Last Tuesday evening, 18th June 2013, I went to one of my local libraries for a talk by crime writers Peter Tickler and Stephen Booth, and below are my notes from the evening. My thanks go to Ann Bond, Library Supervisor, Long Buckby Library, Northamptonshire, for the great photographs.
Stephen Booth & Peter Tickler on crime writing
Peter, author of the ‘Blood in Oxford’ series, introduced the session and said he and Stephen would talk about themselves and their writing.
Peter kicked off his writing career, his first paid assignment aged 17 was with an article for Military Modelling magazine and wrote other military pieces before ‘getting a life’ and wanted to write more fictional. Wrote fact/ion for the radio but then started writing crime.
What should crime writers write about? There are dedicated crime sections in library with huge ranges including Nordic, Scottish, American crime – women in particular gruesome – then more gentle such as Colin Dexter (Inspector Morse), Agatha Christie etc.
Peter then focused on his first novel ‘Blood on the Cowley Road’, saying he had lived in Oxford for 30 years but didn’t work in the university so, to write what you know, wanted to write about non-university situations and locations around Oxford.
He chose the Cowley Road because of its multi-ethnicity, that it’s the ‘poorer’ end of town, popular with students, and therefore a great place to set fiction. It’s not what most people think of as Oxford, although more realistic than the colleges set on TV.
Peter is a computer programmer by trade so a knowledge of technology also comes in hand. Peter’s wife works in mental health, and Peter has volunteered there so his writing has these slants, one of the locations in his first book being a mental health day centre.
He is also an Oxford United (football) fan, and said that the majority of people in the city are interested in Oxford United at some stage. Again it’s an authentic addition.
The next question Peter asked himself was the theme of the story. He has three sons, and the eldest was in London studying graphic design and came up with the idea fake blue ‘lived here’ plaques. He showed one to his father (about an alcoholic), which sparked him an idea. The story therefore starts with a fake blue plaque underneath a multi-storey car park. One of the characters is a female with some mental health issues – Peter quoted 1 in 4 people suffer with mental health issues and having had direct and indirect experience myself (including working in three different departments of St Andrew’s Healthcare for over a year), it is an issue close to my heart.
Peter admits that he finds plotting hard work with so many threads from the book to tie up by the end. I know from my blog interviews how many authors (I’d say 90%+, myself included) get an idea and go with it rather than plot.
Peter then read an extract from the beginning of the book after mentioning that cyclists are prolific in Oxford – the character’s viewpoint (an 81-year-old) Peter read out had a fear of cyclists because of her ailing health. She finds the blue plaque and wonders why it is there when the action starts, literally around her.
Peter then handed the floor over to Stephen who told us that to-date 13 books in the Fry & Cooper series have been published.
He can’t remember when he started writing because he was so young but knows he wrote first novel at 12-years-old and knew it was what he wanted to do when he grew up and said he’d look forward to holding his own book (which he then did, making the audience laugh) and still finds it a thrill.
Stephen left school and knew you don’t leave and become a novelist so became a journalist. He was a fan of crime books before he started writing his so stayed with this genre. He didn’t know his first book (Black Dog) was going to be published (he’d written others that hadn’t been) and kept writing.
He knew that normally ‘darker’ books were set in cities but decided to break that habit and write about rural areas (Peak District) but have dark crimes happening in them and it’s very often to do with the history of those places that gives them the atmosphere they have. Stephen quoted The Hound of the Baskervilles – sums up idea (also in Conan Doyle’s Copper Beeches). Holmes said, “There is more evil in the smiling countryside than the darkest streets of London.” And that’s what Stephen wanted to write.
His characters age (started them as 20-something constables) so they feel authentic / credible, and wanted to capture the human side of the police.
There are two things his readers write to Stephen about: Fry’s & Cooper’s relationship developing over the years and the locations he uses in the books (which fascinate readers, especially from outside the area). Stephen knows where Edendale would be on the map although it doesn’t exist, and he has ‘stolen’ parts from other places. One woman had written to him saying she knew Edendale well and had been there many times which he, and the audience, found amusing.
