Tag Archives: crime writers

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Nicola Ford

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 talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.

Today’s guest is Nicola Ford. Nic’s here to talk to us about her double life and how that influenced her to write her debut novel ‘The Hidden Bones‘. My thanks to Nic for sharing her knowledge and experience with us. 

Vic x

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I love writing. I’ve always loved writing. And I’ve always loved reading crime fiction. So when I decided to turn my hand to writing fiction there was only ever going to be one genre for me. And I’m among the most fortunate of people because after much time spent applying my backside to my office chair and, as seems compulsory for all writers more than a smattering of self-doubt, my debut crime novel The Hidden Bones was published in June this year. 

So I have a job I love – crime writer. But that’s not the end of the story, or maybe I should say it’s not really even the beginning; because like many writers I lead a double life. By night I’m crime fiction writer Nicola Ford but by day I’m Dr Nick Snashall, National Trust Archaeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site. 

So I live a life steeped in the distant past. Wiltshire, the place that I’ve called home for a decade and a half is thronging with ancient burial mounds and prehistoric stone circles. And much of my time is spent digging up their secrets and delving into the mysteries that lie buried deep within museum archives.

Some writers may dream of giving up the day job, but for me I’m an archaeologist to my core. It’s one half of who I am and provides not only the backdrop, but also the inspiration for my crime writing. The Hidden Bones is set amid the chalk uplands of the Marlborough Downs an area I know intimately as I’ve spent the last fifteen years of my life working there. 

Often rural is equated with ‘cosy’, but for those of us who live and work here we know that life in the countryside is anything but. If you’re born without money or means, or elderly and alone, rural life can be tough. And the shock waves left behind by violent crime can have a deep resonance that persists down through the generations in small, sometimes isolated communities.

The Hidden Bones delves into the secrets of one such community.  Clare Hills returns to Wiltshire in search of new direction in her life after the death of her husband in a car crash. She’s only too glad to take up old college friend, Dr David Barbrook’s offer of helping sift through the effects of recently deceased archaeologist Gerald Hart. When they discover the finds and journals from Gerald’s most glittering excavation, they think they’ve found every archaeologist’s dream. But the dream quickly becomes a nightmare as the pair unearth a disturbing discovery, putting them at the centre of a murder inquiry and in the path of a dangerous killer determined to bury the truth forever.

In both halves of my working life I spend my time dealing with the dead. And in trying to figure out how they came to die, I’ve found that the most important clues are often found in understanding how they lived. I’m fascinated by the imprint that choices made by people in the – sometimes far distant – past leave on our lives, in ways we may never understand. And many of the scientific techniques I draw upon in my day job form the fundamental building blocks of modern police investigations. So Nicola Ford crime writer is inextricably interlinked with Dr Nick Snashall archaeologist. Two halves, one whole – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  

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Don’t Quit the Day Job: Martyn Taylor

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 talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.

Martyn Taylor, a member of Elementary Writers, is with us today to talk about how his day job has affected his writing. 

Vic x

For Wild Wolf copy

Are we authors or writers?  No, we are liars.  Our stories did not happen.  Our characters live only in our imaginations.  Even the most meticulous historical author only presents a cartoon because it is impossible to know the entirety of the actuality.

Crime writers deal with liars.  Bad guys do not care they are lying.  Good guys have problems with truth.  Why?  We all lie every day, although accepting consequences ranging from the disapproval of a loved one to being taken to a place of execution and hanged by the neck until we are dead.  Fiction is the art of good lying, which means knowing the motivation of our liars.

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I have had two occupations that brought me into contact with chronic liars.  As a portfolio manager in the City I was daily invited to pay more for what was on offer than it was worth.  Because I was dealing for clients I had no personal stake in the transaction and so could buy their bill of goods because – as Danny De Vito put it – it was ‘other people’s money’.  These barrow boys with their red braces and Oxbridge degrees worked in an institution that still has a motto ‘My Word is My Bond’, but – as has been so often shown – these guys never signed a contract they didn’t have five ways from Friday of slithering out from under if things went wrong.  Their motto, as expressed by a stock broker who took me to lunch, was ‘If God didn’t mean them to be sheared he wouldn’t have made them sheep’.  ‘Them’ being those outside the gilded circle, you and me.

