A hero for today

Have you ever read a book or watched a TV programme and wished you could write something as good?

Inspector MorseNeither had I until I saw the original Inspector Morse series. The superb characterisation, complex and intriguing plots, and the beautiful Oxford settings captivated me. About the same time, BBC 1 aired the Miss Marple series, adapted from Agatha Christie’s books.

Both programmes evoked the same emotion and desire to write a complex murder mystery.

At this point, I should tell you I was already a writer. Not a successful one, unless you include the national short story competition I won at the age of 12. That early enthusiasm and promise never quite materialised into something a publisher would want or take – until Morse and Marple got under my skin.

I sensed a brighter future. But first, I needed a hero for my murder mysteries – someone different, someone flawed but principled, charismatic and up to the job.

Police officer or private investigator?

While I’d worked with the police many times as an environmental health officer (EHO), I had no idea how they investigated murders. With DNA evidence making its mark, I thought I’d leave it those who understood such things.

Sue GraftonEqually, I had no idea how private investigators worked. Sue Grafton’s first novel, A is for Alibi, featuring PI Kinsey Millhone tempted me to create my own investigator. The character was feisty, sassy, funny and quite ruthless in completing any job she took. The books were a joy to read.

Could I create a male version of Kinsey?

It took some time for Kent Fisher to evolve. The name took almost as long to create, but that’s a subject for another day. He was tough, determined, single-minded, hopeless in love, and had a good stock of witty one-liners.

But was he flawed?

In his first outings, he was more like Rambo than Morse. That’ll teach me to make him a former paratrooper. He was married to an unsuitable woman. While it seemed like a good idea at the time for extra conflict, I couldn’t imagine him falling for such a woman. Net result – I failed to write with any conviction.

My attempts to make him a PI fared no better.

Thanks to my healthy appetite for Dick Francis, that left me with one option. Many of his heroes were ordinary people, drawn into adventures and investigations that often put them in grave danger.

Kent Fisher became an EHO

Kent Fisher and ColumboAn environmental health officer conjured up an image of a person in a suit, carrying a clipboard and talking like some dreary, faceless bureaucrat. That was how TV writers saw them at the time. It was hardly an image to inspire readers, was it?

So I gave Kent a past as a hunt saboteur and environmental protestor, who chained himself to trees and bulldozers to stop developers destroying the countryside he loved. This ensured he had as many enemies as he had supporters, offering plenty of storylines for the future.

Without thinking, I knew he would live in an animal sanctuary, confirming his dedication to the natural world.

While I doubt if he’s anyone’s idea of a detective, to me he’s a hero for today. He’s an ordinary person who solves the most complex and difficult murders I can dream up.

This posed another challenge – how would an EHO solve a murder? Let’s be honest, during my long career, no one has ever walked into the council offices and asked me to investigate a murder.

I’ll admit I’ve wanted to murder many awkward members of the public, councillors and restaurateurs and publicans over the years. Luckily, I can now do that in my novels.

Finally it came to me – disguise a murder as a fatal work accident. Kent Fisher goes in to investigate with the police. They pass the investigation to him and he uncovers a murder.

Simple.

But no one believes him, of course, so he has to solve it himself.

It led me to the highly original title of No Accident, which was traditionally published in June 2016.

A fresh approach to the traditional murder mystery

Thoroughly modern, with contemporary themes about protecting wildlife and the environment, Kent Fisher was like no other detective out there. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on how much you like the traumatised police inspectors with pen-pushing superiors that seem to dominate crime fiction these days.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the part the characters and backstory would play in the hearts and minds of readers. I simply set out to build a world around Kent and fill it with strong, engaging characters that would impact on his life and work.

HarveyAnd that’s before we get to the rescue dog he adopted. Named Columbo after Kent’s favourite TV detective, the West Highland white terrier would become a firm favourite with readers and reviewers.

With his personal life as complex as the murders Kent solved, the story drew in people who didn’t normally read crime. Readers cared about these people, about this world Kent lived in, as much as they enjoyed trying to solve the murders.

But that’s something for another post…


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The challenge of writing a series

‘The Kent Fisher murder mysteries are a long way from the cop with a trauma, which seems to be one of the current trends in crime fiction. They’re traditional murder mysteries, driven by both character and plot to entertain readers.’

If you want to find out more about why I write the Kent Fisher mysteries, you can read the guest post at Between the Lines

My thanks to Cathy at Between the Lines for letting me spread the word.

 

Are your novels cosy mysteries?

When a reader first asked me this question, images of Miss Marple and tearooms in quaint country villages sprang into my head.

That’s okay, I thought, because I love Miss Marple and Agatha Christie. They’re one of the reasons I write traditional whodunit mysteries. When bestselling author, Tamara McKinley suggested that Agatha Christie fans would love my first novel, No Accident, I was delighted.

But I never envisaged the Kent Fisher mysteries as cosy. They deal with modern, serious issues that don’t feel cosy.

To settle any doubt, I turned to Google.

A quick check suggested cosies were crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in small, socially intimate communities. The person solving the crime is an amateur, usually but not exclusively a woman, with contacts in the police or other law enforcement agencies.

Well, that got me thinking. There’s no graphic sex in the Kent Fisher mysteries because I believe a reader’s imagination can do a much better job. Any violence is usually confrontational and targeted at Kent to stop him solving a case. The communities are not socially intimate, though most of the action takes place in the small towns and villages of the South Downs. Kent’s an amateur detective, sure, but as an environmental health officer, he’s a law enforcer and often works with the police, giving him certain detection skills.

His best friend is a retired Scenes of Crime Officer.

On balance, it looks like my novels fall into the cosy category.

As Kinsey Millhone, Morse and Miss Marple inspired and influenced me, why did I ever doubt this? After all, my goal has always been to entertain readers with absorbing, complex mysteries, engaging characters with their own stories and troubles, all laced with a healthy dash of irreverent humour.

I prefer to think of the Kent Fisher mysteries as the cosy end of the crime fiction spectrum, like LJ Ross or Dick Francis.

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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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.