One of his books starts with a threatening phone call from a Wardlow phone box and several readers have been to the village just to see the (traditional red) phone box – so it’s a connection between the fiction and real world. Some people go out at the weekends to where fictional murders have happened. It’s a testament to the magic of a novel that fiction would feel so real.
Stephen’s Edendale has a railway station and he received an email from a reader asking where the train would go to. Because Stephen knows where Edendale is he was able to describe the line and gave the reader then information they wanted.
There are places in the Peak District where there is no mobile phone signal which comes in really handy. If he puts this in his novel, some readers have gone and checked. One such location is ‘Lost River’, set near Ashbourne, near the Manifold Trail where Ben takes a call on his mobile. A female reader, belonging to a walking group reported to Stephen that she had got her group to test and none had a signal so had proudly told him he’d made a mistake.
Stephen’s books have been translated into 15 languages including Russian and Japanese. Most readers from outside the UK won’t have heard of the Peak District and probably think it’s made up. That area means so much to Stephen and he’s delighted to share it with them.
Other feedback Stephen has received included back in summer 2011 when a party of Norwegians came over because they wanted to visit Castleton and the caves. They stayed in the Cheshire Cheese pub because the murderer in one book stayed there when he was on the run!
Readers love crime for various reasons. Stephen saying that it is good for us to see how others deal with circumstances we’d hopefully never get into. We want to know what is going to happen next and that’s the great thing about writing series.
Stephen then opened the floor to questions from the audience and a lady on the front row mentioned about the mistakes Stephen had mentioned. Stephen added that a reviewer had spotted an error but thought it had been done deliberately so he (Stephen) got away with it.
The authors were then asked whether they do a “brain dump” or whether they plot first.
Peter said that on his three books, has plotted before getting any writing down but then the characters surprise you and the plot changes.
Stephen had ‘given up’ the plot battle and conceded the fact that he doesn’t plan novels at all. He has to believe the characters are real and that they are living in a real location. He throws them into their situations and see what they do, so then the characters have to do all the work, not Stephen. (I love it when they do that)
Stephen was then asked whether being a journalist helped because he’s ‘reporting’ what’s happening. He said it had and added that if something surprises the reader then the chances are that it would have surprised him too. In one of his books, Ben Cooper had asked about something that hadn’t occurred to Stephen so it created an unexpected situation.
Peter asked Stephen whether he knew whom the killer was when he started a book. Stephen said he didn’t have a clue, which surprised some members of the audience.
Peter then answered the next question first; whether they find other crime television programmes / films accurate. Peter said that most are paired down from the books and has found some frustrating.
Stephen said sometimes that characters have to act a certain way in the television programmes in order to further the plot and may deviate from the original book due to time pressures.
Stephen admitted that he is not a fan of American crime thrillers and mentioned ‘Roses are Red’ by James Patterson was advertised as a surprise ending. The first chapter introduces three characters and he guessed the ending so didn’t read the story in between (the only time he has cheated and looked at the end).
The panel was then asked about the locations in the books and whether they drawings of their towns. Stephen said he drew himself a map as he had a Boots move sides of the road in one book. Readers have asked him whether they can have a map but he won’t include one because he’s still developing it.
Peter prides himself that his locations are accurate although he does invent additions for certain locations and moved a car park a mile and a half which some of his readers have queried but he needed to for the story to work. Artistic licence at work. 🙂
Stephen added that there is always going to be someone (a reader) who is a bigger expert and will try to catch the author out (succeeding on some occasions).
Peter was asked whether he has a well-worked biography of his characters. He doesn’t and mentioned Mark Billingham referring to characters are onions, peeling back by adding information bit-by-bit. If you flesh out too much there’s less to reveal. Peter said it’s a bad thing to be too detailed about the characters as it leaves nothing for the reader to imagine.
