evseymour

Word on the Wire

Category: Creative Writing

SUMMERTIME BLUES

I’ve found a cure for the Summertime Blues. Now I know that Jeremy Clarkson is a Marmite individual, but ‘Clarkson’s Farm’ is definitely worth a watch if only for the characters in this ‘fly on the wall’ insight into how a farm is actually run.  Take twenty-one year old Kaleb, a mini farming entrepreneur who barely leaves the sanctity of Chipping Norton. The episode, in which he travels to London in a doomed attempt to sell wasabi to top London restaurants, makes you realise why he has such a strong aversion to ‘the city.’ Yet he has more knowledge in his little finger than someone of more senior years (including Clarkson) and is unafraid to express it in a forthright manner. ‘Cheerful Charlie,’ Clarkson’s long-suffering land agent and rural advisor, who spells out the genuine cost of running a farm – the amounts made my eyes water – offers a steady hand at the tractor wheel. All-round elderly labourer, Gerald, literally speaks a language only understood by himself. Together with the very calm, Lisa, Clarkson’s other half, these are the folk that makes this series tick. 

When Clarkson took the reckless decision to run ‘Diddly-Squat’ after his farm manager retired, he had no idea that the knowledge that has served him well in his motoring career has little place in modern farming. Quite often, his actions, by his own admission, are cack-handed.  To be fair, he was up against it from the outset due to the weather, which was set to be the wettest in decades, upsetting planting times and ruining crops. A rosy-tinted view of ‘having a few sheep’ (seventy-eight) is quickly dispelled by reality. Sheep have escapology running through their genes. They are prone to disease and barrenness. In short, they cost.  Farming is not for the sentimental and, at times, Clarkson was deeply sentimental, an unusual sight for most viewers.  Not only was the series entertaining, it gives a fresh insight into the average day in a farmer’s life. Having bolted through all seven episodes last weekend I found myself calmly driving along, caught in a tailback of traffic, behind a rickety tractor, on my way to Ludlow. Normally, I’d be frothing at the mouth. This time, I thought: ‘So what? These guys have an important job to do in the most difficult of conditions.’ Whether you like the man or not, Clarkson’s show softened my attitude, and its legacy is something worthwhile and enduring. 

The mass-market paperback of ‘SIX’ is released under my pseudonym, G.S. Locke in August. A key character in the novel, Danny Hallam, has spent twenty-five years in prison. As you might imagine, I carried out research to find out about prison life, so when Jimmy McGovern’s ‘TIME’ hit the screen it was of special interest to me. ‘TIME’ makes for tough viewing. Prison is not the soft option as often portrayed in the media. The reality of prison life is searing and McGovern is unflinching in conveying the savagery of inmates and the basic cruelties that can turn an average day into a living hell. The loneliness and sense of abandonment felt by vulnerable prisoners and, at times, those who guard them absolutely resonated. Magnificent performances by Sean Bean and Stephen Graham lift the story to a very superior level. Catch it if you can. 

‘Battle Sight Zero’ by Gerald Seymour (no relation) gets my vote for book of the month.  It features Andy Knight who lives a dangerous life as an undercover officer. His task is to penetrate a terrorist cell and to do this he must befriend a young woman. The most basic rule is never to become close to the target but Andy falls for her, as she does for him. No spoilers, so I won’t reveal what happens other than to say that if you’re interested in the history of guns, the Kalashnikov AK47 plays a vital role, to the extent that it almost become a character in it’s own right. A clever story, skilfully executed, Seymour proves that once again he is one of the best thriller writers in the world. With the summer upon us, I’ll be taking a long break from writing this blog until, at least, September.  Enjoy the summer. Hope you have plenty of great books to read. See you on the other side

SOMEONE FIND ME SOME HEAD SPACE

The sharp-eyed will note that I’ve been AWOL since my last blog post in March. This is for no other mysterious reason that I’ve been busy with editorial work, which is great. Not so great – I’ve been unable to find the head space so essential for writing. It’s a common issue. Most writers, and definitely most unpublished authors, who have yet to dip their toes into the mad world of publishing, have day jobs. So how do you juggle a demanding 9 to 5 with writing your story?

