Sunday, 15 March 2020

Killer Women : Fresh Blood : Trevor Wood

Please welcome the fourth and final Killer Women Fresh Blood panellist, Trevor Wood. Trevor is a playwright turned crime writer who started his working life in the Royal Navy. The Man On The Street (Quercus) is his first novel. Lee Child called it, ‘Fresh, original, authentic and gritty,’ while Mari Hannah said, ‘What more do you want from a debut than a unique protagonist and a cracking plot-line?’

SH: Trevor, you’re involved in working or volunteering with homeless people. And you served in the Royal Navy for 16 years. How did that influence your hero’s story?

TW: The Navy background was the initial influence. When I first came up with the idea of a homeless man seeing a murder my initial research told me that ex-servicemen constitute around 10 per cent of the homeless population. I knew that this gave me a way in to my protagonist – I may not have known a lot about being homeless but I knew how ex-servicemen thought and behaved. Whilst writing the story I went to visit the People’s Kitchen in Newcastle which provides hot meals for over 100 people every day. It’s staffed entirely by unpaid volunteers but at the time they had a waiting list for helping there – which says a lot about the city I think. I kept my eye on the lists and when a vacancy came up I grabbed it so now spend one afternoon a week working in a hot kitchen making supersize versions of the meals I would cook at home. Mixing with the volunteers and the ‘friends’ as we call our clients gave me the impetus to focus more on the homeless experience than the ex-serviceman experience, not just on the shameful way we treat people, or the pitiful lack of affordable housing,  but on the idea that these people were, and still can be, resourceful, capable, members of society and, in many cases, are more honourable than those who are supposed to be role models.

SH: You’re a hugely successful playwright who decided to turn to crime (novels). What would you call the biggest difference between the two disciplines?

TW: The first, most glaring, difference is the sheer number of words. A standard, full-length play probably comes in around 15,000 words while you’re looking at a minimum of 80k for a crime novel – and I had a co-writer for the plays so, theoretically, only had to come up with around half of the words! So sheer volume of work is a big difference. The second thing is the nature of the writing. Plays, by definition, are almost entirely dialogue. There are a few stage directions but actors don’t much like being told what to do by writers so these are usually kept to a minimum. So, when I started to try and write my first crime novel I was confident that I could handle the dialogue but had to learn how to do everything else. I did a couple of local writing courses and joined a local writing group and gradually managed to get a grip on what to do in between the dialogue! My editing, even now, often consists of trimming out dialogue and adding a little more description.

If I’m allowed a third thing… because I co-wrote the plays we planned everything from the get-go. The whole play would be mapped out and then we would divide up the scenes, head back to our own territory, write our own bit and then swop them around. Once we’d got a rough draft we’d sit together to edit. For my crime novels it’s the complete opposite. I don’t plan at all. I start with an opening chapter and go from there. Maybe it’s a reaction to the previous over-planning but it feels more organic to me and almost as if it’s happening in real time – as it would for any actual investigator, my protagonist can follow hunches but has no sure idea what might happen next. I have this crazy idea that if I don’t know what’s happening next it will be pretty hard for the reader to guess. It does mean that I have to do a lot of editing, retro-fitting the plot to make it all work, but if it’s good enough for Lee Child ...

SH: Can you expand on your road to publication?

TW: My first attempt at a crime novel is sitting on my laptop waiting for the world to change. One of the problems was that I stayed in my comfort zone. I wrote it in first person – falling back on the idea that dialogue was my strength (see above). Also, the tone was comedic, again doing what I knew I could do, most of our plays were out-and-out comedies. It got me an agent but stalled there. It was only later that I discovered the publishing world doesn’t really know what to do with comic crime. Editors have enough trouble judging whether a book is good or not, if they then have to judge whether it’s funny that’s two difficult, risky decisions. The knockout blow is that they then have to decide whether other people will think it’s funny. I’m hoping that Mick Herron’s success may mean I can resurrect the book one day.

I decided to throw that all away and try instead to write the kind of book I like to read, gritty, socially aware, realistic crime, think Dennis Lehane, Eva Dolan and, um, Sarah Hilary. This meant completely stripping down my natural style and starting again. So I did another course. The inaugural MA in Crime Writing at UEA – the best decision I could have made. A great course, based hugely on peer-to-peer feedback and I had the help of ten other hugely committed wannabe crime writers and visiting speakers like Ian Rankin, Denise Mina and Lee Child. Of the eleven who started the course, five now have book deals, including Harriet Tyce, of Blood Orange fame, and three others have agents and books on the way. The final deliverable of the course was an 80k-word crime novel and that was the book that became The Man on the Street. After that the journey was a story of long gaps with sudden bursts of joy. I had got rid of my first agent (long story, but basically I could never get him to meet me) and I had nearly a year of rejections before the wonderful Oli Munson at AM Heath read the book in a day and offered me representation within two days of me sending out my initial enquiry. We then had a second long wait as rejections, some hugely encouraging but rejections nonetheless, crept in. Eventually we had strong interest from one editor but subject to a significant rewrite. We took the plunge. Several months of hard work later that was rejected too. HOWEVER… the new version went out to a handful of editors and the offers came in almost immediately, including one from the estimable Jane Wood at Quercus. I nearly bit her hand off.