Stephen feels his characters Ben (Cooper) and Diane (Fry) are ‘friends’ and that Stephen knows them so well, giving Ben a birthday just after his own. Peter joked that Stephen sends him cards. Stephen did say that Ben receives birthday wishes from his readers! Ben’s cat has also become important to the readers and Stephen received so many letters then complained when the cat died (another complication when the books work in real time) but were placated by him getting another one until they weren’t told of its name by the end of the book!
The panel was then asked whether they have dreamed up the perfect murder? Stephen said he went to a Home Office pathologist and asked the question (he let us in on the secret: get the victim on a high place, a cliff or hill for example, as long as you don’t have an eye witness no one will be able to prove it). Simple ways are best. Stephen quoted the opposite: a murder in an episode of Midsomer Murders (Hidden Depths) that was so complicated; body on a croquet lawn which was then fired on with bottles of vintage wine.
It was then mentioned about two people on a train killing someone for the other so there was no way to connect them to the murder… although they were found out so not a perfect murder.
Stephen recounted taxi driver found dead in his boot. Killer just wanted to feel what it was like. He had no connection to the driver and would have got away with it except he told someone!
Peter wanted to know what happened when a train hits a body so he contacted the British Transport Police to get the information. Peter also went into a prison this year giving a talk to 30 large prisoners for two hours, somewhat intimidating especially given that the only guards were three ‘tiny’ female library service staff. 🙂
Peter doesn’t try to write in-depth forensic facts but more from a technological point of view. Once a reader mistrusts you, they won’t trust the rest. As long as the genre is true to yourself, he said, and the characters are convincing and relatable, then people will accept it. He has considered visiting one of three forensic centres in the Abington area of Oxford and that’s something on his ‘to do’ list.
The next question was, “As crime is such a widely-written genre, are you concerned that someone has written your book before?” Stephen said that it’s the way you write the story (the characters, location, etc). He has heard about illegal trade of horse stealing and had Ben go to a small abattoir in Yorkshire and didn’t know why and then the horsemeat scandal hit the news! Stephen added that getting a new idea is exciting.
They were then asked whether it is important to read crime novels when you’re writing crime novels? Stephen said that some authors don’t read the genre they write. (One of my Monday night group is a science-fiction writer who has never read a word of it which shocked me) Peter said that Daphne du Maurier was influential in his life. Stephen recommended Ruth Rendell.
Stephen was then asked about the novel he wrote at 12. He told us it was science fiction and was still good vs evil so a basis for his ongoing writing.
Peter was asked about his writing schedule. He still works in mental health and is a freelance IT consultant, writing in chunks of time, especially on holiday. Stephen was a journalist so wrote his first two books in the evenings and early mornings. He was frustrated going to work because his characters would talk in his head as he drove, so went to the library in his lunch breaks to write. He was then asked if he was lonely when he writes. He replied that, compared with working as a journalist in a busy office, he is, so he tends to write in the evenings when his family is around. It was recommended to him that it was the last thing he thought about when he went to bed. He tried it and woke up with a fully-formed scene which had no relation to the current book so he wrote it down and it went into the next book. I have heard that said from other authors, and if I get stuck, it does work for me.
He said he used computers for many years and thinks there is a sub-conscious connection between the brain and computers. (I agree!)
Stephen starts with characters, has the main characters but creates new ones; the killer, people who find the bodies etc. Ordinary people suddenly in stressful situation. His books open more with those ordinary people and the action begins.
Having written 13 books feels he writes to a formula and early on wondered if he could write a book with no murder at the beginning and in that book (which he wouldn’t name so he didn’t spoil it for us) has the murder at the end and the reader knows who the killer is throughout the book.
The next question was: “Are crimes always solved?” Most books have a deal with the reader that someone dies, the killer is discovered and is usually brought to justice.
Stephen likes to make the reader wonder and have some ambiguity at the ending allowing scope for the readers to continue the story. Peter said he had left one book with an open ending and received criticism for it. I write some of my flash fiction that way and enjoy leaving a cliff-hanger. 🙂
Stephen was asked whether his books are standalones and could a reader start with the latest story and work backwards. He said the plots themselves are independent but the characters develop so a book will work within itself but the series is better when followed.