Whilst I haven’t been writing I have been plotting. This can be done in bite-sized pieces at any time of the day and even the night. (Maddeningly, I often find I have the best creative ideas before falling asleep and on waking up). This is where ‘the notebook’ comes into play. Mine isn’t very big but it’s absolutely crammed with random bits of information about characters, ideas, subjects I need to research, locations to visit, (not easy during lockdown, although St Google comes in handy) and bits of language or description that float into my head. And I’ve noticed a pattern. Around 60% of information in the first half of my notebook gets jettisoned, or is so further developed that it bears no resemblance to the original idea. For me, this is all part of the refining process. What I wind up with is then typed up. Characterisation plays a key role and I’ll have yards of stuff about physical characteristics, background, pet hates, passions, obsessions – the list is endless – as well as locations. Running alongside, plot points, which can be a little sketchy to start with, until I start building scenes, including those key ‘turning points’ or revelations, necessary to power a narrative.  Again, this can all be done in the odd spare half hour and, if you can find a little time each day over a week, it soon builds. The point is that there is absolutely no pressure. It doesn’t compete with the ‘day job’ or family commitments, or even, that most important thing, having a life. 

After a few months of ‘noodling’, I usually find a host of plot holes that require resolution. This is crunch time.  If, and it has been known, that things refuse to make sense, I may abandon the entire project. As importantly, I might find I’ve fallen out of love with the story – a killer for any novel. If you don’t love your characters and your story, it will show through in the writing so it’s a good idea to be really honest with yourself at this point. 

However if you feel that little thrill of excitement, that basically gives you the green light, then flesh out your story, which may take more months, until it’s at that stage when it’s strong enough and you’re confident enough to sit down and write. ‘But how do I find the time?’ I hear you say. 

While I can’t magic a space in your schedule, I believe that the longer the thinking time, the shorter the writing time.  When authors say ‘it’s as if the story wrote itself’, chances are this is because they adopted the approach outlined here. They didn’t just grab an idea off the top of their heads and bang it out. Instead, they thought about it, gave it due consideration, avoided stereotype with their characters and played around with the plot so that one scene doesn’t sound remarkably like another.  They gave it a little love. And the best stories are a combo of head and heart.

REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL

January proved to be such a brutal month for many and, with continued restrictions, I wasn’t much in the mood for writing a blog post, but time moves on and I thought I’d share a few reasons to be cheerful in February.

Obtaining agent representation is harder than ever but three authors, who I worked with on their stories, have defied the odds and done just that. In no particular order, Daniel Scanlan is now represented by Ian Drury at Sheil Land Associates, Rob Burnett is represented by Jemima Forrester at David Higham Associates and Charlotte Owen is represented by Nicola Barr at The Bent Agency. Congratulations to all and best of luck with their books and careers.  

Over Christmas – seems so long ago – I finally read ‘The Salt Path’ by Raynor Winn. As I’ve often said I tend to read best sellers long after the hype has died down. In this instance I wished I hadn’t waited so long. A true story, utterly inspirational, and a massive testament to fortitude in adversity, it proved the perfect read for our time. It’s grounding. It recognises the fragility of life. It also makes you realise that bad things do indeed happen to anyone and it isn’t wise to take what we have for granted.  And yet, this is no misery memoir. It’s uplifting and life-affirming and one of those rare books I might well return to.  But not before I plough through my ‘TBR’ pile, which has spectacularly increased after I took receipt of hardback versions of ‘The Burning Girls’ by CJ Tudor and ‘Slough House’ by Mick Herron a few days ago. Don Winslow’s, ‘The Force’ has also joined the ranks after my other half raved about it. An epic tale of corruption in the New York Police Department, with a highly morally ambiguous main protagonist, sounds just my bag. Can’t wait to dip in once I’ve finished Bill Bryson’s extraordinary ‘At Home.’ To describe and do it justice, I’m going to quote from the blurb: ‘What does history really consist of? Centuries of people quietly going about their daily business… And where do all these normal activities take place? At home.’  It’s a history of private life, of invention, of habit and convention. While it’s not so laugh out loud funny as his other works, it’s no less entertaining. The sheer volume of information and fascinating detail is astonishing. Bryson’s true talent is his ability to unearth and flag up the endeavours of the ‘little people,’ those inventive souls who failed to be recognised for their achievements in the age in which they lived, often through some quirk of history or humanity.  His love of language is a joy for a wordsmith. Who knew that, for example, that the word ‘bedroom’ was first used by Shakespeare in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ or that the word ‘Buttery,’ a room in a grand house, has nothing to do with ‘butter’ but ‘butts’ as in butts of ale? I love this kind of minutiae.  