SH: What's next for you?

TW: I wrote The Man on the Street under the distinct impression I was writing a standalone novel. To my surprise everyone else thought it was a series so I’ve been working on book 2, provisionally entitled One Way Street and the second draft is in my editor’s hands as I type this. Like the first book it’s currently planned to be given a soft launch, in e-book and audio, in October this year before full publication in hardback in March 2021. The other big thing is that The Man on the Street has been optioned for TV and film by World Productions, the makers of Line of Duty and Bodyguard. I try very hard to keep things on an even keel – I know that not everything that gets optioned ends up on screen - but I’m finding it tricky not to get ridiculously excited about this.

Thanks, Trevor!

You can buy The Man on the Street here (supporting your local indie bookshop). Do join the discussion on Twitter where Trevor can be found here.

Killer Women Festival : Fresh Blood : Kate Bradley

Welcome to the third of my Killer Women Fresh Blood panellists, Kate Bradley. Kate has worked for years with vulnerable and marginalised individuals in prisons, mental health hospitals, and amongst the homeless. To Keep You Safe (Zaffre) is her first book. CJ Tudor called it, ‘strong and fast-paced; a change from the usual thriller.’

SH: Kate, your work with marginalised people must have been an influence on your writing. Did that make it easier or harder to create a fictional cast?

KB: Definitely easier. I've worked with many people with complex needs. In one role, I helped manage a large, multisite housing project, for many years. Working in and around people's homes, you obviously get to know the people you work with, really well. Although many of them had committed terrible crimes, it's right to set that aside and see the whole person. It's true their stories flavour my writing, but only from a distance. Up close, my characters are their own people and stubbornly so.

SH: Let’s talk about what happened after you’d finished your manuscript and started looking for a publisher. That road can be a rocky one. What was your experience, highs and lows?

KB: My experience was an unusual one. I met my editor, the epic Katherine Armstrong, through The WoMentoring Project (a project for 'undiscovered' writers). She was beyond generous, helping me with a previous script. That improved script saw me signed to Jane Gregory, who for obvious reasons, has always been my dream agent. Jane wanted me to write something new -- I did and then she pitched it to Katherine who bought it immediately before another publisher saw it. It sounds easy, but there was over a decade of struggle before that.

SH: There are so many new and interesting roads to being published now. What’s next for you?

KB: I’m thrilled that my next book - another psychological thriller - is coming out this time next year. I'm also working on another new one to keep me busy over the summer. I've been writing for years: I'm not sure I'd know how not to! What on earth would I do with my time?

Thanks, Kate!

You can buy To Keep You Safe here (supporting your local indie bookshop). Do join the discussion on Twitter where Kate can be found here.

Killer Women Festival : Fresh Blood : Russ Thomas

Welcome to the second of my Killer Women Fresh Blood panellists, Russ Thomas, who works as a mentor and creative writing tutor. Lee Child is a fan of his debut, Firewatching (Simon & Schuster), calling it, ‘a UK cop novel with a pitch-perfect blend of the best of the old and the best of the new; all the traditional strengths and charms are here, with a fresh and relevant 21st-century edge.’

SH: Russ, you took a trip around the world before writing Firewatching, which is set in Sheffield. How important was location to you when creating the series?

RT: It was very important. I tried a few other places in early drafts but all of them in this country - I never envisioned setting it in Thailand or Australia or anything (that would have meant doing far too much research!). But I ended up settling on Sheffield because it's the city I know best. Tyler is a city boy, just like me, and finds the quiet of the countryside almost unsettling. Of course, in the case of Firewatching, the countryside is a pretty unsettling place. I made up the small village of Castledene because I didn't want to put all the horrible things that go on there on a real village in the Peak District. I don't feel the same way about Sheffield though, it's big enough to take it. In a way, this is my way of giving something back to the city that took me in twenty-five years ago. It's such a great place, famous for what it used to be rather than what it is now. It's also the fourth largest city in the country but largely gets ignored. Hopefully, Firewatching will help put it back on the map in some small way.

