sitting in the attic of the house, I longed for a magic wardrobe, but had to make do with pen and paper.

The novel that changed my life

To Kill A Mocking BirdTo Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee had such a profound effect of me, I still find it almost impossible to put it into words today. Let’s just say it transformed the way I looked at the world.

I couldn’t believe that such ignorance and prejudice could exist in an educated world. I felt angry, driven to write my own novel that showed how education and working together would always defeat evil in any form it took.

I was 16 at the time, with little idea of how complex life could be, or how to get a book published, but I had to speak out.

Intellectual – don’t make me laugh

Harper Lee increased my appetite for more literary novels to feed my intellect. Tolkien and Aldous Huxley led me to Somerset Maugham to DH Lawrence to Graham Green and finally HE Bates.  I enjoyed their stories and their different styles, but none captured my imagination or inspired me to write.

Wilt Tom SharpeBut Tom Sharpe did.

He blew my socks off with Riotous Assembly, which satirised the Apartheid regime in South Africa and reduced me to  helpless laughter, often forcing me to read under the bedclothes so I didn’t wake anyone, with Wilt. He inspired me to write a humorous novel of my own. Though I couldn’t find a publisher that would take They Laughed at Noah, it remains one of my favourite novels and often begs me to revise and rewrite it for today’s readers.

A Joy to read

I continued to write as marriage and building a home took precedence, but nothing fired my imagination until I chanced on Joy Fielding’s See Jane Run. This psychological suspense story pulled me in with its terrific opening sentence and never let me go.

While I tried to write my own psychological suspense novels, I struggled with the plotting, failing to generate the suspense needed.

Then Colin Dexter and Agatha Christie came to my rescue, though I never read their books at the time. The TV adaptations of Inspector Morse and Miss Marple ignited a desire to write crime fiction. The shows taught me how to develop taut, complex plots alongside engaging characters. I still watch the shows today, always learning, always enjoying.

Despite the desire to write crime, and my newly acquired knowledge of plotting, I still struggled to produce memorable stories. It took one more book, or should I say series, to inspire me.

It’s as simple as ABC

Sue GraftonSue Grafton’s alphabet series blew my socks off.

I came across the first three novels in a compendium by a book club, which I ordered for free as part of an introductory offer. I had no idea what to expect and I didn’t know at the time that this book would become one of my most treasured possessions.

When I started A is for Alibi, featuring feisty Californian PI, Kinsey Millhone, I had never read another book like it. The first paragraph not only captured my imagination, it compelled me to write my own murder mystery novels.

Sue Grafton created something quite different and unique and showed me what was possible. Sadly, she died recently, not long after the publication of Y is for Yesterday, but as my own lead character, Kent Fisher, is a Kinsey Millhone fan, this wonderful author will never be far from my thoughts.

In Part Two, I’ll talk about some of the current authors who inspire and delight me.

If you want a sneak preview of who they might be, take a look at the Reviews page on my website, where I offer my thoughts on the books I read. You may find some of your favourite authors there.

And if a book or author inspired you, please tell me about it by leaving a comment below.