Alas poor Robert …

I wanted to be an actor.

I didn’t know this until I was eleven and stepped onto the stage during a Drama class at school. But it wasn’t until we were asked to pick a song and act it out that I realised acting was for me. I had no idea what to do with Metal Guru by T Rex, and realised I needed a song with a story. My mother liked Tony Christie, who was riding high with a song called, I Did What I Did for Maria, about a guy killing the man who attacked his wife.

It was melodramatic stuff and under my enthusiastic direction, we brought the song to life. I lost myself in the part, becoming the wronged man out to deliver his own form of justice in a world that didn’t care.

I’d always had a terrific imagination and drama allowed me to channel it. I wrote short stories and plays, eager to perform them. But alas, the kids in my class were neither keen nor as driven as me. To them, our one drama lesson a week was a chance to escape from behind the desk and lark about with a soft teacher. My ambitions and self-confidence took a hit, more so when I discovered that there would be no more drama classes the following year.

The following year, one of my teachers destroyed what was left of my self-confidence.

We had to choose the subjects we intended to take for ‘O’ level in two years’ time. Looking back, I should have realised it was an hour dedicated to ensuring every pupil took as many science subjects as possible.

You might be surprised to learn, I had no sciences on my list. The teacher homed in on this like a missile, cross examining me like a barrister, refusing to accept that any boy in the North of England could be interested in the arts.

Advisor“And how do you think you’re going to earn a living from arts?” he asked, focusing the class’s attention on me. “Employers want people with qualifications in science, not someone who can paint the view from the canteen window.”

The sniggers from my classmates told me I was on my own. “You don’t need sciences to be an actor,” I said defiantly, oblivious to the reaction this would cause.

“An actor?” The teacher said it several times, making me sound like I’d lost all reason. He studied me with disdain, his voice a mixture of disbelief and mockery. “You want to be an actor?”

He laughed along with the rest of the class, certain I needed to be totally humiliated to cleanse me of this disease that had infected my mind.

I could live with the laughter. It was the destruction of my dreams I couldn’t recover from.

Two years later, I did some scene shifting at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, meeting some well-known actors. I loved the atmosphere and mixing with these creative and artistic people, but I couldn’t muster the courage to take up acting.

After I’d left school, I trod the boards playing one of the orchestra in the finale of a musical in a local amateur production. I remember the makeup, dressing up in a red jacket with gold buttons, and choosing the French horn to march around the stage with. But it wasn’t acting.

reporterI could have written a review for the local newspaper had my dreams of going into journalism not taken a similar battering at school. It wasn’t a teacher who rode roughshod over my dreams of becoming an investigative reporter, delving into scandals and cover ups, exposing wrong doing and all manner of evils.

It was a careers advisor, brought in by the school. We each had a 15 minute session with him in a portakabin in the school yard.

“Have you any idea how difficult it is to become a journalist?” he asked. “Out of the thousands who try, only a select few ever make it. You’ll waste years at university and end up working in a chip shop.

The irony of wrapping greasy food in newspaper crushed another dream. I tried to reason and argue, to fight for my chosen career, but he had all the answers, and a manner intended to make me feel indebted to him for the way he destroyed my aims.

“You need a qualification that offers you the greatest range of opportunities,” he said, producing a brochure from beneath the table. “Business Studies is the degree to take at Manchester University. It will open doors into worlds of opportunity in almost any discipline you could imagine.”

“Including journalism?”

He shook his head. “I think we can both agree that writing’s hardly a business, is it?”

The following day, back among my classmates, I was surprised and then angry to discover that we were all applying to Manchester University to take Business Studies.

I continued to write and dream, but soon I would have to leave school and join the world outside. My desire to protect the world we lived in and banish the pollution that was causing so much harm drew me to environmental health. Even better, I could go to college or university, get a qualification and have a job at the end.

I didn’t realise at the time, but my career choice would not only allow me to indulge in some acting, it encouraged me to be creative and I got to meet some terrific and inspiring characters. I’m writing about many of them in A Health Inspector Calls, a collection of humorous incidents from my work. It’s free to anyone who subscribes to my Reader Group.

Just complete the form at the top of the page to join.

Throughout my career, I remained an artistic square peg in a scientific round hole, but I’ve no regrets. It took a long time, but my work allowed me to create Kent Fisher, described by reviewer Susan Corcoran as ‘a wonderful creation, unique in crime literature.’

He’s not a hard act to follow – just click here or visit my website at http://robertcrouch.co.uk to learn more.

When Hollywood lent a helping hand

A year ago this week, the wonderful Carrie Fisher passed away.