Another member of the audience asked whether they have given an animal a horrible ending. Stephen mentioned that he was asked by an American reader of his first novel ‘Black Dog’ whether anything happens to the dog. He was able to reassure the reader that it didn’t.
Stephen then mentioned a league table of victims: no.1 pets dying, no.2 young children, no.3 older children, no.4 killing a woman, but no one cares if you kill a man. It’s why a lot of authors have the death of a woman to shock. One author had a dead woman on the cover yet the body was male. When the author queried it, the publisher said because it would sell more. The words Trades, Description, and Act shot through my mind. 🙂
Peter was then asked, “How much of your experiences in mental health do you use in your books?” He said it was important and is used to show unusual behaviour but isn’t conscious of it informing his writing although one of his main characters is on the edge. He said that if the stakes were high enough, anyone would kill. He would, for example, if his children were threatened. He the mentioned a trip to Sicily for research (re. smuggled out bronzes to an academic in Oxford) and was threatened as he was trying to go to where they had come from, but decided he was seriously in danger, so they weren’t able to go.
I asked how much say Peter and Stephen had in the covers of their books. Peter was shown his first cover and gave his approval. The original cover of the second book had a woman in sandals but in the scene it represented she had boots on, so they changed it. He first saw the third cover on the internet after it was released!
Stephen said his first 10 books were published with Harper Collins (since published with Sphere) and he liked all of them up to a point. With the ninth he didn’t like the cover, said so, and they changed it. He isn’t overly keen of some of the foreign covers. Loved the German cover of first book (Black Dog). An Italian version of the same (selling on train stations) was a garish yellow cover with really cheap paper.
His Finnish translator had trouble translating Anglicised Japanese martial arts into Finnish in one of the books. He came over with a friend to see Derbyshire and was amazed by the hills (saying a childish “weeee” as they drove around :)), and thought a quarry was a Roman amphitheatre and a cottage was a thatched building with roses around the door so didn’t know what a stone cottage was.
Stephen was then asked if he had any say over the foreign translations and was he worried about what they were doing to their characters. He said relies on his readers to tell him and on the whole he has had positive feedback.
Peter and Stephen were then asked whether they get frustrated by the hype of some books by such as The Davinci Code and Stieg Larsson trilogy.
Stephen enjoyed The Davinci Code and while writers don’t rate the writing itself (I’ve heard the same, and of JK Rowling’s), Stephen said they should be focussing on the plot not the writing.
Peter’s currently reading Wolf Hall and is struggling with it (I started the 7-hour audiobook and didn’t last long). One lady in the audience said she enjoyed it, another said she gave up on it.
That just goes to show you how divided writing can make a reader, and it was clear from the audience’s reaction during the evening that they were huge crime fans… as am I, and there’s nothing quite like killing people… legally!
Thank you again to Long Buckby Library and Northamptonshire County Council for hosting such a great event and of course to Peter and Stephen for entertaining us.
Peter’s website is http://www.petertickler.co.uk and his books are available from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Peter-Tickler/e/B0034Q1AQA and http://www.amazon.com/Peter-Tickler/e/B0034Q1AQA and of course all good bookshops and libraries.
Stephen’s website is http://www.stephen-booth.com and his books are available from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Stephen-Booth/e/B001IXTTC8 and http://www.amazon.co.uk/Stephen-Booth/e/B001IXTTC8 and all good bookshops and libraries.
Based in Northamptonshire, England, Morgen Bailey (“Morgen with an E”) is a prolific blogger, podcaster, editor / critiquer, Chair of NWG (which runs the annual H.E. Bates Short Story Competition), Head Judge for the NLG Flash Fiction Competition and creative writing tutor for her local council. She is also a freelance author of numerous ‘dark and light’ short stories, novels, articles, and very occasional dabbler of poetry. Like her, her blog, morgenbailey.wordpress.com, is consumed by all things literary. She is also active on Twitter, Facebook along with many others (listed on her blog’s Contact page).
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