Music and Crime Fiction

I wrote in my last blog about how important music is to my writing and I wanted to expand on it in my latest blog. So let me start with a confession, I wanted to be a rock star.

I taught myself how to play guitar around 30 years ago and the guitar has always been a trusted friend of mine. I’m no Jimi Hendrix (and I don’t pretend to be), but I can play at a decent standard. The guitar has been my main source of relaxing and de-stressing for these past decades, now only matched by my writing.

In my late teens and early twenties, I played in a number of bands with friends from school. Deep down I knew I didn’t have the talent to make it (similar to my footballing skills), but the sheer joy of creating music with my close friends and then stepping on stage to play in front of (sometimes) 20 people was an experience I will never forget.

I’ve said before that I only took up writing in my mid thirties, however, back in those days I loved writing lyrics, regardless of how good or bad they turned out (usually the latter). I had two rules for my lyric writing. Firstly, they had to rhyme like a poem and secondly, they had to tell a story. These rules were unconscious at the time, but I guess they set me up well for later life.

I wrote one song that I was proud of at the time which had one particular line that I was teased about relentlessly by my bandmates.

‘Lately I have found you, not your usual self. You seem to hide from me, like a book upon a shelf.’

OK, I admit it’s hardly Bob Dylan. I had this picture in my head of someone trying to find a particular book and being unable to find it amongst all the books in front of them. Subconsciously, I was mixing music with literature. Around a decade later, I was listening to a song by Pearl Jam. Eddie Vedder is an outstanding lyricist and pens the majority of Pearl Jam’s lyrics. The song was called ‘Sometimes’ and I thought I heard a particular lyric. I had to listen to it a few times to make sure.

‘My small self…like a book amongst the many on a shelf…’

I punched the air in delight. Eddie Vedder had written lyrics that mirrored mine from years before. If I was brave enough to get a tattoo, it would possibly be that lyric (or the Stickman from the ‘Alive’ record sleeve). I’m not, so I won’t.

Of course, I’m not the only crime writer who puts music into their books. Ian Rankin is as famous for his love of music as he is for crime writing in some circles. Some Rolling Stones albums have been used for the titles of his books. He also consistently name checks his favourite artists when describing the music Rebus and Clarke are listening to.

Mark Billingham has a real love of country music and Peter Robinson’s DCI Banks has an eclectic taste in music. Inspector Morse, of course, has a deep passion for classical music.

Classic rock was always going to be part of my writing. Although I love many genres of music, this is the one I always return to. Having DS Mike Lyle as DI Christie’s trusted partner in crime, it was inevitable that he would like that music also. I made him slightly older than me to give him a wider range of music. I also took the obsession further and had him co-own a Classic Rock themed cafe, The Classic Crock (Crock as in Crockery – you see now!). With his other passion being driving, it gave me many opportunities to slip in a reference to a song or band that I love. Often it was the particular band I was listening to at the time.

I think music and crime fiction go well together and music will continue to play a part in novels to come. It gives the reader a soundtrack to the story and more and more writers are creating playlists on Spotify to go with their books. When I started writing ‘Christie’s Early Cases’ around 2014, I kept a note of all the songs mentioned so that I could do this.

Little did I know, I was not alone…

You can hear the playlist on Spotify – the link is now on the ‘Links’ page of this website.

Christie’s Early Cases is available on Amazon in eBook or Paperback. Click on the ‘Books’ tab on the menu bar for link.

What’s The Big Idea?

How do authors come up with so many different ideas?

Stories generally start with a simple idea by the author and there are many ways in which an author can get inspired to write. In this blog, I wanted to write about how I came up with the idea which would develop into my debut novel ‘Alive’. Before I do that, let me touch on ideas and inspiration first of all.

I mentioned before that I often use song titles as inspiration for my stories. Sometimes I begin with that and see where it takes me, other times I have an idea for a story and try a work a song title into that story. Either way, I enjoy linking music and fiction together, whilst being careful that the story is not connected, in any way, to the song.

I only started writing seriously in my mid 30’s, mainly due to a lack of confidence. I enjoyed writing stories at school, but back then I was reading a lot of James Herbert and his genre was not best suited to high school English class. I remember writing a story in a mock exam which was highly influenced by Mr Herbert and being proud of the outcome. The story was of a man dreaming of being brutally killed before awaking to find a murderer in his bedroom. Ultimately I received a poor grade, not because the story or prose were poor, but because the question was to be a true life example.

I did get a better grade later, on a story I wrote about a boy called Ricky who shot and killed a friend in a teenage drunken evening. I stole the idea (and the main characters name) from Skid Row’s ’18 and Life’ song. A school friend wrote a similar story, based on the same song, but had the sense to change the main character’s name.

Many famous authors have different ways of inspiration. Lots carry around books and scribble notes when an idea appears. I took my eldest daughter to the Edinburgh International Book festival where she met a famous YA author for a signing. She loved her unusual name and took out a notebook from her bag and wrote it down. A couple of years later, my daughter’s name was used as a character in one of her books.

Ian Rankin uses an ideas box, where he keeps scribbles of ideas, or newspaper articles that may inspire his stories. I have a book that I use for some ideas that I may come back to, but I need to get better at recording them whilst they are still fresh in my mind.