Carrie FisherMy earliest memory of her is Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy, but it was her TV interviews with Clive James that helped me discover and appreciate her wit, intelligence and delightfully acerbic sense of humour. This lady was sharp, irreverent and so honest you couldn’t help but admire her.

At the time, I had no idea she would help me create a new crime fiction character and series.

During the late 1990s, after some success writing articles for magazines, I wanted to write a crime novel. I was reading Dick Francis and Sue Grafton at the time, watching Inspector Morse and Miss Marple on TV, and desperately in need of something to put my heart and soul into.

I wanted to create something fresh and different, something that would stand out in a crowded market.

Why couldn’t an environmental health officer (EHO) solve murders?

But it couldn’t be a traditional EHO, bound by rules and red tape, working for a local authority. He needed to be dynamic, courageous and dogged, willing to bend or break rules, and he had to handle himself in difficult, life threatening situations.

But to bring this character alive, I needed to give him a name.

Names matter because they create an impression of the person behind them. Take my name, Robert. Think how different I would be if I were Rob or Robbie, Bob or Bobbie, Bert or Bertie. Each name conjures up a different character and persona.

I went through an alphabet of names before I settled for Kent. It was unusual. It said cool and decisive, dynamic, a man of purpose and action. It had echoes of Superman, which I liked. Maybe he’d earned the nickname, Superman, from his days in the army.

And if anyone asked why he was called Kent, he would tell them it was where he was born. (This would prompt the riposte, Lucky you weren’t born in Middlesex.) But in reality, he’d abbreviated the name Kenneth, which was a family name he hated.

This said plenty about his character.

His surname proved more of a challenge. I wanted a fairly traditional name that sounded good with Kent, but nothing sprang to mind. I thumbed through telephone directories, watched the credits at the end of TV programmes and checked the obituaries in the local paper, but without success.

So I explored his character, his background, his education and his tastes, hoping to trigger a name. That’s when I realised he was in love with his assistant, Jenny (later changed to Gemma). She looked like the young Carrie Fisher and had the same dark, sexy eyes.

As a teenager, Kent had idolised Carrie Fisher, loving her wit and humour, sharing her sense of not fitting in, watching all her films, pinning posters of her on his bedroom wall.

And that’s when I knew he was a Fisher too. He realised they could marry without Carrie having to change her surname. The fantasy amuses him – not that he would ever share it with anyone – and reminds him of those lonely teenage days.

Hollywood sign

Since then, Kent Fisher has changed and developed, and continues to do so with each novel, but he would never have existed without a helping hand from one of Hollywood’s finest.

Find out more about Kent Fisher.

In-credibility

If you ask people what makes a great novel, they’ll probably tell you it’s characters or plot, thrills and suspense, maybe an unexpected twist or surprise, maybe the way the author told the story.

But underneath these responses lie some not so obvious reasons as I realised when I recently finished Looking Good Dead, by Peter James.

Looking Good DeadIt’s the second of his Roy Grace novels. It has strong, believable characters, a clever, somewhat sinister plot with a few unexpected moments, plenty of suspense and he tells the story well.

I thoroughly enjoyed it because it had that realism and believability that enhances your enjoyment of the story. You learn something new and you trust the author. That matters more than you think, I suspect.

It’s called credibility.

Peter James works with the police. He researches in great detail, I imagine, and he’s been to the places he describes. He writes about the police with a confident voice, full of authority. You’re with him at the briefings, smelling the coffee and the stale, half-eaten supermarket sandwiches. You understand the procedures in the incident room and mortuary. And you sense the banter and concerns of the detectives are taken from reality.

That’s why I chose not to write a police procedural. While I’ve been in several police stations as part of my job and worked with officers, I have no real idea what it’s like to be a copper. I can guess, but that’s not the same.

I’ve also read police procedurals where authors seem to have based their detectives and stations on TV shows from the last century. I read one where the wrong caution was used. A quick search on Google would have prevented that.

So, on the few occasions the police appear in my writing, I want to be accurate and credible. I wanted my hero, Kent Fisher, to be interviewed by the police for an alleged assault on a child. (He actually rescued the child by lifting him out an animal pen.)

My interview room with small with no windows, painted brick walls, concrete floor, and a cheap table with two wooden chairs either side. It was in the bowels of the local station and had a stale, unpleasant smell about it.

Imagine my surprise when I was invited to the custody suite used by Sussex Police and found a modern building with a comfortable room, equipped with PC, DVD player and video camera. There were no unpleasant smells, a peaceful atmosphere, and fairly comfortable chairs.

No Bodies coverYou can read the scene in No Bodies, if you’re interested.

