Word on the Wire

Month: May, 2014


Teasingly, I wrote in last week’s blog that I’d reveal more about ‘Game Over’. Having already written extensively about the novel on D. H.H. Literary Agency’s website, it seems an unnecessary duplication to repeat it here. If interested, check out: dhhliteraryagency.wordpress.com For those aspiring to write, there’s also a thoughtful article on ‘Rejection,’ written by literary agent, Jennifer Muller. It provides cheer, food for thought and encouragement for those who are struggling to find an agent, get their book published, or noticed.

Writers will often say that they spend months in isolation, scribbling away, or more likely clacking on a keyboard, as they craft their novels. All true. But it’s also true, and I’ve mucked about with the well-worn phrase, ‘all work, no play makes for a dull read.’

Perhaps crime/thriller fiction, more than any other genre, is reliant on a writer ‘getting out there’. For me, this is the fun part of writing. For ‘Game Over’ I had extensive conversations with a senior fire officer to ensure that the cellar scene was as authentic as possible. For my current novel, I’m bending the ear of an experienced detective, someone I’ve not liaised with before. My address book reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of police officers, military contacts and forensic scientists. In my time, I’ve communicated with a nameless individual working in intelligence in the States and a senior adviser at the United Nations. I’ve flown in helicopters and talked to those who risk their lives in the pursuit of a passion that, one day, might kill them.   It’s not so much the knowledge, as vital as it is, that stands out in my mind but the people with the knowledge. They are always approachable, generous of their time, often seemingly ordinary, and yet quite extraordinary underneath the surface. Frankly, I couldn’t write without them and they are the heroes often mentioned in acknowledgements.

Characterisation is an essential aspect of writing. We talk about ‘getting under the skin of a character’, of walking in their often extremely uncomfortable shoes. To do this, writers need to draw on every bit of life experience that they have as well as ‘borrowing’ from aforementioned others.   In this regard, age is an asset. This is not to say that you can’t write a cracking thriller in your teens or twenties. Tom Rob Smith wrote the sublime ‘Child 44’ and had it published by the time he was twenty-nine, but he is more the exception to the rule. A recent trip to Crimefest a couple of weeks ago rather proved the point that age, wisdom and experience count for something. I wouldn’t want to wish to give the impression that we are all doddery old geezers, but most had other lives, families and professions, or ‘day jobs’. The point I make is that writers who have been around the block turn out their best work. They’ve lived a little. They have a smattering of understanding of the human heart and the reason people do what they do and why people stray so far into criminality, all essential for writing a decent crime/thriller. In an age of celebrity where ‘yoof’ is highly prized, the fact that maturity is an advantage, frankly, is a bit of relief.





The great thing about breaks is it gives you the chance to read without interruption and I finally whizzed through Alan Judd’s ‘Uncommon Enemy’ while in Lulworth Cove. Judd, in common with Le Carre and Forsyth, reveals snippets of information that you instinctively know to be true. One of Judd’s characters reviews a case file that has not yet been transferred from paper to electronic. This works to the character’s advantage because, as Judd points out, so much can be lost in translation. With a paper read, specific nuances of narrative – who said what when, who made decisions, and in what context – are documented, not always the case in an electronic transcript.  

We live in an age when ‘techno’ rules and often for good reason but, while it’s concerning when medical records are transferred inaccurately (I know two people where this has happened) it’s deeply worrying when relating to national security. Hands up, I have no idea what form electronic intelligence case files take. I believed it was not some kind of tick-box smorgasbord.   Now I have reason to doubt.

Worse follows in Judd’s novel. According to him, the whole culture of the security services has changed, something I suggest in my own novel ‘Wicked Game’. As Judd point outs, and I paraphrase, loyalty and care of agents and staff has gone out through the window and is substituted by a devotion to key performance indicators, management-speak, health and safety and targets. As a result, the very people that could be most useful to the security services, assets, are ignored in favour of the ‘quick result’, whatever the hell that means. Judd is a writer of stature. He knows what he’s talking about. It’s scary.

On a lighter note, I was enthralled to read that a key character, who goes ‘black’ or ‘off the grid,’ seeks refuge in a part of the country I know like the proverbial back of my hand.   The main protagonist, who tries to find him, stays in ‘The Feathers Hotel’ in Ludlow, somewhere I worked for a brief time decades ago.   The eye-opener is when both characters eat and stay at ‘The Lion’ at Leintwardine where one of my daughters works in a management role. Without spoiling the plot, ‘stuff’ goes on via the fire escape and there’s also gunfire in the car park!   As so often the case, truth is stranger than fiction – unlike in my new forthcoming novel ‘Game Over.’

I want to make it plain here and now that my research did not involve frequenting sex parties!  More of this next week when the book hits the shelves…



For all those crime fiction enthusiasts, CRIMEFEST in Bristol is a definite date for the May diary. I’ve attended a couple of times and it’s one of those conventions, which is particularly welcoming and inclusive. There is none of that ‘them,’ as in published writers, and ‘us,’ as in unpublished, nonsense.   It’s smiley, warm and friendly.

I went for one day only, but what a day.   As soon as I stepped into the foyer of the Marriott, I caught up with my agent and, after a long ‘catch-up’ chat, came out fizzing with renewed energy. Next, I finally met Luca Pesaro, a new writer on the block and one whose work I’d critiqued at an early stage. Likewise, later I caught up with Pauline Rendall, another former Writers’ Workshop client, and a couple of other friends and writers I’ve known for a few years now, but in case you think I’d gone for one mother of an extended natter, think again.