On the literary front, ‘SIX’ will be published on March 4th as trade paperback and digital, the mass-market paperback released in August.  The story begins when successful criminal defence lawyer, Jon Shaw, comes face to face with, Danny Hallam, the man he tried to murder twenty-five years ago.  To find out why, how and what, you’ll need to grab a copy!

Meanwhile, Apple audio has released ‘A Deadly Trade’ and ‘Final Target’ with Ben Onwukwe’s deliciously deadly voice capturing Hex perfectly. For those unfamiliar with Hex, he’s a hitman turned good guy who, in ‘A Deadly Trade’ becomes embroiled in uncovering a criminal conspiracy involving biological weapons. In short, it’s a tale of espionage meets action adventure. In ‘Final Target,’ Hex discovers that the past is not so easily left behind and is quickly pulled back into the game by glamorous, MI5 intelligence officer, Inger McCallen, with an operation in Berlin. It contains all the typical Hex trademarks: high body count, intrigue, and highly intelligent women.  

I need no excuse to binge-watch, but the pandemic has made my love affair with the small screen more respectable. How I missed ‘The Americans’ when it first came out, I have absolutely no idea. A spy thriller set in 1980’s America, it follows the story of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, two KGB deep cover intelligence officers, played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, who pose as an all American couple. Both sides of the spy divide are brilliantly explored when an FBI agent, Stan Beeman, specialising in counter-terrorism, moves in opposite (played by Noah Emmerich). Characterisation is superb, surpassed only by the acting. Frank Langella puts in a compelling performance as ‘Gabriel’, the Jennings’s handler. Plot lines are authentic and dramatic. Again, it’s a series I may well return to at a later date. 

I have a small number of CD’s bought from buskers around the country. A few years ago we were passing through Chester. Walking down the main drag, the haunting sounds of  a violinst playing ‘Schindler’s List’ stopped us dead.  We were not alone. Quite a number of people had stopped to listen to what turned out to be a sublime set of film scores. The man playing was none other than Phillip Chidell, a highly regarded musician and one time child prodigy, although we didn’t know it at the time. For some reason our CD was added to our collection but never opened until this Christmas when we were hunting around for something a little different to play. And what a treat. Production values are superb – not something that can always be said when you buy work  ‘off the pavement’. If you love film music or you simply love to hear a musician playing at the top of his game, go out and buy. Shakespeare had a point when he said that ‘If music be the food of love, play on.’  

Lastly, and continuing with a music theme, remember Conchita Wurst – and her Eurovision Song Entry, ‘Rise Like A Phoenix?’  Well, I was given the sheet piano music for the song at Christmas. For those who don’t know it it’s a big gutsy power piece about hope and optimism.  If I’m feeling glum, I take to the keys and belt it out.  If not cheerful before, I certainly am after.   

REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL

January proved to be such a brutal month for many and, with continued restrictions, I wasn’t much in the mood for writing a blog post, but time moves on and I thought I’d share a few reasons to be cheerful in February.

Obtaining agent representation is harder than ever but three authors, who I worked with on their stories, have defied the odds and done just that. In no particular order, Daniel Scanlan is now represented by Ian Drury at Sheil Land Associates, Rob Burnett is represented by Jemima Forrester at David Higham Associates and Charlotte Owen is represented by Nicola Barr at The Bent Agency. Congratulations to all and best of luck with their books and careers.

