Monday, November 23, 2009

Getting Started

For the past few months I’ve been out there doing readings in stores and (mostly) libraries to celebrate and promote my recent book, FAMILY LIFE. You know, really enjoying myself and pretending it’s work.

A lot of people at these events seem to have a hunger for the knowledge as to how one gets started. Not so much how does one get published but more how do you start to write a book?

I’m a book collector and particularly volumes of British Detective fiction and over the years I’d been collecting, reading, and enjoying the work of Colin Dexter, Ruth Rendell, Josephine Tey, PD James, RD Wingfield not to mention Arthur Conan Doyle and a good few Agatha Christies. I can’t remember a time when I consciously sat down and thought, I’d like to do that, I’d like to write a murder mystery. However I do remember thinking, if I ever did do that, sit down and try to write a such a story, what would my main character be like?

I definitely remember thinking I’d want my detective to be different (surprise, surprise) in that I’d want my detective to be believable and likeable. I thought if you’re going to expect your reader to be in the company of your detective for say 300 odd pages, well then he’s going to have to be a nice chap, don’t you think?

Most detectives, it seems to me, are blood-shot-eyed, white nostriled, walking disaster areas whose domestic lives are a complete and utter mess. And I suppose there is maybe some form of attraction in that, but in my stories the solving of the puzzles is a big thing and my point would be how could you expect a detective to solve anything, including the mystery of getting out of bed, if his life is such a catastrophe to start.

So, I wanted my detective to be likeable; I wanted him to enjoy the puzzle of the crime and finally I wanted him to be seen to be dealing with something that preoccupies 99% of us each and every day of our lives; trying to succeed in our romantic relationships. I could never really figure out why the majority of crime writers didn’t want to deal with this area. I mean, I am continually intrigued by this side of our lives, added to which it seems to be an endless seam to explore.

Next I found myself thinking about names. If I were to write a story what would my detective be called? I wanted a name what would be warm, friendly, strong and safe. I simply took the name from two of my biggest Irish Heroes – Christy (Moore) – a legendary singer, writer and an institution – and (John F.) Kennedy – a bit of an American institution the Irish seemed to have borrowed down the years. I remember JFK’s death having a big impact on me. I was barely a teenager in a wee village (Magherafelt) thousands of miles away from Dallas yet for some reason I felt the loss, a big loss. I spent the following ten years of my life reading every book I could find on the man. It appeared to me that one of the President’s main qualities was that he was prepared to listen to the team he’d formed around himself before making his decisions. I felt this was also a good quality for a detective to have.

So I had my detective, and I’d named him, Christy Kennedy, I was totally happy with what I had so far and so I started to flesh him out a bit. He wasn’t to be a drinker but he does like his tea. I wanted him to be a man who didn’t want to make a statement out of his dress sense. That is to say he’d wear cool, classy but never loud clothes. He’d be in a good shape, not a fighter as such, but someone who could get themselves out of (physical) trouble by some lateral thinking. I always thought Sir George Martin’s hairstyle was cool, longish but tidy and stylish. So Christy Kennedy adopted a similar style. The rest of Kennedy is pretty much based on my father, Andy. He’s a great man, he loves a puzzle and he’d sit for hours in silence working things out. He’s caring, considerate and if he doesn’t know something he’s not scared of asking. On top of which, he’s very likeable. He has, in fact, all the qualities I wanted Christy Kennedy to have.

I worked my way through the cast of characters. First there is ann rea (always lower case like kd lang and ee cummins – she’s a journalist and so she used the lower case hook to ensure people remembered her name) stunningly beautiful from Kennedy’s point of view; so beautiful in fact that every time he sees her she takes his breath away. Don’t you see that’s what I absolutely love about writing books? We have ann rea and, as I say, she’s stunning drop dead gorgeous and you describe her a bit and then the reader’s imagination fills in the gaps to make her their ideal woman. But, in the movies if the casting director doesn’t get it right – like with Bridges of Madison County for instance – the whole story can be ruined! Whereas Kennedy has spent the last fifteen years of his life so lost in his work that he neither notices it passing nor the fact that it passed without a lot of female company. When they meet ann rea has just come out of a disastrous relationship. She was in love, her ex wasn’t, and so wasn’t in fact that he married someone else near enough immediately. So when she and Kennedy meet he thinks “This is it!” with a subtext of, ‘I’ve so little experience in the affairs of the heart I better be very careful not to mess it up,’ while ann rea thinks, “well I thought it was it last time and it wasn’t, so why should I trust my feelings this time?”

