Nicky Black is a writing duo consisting of Nicky Doherty and Julie Black. Their book The Prodigal is set in Newcastle and has enjoyed tremendous success across the UK. I’m thrilled to say Nicky and Julie are joining us on the blog today to share their secrets with us!
I’m really intrigued by the idea of writing partnerships. Tell us about your writing partnership. How did you two meet and decide to write this book together? How does it work, do you write side by side or one draft and the other edit?
Nicky: Julie and I met when we worked on run down council estates in the north east in the nineties. She was a community worker and I was a project manager for grants programmes. When I discovered she wrote plays and had recently finished a movie script I was fascinated. When I read them, I loved them, and wanted to help her get the movie made. She has such an ear for dialogue, and I love reading dialogue driven books like Roddy Doyle. Julie’s talent was spotted by a producer at ITV and she was commissioned to write The Prodigal as a two part TV drama. It was never green lit and many years later over a glass of wine, I said it would make a great novel. I asked if I could have a go at adapting it, and here we are!
Julie: We work apart and meet up now and then (I still live in Newcastle and Nicky is in London). Nicky takes the script, asks me lots of questions about the characters, how they feel, what their surroundings are like, what the tensions are between them, why they are motivated to do certain things and I try to describe all this over the phone, because it isn’t on the page, it’s in my head. Nicky transforms that into emotion, thoughts and back stories which gives the characters texture and brings places to life. Sometimes she’ll say that there isn’t enough material and we will work on an extra bit of plot together or she will add or remove characters.
Do you ever disagree on where the story should be going? If so, how do you resolve it?
Julie: I have to appreciate how much work goes into the narrative and I give Nicky the freedom to get on with it. Sometimes she’s nervous about what I’ll think and I have to admit sometimes I’m nervous about what she’s doing with it but it turns out alright in the end. My strength is story and dialogue, my weakness is descriptive stuff and adjectives, I don’t really do adjectives
Nicky: I love them. Probably a bit too much…
I tend not to run with ideas Julie doesn’t agree with. They are her characters and she knows them much better than me, so when she says, ‘Lee would never do that,’ then I believe her. If I introduce new ideas or characters and she likes them, then we’ll run with it.
What inspired the story of The Prodigal?
Julie: The Prodigal was inspired by a meeting with a local police chief who had been checking my Heads movie script (now being adapted into a book by Nicky) for accuracies in police procedure. As an aside, I asked about informers: who did it and what for? He said there were 3 types – petty criminals who informed for small amounts of cash, bigger criminals who wanted to drop other criminals in it or get plea bargains, and the others tended not to be criminals, they were people who informed for moral reasons – mainly women who were worried about their families, husbands, sons who were involved in crime. He told me these women were at the greatest danger because if their families found out they would suffer the consequences at home. I talked to him about their handlers, where they would meet and wondered if they ever built strong bonds, he said they did. Then the million dollar question, did they ever fall in love? He said it had happened and the consequences were horrendous, they could never be together, the woman would be ostracised by her family and the police officer would lose his job.
My mind drifted to Romeo and Juliet, my favourite play, and thoughts of star crossed lovers. I told Carolyn Reynolds, Head of Drama at Granada, the idea. She said I should give up my day job and write it and promptly gave me a commission for a 2 part drama for television. I left my job, rented an office and wrote. The story came easily but it took a couple of years working with Carolyn and a script editor to get the script just right.
Are the characters and/or situations based on experiences you’ve had?
Julie: The characters are not based on real people per se but they have a lot of characteristics of people I know. Some of the experiences are real but I’m not telling you which ones!
How has the book been received in the north east? And what about elsewhere? Does it ‘translate’ for other parts of the UK and further afield?
Nicky: I found myself removing some colloquialisms on the final edit, particularly where it could be misconstrued as a typo (like polis for police), but I kept those that transcend regions in (only one person has asked me what ‘haway’ means). I left in a scattering of words that non-Geordies might not understand, but I love them and Geordies love them, and I want Geordies more than anyone to love these books. So ‘worky ticket’ stayed in, even though the copy editor hadn’t a clue. There will be more in the next book too, but not so many that it would render it inaccessible to posh southerners… It has translated incredibly well right across the UK. The subject matter and the ‘mother ship’, Valley Park, is universal. Not sure how well it would do across the pond. I’ve yet to see any significant sales outside the UK. But I’m okay with that right now. I want to build up a local readership first, it feels right for this kind of series of stories.
What’s the best piece of writerly advice you’ve been given – and who by?
Julie: The best piece of writerly advice was given when I first began writing on the soaps ‘don’t get it right, get it written’. I never have a problem with starting a piece of work but I do break it all down into a storyline first and then follow each step of the plot to bring it to life in scenes. As a TV scriptwriter you expect to do five or more drafts before producers are happy so getting something on paper is the top priority, you can always change anything that doesn’t work later. I couldn’t work without a plan though – that’s my worst nightmare. Call me a control freak…
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Nicky: This is hard, because I still feel like an aspiring writer myself and am constantly on the prowl for advice from experienced authors. I suppose, you have to believe in your story and your characters. If you’re not passionate about the story and the people in it, then the prose and the dialogue will be boring. If you’re desperate to tell a great story, just tell it. Also, don’t stop reading novels. Oh, and I have a bible called How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N Frey. It’s brilliant.
What’s next for you?
Nicky: I’m currently adapting Julie’s script of a movie called Heads. It’s the first thing of hers that I read back in the day. I loved it then and I love it now. We even tried to get it made into a movie, but we couldn’t make it happen (we had lots of fun along the way though). We made a promotional tease for it which is here. It’s set in 1989, the second Summer of Love, and is about a young man called Shaun Collins who wants to be a big-shot music promoter. He gets the chance to organise a huge, illegal rave in Northumberland, but the police and the loan sharks are on his tail, and the organised crime networks are moving in for their share of the profits. I’m aiming to get Heads released in August or September this year.