Tag Archives: novel

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Ian Skewis

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.

One author who is making waves in the world of crime fiction is Ian Skewis. His novel ‘A Murder of Crows’ has been getting lots of love in the crime community and Ian is with us today to talk about how his day job affects his writing – and his life. 

Vic x

I write every day.

I never used to. I have always written. But only in the past couple of years has it become a necessity.

A necessity, because I am now published, and once you’re on that road, there is no going back. A writer’s profession can be precarious and to not do everything you can to maintain that path would be career suicide. So, when I’m not writing I’m promoting online. When I’m not promoting online I’m reading my work to an audience at a festival or library or community centre. In other words, more promoting. And when I’m not doing that I’m attending other people’s book readings and launches. Networking. It’s endless.

My social life has shrunk drastically as a result and the few times I have something close to a night out are when I’m with other writers. Again, this is courtesy of book launches etc. Finding a balance is difficult.

And then there’s the ‘day job.’

I often feel a bit grumpy about going to work at my day job because I’m always thinking that I could be writing or promoting my own work instead. But, as is always the case, the ‘day job’ does serve several functions. The first and most obvious is that it pays the bills. That’s its main function. But there are several other functions that didn’t become apparent to me until this whole author thing really took off. My day job allows me to use a different part of my brain for solving different kinds of problems. Sometimes, if the writing process has been especially strenuous, I actually look forward to going back to the day job. I simply can’t wait to talk to people who are real, as opposed to the ones who are inside my head. And more often than not, any problems I have with my stories, such as a kink in the timeline perhaps, are resolved subconsciously, in the background, whilst my main brain is actively working at the day job.

Other times, after a 12 hour shift, I’m so tired the next day I can barely write a meaningful paragraph. But sometimes, when I’m in that docile state, I have some amazing ideas and the writing just pours out, because the part of my brain that prevents the free flow of imagination, the part of me that perhaps over analyses, has been put on hold.

So there we have it.

The ‘day job’ has its uses.

But the good news is that I can actually begin to take a wee bit more time away from the day job and spend it on my writing, now that my work is being recognised. And I have to say that if I had a choice I would like to write full time and use my entire brain for that, and my nights could be my nights again. Who knows, I might even strike a balance and get a social life again. Time will tell…

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Review: ‘Good Me, Bad Me’ by Ali Land

Teenager Annie reports her mother to the police in order to put an end to her hideous crimes. Annie may have a new name – Milly – and new family but she is still haunted by memories of the past. As she is prepared for the upcoming trial by a team of experts, Milly has to not only deal with her feelings about the things she witnessed when living with her mother but she has all the other trials of being an adolescent girl to contend with. 

I bought ‘Good Me Bad Me‘ on impulse and I’m delighted I did. Reading it in the last days of 2017, this fascinating novel sneaked in as one of my top reads of last year. I devoured this book within a couple of days thanks to its compelling characters and intriguing story. 

There will be some people who find the subject matter too difficult to read but I found ‘Good Me Bad Me‘ impossible to put down. 

Vic x

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Robert Parker

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, we have Robert Parker discussing how his occupation helped inspire his crime writing. I first met Robert on the Crime & Publishment course in 2016 and he’s a top chap. Robert has, however, chosen to retain his anonymity – I’m sure you’ll understand why soon… 

Thanks to him for sharing his experience with us. 

Vic x

You are now twenty times more likely to be a victim of cyber crime than you are to be mugged in the street. It makes a lot of sense, from a criminal perspective. Why would you bother to actually mug someone these days? Why take all the risks; the chance of someone calling your bluff, the chance of someone mugging you right back, the chance of going to jail, if, like me, you harbour a suspicion that you might just be a bit too pretty for that? Why take the gamble when you can sit on a couch in the comfort of your underwear, with a laptop, eating food that probably came in a bucket, scrolling, clicking and punching in the odd stolen card number.

That’s where we come in. Online fraud is big business these days and as time goes on it’s only getting bigger, more complicated and harder to spot.

I wound up in my job almost by accident. Almost. It isn’t something you can fall into. There’s a bit of commitment required. Competition for jobs can get fierce. It isn’t an option you just settle for. But I didn’t know it was something you could do until about a year before I shoehorned my way in.