Then there’s DS James Irvine who’s voice is so identical to Sean Connery it’s uncanny, he’s a snazzy dresser always in tweeds and brogues, WPC Anne Coles new on the force with ambitions and not all of them professional and the extremely theatrical and rotund Dr Leonard Taylor, the pathologist, and one who is always happy to hazard a guess at the time of death. With the above regulars, the criminals and the victims, I try to make sure I give them a history, a bit of a past in the hope that by doing so I make them real. On top of which, with little things like Kennedy always flexing the fingers of his right hand when he wants to distract himself; Irvine’s accent and dress; Taylor’s theatrical approach and ann area’s lower case name and Beatle Bob hairstyle, I’m hoping they all will last beyond the page. To me I always enjoy a book so much more when I can actually see the characters in my mind’s eye. For me the great books are the ones where everything is believable. John Dunning, Colin Dexter, Charles Dickens, Alan Bennett, Anthony Trollope and Josephine Tey are the masters at this art; they make you believe their characters and their stories.

The location was the final part of the picture for me. And I had to look no further than my own doorstep. Camden Town has some amazing locations and buildings. You go from the buzzy vibrant multi cultured Camden Lock to the picturesque and leafy Primrose Hill in a matter of a five-minute walk. You have the mix of the youth of the music business types of Camden Town to the old characters of Arlington Road. As I say, everything was right there waiting to be observed, no inventing was necessary.

So from there to actually sitting down and writing was a short and unconscious step. As I mentioned, to me it is important that each story has a unique method of murder and so obviously that takes a certain bit of working out but apart from that, like in true crimes, there is a victim and there is a detective and he and his team work their way through the life story of the victim and the facts of the crime and they follow the leads as they turn up.

I absolutely love starting a new mystery to see what’s been happening with all the characters since the last time and to see what else I can learn about their lives. I write as a reader, to find out what happens next. It’s vitally important to me that the detective, the reader and myself all discover things simultaneously. But now I need to get off and join Kennedy and the gang and see what they're up to in the new mystery, A PLEASURE TO DO DEATH WITH YOU.

So now the bit before I go:

This time I’ve seen and heard:

Christy Moore and Declan Sinnott @ RCH Glasgow

Gilbert O’Sullivan @ Royal Albert Hall, London

Lisa Edkahl @ Espace Lino Ventura, Nice

Mario Rosemstock @ Vicar Street, Dublin

The Alan Price Set @ The Cadogan Hall, London

And read:

The brutal, frank but totally realistic (well, very nearly realistic) Kill Your Friends by John Niven

True Blue by David Baldacci

The revealing Gods, Gangsters and Honour by Steven Machat

The Hacienda: How Not To Run A Club by Peter Hook. If this book was a novel you’d throw it down as just too far fetched.

And listened to:

The amazing new Tom Waits CD, Glitter and Doom Live

Picture Postcards by Tracey Curtis

Happy Holidays,



Monday, October 12, 2009

Building My Religion - October 2009

My latest book is the Inspector Starrett Mystery, Family Life. That’s the second of the Donegal Mysteries. The first of The Starrett trilogy, The Dust of Death, starts of with a crucifixion in a Donegal church. So that I wouldn’t upset any of the other many churches in Ramelton I invented the Second Federation Church as being the church where the remains of local master carpenter, James Moore, were discovered.

Once I’d made that decision I started to consider my fictitious church and what faith it would celebrate. Again, so that I wouldn’t offend anyone I needed the congregation of The Second Federation Church to practice a faith that had no similarities to any of the other churches, particularly in a town whose nickname was the Holy See, and, at one point boasted fourteen churches. So I considered what would be a good religion to be part of? I wondered what religion you could be involved in that you’d be proud of.