The sergeant also told me Kent Fisher would not have been arrested and brought to the custody suite as he posed no threat to others and no previous form. That left me with a problem, as I wanted him to be taken to the custody suite. The sergeant came to the rescue, telling me Kent could voluntarily give a statement, with or without a solicitor, at the custody suite.

Problem solved. Credibility maintained.

That’s why I write about what I know.

Kent Fisher’s an environmental health officer (EHO), who uses his contacts and skills to solve murders. (You can read about the skills that make an EHO a good detective in a previous blog, Being different is always the same or my guest post on Linda’s Book Bag).

To add to the credibility, the murders involve some aspect of his work, such as a dodgy caterer or a work accident where someone died. That makes it simple for him to get involved and investigate. After that, his naturally curious and suspicious nature does the rest.

In a forthcoming story, the police ask for Kent’s help with a cold case that involves a restaurant he once closed down. I wanted to know how much the police would tell him about the murder and spoke to a detective over a cup of tea one afternoon.

The police have strict guidelines and would only tell Kent what was in the public domain, the detective informed me. “Has that ruined your story?”

“Not at all,” I said. It means Kent will have to find out everything himself, which makes for a far more interesting and challenging plot. It also means my story will be accurate, authentic and credible.

Credibility matters. It means you’ve taken care, researched thoroughly, done your best to be as accurate as possible. It means readers can trust you.

And as I’ve discovered, it often leads to a better story.

If you’d like to know more about Kent Fisher and the novels, including exclusive content and new releases, why not sign up to my Reader Group by filling in your details below.

It’s a dog’s life

It’s late April at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. The sun’s beating down on a line of restless children, patiently waiting to meet their heroes. But there’s an adult sandwiched between Scooby Doo and Shaggy, laughing and joking with them, posing for a photograph.

Yep, that was me.

Scooby Doo Shaggy and Robert Crouch

I’ve loved Scooby Doo since he first appeared on British TV in the early 1970s. I was only 11 or 12 at the time, but I loved the adorable Great Dane that unmasked villains and never missed an opportunity for a Scooby snack.

Assisted by Shaggy, Daphne, Velma and Fred, Scooby Doo and the gang reminded me of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, updated and transposed to the USA.

The Famous Five stories were the first time I’d encountered a dog in fiction. Like many children, and adults, I’d sobbed a few tears watching Lassie struggle home, but I’d never read about a dog in a book before, certainly not one that was also a character.

Scooby DooMy love of Scooby Doo stayed with me over the years, prompting work colleagues to occasionally buy me mementos, like a Scooby Doo mug, which is filled with tea in front of me as I write this blog. I’ve also had various soft toys, pens, and a colouring book.

The Scooby with the nodding head travelled on the dashboard of my car for around four years early in the millennium, coming out on the district with me. When I had to change car, the sloping dashboard meant Scooby retired to the house, where he’s remained ever since.

Scooby even got a mention during a management training day I attended. When the tutor asked us to name our heroes and what made them special to us, I had no names to offer.

To me, heroes are the people who selflessly dedicate themselves to help the disadvantaged, out of the glare of publicity, and usually without financial reward or recognition. These are people like young carers who look after disabled parents, people who tirelessly raise funds for charities, those soup kitchens in the bitter cold of winter, or nurse injured animals through the night.

When the tutor insisted there must be someone who inspired me, I thought of Scooby Doo. ‘He’s unique, inventive, entertaining and he makes me laugh,’ I explained, characteristics I aspire to.

Harvey, our West Highland White Terrier, shares Scooby’s love of food. We met Harvey as a 10 week puppy on a farm near Arlington, about 10 miles inland from the South Coast. He was twice the size of his brother and two sisters.

We soon found out why when we got him home. He ate so fast he seemed to finish within seconds of us setting down his bowl. We’re sure he wolfed down his own food and then raided the other pups’ bowls.

harvey and trainer

Back at the farm, mother led her pups out of the barn and left along a path into the garden. Not Harvey. He turned right, exploring under a car, happy to do his own thing, ignoring the owner’s calls to join the others.

Now eleven, he’s still unique, inventive and entertaining. I’ve lost count of the times he’s made me laugh with his antics, especially his love of sleeping on top of the sofa.

harvey sleeping

I had to give him a part in the Kent Fisher mysteries, naming him Columbo after my other fictional favourite.

Columbo started as a rescue dog in No Accident the first Kent Fisher mystery. In the second, No Bodies, he plays a big part in defeating the killer. He’s an attentive listener, which means he’s the only one Kent confides in. They’re best mates, of course, but Columbo always goes where the treats are.

And his namesake, Lieutenant Columbo, had a laconic, but adorable, Bassett hound as his companion.

Why not comment below to tell me about your favourite fictional dog?


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