4 Kent crime writers: making crime pay
- Credit: Archant
Four Kent crime authors reveal some of their inspirations and writing secrets. Words by: Rachael Hale. Pictures by: Manu Palomeque
Name: David Donachie (aka Tom Connery and Jack Ludlow)
Genre: Historical novelist and Chair of the Society of Authors
David Donachie is so prolific that he writes under his own name and the pseudonyms of Tom Connery and Jack Ludlow.
Each pseudonym has its own distinct voice and individual readership and when asked how he manages to juggle the three different styles, David says: “Basically, it’s like being an actor in a drama, or having a part in a play.”
When it comes to the actual writing, however, he says: “There are two things that worry most writers and that’s plot and characterisation. Plots are logical. If this happens, either this or this will happen. And if this happens, this can also happen. Stories have to make sense.”
That said, David explains that he starts every book with “a vague idea of what I’m doing and the ending if I’m lucky.” The rest is down to “trusting my imagination. As long as you know what you need to do next, you continue the story.”
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Characters are a little trickier but David, who has published 44 books written in several different time periods, says: “Human nature never changes. The trappings, setting and clothes may change, but human nature never does. By the time a writer has finished writing a manuscript they should be able to stand behind each character and know exactly what everyone is doing and why.”
David’s long-running John Pearce nautical series has theft, kidnapping, perjury, illegal press ganging, conspiracy and even the odd potential murder. David is quick to add a note of caution on the point of characterisation. “Never make anyone too evil; a bank robber does not think he’s a robber, he thinks he’s a knight in shining armour.”
He makes it sound so simple yet, hearing him talk, it’s obvious how hard he works. “I write two to three books a year. Publishing is a business and so is writing. It’s a job.” One that has, over the years, he admits “been up and down. There have been times when it’s been squeaky financially, and other times when you think you have hit pay dirt and then the rug is pulled from under you.”
David says it’s hard to deal with the fact that writers have no control over what happens within a publishing house, which is why he’s such an advocate of the Society of Authors. That and the fact he became Chair in March this year.
“The society gives individual writers a body which they can go to if they have a problem,” he says. “But it needs to become more prominent, more effective and change the perception that you have to be a published author to join. “Right now writers are suffering and publisher’s profits are healthy; the society can help make it fairer.”
The Treacherous Coast, the 14th title in David’s John Pearce series, will be released in November.
Top 3 tips
1) Trust your imagination
2) Write a book you would like to read – if you don’t enjoy it, no one else will.
3) Plot is logical – the story has to make sense.
Name: Nathan Dylan Goodwin
Genre: Genealogical crime mysteries
When Nathan Goodwin started writing his widely acclaimed Morton Farrier Forensic Genealogist series back in 2008 he didn’t realise the genre his books fell into hadn’t even been invented.
Combining his love of genealogy and crime mysteries, the start of Nathan’s first book Hiding the Past was written as part of his Masters in Creative Writing. Television programs such as Who Do You Think You Are had just started appearing, yet nothing like his story was being published.
Nathan says: “It was a new thing, it was outside of the usual boxes”, so he decided to put it aside while he completed his teacher training and became a primary school teacher instead.
A few years later, he discovered Steve Robinson’s novels, which are also inspired by family history, and was inspired to start writing again. “I set my alarm for 5am every day and did an hour of editing before going to school and coming home to fall asleep.”
Due to rapid technological changes within family research, Nathan had to cut whole chapters and change how Morton carried out his research. Finally, in September 2013, he thought his book was ready for publication and, having employed a proofreader and someone to create his covers, decided to self publish.
Nathan has no regrets about doing it this way and, now due to the success of this series has been able to give up teaching to write full time.
He takes several weeks at the beginning of each novel to re-enact all the research trips that his main character would make, although fortunately his own investigations have been nowhere near as dangerous and he certainly wasn’t kidnapped from outside the Kent History and Library Centre.
Nathan’s plots are sometimes directly inspired by events found within his own family tree, however, and the recent discovery that his Grandmother gave birth to an illegitimate child during the Second World War has played a key part in shaping his latest book The Spyglass File.
It’s the fifth title in the series based within Kent and Sussex and Nathan says he has several more in the pipeline and another series concept in his head. In fact, he says: “I’m just going to carry on.”
Top 3 tips:
1) Make sure you know the genre, or sub-genre, you are writing for.
2) Get your research right, there will always be people who will pick you up on things.
3) Find the time to write. Even if it means getting up at 5am.
Name: Amy Myers (aka Harriet Hudson) and James Myers
Genre: Car detective mystery series
Amy and Jim Myers have been married for 40 years and Amy says there came a point when they wanted to do something together. “Jim had all this knowledge about classic cars and it seemed a pity not to do something with it.”