I’ve always been impressed by congregations who go out of their way to help each other. You know on one hand you can pray to a long-haired, white-bearded man, dressed in white sheets who wanders around above the clouds to, say, come and plough your land, or, even, to help you build a barn, or, on the other hand, you can invite a few members of your congregation around, supply them with food and drink, and invite them to help you with your chosen task. Now because the man in white has been very elusive for the past couple of centuries and because on previous occasions you will most likely have gone to the aid of your fellow congregation members, seeking nothing more than food and drink in return, there is a very good chance that they will heed your request and turn up en mass to help you with your chore.

I know, I know, this is all drastically simplistic but, since an incident in my youth, I’ve always been fine with a simplistic approach to things. When I was young (pre-teens) my mother and father bought me a junior carpentry set. My father was a carpenter and I aspired to be the same. Anyway I got my new carpentry set with all it’s shiny new tools and I futtered around for absolutely ages (weeks possibly months) trying to figure out how to build a wooden chair just like the ones at our dinner table. I was going for the full Monty: legs, seat, back, and strengthening & stabilising supports. The problem was that all of my efforts would end up in a collapsed heap on the floor. My father would continue to encourage me by asking me how I was getting on with my chosen task and I’d always say I was still working on the creation of the perfect chair. Time passed, as it does, and still not a chair in sight and eventually, perhaps with a degree of gentle frustration, my father came in one day from work and on discovering his heir still hadn’t mastered the design and construction of a chair, he took three pieces of wood and he nailed them together in something similar to the shape of a “n”, creating a very primitive, yet functional, two legs and seat. He said, “There’s your chair and, until as such times as you can master better, this will suffice.” Don’t you see his well made point was: ‘at least you have your basic chair and now perhaps you can start to perfect it.’ Or, if I wanted to paraphrase it even further, ‘you’ve got to learn to creep before you can learn to walk.’

So my lesson well learnt, and better taught, I proceeded to consider building my religion.

Personally speaking I’ve always felt that religion should be like a family. For me it’s always been about family life; caring for, protecting and encouraging your family members. If we could only learn to love and look after our families behind our closed doors then once we pass over the front doorstep we’ll be much better equipped to deal with life and with people. But don’t you see as humans we generally seem to be in conflict with things and people, rather than to go along with the greatness of things; this not a criticism because this fundamental flaw seems to be built in to most of us. So, a family type support structure, as in what you’d ideally like from your family, had to be a vital ingredient for my religion

In my religion music would also have to be very important. The healing quality of music should never ever be underestimated.

When I was growing up in Magherafelt I remember going to prayer meetings in a wee hall (and in the summer in the marquee) and being totally turned on by the gospel singing. You know there’s that wonderful sound that’s created by the blend of all the male and female voices and magic is created when their unique harmony creates a third voice. I remember the very first time I experienced this chills-down-the-spine sensation like it was yesterday. I even remember turning and looking around the congregation to see where this new voice had come from.

That was my first major “musical” experience.

The second would have been the soulful sound of the voices of the great singers around the Irish Ballrooms and clubs at that time; Billy Brown, Paddy Shaw, Billy Williamson and Paul DeVieto always sounded wonderful and inspirational to me. Then on the recording front I discovered the works of Ray Charles and Otis Redding, both life-changing events for me.

This unquestionable and unquenchable thirst was heightened when I was working with Van Morrison and we went up to the Shetland Islands to hear the chanters in the churches. I don’t know if you’ve ever witnessed this chanting but the sound of a burly Scottish gentleman chanting his lines in a foreign language (to my ears) for the congregation to offer a reply in their sweet soulful harmonies was just unbelievable; truly another hairs on the back of your neck on full alert experience.

These are the times I’ve experienced the true greatness of men and women and they’ve all been connected by music.

So, when considering the foundations of the Second Federation Church there was always music running through my head and as some of you may know the music that makes the connection with me is the music of the Beatles, Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Jennifer Warnes, Karen Carpenter, Neil Diamond and Van Morrison, etc etc.

The cent dropped and everything else fell into place easily for me one Saturday night when Catherine and I were in our house in Ramelton. The Town Band was heralding the triumphant return of the local football team. There was as much excitement as if Wayne Rooney had scored a double hat-trick for Manchester United. The Town Band was playing Neil Diamond’s infectious Sweet Caroline. It was just such a joyous sweet sound and they were delivering it with such passion, vibrancy and in a transparent, feel-good manner. They were, to a boy and girl, all beaming from ear to ear in such evident pleasure at the music they were creating as they danced along Ramelton’s streets.