These liars do not know they are lying.  The difference between them and someone trying the Nigerian scam online is that the scammers know they are lying.  Presenting these liars in fiction is almost impossible because of the corrosive universality of their lying and the fact that the finance industry is so ‘valuable’ that the liars buy off our gate keepers with pocket change.  We accept their edifice of lies as normality.  They may have problems selling me their Ponzi schemes but, yes, I did have PPI.

As an investigator of motor thefts and accidents I was daily confronted by those stalwarts of crime fiction, unreliable witnesses, people recounting what they believe they witnessed rather than what actually happened.  Four ‘independent’ witnesses will give you at least six plausible versions of events and believe they are telling the truth.

Some, however, lied outright, mostly for simple financial gain.  Knowing them was relatively easy:  they began by saying ‘To tell the truth…’

Others had murkier motivations.  They could not allow themselves to be overtaken by a woman, or possibly have caused loss to someone of a different race, creed or colour.  With them the HL Mencken question was as important as it is in fiction.  ‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?’  It is insufficient to be convenient or demanded by the plot.  Our antagonists must be as fully motivated as our protagonists.  We expect fiction to illuminate life rather than reflect it.  Everyday lying is as banal, captivating and convincing as flat soda.  Nobody expects life to make sense.  Everyone demands that fiction does.

Which is why we must lie better in our fiction than we do in real life.

Getting to Know You: Jackie McLean

My very good friend, Jackie McLean, author of ‘Toxic’ and ‘Shadows’, is here to chew the fat today. Jackie has appeared on this blog a few times but she’s always such fun and has plenty of advice to give aspiring writers. 

My thanks to Jackie – for sharing her time and wisdom with us in addition to being a wonderful, thoughtful friend.

Vic x

Tell us about your novels.
At the moment, I have two crime fiction books that are published by ThunderPoint Publishing Ltd:

Toxic – An anonymous tip-off sparks a desperate race against the clock to track down the illegal storage of the deadly toxin that was responsible for the Bhopal disaster, the world’s worst industrial accident. However the two senior investigating officers are as volatile as the toxin they’re trying to find, and tensions run high. For the lead character, DI Donna Davenport, the investigation becomes personal. She’s recently broken up with her partner Libby, but Libby’s brother is being set up as a suspect, and Donna struggles with the conflict.

Shadows – When DI Donna Davenport is called out to investigate a body washed up on Arbroath beach, it looks like a routine murder inquiry. However, it doesn’t take long before it begins to take on a more sinister shape. There are similarities with a previous murder, and now a woman who is connected with them goes missing. Meanwhile, Donna can’t shake off the feeling that she’s being watched, and she is convinced that Jonas Evanton has returned to seek his revenge on her for his downfall. Fearing they may be looking for a serial killer, the trail leads Donna and her new team in an unexpected direction. Because it’s not a serial killer – it’s worse.

What inspired them?
I originally wrote Toxic because I wanted to write something set in my home town, Arbroath. It’s by the sea, and has caves in the cliffs, so a smuggling story seemed obvious. In that first version, it was genetic modification (of food) experiments that were being smuggled in and out of the country, but I couldn’t really do anything exciting with that.  I needed a dangerous substance that behaved in particular ways, and my nephew – a forensic toxicologist – suggested I look at the Bhopal disaster. As soon as I learned about the substance responsible, I knew it was the one for my storyline. But the research left me deeply disturbed about what happened to the people of Bhopal, who to this day have never received justice for the blatant failures of the company responsible, and so I hope to be able to raise some awareness of that.

The storyline for Shadows came out of a discussion with a friend of mine who’s a midwife, and who told me about some of the murkier sides of her work.  She was keen to find a way to highlight what’s going on, and wanted me to write about it.

Where do you get your ideas from?
A lot of the stuff I’ve written is actually based on dreams that I’ve had. However, in recent years I’ve suffered insomnia, so have resorted to spying on people instead. I work full time, and there are always good snippets of information at meetings and in office gossip that can be built into a plot…

Do you have a favourite story / character / scene you’ve written?
My favourite form of writing is actually screenwriting, and I’ve written some comedy pieces with my partner Allison. When we write comedy scripts together, sparks fly and the writing is just great fun. So, while I enjoy whatever it is I happen to be writing at any one time, the screenwriting with Allison is my favourite.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who it was from?
The best writing advice I’ve seen came from Dr Jacky Collins, whose advice to aspiring crime writers is to get along to their nearest Noir at the Bar and get involved.  There is lots of advice out there on how to write – from style, to good writing habits – but I’ve found the best motivation and confidence-builder to me for writing has come from being around other writers, and from the tremendous support we give each other.