Over Christmas – seems so long ago – I finally read ‘The Salt Path’ by Raynor Winn. As I’ve often said I tend to read best sellers long after the hype has died down. In this instance I wished I hadn’t waited so long. A true story, utterly inspirational, and a massive testament to fortitude in adversity, it proved the perfect read for our time. It’s grounding. It recognises the fragility of life. It also makes you realise that bad things do indeed happen to anyone and it isn’t wise to take what we have for granted. And yet, this is no misery memoir. It’s uplifting and life-affirming and one of those rare books I might well return to. But not before I plough through my ‘TBR’ pile, which has spectacularly increased after I took receipt of hardback versions of ‘The Burning Girls’ by CJ Tudor and ‘Slough House’ by Mick Herron a few days ago. Don Winslow’s, ‘The Force’ has also joined the ranks after my other half raved about it. An epic tale of corruption in the New York Police Department, with a highly morally ambiguous main protagonist, sounds just my bag. Can’t wait to dip in once I’ve finished Bill Bryson’s extraordinary ‘At Home.’ To describe and do it justice, I’m going to quote from the blurb: ‘What does history really consist of? Centuries of people quietly going about their daily business… And where do all these normal activities take place? At home.’ It’s a history of private life, of invention, of habit and convention. While it’s not so laugh out loud funny as his other works, it’s no less entertaining. The sheer volume of information and fascinating detail is astonishing. Bryson’s true talent is his ability to unearth and flag up the endeavours of the ‘little people,’ those inventive souls who failed to be recognised for their achievements in the age in which they lived, often through some quirk of history or humanity. His love of language is a joy for a wordsmith. Who knew that, for example, that the word ‘bedroom’ was first used by Shakespeare in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ or that the word ‘Buttery,’ a room in a grand house, has nothing to do with ‘butter’ but ‘butts’ as in butts of ale? I love this kind of minutiae.

On the literary front, ‘SIX’ will be published on March 4th as trade paperback and digital, the mass-market paperback released in August. The story begins when successful criminal defence lawyer, Jon Shaw, comes face to face with, Danny Hallam, the man he tried to murder twenty-five years ago. To find out why, how and what, you’ll need to grab a copy!

Meanwhile, Apple audio has released ‘A Deadly Trade’ and ‘Final Target’ with Ben Onwukwe’s deliciously deadly voice capturing Hex perfectly. For those unfamiliar with Hex, he’s a hitman turned good guy who, in ‘A Deadly Trade’ becomes embroiled in uncovering a criminal conspiracy involving biological weapons. In short, it’s a tale of espionage meets action adventure. In ‘Final Target,’ Hex discovers that the past is not so easily left behind and is quickly pulled back into the game by glamorous, MI5 intelligence officer, Inger McCallen, with an operation in Berlin. It contains all the typical Hex trademarks: high body count, intrigue, and highly intelligent women.

I need no excuse to binge-watch, but the pandemic has made my love affair with the small screen more respectable. How I missed ‘The Americans’ when it first came out, I have absolutely no idea. A spy thriller set in 1980’s America, it follows the story of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, two KGB deep cover intelligence officers, played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, who pose as an all American couple. Both sides of the spy divide are brilliantly explored when an FBI agent, Stan Beeman, specialising in counter-terrorism, moves in opposite (played by Noah Emmerich). Characterisation is superb, surpassed only by the acting. Frank Langella puts in a compelling performance as ‘Gabriel’, the Jennings’s handler. Plot lines are authentic and dramatic. Again, it’s a series I may well return to at a later date.

I have a small number of CD’s bought from buskers around the country. A few years ago we were passing through Chester. Walking down the main drag, the haunting sounds of a violinst playing ‘Schindler’s List’ stopped us dead. We were not alone. Quite a number of people had stopped to listen to what turned out to be a sublime set of film scores. The man playing was none other than Phillip Chidell, a highly regarded musician and one time child prodigy, although we didn’t know it at the time. For some reason our CD was added to our collection but never opened until this Christmas when we were hunting around for something a little different to play. And what a treat. Production values are superb – not something that can always be said when you buy work ‘off the pavement’. If you love film music or you simply love to hear a musician playing at the top of his game, go out and buy. Shakespeare had a point when he said that ‘If music be the food of love, play on.’

Lastly, and continuing with a music theme, remember Conchita Wurst – and her Eurovision Song Entry, ‘Rise Like A Phoenix?’ Well, I was given the sheet piano music for the song at Christmas. For those who don’t know it it’s a big gutsy power piece about hope and optimism. If I’m feeling glum, I take to the keys and belt it out. If not cheerful before, I certainly am after.

READ ALL ABOUT IT!

Nothing much to report from me, or at least nothing I can talk about, BUT I have terrific news about an author who I was lucky enough to team up with, via Jericho Writers, and I’m going to share in his glory just a little.

In short, ‘STEEL FEAR’ landed on my desk last year. There was much to admire but, in common with a lot of authors who have successfully written non-fiction, there was a problem with making the transition to writing fiction. In short, a ton of ‘tell,’ superfluous and pace-slowing exposition and no central main protagonist. Tough love was required.

