5 Things About Me – and My Writing
1. I was born in Yorkshire in the north of England and brought up in Coventry, in the Midlands. However, I don’t have the same sense of displacement that my character Sam Dyke has. I was three months old when my family moved south, while Sam was in his twenties when he moved across the Pennines to the North West. He has a firmer sense of his Yorkshireness because he was already fully-developed as a person when he moved. I was just a baby!
2. Writers often talk about whether they’re ‘pantsers’ or ‘plotters’. The first is someone who writes ‘by the seat of their pants,’ having no real direction but maybe having a character or a situation they want to start with. Stephen King is a good example of this. Plotters, as the name suggests, work on a very full outline before they start – often it’s not just the storyline and the characters, but the action in each chapter that is described in full. The first few books I wrote, in my twenties, I used the first method. It took me ages! I was constantly re-writing and changing the story. My first two Sam Dyke books were written like this, and took 7 and 4 years respectively to finish. Then I realised that especially in crime novels, structure is important. In order to shock the reader by not giving them what they expect – or just adding in a surprise – I find I have to plan that in advance, so I plot the books very carefully. Which isn’t to say that I can’t change it – I often do, when a better or more appropriate idea comes to mind. But at least I’m never confronted with a blank piece of paper and no idea what I’m going to write!
3. From a very early age I had an affinity for American culture. I suppose it began with my parents, who would watch any Hollywood film or listen to any music from the Big Band era of the 30s and 40s. Now I watch practically nothing but American TV shows, read American crime novels, or re-visit my favourite ‘serious’ novels – The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Slaughterhouse 5 and so on. All this love, yet I’ve never been to America …
4. I learned a lot about writing and developing characters from two American crime writers: Elmore Leonard and James Lee Burke. Leonard’s dialogue is famous for its speed and its ability to characterise someone just in the choice of words. Burke taught me the power of conflict between characters—they don’t have to be physically fighting or even shouting at each other: they just need to embody different ideas in any given scene.
5. I used to teach Drama and American literature at college for a few years, and I started reading crime novels seriously when my department head used to come back from his annual visits to the US with a suitcase full of paperbacks unavailable in the UK. Borrowing his books, I quickly discovered many writers I’d never heard of who were writing intelligent and compelling crime novels, and when I started taking my writing seriously again, I knew this was the genre I wanted to inhabit.