What can readers expect from your books?
I hope first and foremost that they’ll enjoy a gripping good read.  Characters that they can get to know and understand, and short chapters for a quick read after a hard day at work.

Beyond that, I’m interested in the relativity of crime: by that, I mean there’s always a wider context behind the actual crime that we see, and none of us really can wash our hands of that. For example, the company responsible for the Bhopal disaster clearly cut corners and ignored safety procedures that would have prevented the catastrophe. But companies cut corners all the time, largely because all of us want to buy our goods as cheaply as possible. We’re not very accepting of price tags that reflect the full costs of production – costs that relate to environmental and human pressures. If we buy cheap, it means somebody else – with less power than us – pays the full price. While I don’t want to be preachy, I do think we need to be more aware of our own contribution to the crime we see around us, and I hope my books will give a glimpse into that, too.

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
You need to love and enjoy what you’re writing. If you want to take it further, and want to see it published, I’d say study the market and treat your finished work like a business. There are rules, and you need to know what these are in your particular genre. When I completed Toxic, I hadn’t thought of it in terms of genre at all, until I researched the publishing world and realised it had to “fit” somewhere, so I re-drafted it to be more compatible with the crime fiction market.

What do you like and dislike about writing?
There are a number of aspects to writing, for example the actual act of writing, researching your topic, and the writing life.

On writing itself, this is going to sound ancient, but I went to school in the days before computers were invented. There, I’ve said it! All of our work was handwritten, including all of our creative writing. When I was a kid, I wrote all the time, and find today that I can still only write creatively if it’s by hand. If I try to write directly onto the screen, it comes out like a work report. Oddly, I both like and dislike that I need to hand write first.  I enjoy the feeling of writing by hand, but it does make for double the work.

Researching your topic is really important, and should be enjoyable. If you find the research dull, you’re maybe not writing from the heart. However, you do have to be careful, especially when you’re researching for crime fiction. I inadvertently ended up on a terrorist recruitment website recently while researching smoke grenades (and I was only trying to find out if they make a noise…).

As to the writing life, meeting up with other writers and folk involved in the book world (readers, bloggers, booksellers, publishers, etc) is great. I don’t know about other genres, but in crime writing there’s a real sense of belonging and support, and I say that as someone who’s fairly shy and doesn’t find it terribly easy to do the networking stuff.

Are you writing anything at the moment?
I’m writing the third Donna Davenport book (Run), which completes a particular storyline that started in Toxic. I’ve also begun to outline two more books, and can’t quite decide which one to go for first. One is another Donna Davenport book. Here’s a sneak preview of the other one:

Death Do Us Part – Diane knows she’s the piece in her husband Rick’s deadly game. Claiming the glory when he kills her lovers – who line up to take him on, like rutting stags – keeps Rick as the undisputed crime lord, and their life of riches intact. Dutifully she plays the game. They line up. He conquers. She lives.

Then one day the rules of the game change forever. Diane falls in love with Claire. They both know Rick won’t challenge a woman – there’s no status in that. If he finds out, Diane’s life will be over.

There’s nowhere to turn for help. Claire is the crime gang’s chief mechanic, and as well as knowing where all the bodies are buried, she’s in it up to her neck.

The pair can’t risk being found together.

The only option open to them is to go on the run, but Rick has a reputation to defend, and they’ll have to outplay him at his own game if they’re ever to be truly free.

I also can’t decide if it’s crime or romance – what do you think?

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
I’ve recently begun to run creative writing sessions, along with a former colleague, for men who are in prison or who have recently been released. Each time we meet, there’s a new favourite moment, and I’ve been blown away by the power of creative writing to mend broken lives. For example, one of the guys, who protested that writing wasn’t his thing and that he couldn’t do it, eventually wrote a poem. He declared that the experience had given him a bigger high than any drugs. That’s priceless, and it’s what I love about writing. Now I’m welling up.

Review of 2017: Paul Gitsham

Following Gill Hoff’s appearance on the blog yesterday, we have Paul Gitsham to look back over his 2017 and share the highs and lows with us. 

Thanks to Paul for taking the time to reflect on his year. 