It was 2010 and I was working two jobs at once, waiting on tables in the family-owned coffee shop and fitting cattle mattresses (yes, really) for my step-dad’s agricultural engineering business. I was living away from my fiancée during the week and driving the hundred and thirty dark winter miles to and from Edinburgh either side of the weekend. I needed to spend more time where I supposedly lived. I knew I would have to find something a bit different. They don’t do farming in the big smoke. I’d never worked in an office. I thought I could give that a go. It had to be warmer than a byre in January. How hard could it be?

I failed the data entry test (yes, really). That sounds like it would be hard to do. In my defence, I didn’t know my way round a keyboard, much less a clunky, chunky, nineties relic, mothballed in the damp basement of a recruitment agency. They were prepared to take a chance on me. They were counting on me. I couldn’t let them down, I was told, by an overly earnest man who had to be ten years my junior.

I was sent to the offices a of a tech firm who needed me to enter data for two weeks. It meant I could spend some time with Caroline, if nothing else. I remember thinking then that there must be something more interesting than data entry going on inside the offices of a travel website. I just had no concept of what that might actually be.

I didn’t get to do any data entry. I managed a tour of the city centre office, a coffee and slack-jawed stare at what must have been an expensive view of the castle, before someone in the contact centre got fired for looking at Facebook.

That’s how I wound up in a contact centre. A couple of weeks later I overheard a conversation between two of my new workmates in the pub, one asking the other “How are you finding the fraud department?” That was the light bulb moment. That was when I knew I’d found the something more interesting. It took me another twenty months to get in, but I’ve been here ever since.

So how has it contributed to my writing? In a lot of ways that I might have seen coming and a few more I didn’t.

First of all, there’s the day-to-day. I’m a fraud analyst, part case-by-case investigator and part long-term strategist. We deal with the fraud as and when it arises, working individual cases, catching people in the act and hopefully stopping them, but we also follow patterns, predict trends and take steps to counteract them. Where we can, we help the police, build cases and compile evidence, with a view to putting people safely away.

The first thing you learn is that it isn’t quite as glamorous as the expectations of your friends and family. My mum seems to think my day job is something like cyber CSI, and it is, but like a real life CSI. It’s methodical. It involves hard work and you don’t actually get to chase, or even see the bad guys, not in real life, though ironically for the girl whose job I originally stole, I do spend far more time on Facebook than can ever really be healthy.

It isn’t something you could write a book about, not a thriller anyway. Man-gets-mildly-excited-and-spills-cappuccino-after-left-clicking-and-discovering-some-fraudulent-transactions or man-deals-with-brief-existential-crisis-after-opening-an-intimidating-Excel-file doesn’t make for a particularly compelling elevator pitch. Or maybe it’s just a bit too literary for me.

It’s all relative though. You can get lost in the data for hours and you do get a buzz when you uncover a web or a pattern. But it’s the stuff I’ve learned as a consequence of my job that inspires and informs plots, research and characters.

So much of our lives today happen online. Like it or not, you leave traces of yourself wherever you go. Even a Google search records multiple pieces of information, all of which affect what you’re shown next time around. Police investigations naturally have a higher emphasis on our online, connected lives as time goes on.

It isn’t just fraud that has moved online either. The dark web is a one-stop shop for anything you want. Feel like ordering up a kilo of heroin? An Uzi? A human being? It’s all out there, lurking below the surface. You just have to know where to start digging. And the customer service is better than you’ll find anywhere else.

You learn about these things when you come into contact with the right – or wrong – people, when you’re trained by the right people. It’s the stories you hear that stick in the mind. The public consciousness seems to have fraud down as a victimless crime, but a conversation with the police would quickly convince you otherwise. Fraudsters are pretty often the same people committing the more serious crimes, with the proceeds going to fund the drugs, guns and human traffic.

Different gang cultures have different hierarchies. With the world getting smaller there are clashes. That thought led me to the plot of my first novel, Snow Storm. Throw in a conspiracy theory, a few bodies, add a twist or three and hopefully you’re halfway to a decent story.

Sometimes though, inspiration can be as simple as dumb luck and geography, like my wife dropping me off at work, bleary eyed and achy after the office Christmas party, next to a lamppost someone had hung an oddly shaped bag from.