Now this can go one of two ways for an editor: either the author can seethe quietly, or even noisily, and then come back and say, ‘Thank you very much. I’ll take suggestions on board,’ and do nothing, or they actually embrace suggestions that resonate with them, allow ideas to percolate and process, and then revise. (Occasionally, an author will cut up rough but, mercifully, this is rare.) Anyway, John was very much in the ‘Right, time to get stuck in ‘ mentality and it worked.  A two-book deal followed and now – gasp – the ‘folks’ from Hollywood are actively looking at film scripts.

John very kindly attributes much of his success to me, which, after ten years working as a freelance editor, is deeply rewarding and satisfying. And if you don’t believe me you can read all about his journey: The Rewriter’s Journey by John David Mann/Jericho in an eloquently written piece that pulls no punches about the realities of the ‘writing game’, my words, not his. Best of all, it’s funny.  Once the cover has been finalised, I’ll be posting it on my website under ‘Success Stories.’

DARK AND DIRTY

‘Dark and dirty’ appears to sum up my viewing and reading over the past couple of months. A huge fan of Gerald Seymour’s work, (as I’ve said many times before) ‘Beyond Recall’ was utterly outstanding for its brilliant characterisation, hard-hitting storyline – a massacre in Syria instigated and carried out under the watchful eye of a senior Russian soldier – and its unusually poignant, upbeat ending. (Not something Seymour is particularly noted for). This time, Seymour’s main protagonist, Gaz Baldwin, is a ‘watcher’.  Witnessing an atrocity breaks Gaz mentally, spiritually and emotionally. Scratching out a life of sorts on the Orkney Isles, Gaz is recalled to service when the Russian officer responsible is spotted in Murmansk. It’s down to Gaz to identify him. Seems simple enough? But, of course, things do not go according to plan. It’s crammed with all Seymour’s trademark literary attributes, but, for me, this went beyond. Not only is it a story about love and loyalty, it reveals the price paid by those invested in protecting us. When old ways are abandoned by the ‘higher-ups’ in pursuit of the narrow and new, the heavy stench of betrayal clings to every page.

Similarly, in the first season of ‘Deep State,’ former MI6 field officer, Max Easton (played by Mark Strong) is reluctantly lured back into service.  This isn’t simply a story about an intelligence operation gone wrong; it’s about the difficulty of leading a lonely double life and the price paid by a spy’s nearest and dearest. Things turn very sour and quickly when everyone Max knows and loves, specifically his new wife and young family, is threatened.

Having got the ‘Strong bug,’ I was delighted to come across ‘Low Winter Sun.’ With a fabulous cast, including a mesmerising Lenny James, this is a ‘grab you by the throat’ thriller of police corruption and utter mayhem. Set in Minnesota against a backdrop of hard drinking, prostitution and drug dealing, there are definite shades of ‘The Wire’ to be found. As for the ending, it’s all too horribly real and credible. Loved it.

I thrill when discovering new writers and Michael Farris Smith is no exception. I read ‘Desperation Road,’ long listed for a CWA Gold Dagger Award, in a couple of days. The clue to the story is in the title. Farris Smith writes about individuals caught up in the grimmest circumstances, often through no fault of their own, with heart breaking honesty. At first, I wondered how his disparate cast of characters were going to connect and then, with some deft plotting, their roads cross and wonderfully collide to create the most dramatic and emotionally literate of storylines. Writing is to die for and, at times, I was reminded of John Hart and Dennis Lehane. You can literally feel the heat of the deep South enveloping you as you read. Revenge and redemption are my favourite themes. They don’t disappoint here. 

WHAT’S IN A NAME

Anyone who is familiar with my stories and me will recognise that I’ve had more pseudonyms and variations on my own name than a con man. This flies in the face of received wisdom on branding. However there is a weird kind of logic attached.