Especially as, when combined with Amy’s superior crime-writing skills, Jim’s knowledge could provide the foundation for a new ‘car detective’ series.
Amy is a highly respected author of more than 50 novels. Throughout her career she’s written under a number of pseudonyms to separate her historical, saga, crime and suspense work and her most prolific alter ego is Harriet Hudson.
Three of Amy’s most successful protagonists so far have been Peter Marsh, a wheelchair-bound detective, Tom Wasp, a Victorian chimney sweep and Auguste Didier a Victorian master chef.
So how did Amy and Jim come up with Jack Colby? Jim says “we just kind of built him up.” Knowing Jack was going to investigate crimes involving classic cars, he needed to have them as an interest and Amy explains that the setting for Frogs Hill, Jack’s classic car restoration service, was found on a drive through Pluckley.
Jim’s experience of owning three garage businesses in America was then used to create an authentic setting and helped to shape the characters that would work alongside Jack.
Amy adds: “When we saw a photograph of a man who lived in the South of France we both said, ‘that’s Jack Colby’, but the character for me always starts evolving when I start writing, particularly in the first person.
“Jim likes to choose the ‘featured car’ as we call it and if I look it up and it grabs hold of me, we go with that.
They are keen to avoid putting off readers by adding in too much technical detail and Amy writes the first draft of the story by hand, without much plotting as she says she’s too impatient.
When asked about Jim’s involvement in the actual writing process Amy says: “In the earlier books I used to go through the typed-up draft and mark ‘car stuff needed here’ but for the last two books Jim has mainly had input at the beginning and the end.”
It’s a partnership that obviously works and Classic at Bay, the eighth book in the Jack Colby’s series, was published earlier this year.
Top 3 tips
1) Make crime the dominant story in the novel and if, for instance, it combines a romantic relationship, then make that subservient.
2) Regardless of the viewpoint you are writing in, never let the reader lose sight of the protagonist, since he/she is ‘in charge’ of the plot.
3) Begin the novel with something that gives the reader a lead in to the possible plot ahead. Leave all background information for later.
Name: Susan Moody
Genre: Crime writer
Susan’s first crime novel was inspired by her time living in Tennessee in the mid to late 1960s. “I was absolutely appalled by the way black people weren’t allowed to live in the white area, or sit in the same cafeteria and had to swim in different swimming pools. The Ku Klux Klan came into town at one point. It was absolutely unbelievable.”
So when she discovered the Sunday Times was running a competition to find a new female heroine, Susan invented Penny Wanawake, “a tall, black, rich and beautiful, kick-ass female character who didn’t take grief from anybody.”
The Penny Wanawake series proved very popular with readers and now 34 novels later, Susan’s books have been sold in 20 countries and appeared on the Sunday Times Best Sellers list and she has also spent time as the Chair of the Crime Writers Association and is a former World President of the International Association of Crime Writers.
Her books are filled with gutsy female characters and she explains why: “My books are character driven and you need a good protagonist. If you can’t emphasise with a character or see who she is, you’re not going to be able to write a good book. You also need a subtext, something that’s wrong that you would like to put right. Unfairness and indifference are the two things that annoy me more than anything.”
As well as numerous stand-alone titles, Susan has written several series. “I find a series quite an enriching world to write about. It’s a bit like a pearl, you’re adding accretions if you like of character and setting and people you’ve had before.”
She’s not a detailed plotter, however, and says: “I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been doing it a while but everything seems to come as it should. Sometimes you’re working away and you feel like you’re excavating Pompeii with a teaspoon.”
However, she adds: “My latest book, The Quick and the Dead, just came so easily. The words, the ideas, the situations, just flowed out of me.”
When she’s not writing, or speaking at conventions, Susan is busy organising the next Deal Noir, a one-day crime fiction convention aimed at readers, with her co-founder Mike Linane. They were inspired to create the event four years ago when they attended Iceland Noir in Reykjavik and upon her return, Susan went down to the Landmark Centre in Deal and booked it for a day.
“Then I rang various local crime-writing friends and they all agreed to come and be on a panel. It was a small event but it went terribly well.”
The second festival in March this year was just as successful and drew several best-selling international authors as panellists and speakers. The third Deal Noir will be held on 25 March 2017, www.dealnoir.wordpress.com.
Top 3 tips:
1) Read – the more you read, the more you subconsciously absorb the tenets of good writing.
2) Write – unless you actually produce words, every day, if possible, you’re never going to end up with a result.
3) Persevere – don’t take no for an answer!