“Do you think there’s a head in there?” I heard myself say, through a boozy haze.

And the opening of Snow Storm landed, fully formed, between my ears.

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Gill Hoffs

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.

Regular readers of the blog will recognise today’s writer and worker as Gill Hoffs, Nutella fiend and all-round top woman. Gill’s going to be telling us how her career has influenced her writing. 

Vic x

I’m shit at small talk, and apparently it’s not alright to say to a stranger, “If you have a look at my twitter feed that tends to reflect what I’m about – rude history, strange nature, art, and junk food.  How about yourself?”  So I bear in mind that there are several standard topics to discuss, cultural checkpoints that establish you as ‘alright to be around’ and ‘not a threat’, such as weather, the niceness (or otherwise) of wherever we happen to be, and – at a push – occupation.

Depending on the situation, I lead with one of my two jobs: carer or author, though the latter usually leads to tongue-biting.  I love both and, since I tend to write about people from the past, they’re kinda linked.

I used to work in children’s homes, where I’d spend part of my week living alongside children with emotional and behavioural difficulties.  A key part of the job (as I saw it, anyway) was to find whatever small or large details it took to make a connection with each kid.  Much of this was rooted in the mundane.  Did they prefer Penguins or Rich Teas with their hot drinks?  Movies or soaps?  Cereals or toast?  And to build on our relationship from there.  We built bonds, fragile but precious, from these fragments of personal taste, the human equivalent of “telling details”.

Now I work with older people in a nursing home.  Instead of attempting to set our charges on the path to a happy, healthy, and independent adulthood we’re doing our best to make them comfortable, and bring them joy or, at the very least, a measure of peace and contentment.  Relationships are just as important but can be trickier to navigate, especially when memory issues are involved, but again, we build bonds over tiny details.  Pets or no, custard creams or bourbons, Stones or Beatles, tattoos and hair-dye – there’s always something we can connect through.

This principle, that these tiny yesses and noes, personal preferences, wrinkled noses and dimpled smiles add up to a whole bunch of humanity, lies at the heart of my other work as a writer and researcher.  When I create my shipwreck books, I find that many of the records have been boiled down to numbers and percentages, weights and measures, lists of co-ordinates, cargo and casualties.  My biggest priority is restoring the humanity to the people involved with these tragedies, and for me the easiest way to do so is to flesh out the names attached to these statistics.  What were their nicknames?  What did they love?

As someone who is often led by their belly, one of my favourite examples for this is when Hendrick Jans Kas, a survivor of the William & Mary shipwreck, wrote home to Friesland from America ‘I think I will like living here. Americans eat pork three times a day and beef and that is a bright prospect for me.’  Food as a source of joy?  I suspect we’d get along great.

To find out more about Hendrick and his fellow shipwreck survivors (and the captain and crew who attempted mass murder in the Bahamas), read ‘The Lost Story of the William & Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson (Pen & Sword, 2016).  Gill’s first shipwreck book, ‘The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic(Pen & Sword, 2014, 2015), is also available from reputable and disreputable outlets.

Review: ‘I Did It for Us’ by Alison Bruce

Emily tells herself that her best friend Joanne’s new boyfriend is trouble, worrying that he will hurt Joanne – and Joanne’s children. But her friend is in love and can’t see what Emily is worried about so Emily decides to watch and wait. But Emily’s past isn’t as straight-forward as she’s led Joanne to believe – is she as good a friend as she claims to be? 

 

Although I recently read ‘Cambridge Black‘ by the same author, ‘I Did It for Us‘ is a very different novel – they’re both very good but in different ways. ‘I Did It for Us‘ is a twisty story featuring a questionable narrator. 

Throughout the novel, I was unsure who to root for and second guessed myself until the final chapters. I genuinely didn’t know who to trust – Alison Bruce has created a cast of characters so layered that any of them could genuinely be misleading the reader but at the same time may be completely innocent.

This unsettling thriller tackles a number of subjects which make ‘I Did It for Us‘ a dark, edgy read.

I whipped through ‘I Did It for Us‘ in a couple of days because I was so desperate to see what would happen. I honestly didn’t want to put this novel down. 