As already mentioned in a previous blog post, I’m no stranger to idiosyncrasies when it comes to names. Neither my brothers nor me have ever been called by our first Christian names by our parents. We are all called by our middle names. It’s, therefore, not unusual for me to fail to respond when called into, for example, a dentist’s surgery – and not for the more obvious reason that it’s not exactly my favourite venue. Divorce, over twenty years ago, meant a choice of either staying with my married name or reverting to my maiden name. I reverted. After marrying for a second time, I flit between my married surname and my maiden name. Still with me? It caused havoc with electoral rolls and, more than once, I’ve had to prove that I am one and the same person. For many years I actually had two identities on my British passport until it was clamped down on, and for good reason. But back to books…

Most readers know me as E V Seymour, although I’ve been variously Eve Seymour (psychological thrillers with female leads) and Eleanor Gray (for one book only with Midnight Ink). Memorably, when I returned to writing what I call my ‘blokey books’ with Hex, (hitman turned guy with a conscience) I briefly flirted with Adam Chase, before returning to E.V.Seymour when Harper Collins picked up the series. And now – ta-da – I’m G.S. Locke. This had nothing to do with me, incidentally, and everything to do with my publisher. The thinking behind it: ‘Neon’ was my first foray into the serial killer genre. So this is who I am now and for the foreseeable future.

Talking of which, I won’t be blogging again until September. No holidays this year, sadly, but with edits for ‘Six’ and a brand new story on the blocks, I’ve no doubt it will pass quickly. In the meantime, and while school’s out, have a safe and enjoyable summer wherever you are.

MAY MASH-UP

I’m cutting it fine this month, squeaking in before June, but if you can’t mess around with timelines during a pandemic, when can you?

In the early days of lockdown, I had fond ideas of how I was going to spend it. I wasn’t going to learn a new language, or sharpen up my technological skills. Mine were more modest aspirations, like ‘doing things previously put off.’  Some of that stuff got done this month, like sorting out dozens of photographs, which was a rubbish idea because it made me sad. The garden had more attention than it’s accustomed to. I finally learnt to play ‘Moonlight Sonata’ without cocking it up.  I ran (around the garden like a Teddy Bear) and I skipped, which nearly killed me. I worked my way through a ton of screen viewing, including the gloriously black humoured ‘White Lines,’ featuring Daniel Mays, the first two seasons of ‘Rogue’ with Thandie Newton and, another celebration of ‘girl power,’ ‘Queen of the South.’ So refreshing to see (in screen terms only) strong women running cartels.  On the film front, I snapped up Guy Ritchie’s ‘The Gentlemen.’ Who knew that Hugh Grant could break from his usual stereotype and talk like Michael Caine?  Rich in story and with an all-star cast, it’s not to be missed. The highlight for me, though, was 1917. Powerful and poignant, it reminds us of the nightmare of war and the sacrifice of those who fought in unspeakable conditions. Cinematography was absolutely stunning. Some landscape shots were bathed in a dull yellow. I wondered if this reflected the mustard gas unleashed on British troops.  And books, you might ask?  I didn’t reach for my reading pile because I didn’t think I’d be able to concentrate and I was nose-deep in edits for my latest novel.

To put you in the picture, I wrote and sent my latest draft pre-pandemic. Mid-pandemic, it came back with notes. In the meantime the world had shifted mightily and I seriously wondered how I was going to settle down and tackle those vitally important revisions.

As most writers recognise, receiving notes from your editor can be like listening to a weather forecast. Initially, the sun shines, (phew, he/she really likes it). Next, you notice a bit of cloud on the horizon, (he likes it but could X,Y and Z be changed?) If that cloud unleashes a downpour, (my vision for the story is so-and-so) a hurricane breaks loose. Happily, it turned out my editor and me occupied the same climate zone. But it still left me feeling a little strange about knuckling down. Asked whether my creative juices were flowing, I committed authorial suicide, the honest answer shamefully,  ‘No, not really.’  A deadline, however, had a transformative effect.  Mind over matter was required and I told myself that, if I didn’t feel it, I’d blag it, and if I blagged it long enough, it would be fine. Which, after a bit of going around the houses, or ‘thinking time’ is exactly what happened.

A wise bod told me years’ ago that, in draft form, a story is like jam that isn’t set. Essentially, the basic structure is in place, but there is freedom to shift events and characters around, no need to get too hung up on it.  This stage, when you can be radical and ruthless, is the most creative part of writing for me. Uncertainties regarding the trajectory of the pandemic aside, (not at all easy) I actually enjoyed revision and refining the story, and the way it opened up possibilities for more depth and characterisation. One weird discovery:  (bearing in mind the original draft was written last year) one of my minor characters stockpiles food ‘as if in preparation for a pandemic’. This has been chopped!

