Lots of people don’t realise that although you may see work by a certain author on the bookshelves in your favourite shop, many writers still hold down a day job in addition to penning their next novel. In this series, we’ll talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.
I’ve pretty much always been a writer, ever since I was six years old. But for 40 years, before I took the plunge into indie authorship, and before the Archer and Baines novels, I was a career civil servant.
Every morning, I’d put on a suit and either catch the train to London or drive off to a meeting somewhere. You’re probably already imagining a grey office, full of grey people, some of them covered in cobwebs, drinking copious cups of tea and churning out dry-as-dust papers on even drier subjects.
It’s a caricature with a grain of accuracy in it, but I mostly enjoyed that career and was usually happy enough to get out of bed in the morning. I worked on a wide range of policy issues, and no two days were the same. I got some great travel opportunities and got to do some interesting things. I also met all kinds of characters, including quite a few military people, and some serious game players who knew exactly how to get their way.
Every writer’s everyday life is grist to the creative mill. What I didn’t know at the time, though, was how much the day job was preparing me a new career, after early retirement, when I’d be writing police procedurals.
Writing those papers was in itself an invaluable writing discipline: adopting the right voice for the right circumstances, drafting and redrafting, writing to a length and deadline. But it’s only recently that I’ve come to realise just how much more I owe to those Whitehall days.
As a storyteller, I’m far more pantster than plotter. When I start a book, I invariably have a body. I (usually) know who did it. But I will have either a hazy idea, or no idea at all, of how the killer will get caught. That comes out in the writing. Effectively, I sit on my cops’ shoulders and watch their investigation unfold. And it’s my civil service instincts that are telling me what they need to do.
For a start, I worked in teams as do the police, in a hierarchy that more or less mirrored the police ranking system. And we might not have unmasking murderers, but there was a lot of problem solving involved – which meant gathering information, and knowing what questions to ask, and whom to ask them of.
Of course, I still need to make calls and do internet searches to check whether what they get up to is plausible, or even legal, as well as checking out some of the smaller details I sprinkle around. But it turns out that all those years in a suit were invaluable training for imagining myself into the briefing room at Aylesbury nick and deciding what Archer and Baines need to do next to catch their killer.
My old day job included drafting answers to Parliamentary Questions, and some unkind souls have suggested – unfairly, obviously – that I was always a fiction writer! I’m saying nothing.
The latest book in the Archer & Baines series – ‘The Blood that Binds’ – is available now.