Vic x

Do you have a favourite memory professionally from 2017?
This year I have been fortunate enough to have a short story accepted for the Crime Writers’ Association Anthology Mystery Tour. It’s a real honour to be included in a collection with such amazing authors as Ann Cleeves, C.L. Taylor and Kate Rhodes. Check it out, there’s something for everyone.

And how about a favourite moment from 2017 generally?
This year, I decided to cut back on my teaching career to spend more time writing and it’s been very rewarding.

Favourite book in 2017?
So many! But one that really had me thinking ‘I wish I’d written that’ has to be Craig Robertson’s Random – it was his debut, written back in 2010, but it’s superb!

Favourite film in 2017?
Despite having so many excellent comic book movies to choose from, I have to go with the outstanding Dunkirk.

Favourite song of the year?
I’m not going to lie – a song as to be at least 5 years old for it to seep into my consciousness, so ask me again in 2022. That being said, the one song that I always pause my typing for when it comes around on shuffle has to be Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars.

Any downsides for you in 2017?
Dealing with conveyancing solicitors. How does anyone ever move house in this country? On the plus side, I know exactly who I’m going to kill in a future book!

Are you making resolutions for 2018?
I’m not a big one for resolutions, but I have no excuse now not to write every day.

What are you hoping for from 2018?
I am still writing more DCI Warren Jones books, but I’m hoping to find the time to work on a couple of standalones that I have been thinking about for a while.

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Tana Collins

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.

This week, we have the lovely Tana Collins on the blog to talk about how her past employment – and job interviews – have given her food for thought when it comes to writing crime novels. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us, Tana.

Vic x

I’ve often heard the expression that victims of crime need to be given a voice. I guess that’s one of the things I aim to do when I write my Inspector Jim Carruthers series.  And I know many crime writers feel the same way.  Too often the victims are forgotten. We aim to keep them alive.

Before I became a Massage Therapist in Edinburgh I had a stint working as an intern for the United Nations Association in Central London. For those who don’t know who they are the United Nations Association or UNA is a non governmental organisation aiming to throw a spotlight on what the UN actually does. Although the post was unpaid it gave me valuable work experience in to a very difficult area after I finished my MPhil in Philosophy. Not the easiest course to get a job in, especially in the UK. For six months I worked full time on the Human Rights and Refugees desk. And it was a real eye opener.

Some of the highlights included attending meetings at the Houses of Parliament and carrying the United Nations Association flag (boy was it heavy!) to the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. Mostly it was answering letters from members of the public on the UN’s involvement in former Yugoslavia whose devastating civil war was raging. I won’t ever forget the heart rending letters we received from school children pleading with us for the United Nations to stop the war and I remember how frustrated we all felt in that office that the killing was continuing.

Whilst war was raging in the Balkans, back in Central London the IRA were still very active.  On more than one occasion our building was put in lock-down whilst a controlled explosion was carried out just up the road.  There had been a small bomb that had actually exploded in the street the year before! We knew to keep away from the windows and go down to the basement.

It was around this time I had a series of interviews to join the RAF. Crikey, things were a bit desperate on the job front for me. I had to find a career so I decided to sign up for 16 years! I didn’t get in to the RAF but that’s another story.

During my final interview before my three day assessment at Cranwell, the phone rang and after a short but terse talk the man interviewing me abruptly terminated the interview! It turns out there was an unmarked white van with a couple of well known IRA suspects sitting just across the road casing the joint.

We needed to leave the room with the big glass windows immediately.  I never did find out what happened to the suspects in the vehicle but thankfully we didn’t come under attack. That experience though didn’t do much for my nerves in subsequent jobs interviews, I can tell you.

People ask me where I get my stories from. Little do they know…

My books have been called thrillers. Certainly my debut novel, Robbing the Dead, is a thriller and it definitely draws on the experiences I had and emotions I felt back in Central London. That book in particular looks to try to understand why people are driven to become terrorists. However, it also looks at questions about free speech and whether we still have a right to free speech, if by exercising it, we put ourselves and strangers in danger.  It’s a fascinating debate.

They always say that nothing you do in life is ever wasted and I’m a firm believer in this. I’m utterly thrilled that not only did my short stint at the UNA come in useful in my writing but so did my MPhil in Philosophy. Although I still have the day job as a Massage Therapist, which I love, I feel very blessed to be a writer.