Vic x

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Paul Bassett Davies

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 the writer we have with us is Paul Bassett Davies, author of ‘Utter Folly‘ and ‘Dead Writers in Rehab‘. His post is slightly different to the other writers we’ve had on the blog so far but it’s certainly one I can empathise with. I hope that Paul’s post brings comfort and hope to those of you in a similar position. 

Vic x

The job that had the greatest influence on my writing was Hospital Patient. If that seems like an unusual job description, let me explain.

Nearly twenty years ago I was diagnosed with a chronic illness. During the next ten years I underwent a series of surgical operations, and I spent a lot of time in hospital. Eventually it began to seem like a job to me. After all, I was spending about half my life in the role, it was hard work, I didn’t like it, and sometimes I thought it would kill me. So, just like a regular job.

But I flung myself  into my work, determined to be proactive. And, being a writer, I used everything that happened to me as potential material. In the process, I became a novelist.

You get a lot of time to think when you’re a hospital patient, and even more time in the long, slow weeks and months when you’re recuperating, or getting sick again. It’s not exactly free time, because it’s not free from pain, or fatigue or stress. That was why I started to write my first book – to escape all that. I came to writing novels late. I’d done a lot of writing before then, in the way of stage work, short stories, radio plays, movies, corporate films, music videos, short films, and a mountain of comedy for radio and television. But writing a book was something else, and in many ways I’m fortunate that I did it while I was unwell. It made me focus on why I was doing it. Which was, of course, to cheer myself up.

Writing my first novel was like telling myself a long, funny story. During the hours I spent telling it – the hours of writing – I was able to escape the dreary world of my illness, and enter the other world I was creating: a world in which I could, among other things, make other people suffer instead of me, and have a bloody good laugh about it. If that sounds callous or sadistic it probably is, and it’s just one of the many functions of telling stories.

But above all I wrote to give pleasure, firstly to myself and then, hopefully, to readers (although I continue to withhold it from my poor characters). Through all this I began to realise I wasn’t really interested in writing or reading things that didn’t take me out of myself, and change me in some way. I like to think I’m clever, but I’m not concerned with mere cleverness. I’m looking for something else, and the best word for it is delight. I want to delight, and to be delighted.

The work of other people which most often delights me also tends to be completely distinctive. That’s why I’ll always try to see anything the writer and director Robert Lepage does, because it’s not like anything else. The same goes for the music of Patti Smith, Tom Waits or Laurie Anderson. And I’ll always read a book by Magnus Mills or Nell Zink, or watch a Wes Anderson film.

All these people have a unique voice, and I like to think I’m developing mine. My first novel, Utter Folly, was long and sprawling, but my second, Dead Writers in Rehab, published last year, is more contained. And among the good reviews it’s received, those that please me most are the ones that say it’s unclassifiable: that it can’t be categorised, and that it occupies a niche of its own.

My job as a hospital patient allowed me to discover what it is I really want to do with my time, and it changed my ideas about sickness and health. I began to focus less on recovery, and more on discovery. The road to recovery is long and arduous, and its goal is ultimately unattainable: in the end none of us recover from life. But the road to discovery can be enjoyed for itself. It’s all about the journey, and finding delight in every step of the way.

 

*City Without Stars Blog Tour* Guest Post and Review

I am really delighted to be involved in the blog tour for ‘City Without Stars’ by Tim Baker. 

Tim’s debut thriller, ‘Fever City‘, was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger and the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Award. City Without Stars‘ is published this month by Faber & Faber. 

My thanks to Faber & Faber for including me on the tour and to Tim for taking the time to answer my questions. 

Vic x

Photo by Colin Englert

Tell us about City Without Stars‘.
For the residents of Ciudad Real, in Mexico, the situation is desperate. A deadly war between rival cartels is erupting, hundreds of female sweat-shop workers are being murdered, and union activist, Pilar, is about to risk all; taking social justice into her own hands by organizing illegal lightning strikes in protest.

As his police superiors start shutting down his investigation into the serial killings, a newly assigned homicide detective, Fuentes, suspects most of his colleagues are on the payroll of narco kingpin, El Santo, and turns to Pilar for help. Although she will do anything to stop the murders of her fellow workers, Pilar’s going to have to ignore all her instincts if she is to trust Fuentes enough to work with him. When the name of the city’s saintly orphan rescuer, Padre Márcio, keeps resurfacing, Pilar and Fuentes begin to realise the immensity of the forces aligned against them . . .

What inspired it?
So many elements go into the creation of a novel and every one of them is a form of inspiration. From the first day I arrived in Mexico, I knew I wanted to write about the country, but it took over four years for the major themes to emerge and coalesce into a narrative, including the plight of exploited female workers along the border region with the United States and the vast numbers of these young women who were being abducted and murdered. Why were no suspects being apprehended? Why weren’t the women being offered better protection? And why were authorities refusing to consider the situation as an emergency? There was only one force in the region that could exert such malign control: the cartels. Add to that the growing concerns about the dehumanizing dangers of rampant globalization, and suddenly I had a book.

Where do you get your ideas from?
Perhaps surprisingly, most of my ideas come from either dreams or daydreams when I’m in nature and there’s interplay between elements or light. These moments are not so much a blinding flash as half-formed glimpses or impressions and usually take on greater clarity when I’m doing some kind of physical activity: swimming or walking and not consciously thinking about ideas. It’s a long and imprecise journey and you need to have faith.

Do you have a favourite story / character / scene you’ve written?
I never read any of my books after their final edit because I’m already invested in creating new characters and other stories. There’s only so much space available inside my head so I have to keep the decks clear at all times! So my favourite characters, stories and scenes are always the ones that I’m currently writing, because they will be rewritten, edited, re-imagined and perhaps even deleted. Anything that’s in flux and emerging in surprising ways is always exciting.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who it was from?
It was a great piece of advice from the Canadian author, Mavis Gallant, whom I once interviewed at her home in Paris over a bottle of white Alsatian wine. She told me never to begin a line of dialogue with “Yes” or “No” as it invariably makes redundant everything else that follows, and at the very least robs the sentence of any dramatic tension. Like all great advice, it was simple but effective.

What can readers expect from your books?
I think my novels have a couple of things in common: strong social themes woven around a propulsive, violent story; a powerful sense of place; dark swathes of humour; and an unstinting belief in the endurance of human dignity.

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
My own writing journey and the way I write is atypical, so I may not be the best person to offer advice! All I would say is simply to embrace whatever works for you and don’t worry if it’s a little unorthodox. Aspiring writers need tenacity along with talent but they should also be aware that luck plays a strong part in any writer’s career. Luck comes in waves. If something is not working, then don’t become too despondent – put it down, pick up something else, and try it again later on. It worked for me!

What do you like and dislike about writing?
The great thing about writing a novel is that you have this vast canvas upon which to explore ideas, characters and complex concepts such as destiny.  It’s a luxury and a privilege to have that scope for consideration and I never take it for granted. The only thing I dislike about writing is not writing.

Are you writing anything at the moment?
I usually work on several projects at once. At the moment I am completing a dystopian thriller, a first-contact novel set in northwestern Australia, and a thriller about the Algerian war.

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
It’s exactly the same moment that applies to my life as a reader: leaping into the unknown of a new novel.

Review: ‘City Without Stars
by Tim Baker.

My interest was piqued when I was offered the opportunity to review ‘City Without Stars‘ because I haven’t read many thrillers set in Latin America. I was intrigued to read about the type of crimes that could be an issue in this region. 

Tim Baker’s prose evokes the setting, conjuring the claustrophobic climate beautifully. I read this nuanced story with the action unfolding in my head through a sepia haze. The atmosphere that Baker creates is cloying and claustrophobic, allowing the reader to step into this world and understand exactly what the characters are experiencing. 

Baker’s strong attention to detail helps create the layered, compelling story of cartels, inequality and murder. The action in this story packs a real punch and is certainly not for the faint-hearted. However, I found it insanely compelling. I could stomach the violence because it felt so desperately real. I cared about the characters and was totally invested in Pilar and Fuentes’s struggles. 

The female characters in this novel, on the whole, are very strong – despite their less than idea circumstances. 

I’d be very surprised if ‘City Without Stars‘ didn’t emulate its predecessor’s success. 

Vic x