The highlight of the day was the ‘Gender Bending: Writing as the Opposite Sex’ panel shared with Chris Simms and Tania Carver aka Martyn Waites, and Laura Wilson as participating moderator.   With one man down, Tom Vowler, through illness, and Laura Wilson delayed – her watch had inconveniently stopped – we could have got off to a bumpy start but, as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and Chris and I volunteered Martyn as our ‘in loco’ moderator until Laura’s arrival.   Sportingly, he agreed.

Laura had already prepped and suggested we all read out short extracts of unattributed prose to see if the audience could spot whether a man or woman had written the piece. I selected a sensitively written paragraph from the wonderful John Hart, ‘The King of Lies’ – most of the audience reckoned a woman had written it, although I can’t claim to be too self-satisfied as I got both of my fellow panellists’ pieces wrong!  

Next up, we debated why we write with a pseudonym, why choose a main protagonist from the opposite sex, the pitfalls, if any, and the issue of double standards. It was lively. It was fun. The audience were clearly engaged and asked some great questions.

Catching the train home at the end of the day, part of me wished I’d stayed for the full shebang, but actually it was quite nice to leave wanting that little bit more.   Next year, I thought, definitely next year…





Last weekend Cheltenham was blessed with the Jazz Festival. The weather was perfect and Montpellier Gardens rippled with people and cool dude musos. I’ve always rated the town for the quality of its buskers but two guys playing drums and smoky jazz guitar on the Prom in a fringe event had me and many transfixed.  

And my bank holiday didn’t finish there because I was whisked away by my other half for a couple of days of R&R in lovely Lulworth Cove because ‘for too long you’ve been running on empty.’ So there you have it. I was officially ‘burnt out’. However that soon changed…

In Shaftesbury, I spotted the actor Michael Kitchen. I’m a fan of his work but didn’t want to bug his day. I especially didn’t want a repeat of a horribly embarrassing episode with an aging rock god some years before in Ludlow. So I drew up alongside, murmured how much I loved Foyle (Foyle’s War) and kept walking. Over my shoulder, I heard his charming reply. ‘Very nice of you to say so,’ he said in that elegant, understated delivery so typical of him.   Joy unconfined.

But the thrills didn’t stop there. Close to the cove, there’s a military base. Signs stating ‘Tanks Crossing’ and ‘Sudden Gunfire’ set my pulse racing. We were soon following a couple of tanks trundling down the road, and watched as they headed off into nearby woods.   And we hadn’t even arrived!

The cove itself is a communication black spot. For almost three days I was ‘off air’, which was a welcome novelty. You don’t realise how much time is dedicated to emails, social media and gabbing on the phone until those particular avenues are unavailable. Did I miss it? Did I hell.

Lulworth Cove Inn was the epitome of sophisticated seaside chic with exceptionally friendly and professional staff. Our room was palatial and, as soon as we dumped our stuff, we headed for the sea metres away. I understood immediately why Thomas Hardy was so captivated by the place. With sun blazing down on water the colour of pale turquoise, we could have been in the South of France.

ImageWalking to the other end of the cove, we lucked out when we spotted a film shoot in progress. C J Daugherty, writer and director, ran towards us to explain that the filming was for a book trailer of one of her ‘Nightschool’ novels. No escape from the writing game – not that I minded a bit.



Mind Your Language

In my day job I come across all kinds of typos, verbal gaffes and bloopers. They can be as basic as the inappropriate use of ‘you’re’ and ‘your’, ‘seized’ and ‘ceased,’ ‘our’ and ‘are’, and ‘bare’ when a writer really means ‘bear’, with some amusing results.   My all time personal favourite was a ‘character’ called ‘Rick O Shade’, until I realised that it related to ‘ricocheted’ as in a bullet rebounding. Then there’s the verbal tic where a single word is repeated again and again. Some examples: ‘just’, ‘so’ and ‘completely’. ‘Well,’ before every piece of a dialogue is a hot favourite, and before you think I’m ‘just’ a little too smug, I’ve made my fair share of all of the above errors (bar Rick O Shade) when I’ve written at speed and forgotten to mind my language. Fortunately, I pick all this stuff up when self-editing. Usually. And that’s the point – blushes spared, it can be corrected before it sees the light of day.

Not so the spoken word.

Certain phrases have entered our vocabulary and are repeated to such a degree it renders them valueless.   The banal ‘Going forwards’ drives me crazy. So what’s the big deal, you may think. But, actually, we get flaky with language at our peril.

When something truly terrible happens stunned silence is sometimes all that is left to describe it. When we do manage to put words to thought it’s important to get it right. How often have you heard the phrase ‘Mistakes have been made and lessons have been learnt…?’ This is trotted out whenever a head of a social services department makes a statement in the wake of a child’s death, or a spokesman for a hospital following, as in the case of Stafford, the deaths of up to 1,200 patients. Senior police officers and politicians are also prone to use it. Fine the first time you hear it, but when those bland statements are made again and again we are entitled to question the truth and conviction behind the sentiment. It risks sounding like a whitewash.

And what’s with the ‘incident’? This is used so extensively it’s virtually meaningless. Used to describe a prang in a car, it can also refer to a major crime like ‘murder’. Some may argue that the use of the word ‘incident’ takes the heat and passion out of the act, that a cool head is required in such circumstances, yet why not call it what it is: ‘a murder’?   If one of my loved ones, God forbid, became a victim, I’m not sure I’d be too chuffed to hear it reported as an ‘incident.’ Check out the word in a dictionary and you’ll see what I mean.

So what I’m asking for is a little more precision, and a great deal more sensitivity although I’m not averse to passion and plain speaking. Talking about opposition to HS2 recently, Boris Johnson was quoted as saying: ‘It’s bollocks’. David Laws nearly made me fall off my chair when I heard him say on air that the idea of the Department of Education opposing free school meals was ‘utter balls’. You don’t have to agree or disagree to know exactly where they stand on both subjects. What was that I was saying about mind your language?!