evseymour

Word on the Wire

Category: Storytelling

NO DOUBT ABOUT IT

No doubt about it, I have an addiction to novels by Don Winslow. It all started when my other half bought ‘The Power of The Dog.’ He raved about it while I was knee-deep in one of Gerald Seymour’s novels. Then he bought ‘The Force’ and then he bought ‘The Cartel.’ Next, ‘The Border.’ Right, I thought, let’s see what this guy has got. And oh my goodness, Mr Winslow has got the lot. 

            When critics say his work is ‘epic,’ ‘ like the Godfather,’ ‘a portrait of modern America,’ they are not wrong. There’s polemic, without bashing you over the head with it. The vast number of characters does not turn into a thinly drawn ‘cast of thousands.’  Every character is finely conceived and conveyed, and deserving of his or her place in a narrative that blows your socks off. I learnt more about the Mexican drugs trade than in any story I’ve ever read. We know from the press that Mexican cartels are cruel and barbaric and ruthless in protecting their interests. Everyone is fair game, including women and little children. Winslow is unsparing in his depiction, without being gratuitous and sensationalist. With a strong tolerance for violence in fiction, I felt chills. Other scenes evoked waves of utter despair. This is strong stuff and it elicits powerful emotions in the reader. Law enforcement in Mexico is complicated by competing organisations whose remits are often overlapping and blurred to the extent that what should be done, when a criminal line of investigation is followed, doesn’t get done. The kicker is that, if more were spent on raising ordinary Mexicans out of poverty, US governments would not have the same level of problems with migrants crossing the border to escape for a better life. Instead they are left to rot and feed the seemingly insatiable demand for cocaine and heroin in the States and beyond.  Fundamentally, there are too many vested interests in maintaining the status quo, and Winslow displays this in vivid and compelling detail. It comes as no surprise that his work has already been optioned for film. 

            I could dribble on about what I’ve been doing over the summer. Apart from mentioning the fantastic reviews SIX has garnered and saying I had a productive period of writing, that’s it. My September blog post belongs to one writer only: Mr Winslow, and I urge you to buy his thought-provoking, entertaining and utterly addictive books.  

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.

POWER OF AUDIO

Last summer, the wonderful John Banks narrated NEON, courtesy of Orion Fiction. This year, like buses that come along all at once, Apple released ‘A Deadly Trade and Final Target,’ both narrated with super deadly style by Ben Onwukwe. This was followed by ‘SIX’ narrated by gifted Simon Mattacks – love his northern accents. To say that all narrators bring to life my stories is an understatement. I’ve heard anecdotally that some writers aren’t keen on the way their books are portrayed in audio, but I have absolutely no complaints. I find it a bit like settling down to listen to a radio play. How narrators manage to convey as many as three different tones and pitches in a single scene leaves me awe-struck. 

Apart from this, I can report that rights to NEON have been bought by Albatros, Czech Republic, which, added to Germany, Poland and Russia, is deeply satisfying. 

Editing work continues to keep me out of mischief by day. I’m reading more for pleasure now than at any time during the pandemic. Of writing, I’d be telling fibs if I told you that I was hard at it. But that’s okay because I have a big idea bubbling and taking shape while I dig the garden, clear the cobwebs and generally do things I’ve put off for too long.  

Detective-led fiction aka police procedurals are as popular as ever. Consequently, agents and publishers are keen to have writers on their books who can deliver in what is a deeply competitive genre. And so it was with a measure of excitement that I watched  ‘GRACE,’ an adaptation of Peter James’s superlative novels, which hit the small screen this week. Originally, and somewhat confusingly, I’d thought the story was to be split into a couple of episodes but, no, some wise bod decided that it should run in its entirety over a two-hour slot; another complete story to feature later in the year. Even the commercial breaks weren’t too intrusive. 

In the lead role, John Simm (Life on Mars) plays Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. I confess that he didn’t immediately conform to my idea of James’s main protagonist, but as the story got underway, I changed my mind. Understated, slightly vulnerable and yet on top of his professional game in a way that he clearly isn’t in his personal life, his was a great performance and brought something extra to the role. No spoilers here but if you are claustrophobic, (I was positively hyperventilating in certain scenes and thinking about opening a window) you have been warned! Characterisation is cracking.  Plotting is superb. The narrative is taut, ensuring that the viewer is on the edge of his or her seat. If you haven’t watched it already, I urge you to do so. Better still, just buy the books. 

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.’

THE WAY WE WERE

October is my favourite month. I love the colours. I love the light and I love that distinct autumnal smell of apples and hops and harvest. During the pandemic I’ve spent a great deal more time outside. There’s something deeply reassuring about nature continuing to do its thing and often in spite of human activity. In this slightly wistful frame of mind, I picked up – correction, I nicked from my other half – Bill Bryson’s ‘The Road to Little Dribbling.’ 

I’m a bit of a Bryson fan. I read ‘Notes from a Small Island’ years ago and ‘Dribbling’ marks the twentieth anniversary. An American who has lived here for many years is now a naturalised British citizen, his observations of the British at work and play are laugh out loud funny. Admittedly, he can be fairly brutal about people (particularly those whose grasp of punctuation and grammar is questionable) and institutions.  But he’s also keen to point out his own ‘idiosyncrasies.’ This is a guy who, although he has serious thoughts, does not take himself too seriously. I lost count of the times he referred to either his wife or a kindly friend gently taking hold of his elbow and leading him away before he got into a serious bundle with some hapless and stubborn soul, with whom he’d taken issue. But I digress. His love of Britain shines through even if he isn’t blind to its faults and failings.  In fact, it’s these same faults and failings that he finds strangely endearing.  What stood out for me most, and some may disagree, is the fact he mourns the Britain of twenty years ago and is not altogether impressed by Britain as it is today.

To my delight, Bryson mentions many places I know so well, like Kingsbridge, where I once lived, Salcombe, Start Bay and Dartmouth in South Devon and, in the more distant past, Birmingham. Randomly, this got me thinking. Years ago, when I was a ‘wannabe’ writer and in the days before the self-publishing revolution, I did the thing that everyone did: I submitted my then story to publishers. (Back then it was possible to submit direct.) Receiving my umpteenth rejection, the tone of the hand-signed letter  (yes, letter) was, nevertheless, kind and encouraging. Amazingly, a book, ‘Funeral Music’ by Morag Joss, was also sent. The sender was none other than Kate Lyall Grant, currently publisher at Severn House. She has no idea how much this meant to me at the time. It felt as if someone was, at last, taking me, and my writing, seriously. It certainly spurred me to continue to write and, not long afterwards, I obtained agent representation.  I wonder if small acts of kindness like this still occur and whether this says more about the way we were then than how we are now. 

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. 

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/