SH: Let’s talk about what happened you had finished your manuscripts and started looking for a publisher. That road can be a rocky one. How was it for you? I hear you originally started writing Firewatching in 2005?

RT: It was 2008 actually, but still a long time ago. I started the manuscript when I began my MA in Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. I came away from that three years later with a finished manuscript and a fairly average mark. Then my father died and all thoughts of writing went out of my head for a bit. When I came back to it, I found myself writing a story that was much more about fathers and sons than the original had been, unsurprisingly perhaps. I started sending it out to agents and getting politely worded responses, all the usual stuff - "I liked your writing but it's just not quite right for me" etc. After exhausting a huge number of agencies I decided to put it away and work on something else. I wrote a whole different novel. But I kept coming back to Firewatching. It was working on the character of Adam Tyler that finally changed it into something. I rewrote him changing the tense, changing the point of view, even changing Tyler's name, and somehow through all of that process, Tyler emerged as he is today. I searched for him for years and then he just turned up and said, "I'm here". And at that point I knew I had something worth sending out again. This time I got three agents who were interested almost immediately and from there the book went to auction. I can't honestly say what the one thing was that made the difference. Maybe it was just the passage of time and me getting better at writing. I can tell you though that all the reasons people gave for not liking it originally are all the things people now tell me is what they love about it. So my advice is to listen when people tell you there's something wrong with your manuscript but work out for yourself what needs changing. After all, it's your vision, you just need to find a way to get that vision across to the reader.

SH: What’s next for you?

RT: Book 2 will be out next year and continues Tyler's story. It's called Nighthawking. I'm just about to start work on book 3.

Thanks, Russ!

You can buy Firewatching here (supporting your local indie bookshop). Do join the discussion on Twitter where Russ can be found here.

Killer Women Festival : Fresh Blood : Bella Ellis

Hello and welcome to the (virtual) Killer Women Fresh Blood panel. I’m going to be chatting with four fantastic debut crime authors who will spill the beans about their books, and share a publishing secret or two. You can join the discussion on Twitter here. Do ask questions and, most importantly, buy the books!

First up is Bella Ellis whose crime debut, The Vanished Bride (Hodder & Stoughton) is the first in a new mystery series about the Brontë sisters (aided or otherwise by their feckless brother) investigating crimes whilst finding inspiration for their best-loved books. The Wall Street Journal called it ‘a delight’ while the Guardian praised it as a ‘splendid adventure, touching and often funny’. 

Bella Ellis is the Brontë-esque pseudonym of bestselling author, Rowan Coleman, who’s been obsessed with the Brontës since childhood. I always think that’s the best thing to have as a writer: an obsession.

SH: Bella, you’ve spending a lot of time wondering what life might have been like for female detectives in the 1850s. What conclusions have you reached?

BE: For women in the 1850s life was a precarious and dangerous business no matter what social background you came from, so much of what women did then, had a high probability of resulting in death, from working at the mill to becoming pregnant. In a way, though middle class spinsters, particularly the ones that had to earn a living were looked down upon, they were in a better position than most. As Charlotte famously said, ‘what author would be without the advantage of being able to walk invisible?’ She was referring to being unsuspected as the famous author Currer Bell because of her gender, but it could be equally said of being an investigator. Single, ineligible women were largely ignored at the same time as being allowed entry to a great many situations. It could be the perfect undercover disguise.

SH: Your chosen pseudonym is very clever (literary sleuths will know why)! You’ve talked about identifying with Charlotte Brontë’s writerly angst. Was there a lot of angst in taking on this pseudonym and starting a mystery series?

BE: SO MUCH ANGST! For a variety of reasons. Firstly, though I’m a life long Brontë fan, I’m a novelist and not a historian or an academic, and really worried about what people would think of me engaging with the Brontë family this way, and secondly because this is my first foray into mystery and I know how much hard work and expertise goes into writing a well placed, intricately plotted crime or suspense novel. In the end I asked my self what would Emily do, but I thought she’d probably just go for walk, write the story and never show anyone. So then I asked what would Charlotte do, and I remembered that Charlotte said,’ I’m just going to write because I cannot help it.’ And then I did what Anne would have done, which is lots of research and hard work. Generally I think as writers, we have to keep frightening ourselves to stay engage, and that’s always been my tactic.

SH: What's next for you?

BE: The second in The Brontë Mysteries - The Diabolical Bones is due out in November (The paperback of The Vanished Bride in September) and I’m working on a new Rowan Coleman idea right now, which I’m very excited about.

Thanks, Bella!

You can buy The Vanished Bride here (supporting your local indie bookshop). Do join the discussion on Twitter where Bella can be found here.