Last week Katy of Chichester Copywriter went to hear crime authors Pauline Rowson, Peter Lovesey and Simon Brett Under Interrogation. This thought-provoking writing talk was held at Chichester Library in association with Festival of Chichester and revealed how these three West Sussex and Hampshire based crime writers deal with location, characters, writing routines and more…
A crime writer’s location
Pauline Rowson, whose most recent book is called Undercurrent, sets her novels close to home mainly because it’s useful to be able to walk her local patch when researching. It says on Pauline’s website:
“Adventure, mystery and heroes have always fascinated and thrilled Pauline Rowson. That and her love of the sea led her to create an exciting new series of crime novels set against the atmospheric backdrop of the Solent on the South Coast of England.”
However, during the Chichester Library talk, Pauline revealed that more specifically her books are set in Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight because she likes the contrast of the urban landscape with the rural island as well as the distinction between the area’s high social deprivation and wealthy residents. What’s more, Portsmouth has a very busy harbour ̶ the ideal place to dump a body!
On the other hand, Chichester writer Peter Lovesey revealed that he tries to stay well-clear of setting his novels in his home-town and now sticks to Bath, with its gritty underbelly beyond the beautiful Georgian architecture, as a prime location.
The reason for this is because The Circle, which was published in 2006, was about a crime within a Chichester Writers’ Circle. After researching and believing that there was not a Chichester Writers’ Circle in existence, he later discovered that there was and he had to meet the group, explain what happened and make sure that none of his character names were similar to those of real members.
Using a mixture of real and invented locations is the route that Simon Brett prefers. For example, the location of Fethering where many of his crimes are set is a cross between the names Ferring and Tarring, both real places that are close to his home in West Sussex.
A crime writer’s characters
DI Andy Horton, the main character in Pauline’s crime fiction, is a maverick cop who is “fit, fair and 40”. He was raised on a Portsmouth council estate before going to live in a children’s home when his mother walked out. As an adult, he is still on the outside – estranged from his wife and living on a boat alone in Southsea Harbour.
By contrast, Peter Diamond of Bath CID is an older, more dogmatic character. Peter Lovesey also revealed that it had not occurred to him that starting the series with Diamond aged 50+ could cause a problem further down the line. As the first book of this series, The Last Detective, was published in the 1990s, reason says that Diamond should have retired from the force some time ago – just as well writers have poetic licence on their side!
Peter also talked about how it can be useful to base characters on people that you meet but as you place them in a location or plot their personalities develop and come into their own. Simon backed this up with his description of “real life as a springboard.” This reveals how using people’s quirks, features and anecdotes as inspirational fodder can work wonders. The panel agreed that writers are inherently curious and the more that you write, the more that you see and hear.
Simon Brett sticks with using amateur sleuths and one of his main characters, Charles Paris, is an actor-come-detective. The motivation for this was that Simon didn’t have enough knowledge of police procedures to write a convincing character from within the force.
A crime writer’s writing routine
The writers’ daily routines and writing processes differed somewhat. Peter revealed that he writes a mere 200-300 words a day but that he plans a book from the very beginning and edits along the way. He also highlighted that those words closely resemble those used in the final draft, which usually takes around nine months to complete.
Simon aims for approximately 1500 word daily and also likes to have a solid plan to work with. However, he allows some flexibility in that plan as he likes to make way for any new ideas that transpire. For Simon to reach the first draft stage, it takes around 10 weeks.
Pauline, however, plans the theme, location, characters and a synopsis for the first three chapters before putting pen to paper and waiting to see what happens. Her turnaround is around two months for a first draft and six months for a finished novel.
They all admitted that writing a novel can be a rocky road and that there are identifiable stages to the process. It’s about two thirds of the way in for Simon that uncertainly can raise its ugly head. He combats this by keeping a daily diary while writing and looking back at past diaries to help him recognise that this is just part and parcel of writing. For Pauline, self-doubt hits at the proofing stage. The panel agreed that it’s expected for depression to set in after a novel is finished.
As an interesting aside, Simon and Peter noted how valuable the e-book market is to them. As crime writers with long backlists, their older books tend to get reissued as e-books and this sometimes warrants another print run – a clear positive for authors in the e-book versus paper book debate!
Here’s hoping that this provides some interesting food-for-though to any upcoming crime writers and, indeed, creative writing enthusiasts in general. Chichester Copywriter very much enjoyed listening to the ideas and motivations of three very different professional writers of the same genre.
Thank you very much to Dennis Low for the photographs used in this blog: