Yeah!!! Thank you so much to New Writing North, Kris Doyle and Amy Liptrot – I’m delighted to have won a Northern Writers Award and am massively grateful for their support.
I used to be obsessed with New York. From my early teens there was no place I wanted to go more than New York. Maybe it was all the films I’d seen, or that so many of my musical heroes came from there (or at least made their names there). Whatever it was, I couldn’t wait to go. I genuinely had the idea that once I turned sixteen and left school I would pack a bag and go to New York and… Well, I’m not sure what I thought I’d do. Write? Be in a band? Make movies? Be a painter? (Apart from a few terrible stories and poems, I wasn’t writing that much back then. Nor did I play music, have any idea how to make a film, or know how to paint.) But it didn’t really matter what I did, as long as I did it in New York. If I was aware of things like visas, I clearly didn’t much care. I was going to New York and would stay there for the rest of my life.
I finally got to New York for the first time when I was twenty one, just before I wrote the screenplay which would later become the novel The Art of Murder. And I loved it. Except it wasn’t the New York I’d had in my head all those years. Most of my ideas about the city came from books and films and music, and portrayed a place that no longer exists. This was the New York of Patti Smith and The Velvet Underground, of Andy Warhol and Basquiat, of Taxi Driver and Desperately Seeking Susan. When I really thought about it, the New York of the 1970s and 80s was probably not that great in reality, but in my mind it was the most romantic place in the world.
With this in mind, I did consider setting The Art of Murder a few decades earlier to reflect the place I’d wanted it to be. But the new New York fits in much better with the story of Michael Fisher and Nick and Karen Kelly. The skyrocketing house prices, the desire for fame.
And these days it’s easier than ever to set your story in a foreign place, even one you’ve never visited. Though I’ve now been to New York three times and there are places I can still see and smell when I close my eyes, a little help from Google maps doesn’t hurt. I had hours of fun (and frustration) searching maps and street views looking for the perfect neighbourhood for Michael’s house and those of his victims. I enjoy nothing more than scouring Rightmove to have a nosey at people’s houses and did the same with some places in New York.
I could’ve easily swapped New York for London and the book probably would’ve worked just as well. I’m no longer obsessed with the city (I’m now more interested in Paris and Copenhagen) but there’s still a place for it in my heart. Like a favourite song from my youth, I might not play it all the time but when I do, I’m transported back in time. And that’s why I chose to set The Art of Murder in the city – a little nod to who I used to be.
After No Place Like Home came out I started thinking about what I would write next. I’ve been working on a historical novel for a few years but between drafts was writing other things and it was time for another crime novel. As much as I enjoy writing my Gardner and Freeman series, I’d enjoyed writing a standalone and wanted to do another. So I set about looking for ideas and came across a very short article about a mysterious case in America. Although there wasn’t much to it, something caught my eye and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Very quickly I came up with my own story, though it no longer had much to do with the original inspiration.
My book was set in a fictional small town in the US. I love books and films about small town America and was excited to create my own place, even going as far as drawing maps. I created a group of characters I liked and found interesting, and even though I intended the book to be a standalone, I started thinking maybe I could come back to some of these characters.
A first draft was written and, in comparison to most of my other first drafts, it was looking pretty good. I let my publisher know I’d be able to deliver the manuscript a few months later and a publication date was pencilled in. I then set about working on the second draft to iron out any issues.
I was about halfway through when things went wrong. Since starting the second draft something had been niggling at me but I had no idea what the problem was. It finally came to me in the middle of the night.
In the book, the police are investigating a series of crimes when two teenage girls come forward and claim that they are the victims of some unknown perpetrator, that terrible things have been done to them. And that was the problem. In the midst of the #MeToo movement and the cases against people like Bill Cosby, it felt wrong to write about girls who’ve made up a story in order to get attention. Critics of the real life victims often claim these women are coming forward purely for fame, and I couldn’t bear to write something which seemed to support this view.
I’d never intended for this to be part of the book, and though I don’t think we should shy away from exploring these issues, and think there’s probably a way to do so sensitively, it just didn’t feel like this was the book to do it.
Once I’d identified the problem it made me feel a bit sick and I knew I couldn’t go ahead with the book as it was. I sat for days trying to work out a way around it but couldn’t think of anything. I started to panic because I’d promised to deliver a manuscript and would now have nothing to hand over.
In the end I emailed my publisher. She was great. She understood why I was reluctant to continue and told me to do whatever I needed to do. I wasn’t sure if there was a fix, and if there was whether it would be something simple or something that would take a long time. She told me to get back to her in a few weeks and we’d decide from there if there’d be anything to publish on the planned date.
Those weeks while I tried to work it out were tricky. I couldn’t see a way out and I wondered how I’d ended up writing something I hadn’t intended, that I hadn’t seen it until it was too late. After weeks of trying, I had to admit I couldn’t fix it, certainly not in the near future, and would have to scrap the book and start again. It’s pretty demoralising to have to abandon a project after so much time and energy has been put into it, especially so far down the line. And though it’s certainly not the first book abandoned to the bottom drawer, most of the other failed attempts were things written much earlier in my career. I thought I kind of knew what I was doing by now.
Once I’d admitted defeat, I set about working on something new. There was a small (insane) part of me that wondered if I could still make my deadline. Even though I write quite quickly it was still madness to think I could come up with an idea, plan it out and write the whole thing in about a month. But this thought was in my mind as I sought out a new idea.
I scoured my notebooks looking for something that was pretty well formed already and that excited me enough that I’d be able to work non-stop for a month. I found a few ideas but couldn’t seem to develop anything enough to write a novel.
And then I remembered a screenplay that’d been sitting in my drawer for about eighteen years, since I wrote it at college. It was a crime thriller, set in New York, my first attempt at a feature length script and my first go at crime fiction, long before I started writing novels. I had no doubt the script itself was terrible (and was correct) but the premise had always stayed with me and it was one of many projects that I thought I might return to one day.
So, reluctantly, I got it out of the drawer and read through the outline and was surprised to find there was an interesting idea there. It needed more work and a few changes, but it was an almost formed idea.
I started making notes, developing the characters and expanding the plot. I added the art angle and worked out the structure, and pretty soon had a detailed outline. I was ready to go.
After my experience with the abandoned book, my confidence had been knocked. I started to think maybe I hadn’t planned that book enough in advance and maybe if I’d worked harder then I wouldn’t have ended up digging myself a hole I couldn’t get out of. With this in mind, I kept going back to the new outline again and again (and again and again), obsessively trying to make sure there was nothing that could go wrong. I’d already told the publisher I was starting anew and wouldn’t reach the original deadline, but eventually I would have to start writing instead of just planning.
In the end it worked out fine. I wrote a first draft quickly with the help of the detailed outline and the research I’d done. But, as with all my books, I like a bit of wiggle room. You can’t plan for everything, there needs to be space to see new connections and possibilities as you write. Inevitably there were a few things to iron out and changes to make in the second draft, but on the whole it was pretty smooth sailing. A relief after the last one.
And though the experience caused a lot of anxiety and made me wonder if I could still write at all, I’m glad it happened. I think The Art of Murder is a much better book than the one I’d originally planned. And though I felt like I’d lost confidence, a fellow writer told me it takes great confidence and experience to be able to see when something isn’t working and to walk away from it. I thought I’d failed as a writer but I no longer feel this way. No matter how many books I write, I will always make mistakes and hopefully learn from them. And I know that the writer I was eighteen years ago when I wrote this screenplay wouldn’t have been able to see her work wasn’t working.
I guess the big lesson is never to throw an idea away. You never know when it might become relevant again, either in its original form or as the starting point of something new. I couldn’t in good conscience publish the book I’d originally written and maybe never will, but there’s always a possibility of finding something in there one day – a character, a location, even the basic premise. So even though it’s being locked in the bottom drawer, one day I might find the key to open it again.
It took eighteen years to write The Art of Murder.
Rather, it only took a few months to actually write it. But it was a project that’d started almost two decades earlier.
After No Place Like Home came out, I started to write a new crime novel and once I had a first draft that I was pretty happy with, I let the publisher know I’d deliver the manuscript a couple of months later. I was plugging away at the second draft, confident I’d meet the deadline, but something kept nagging at me. I didn’t know what it was so kept on working. And then one day it hit me. There was a big problem with the book and I had to scrap the whole thing.
My publisher was very understanding and gave me all the time I needed to start again and write something new. But I was panicking. Scrapping an almost done novel was a real knock to my confidence and I started to think I’d never write anything again. I had no idea what the next book would be. I flicked through my piles of notebooks, searching for an idea that excited me, and something that was fairly well developed already. But there was nothing.
And then I turned to the drawer of abandoned screenplays. Long before I wrote novels, I wanted to be a screenwriter. In the drawer were several (mostly terrible) screenplays from this time, as well as few more (slightly less terrible) scripts written more recently. But it was one in particular that I was looking for.
One of the assignments at college was to write a treatment for a feature length screenplay and then complete the first thirty pages. Being the swot I am, I finished my screenplay – a crime thriller, set in New York City (not ideal for filming an excerpt in Middlesbrough with the limited resources of the college). I hadn’t looked at the script in years but every now and then I’d think about it. I’d always liked the basic premise and wondered if I could resurrect it somehow.
I dug out the script and read through. The script itself was awful and made me cringe, but there was an idea in there that I liked and I knew it would give me a running start in beginning a new book.
Quite a lot has changed from script to novel, but some things have remained the same. I was obsessed with New York back then which was the main reason I chose it as my location. I did consider moving things to the UK but liked the idea of writing a novel set somewhere different to my other books. I kept the three main characters and the weird triangle between them, always my favourite part of the story.
The main difference came with the introduction of the art. In the screenplay, Michael’s motivations for killing are unclear, other than the fact he wants to be famous. I knew I needed to dig a little deeper and find a better hook for the novel. The idea of making Michael an artist came from a throwaway line in the script outline – “he looks at the pictures of his victims like they are works of art”. Once I had that angle, I worked out the rest pretty quickly and enjoyed searching through art books to find the paintings I wanted to include, trying to both match the painting to the victims and find a nice variety of methods for Michael to kill his projects.
It certainly didn’t feel good at the time, but I’m now glad the last book didn’t work out. If I hadn’t had that crisis, I might never have taken the screenplay from the drawer, might never have written The Art of Murder. I think this book has ended up far better than the other would’ve been and writing it gave me back the enthusiasm I’d lost. It’s also shown me that maybe not all is lost with the previous book. The idea for The Art of Murder sat in a drawer for eighteen years and is now a published novel. I’m thinking of writing a new screenplay based on the book (based on the screenplay!). Hopefully this script will be less terrible. And who knows? Maybe I’ll go back to the scrapped book and find something to salvage. Even if it takes another eighteen years.
Get your copy here!
I’m very excited to reveal the cover of my latest book THE ART OF MURDER.
Details of how to Pre-Order will be available shortly, but in the meantime here’s the blurb to whet your appetite:
How do you catch a killer who thinks murder is art?
Michael Fisher sees himself as an artist rather than a killer and poses his victims to resemble famous paintings.
Detective Nick Kelly is called to attend the latest crime scene and finds himself at the centre of a media storm. But while the rest of the police department feels under pressure, Nick relishes the attention.
Karen Kelly, Nick’s soon to be ex-wife, watches in horror as this brutal game of cat and mouse plays out. But Karen has secrets of her own.
And when another body is found, Nick is disturbed to discover he knows the victim and things start to get a little too close to home.
When I wrote my first novel, Stolen, I thought it would be a standalone. The book was mainly from the point of view of Abby Henshaw, a woman whose daughter was abducted. There was a detective in there, but he was secondary. Until he wasn’t. By the time I got to the second draft, I realised I liked DI Gardner a lot and kept finding more things for him to do. He kept showing up at the door. So I decided to change the book and make it both Abby and Gardner’s story, and when I was done, I realised there was more to say about Gardner and so the series was born. Each of the books work as a standalone but there’s also development of the characters and threads throughout that link one book to the others.
There’s something comforting about a series. A lot of my favourite crime novels are a series. I love to go back to a favourite character. They can become friends, someone you want to catch up with, someone you fear for when things go bad.
The same is true with writing a series. When it came to the second book, Gone, it felt easier to write Gardner. I didn’t have to start from scratch, I could already hear his voice, knew his mannerisms. I knew how he’d act and react to the situations he found himself in. In some ways, his character dictated what would happen.
I also enjoy planting seeds, things that seem unimportant at the time that come back further down the line. In the fourth book, Murder in Slow Motion, we discover Dawn Lawton, one of Gardner’s colleagues, is in an abusive relationship. Gardner thinks back about things he’s seen or heard, wondering if there were signs. Those signs were there in the previous books –subtle hints of what was to come. Of course, this only works if you know in advance what you’ll write about later. I knew from the start I wanted to write about domestic abuse and, even though it took a while to work out that story, I knew enough to leave those trails.
There are other details dotted about that may or may not come to anything in the future. But sometimes this can be limiting. Write something about a character in one book and you’re stuck with it forever (some eagle eyed reader will always notice). There are also other limitations. Setting, for example. I could send Gardner off on holiday to the Bahamas, but any crime that occurs while he’s there, he’d be unable to investigate. Unless he did it unofficially, in which case it becomes a different kind of book altogether. Once you have a certain style to the series, it’s difficult to move away from that. Readers come to expect certain things and can be disappointed if you stray too far.
Writing a standalone, on the other hand, gives you the freedom to do whatever you like. Set the book completely in the past or the future. Set it in New Zealand or Mars. Tell it from the point of view of the bad guy or some unknown narrator. Anything goes. There are no constraints, but at the same time, this can be more overwhelming. The canvas is completely blank.
When I started No Place Like Home, I didn’t have a grand plan, I basically just started writing. It was both liberating and terrifying. There was nothing familiar to cling to, even my usual method of writing went out the window. But it was exciting. I’d spent such a long time living in the world of the series (Gardner’s world, if you will) that it was thrilling to step outside of it and meet new characters.
Not only was the method different, the style was too. Even the tone is very different. Though the books in my series often have ambiguous endings, not entirely happy or unhappy, there is usually some moral centre. Gardner, for his faults, is usually doing the right thing. With No Place Like Home, things are a bit more fuzzy.
So which do I prefer? It’s hard to say. Just before I published Murder in Slow Motion, I read through it one last time. It had been a while since I’d looked at it, busy with other projects. Reading it again, I’d forgotten how much I like those characters and didn’t realise how much I’d missed them until we were reunited. But creating new stories, new characters, new worlds, is always exciting; a promise of going somewhere unfamiliar.
And just like real life, there’s room for both – the familiar and the unknown.
Today I’m on On the Shelf Reviews talking about where the idea for No Place Like Home came from. Read it here.
Thanks to Jessica’s Reading Room for having me over to talk about my writing process and how writing a standalone was different to writing a series. Read it here.
Thanks to Gemma’s Books Reviews for having me on the blog to talk about five of my favourite crime fiction series. Read it here.