I was so inspired by them that I immediately made them the cornerstone of the Second Federation Church’s music; I based the church choir on the Ramelton Town Band. From there it was a series of very small steps to Van’s Have I told You Lately That I Love You; Dylan’s Forever Young; Listen by Christy Moore; Here Comes The Sun by George Harrison; You Inspire Me by Nick Lowe; In The Neighbourhood by Tom Waits and then two really big ones for me, Graham Nash’s Teach Your Children, the perfect song for a family and an even better one for the church, and Jackson Browne’s The Only Child with Jackson’s unselfish vital lyric, based around the theme of taking good care of each other, becoming the overlying theme of the First Federation Church.

Yes, Take Good Care of Each Other, I mean, is there really anything more important we can do in our lives?

And now, the bit before I go.

This time I’ve been reading and thoroughly enjoying The Coroner by M.R. Hall; Nine Dragons from the master, Michael Connelly, and the sad, yet realistic and funny Last Shop Standing by Graham Jones.

I’ve been watching the DVD version of the first series of mesmerizing Fringe.

And listening to the re-mastered complete collection of Beatles’s CDs, which are all unbelievably amazing. In fact as Beatle Paul recently said, “listening to these versions of the albums is just like being back in the room with the Beatles.” and he should know he was there.

Cheers for now,


Monday, September 14, 2009

The Lives of a Family - September 2009

The politics, history and healing power of a family has always intrigued me.

When I was working on my first Inspector Starrett mystery, The Dust of Death, I realised pretty soon that the ideas I had for Starrett's personal story were too much to put in one book. Quite simply, there would not have been enough time left to deal with the crime element of the tale. I started to feel comfortable with the approach of writing it as part one of a trilogy, with The Dust of Death (2007), Family Life, just published (Sept 2009) and Hello Darkness My Old Friend, which is still to be written.

In fact the minute I completed work on The Dust of Death, I immediately started to write Family Life, going from the last sentence of The Dust of Death straight to "Hey Ma, where's Joe?"- the first sentence of Family Life. No breaks for newspapers; DVDs; checking the snail-mail or the email; checking on the television or radio for the news; going for a dander; enjoying a pit-stop for a cup of coffee, or even, my favourite tipple, a cup of tea. No Sir. I didn't even pause for one of Bakersville's magic Bakewell Buns. By the time I'd completed the first 20 or so pages, you know where the Sweeney family, siblings, partners, wives and children gather together in their ones and twos to celebrate the birthday of the patriarch of the family, Mr Liam Sweeney, I realised I needed to stop and spend some time getting to know the family properly before I could write more about them. Pretty much as you do when you're getting to know any real family. And, as is the case with any real family, it's not something you can do overnight. You have to take your time and let the getting to know happen organically, naturally, if you will. In writing the book I had to take time to allow the family members to have their own voices so the mystery could evolve.

I've always thought it incredible how the family unit will act as the basic support system for its members. I remember watching a very realistic bio-movie of The Moors murderers. My jaw was literally on the ground in disbelief as I viewed a family confrontation where Myra Hindley's sister laid it out, in very graphic detail, for her mother exactly what Myra and Brady had been up to. This was all the more shocking as it transpires little did the sister know. The mother, without batting an eyelid, chastised Myra's sister, saying essentially that anyone who went against Myra was no daughter of hers. The discussion took place across the dinner table - the focal point of most family debates. The impact of that scene is still vividly burnt in my mind and I play it over and over again. I keep trying to figure out how a mother could knowingly protect a monster; even if the monster in question was her own daughter.

Maybe therein lies the secret. Myra was a member of her family and as such the mother was helpless to do anything other than continue to protect her. Yes, maybe she did weigh it up and figured that what she, the mother, was doing was dealing in acceptable loses in that she was happy to lose contact with one daughter (Myra's sister) so that the other daughter (Myra) would not lose her liberty. But I kept thinking it was most likely her mind fast forwarding through this process. The decision making process most likely, as far as the mother was concerned, had nothing whatsoever to do with right and wrong. I felt it was as basic as: "You're either for our family or you're against us."