Having sent in the revised draft a couple of days ago, ‘Joe Country’ by Mick Herron is about to get my full attention. The month of May might not be merry, but it wasn’t as awful as it could have been.  I’m hoping June will see an improvement.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU, OFFICER

Just a quick intro from me: this is the first ever guest post to appear on my blog and I couldn’t be more delighted. If you’re serious about writing crime, former Chief Superintendent, Graham Bartlett, is the ultimate go-to man. Vastly experienced, he’s also skilled in recognising the dramatic imperative, which is so important for crime and thriller writers.

Let’s get a couple of things straight from the start. No police officer has ever ‘proceeded in a northerly direction,’ nor arrested a hapless burglar called ‘chummy.’

Now we’ve got that out of the way, as with any profession, cops are part of a structure, they have a certain way of talking, addressing each other and a very distinctive sense of humour. Now, as crime writers (I mention that here so if you are penning the next great dystopian sci-fi blockbuster, I’ll waste no more of your time) you might like a little insight in to the coppers’ mind and what happens when they open their mouths.

First of all, though, here’s a huge caveat to everything that follows. In all my advising, teaching and critiquing I bang on about how it’s your story, they are your characters and everything I say needs to fit your WIP. Unless you want to bore your readers to death, never (ever, ever) copy and paste a procedure in to your manuscript. Wear your research lightly.

Right, health warning out of the way, here goes.

Ranks, but not as you know it

The police service is a hierarchical, disciplined organisation where officers all have a rank and are crystal clear where they are in the food-chain. That said, it’s not the army. Sure, senior (not superior) officers give orders – sometimes – and junior officers (not subordinates) carry them out. But, as police powers are invested in individual officers, rarely can they be ordered to make an arrest, search anyone or use force, on paper at least. They are operational decisions for that officer, and that officer alone. It doesn’t mean in the real and fictional world bosses can’t cajole, encourage and very strongly ‘suggest’ their staff use their powers, but in most circumstances,  they don’t instruct them to.

When I was a Chief Superintendent running firearms raids or the policing of protests or football matches, I’d deliberately surround myself with junior officers who were comfortable questioning my decisions and offering up alternatives. Tactical Advisors, for example are Police Constables – the entry rank – but with far more training and experience of guns and shields than I had. All the decisions were mine but each and every one would have been mulled over with these sages who had been there, seen it and got the tee-shirt. So, don’t invest all the knowledge and wisdom in your senior officers, or if you do make sure they have the background or make it go wrong.

All friends together – sometimes

Many of the people I joined with chose different career paths to me. Some stayed constables, either as detectives or uniformed officers  and some gained a couple of promotions and settled there. One of my closest friends was Detective Inspector Bill Warner. An ex-boxer and cabbie, he was a formidable cop but one of the funniest and most talented people I knew. When I was running a briefing, he would address me as ‘sir’, ‘guv’ or ‘boss’ and to others he would refer to me as ‘the Chief Superintendent’ or ‘Mr Bartlett.’ Behind closed doors though, one to one, it was Bill and Graham. And, believe me, if he disagreed with something I was doing he would tell me – loud and clear.

Use these dynamics to add depth to your characters. So often, senior officers – such as my old rank – are shown as being penny-pinching, operationally inept, career chasers. Some are – not me obviously (!) – but most have rich operational histories and equally complex relationships with officers of all ranks. Think of Peter JamesRoy Grace and Glenn Branson characters. They go back a long way and the way they are in public versus private is very similar to Bill and I. Glenn is forever ripping into Roy about his taste in clothes, music and just about everything else, while Roy gives as good as he gets when it comes to Glenn’s driving and success with women.

What’s in a name?

Here’s something else about rank dynamics. No one ever bellowed ‘Bartlett. My Office,’ across a crowded incident room at me. In fact, I can’t remember ever being called only by my surname. It just doesn’t happen. Leaving aside the public v private relationships juniors and seniors who are mates, most senior officers address their juniors by their first name. And junior’s call anyone senior to them – above the rank of inspector – ‘sir,’ ‘ma’am,’ ‘guv’ or ‘boss.’ PCs call sergeants ‘Sarge,’ ‘skip’ or ‘sergeant.’

