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
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