But what then of the families, whose lives had been destroyed, obliterated even, when their babies didn't come home? Did Myra Hindley's mother not stop and consider them in her thought process?

There's one scene in Family Life where Inspector Starrett is outside the Sweeney farmhouse and he's kicking his heels until he can go back in and start to interview the various members of the household again. He goes for a wee dander, never straying too far from the house. Starrett acts as our camera in this scene as he enjoys the splendours of the rich Donegal countryside. Suddenly he hears the plaintive cries of a runt from a litter of cats as the mother, apparently cruelly, leaves the weak and deformed runt, essentially meaning that in the countryside, it will die, or be killed. Either way the runt's end will most probably come pretty quickly. Starrett wonders how the mother of the runt can ignore the heart-wrenching wail and leave one of her own behind. Then he realises that if the mother doesn't make this sacrifice she is risking the remainder of the litter. Maybe Myra's mother should have taken an excruciating painful lesson and treated Myra as a runt. Cruel? Perhaps, but then don't you see, by not allowing Myra's sister's sense to prevail, at least one other innocent life was lost, on top of which, her own family was ultimately destroyed as well.

Still, at the heart and soul of every great family you will invariably find a compassionate, strong, yet gentle mother who will be called on to make such decisions. This magical, generous, considerate, compassionate, taken-for-granted woman, will put her children's and husband's lives before her own on a daily basis. She will have the patience of a saint, the wisdom of King Solomon and will try to mend, heal and fix every single thing you can think of, including, sometimes even a broken heart.

Starrett's mother is the 7th daughter of a 7th daughter. That's just the way it turned out. In my getting to know the Starrett family it became clear that Starrett had benefited in his life from that extra something, maybe even something bordering on the supernatural. For a time I even considered he might be the seventh son of a seventh son, but then I felt that having him the son of the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter would make him a gentler person and a person who perhaps wouldn't be quite so preoccupied with this special gift. To me, this, all of this, how people are related to each other; how they relate to each other; the composite of the family members; the personalities of our relatives; how we fit into the family hierarchy, all have a major impact on our personality and on our lives. Each family will be composed of: the passengers; the motivators; the observers; the wreckers; the builders; those preoccupied with grudges and by long running feuds, you know who did what to whom and when; and those whose only ambition is for the family to be looking to, and surviving, the future.

It would be my opinion that running a successful family is pretty much a full time occupation and as organisations some exist so successfully that governments would do well to take a well-worn leaf from their book.

In Family Life, Starrett is faced, as I was when I completed the first twenty pages, with discovering the workings and the secrets of the Sweeney Family, a proud family who have farmed the land just outside Ramelton in Donegal since 1875. At the same time he's also discovering how he fits in with his own family and during the course of the book he realises that the family unit does not just consist of parents and children. Loudon Wainwright III put it in perspective perfectly with his fine lyric on the song Dump The Dog (Fame and Wealth CD):

I'm a son and I'm a father
I am just a middle man.

Our family members are the ones we want to share our proudest moments with and, because they're our family, we somehow feel that the vanity is no longer a sin. Our families are the ones we expect most from. We also live with the burden that we know they are the ones on this earth who expect most from us. Equally, deep down, we know they will still accept us for all our flaws and faults. Unless of course we're a runt and then they'll most certainly be taxed with wildly mixed emotions about us. Who'd be a mother, eh?

And now the bit before I go:

This time I’ve been reading and enjoying:

Snowball by Alice Schroeder

The Gates by John Connolly

In a way both these books are connected in that Snowball is so big you’ll not be able to close the door of your room while you’re reading it and on The Gates you’ll not want to close the door to your room while you’re reading it for fear of what might be on the other side. The Gates is excellent, a brilliant display of story-telling. I haven’t read a book in ages that I so much wanted to read again and, as soon as possible

Also I listened to (and watched) The Johnny Cash American TV series featuring: JC, Dylan, Derek and The Dominios, Louis Armstrong, The Everly Bros. Incredible footage, beautiful performances, just totally amazing!


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

First Flights – August 2009

When I was young, so much younger than today, about 7 or 8 say, I had this theory that there was another person somewhere else in the world identical to me. Identical to me in that even at that point he was also enjoying the exact same thoughts about me. My theory kind of broke down once I started to get into the difference the thought process would have to be in other languages. Don't you see for my theory to work, the identical me had to live on the other side of the world, otherwise he might be spotted by someone who actually knew me and the ruse would be broken.

