More than a Murder Mystery

Isn’t it lovely when readers surprise you?

Here I am, writing murder mysteries for crime fiction lovers, doing my best to create the most baffling and convoluted plots possible. Being a huge fan and admirer of Agatha Christie, I’ve studied her approach and techniques, determined to learn from the best-selling crime writer of all time.

When the reviews and feedback come in, I’m delighted when readers enjoy the plots, the complexity and the unexpected twists that lead to an exciting climax. But many of them love the characters and the backstory. They want Kent Fisher to find the woman of his dreams, to deal with his boss and the bureaucracy at work, and any number of issues the backstory generates.

And Kent’s West Highland white terrier, Columbo, steals every scene he’s in.

Harvey on sofa

Then I discover many of my readers don’t usually read crime fiction.

It’s a bit of a surprise, but a welcome bonus.

When I first started the series, I wanted to create something all the family could enjoy – the kind of TV crime drama that aired at 8pm on a Sunday evening, like Inspector Morse. That’s why there’s no excessive violence, no offensive swearing or graphic sex scenes.

I also wanted Kent Fisher to be rooted to a setting, to a dream and gave him his own animal sanctuary. He needed help, so I gave him a manager. He needed money, so I gave him wealthy parents – landed gentry to conflict with his principles and create some tension. As he was an environmental health officer by profession, there was a team and managers around him.

No AccidentWhen I started the first novel, No Accident, I had no idea how these characters and backstory would influence the books that followed, or the reactions of readers. Sometimes, it seems there’s as much drama in the backstory as the murder mystery.

I soon discovered that with each new book, I had to consider the backstory first. What was happening at Kent’s workplace that needed resolving? Was there anything at his sanctuary to consider? Then there were the main characters – his stepmother, Niamh, who started her own catering business. Gemma, his former lover and sidekick, was never far from his side. His continuing conflict with his manager, Danni, evolved with every book. Other women wandered in and out of his life. Some stayed a little longer.

Then there was his best friend Mike Turner, the retired scenes of crime officer and source of some of the best humour in the stories. When those two got together on the veranda of his beachside bungalow, the fun and humour reached new levels.

I love writing their scenes together.

It’s like writing two books

First, there’s the drama of Kent’s life and those close to him, and a murder to solve.

But the backstory gave me running themes – his romantic dalliances and the effect on those around him. At work, he struggled with government spending cuts, staffing issues and poor management. His sanctuary sometimes threw up problems. He started to outsmart the local police detectives as he solved the murders.

But I loved the backstory issues, tempting Kent with new lovers, discovering more about his past, what made him tick and the results of some of his indiscretions when he was younger. The characters around him could point out his bad points, the blind spots in his character he’d never see. These characters offered alternative opinions and values, adding to the tension.

Elements of the backstory can disrupt his investigations, throw him a curve, land him in deep water. He’s forced into difficult decisions, but that’s just how I like it.

The harder he has to work, the more people he comes into conflict with, the more exciting the story.

The backstory often allowed me to have the occasional cliff hanger ending. The murders are always solved and loose ends tied up. But what’s going on behind the scenes is life. It doesn’t fit into neat boxes. It can’t always be predicted or understood. And it can come along and bite you, as Kent often discovers.

I can spend days, weeks sometimes, working out where the backstory issues would be three or six months time after the end of the last story. What were the outstanding issues to address and how? What issues and drama would they raise?

Once these are decided, it’s time to write.Writer

As I don’t plan ahead, it’s all exciting, not knowing what’s going to happen.

I don’t worry how the backstory might affect the murder investigations. Kent begins his investigations under the circumstances he’s living in. If there are problems at the sanctuary or at the office, he works around them while he investigates. Sometimes it means sleuthing during work time, which brings its own conflicts and ethical issues, adding to the rich broth of the backstory.

Best of all, as the series progresses, Kent starts to realise the effect solving murders has on those around him. His brushes with death have left wounds that are difficult to heal, creating tensions and emotions he’d always buried to maintain his sanity.

And when something from his past leaps up to bite him on the backside, his murder investigations can become very personal indeed. But that’s a story for another day…


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