And, while we are at it, detectives never just refer to themselves as ‘detective.’ It’s meaningless and the equivalent of a police constable calling themselves ‘police.’ How daft does that sound? It’s the rank that’s important, so they say ‘detective constable’ or ‘DC’, ‘detective sergeant’ or ‘DS’ etc. Oh and, to avoid confusion Detective Superintendents are never referred to as ‘DS’ – that’s for the real workers; the sergeants. They are D/Supts or Det Sups. Have a look at this chart to help navigate your way round the ranks.

Laughing policemen/ women

Let’s end on a lighter note. Gallows humour is and always has been the safety valve for a profession whose stock in trade is human evil and misery.

Some of the acronyms that describe the various states or liabilities of those involved in road crashes may seem insensitive. FUBAR BUNDY – F*&$£@d Up Beyond All Recovery But Unfortunately Not Dead Yet and DODI – Dead One Did It are both examples of the dark wit of all emergency service workers, but they serve a purpose in keeping them sane amid the horrors we face.

In the mortuary, both police and morticians describe the cadaver, mid-post mortem, as being ‘canoed’. Why so? Well, that is what a human body resembles when it’s been slit from neck to groin and all its internal organs removed.

More generally, police officers never miss a chance to share their colleagues’ faux pas with the team. That could range from being late for work or an assignment, mistaking someone’s gender, right through to allowing a prisoner to escape or bumping a police car in the back yard. Some of these indiscretions have formal sanctions but all are punished with more summary justice – the provision of cakes. Fines are paid in doughnuts – or other more luxurious pastries – and are due within the same shift or the following one, at the latest. The penalties double on default. If no one has erred for some time, the sergeant might invent a lapse by one of the team and fine them anyway. Cops have to eat you know.

The deeper the better

There is nothing worse in a great crime novel than a cliched or shallow cop. Police officers are human beings with the same strengths, weaknesses and relationships as anyone else. Both of my non-fiction books, Death Comes Knocking – Policing Roy Grace’s Brighton and Babes in the Wood, specifically show what it feels like to police a busy city.

Cops experience fear, dread, pain and PTSD the same as everyone. They also have to show gargantuan restraint to stem the giggles and they take the mickey out of each other to get through the day.

You will want your readers to really care about your characters so showing these states, maybe through ‘close point of view’, is essential. Don’t be afraid for them to laugh, cry, get angry or make mistakes. They all have and that’s what makes them fascinating.

Matt Jackson in G.S. Locke’s Neon is a fabulous example. The situation he finds himself is a shocking as it is bizarre. His wife has been murdered and he hates Browne, his replacement. Despite the extraordinary series of murders he finds himself investigating, then being personally involved in, his character, the way he operates and behaves is genuinely authentic in those circumstances. The author has made the reality fit with the story. It’s a masterclass!

For more on making your characters authentic, have a look at my #bartlettsbloopers or contact me through my website at https://policeadvisor.co.uk/contact/

WRITING IN THE CURRENT CRISIS

In the light of revealing my new G.S. Locke author name, I’d got a blog post all lined up to talk about pseudonyms, including the fact that, quite peculiarly in my immediate family, neither my brothers nor me have ever been called by our first Christian names by our parents, and this is not the only weird thing about me and ‘identities.’ I’ll save it, maybe, for another post. What seemed more pressing: how are writers continuing to write in the current crisis? Let’s face it, we’re only a little way into an appalling situation and sight of the ‘new normal’ looks a long way off.     

Authors, more or less, appear to split into two camps: those that welcome the opportunity, while acknowledging the crisis swirling around them, to hibernate and write, and those that are more bunny in headlights and find that they can’t concentrate at all. I’m caught in between. My next novel is with my editor so, in theory, I have nothing to create. Strangely, although the majority of the story was penned back end of last year, there’s an offbeat, much loved character that stockpiles cans of food ‘for a pandemic’. I don’t know whether this will stay in the final cut because I can’t work out whether references like this will resonate with, or turn off readers.

Similarly, a couple of authors have already been on Twitter asking whether their next novel should be written against the background of the pandemic, or pretend it never happened. It’s a really tricky one.  At times like this that I wished I felt skilled enough to write romantic fiction because I reckon this genre lends itself to a story without a single mention of Covid-19. 

Before the pandemic really took off, it was suggested that a ton of crime writers would be penning pandemic fiction. There’s a school of thought that those who’ve endured tragedy find resonance in art depicting the same. With what we’re all facing, I’m less certain. I reckon a good dollop of escapist stuff will be required, which is why I’m immersed in reading historical fiction right now.