And then when I grew older and was lucky enough to have some books published and then I attempted to find a website name for my books. Well didn't I only discover that there wasn't just one of me but close enough to several dozen in fact. Some light, some dark, some small, some tall, although I'm not quite sure how I ascertained those facts by the list of registered names, and some that possibly didn't even exist at all. But the bottom line was that every possible permutation of my name had already been registered.

Then someone came up with the idea of sticking the word "the" on the front of my name not because they, or even I, would claim that I am the Paul Charles as in the one and only Paul Charles, or even the best Paul Charles, and hopefully not even the worst Paul Charles, but the only Paul Charles with a "the" on the front of his name. Now, I promise I won't have business cards, or t-shirts or even book jackets with this moniker brashly displayed. No it will only be between you and I, so that you, if you wish to, will know how to find me on the world, wide web.

But there's more to this tale, along came web genius Maddee (Madeira James) who came up with a better idea and registered paulcharlesbooks and so I no longer had to claim to be the me. Which is quite handy; I mean you never know when you're going to meet another Paul Charles and have to deal with all of his baggage as well as your own. Please don't tell them this though, because for the foreseeable future thepaulcharles will always get you on to this site.

Did you ever have any similar theories to that one? I mean now it might seems funny that anyone would ever entertain that as anything more than a passing thought, but I will admit that I considered this theory intently and troubled myself over it for a couple of years. I also used to fret about the wind blowing me away over the rooftop of our house in The Alley in Magherafelt. Again I was around the same age and we must have experienced some blustering storms, because I definitely remember seeing myself in my mind's eye blowing away over our roof. Not in a Harry Potter type of controlled flight experience. No, not at all, mine was more a heads over heels tumbling on and on into the sky. For some reason thought my flight path always took the same route. I don't believe, in the history of the world, that anyone (child) has ever been blown away over the rooftop. I've just googled that, as you do, and there are 35,000 entries, 2.78 million roads, 10,000 motorways and - (no, no sorry I promise to leave all the jokes to Colin Bateman, he's so genius at them). So, 35,000 results but not one confirmed flight I'm happy to report. But my point was more why would I have thought that, or feared that? I do actually remember feeling what such a flight would be like; butterflies in the stomach, wind whistling past my ears and though my hair, clothes fluttering in the wind and ballooning furiously. The wind gusting all over the place but particularly in my face, and all of that, So, at least for me, it was quite a real experience. And, going back to my original point, why would I have thought that there was another me? What did that say about my thought process?

What else did I think about way back then? I though I should become a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I really did. I could never work out if it was because of how cool I though their uniform looked or if I thought those wings on their trousers would help me in my airborne adventures should I ever actually be blown over the rooftop.

There was nothing else major that preoccupied me thought, otherwise I'd remember it, I hope. Why do such thoughts stop? "Because you've (hopefully) grown up," I hear you say, yes and that's true but you still have to use that part of your brain somehow. These days when I'm not trying to work out a unique method of murder for a Christy Kennedy Mystery, I'm using all my mental powers to try and invent a thingamajig, which will automatically sew missing buttons back onto your shirts. I've kind of figured out that the gadget will look like a fountain pen. However when you take the top off you'll discover what looks like a syringe but with three needles instead of one. You'll inject this triad of pins through the button and into the shirt and somehow three strands of plastic thread with come out through the pins, which will heat the thread and melt them together, affixing your escaped button securely back into place in one quick, elegant manoeuvre. As you can see I'm still working on the finer details, so please don't tell anyone about it until I manage to get it patented. I'm thinking of calling it a PenPal.

And now, the bit before I go, the bit nicked from gentleman John Connolly.

I'm currently reading, and thoroughly enjoying:

Manhunt - the 12-day chase for Lincoln's Killer - by James L. Swanson

Recent great gigs:

Lisa Hannigan @ the Acoustic Stage, Glastonbury.
Ray Davies with Bill Shanley @ the Acoustic Stage, Glastonbury
Ry Cooder & Nick Lowe @ the Carre Theatre, Amsterdam.
Crosby, Stills and Nash @ The Edinburgh Castle