When I wrote ‘Christie’s Early Cases’, I came up with the idea of writing a series of short stories to introduce the main characters. I then decided that each story would represent a case that Christie was involved in after her promotion to DI. With her partner DS Lyle being a big fan of Classic Rock music, I took a further step and I decided to name the 11 stories after the track list of a Classic Rock album. I’m not sure why I chose Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ album, although it is a great album and fits the Classic Rock genre perfectly. Some songs were easy to make into crime stories, but I did struggle somewhat with ‘You Make Loving Fun’.

So, let me return to the start and tell you about ‘Alive’.

The year was 2011 and all I had to begin with was the title. ‘Alive’ by Pearl Jam is my favourite song of all time (I can debate this on another blog) so I just had to name my book after this song. Secondly, I had a genre. I wanted to write a crime novel. The fact that the end product is more thriller than crime is immaterial.

Next, I wanted to do it differently to other, more traditional crime novels. I decided that the detective would not be the main character, police or amateur sleuth regardless. I considered writing from a killer’s perspective, but this has been done (by Agatha Christie at least – I won’t reveal which novel as I don’t do spoilers). I settled on the idea of writing it from, what I call, the target’s perspective.

My next consideration was, how can I write from the target’s perspective without revealing whether they live or die? My solution was writing it through Steve’s diary. Great idea, I thought. One of my favourite books as an early teen was Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (Aged 13 3/4). Ok, very different subject and genre, but I liked that you could dip in and out of the book without forcing yourself to the end of a chapter. It also helped with my writing, as I was focused on completing weeks, then months and before I knew it most of the book was complete.

From there, the story took shape. The set up was that the main character, Steve, would receive a note on the 1st of January saying he would be murdered that year. The story would be centred around not only who was doing this, but why they were doing this and would they be ultimately successful in doing it? The diary format did have some issues though. I was writing in the first person and struggled somewhat with description and getting the other character’s perspective over. These turned out as minor issues and overall I’m very happy with the outcome.

Fortunately. most people I have spoken to who have read ‘Alive’ have agreed. I guess my idea was ok after all.

To read ‘Alive’ select Books on the main menu and click on the book cover. Alive is available in both paperback and eBook.

How To Write A Novel (or How I Wrote Mine)

When, eventually, I admitted to people that I had written and self published a novel, many people asked me about the process and stated that they could never do it themselves. I believe the old saying that there is a novel in everyone, it is just not everyone is brave enough to take on the challenge of writing it (and it is a challenge).

So if you are tempted into beginning the journey into writing that novel idea of yours, here is my 10 tips to get you started.

1 – WRITE WHAT YOU LOVE – Many authors advise that you should write about what you know. Some authors advise to write what you don’t know as it encourages effective research. For me, you should write what you love as it will help maintain your focus, passion and commitment to finish the journey. I love to read crime and thriller novels, so that’s where I started.

2 – DON’T PLOT OUT THE FULL NOVEL – I was once attended an event by Ian Rankin and he commented that a fellow author told him he had over 180 pages of notes for his next novel. Ian, jokingly, stated that that it wasn’t notes, it was a book. Although it is good to plot out a rough idea of where the novel will go, don’t overdo it as this prevents some creativity magic from happening during the process (often when you least expect it).

3 – FOCUS ON THE CHARACTERS – Regardless of how thrilling the plot may be, if the characters are dull readers will lose interest quickly. Make them believable, but leave an air of mystery around them. All main characters should have a secret or flaw that makes them appealing to the reader.

4 – DON’T GET LOST IN DESCRIPTION – Many authors love to ramble on for pages about scenery, weather, settings, clothes, etc. Whereas some of this is necessary, don’t overdo it as once more your reader may lose interest. The story line is the most important aspect of the novel and you need to keep it moving to maintain interest.

5 – KEEP AN EYE ON WORD COUNT – Word count can be a friend and an enemy. Most first novels should be around 75,000 words, much shorter and it is a novella, much longer and people may not wish to read it (especially publishers if this is a route you want to explore). It is better to break the novel down to smaller parts, such as writing 30 chapters of around 2,500 words.

6 – FIND A READING BUDDY – When I was writing my novel, I passed it to a friend to read during the process. The only rule I stated was that he was only to discuss the story/characters and not pull me up over spelling/grammar errors. This was an extremely useful exercise as the positive feedback on the story motivated me to continue, whereas feedback on certain characters made me look at them differently to how I had originally imagined them.

7 – TALK TO OTHER WRITERS – If you know anyone else who writes, has written a novel or is currently on that journey, then speak with them. They may be able to give you some tips of how they tackle a particular problem. It also gives you the opportunity to discuss your novel and may spark interest in the completed works. If you don’t know anyone, you can join a local group (often found via your local library).

8 – LOOK FOR INSPIRATION EVERYWHERE – Inspiration for a story or plot line can come from all places. Often it may be from a newspaper article, a story a colleague or friend shares or simply by observing the world go by. Also, a word, phrase or title may inspire you to write. I use the titles of classic rock songs for my stories and in some occasions have used that as my inspiration or basis for the story.

9 – GET A GANG OF PROOFREADERS – When you have finished your novel, have re-read it numerous times and are ready share it with people, do so on one condition. Ask them to take a copy of the manuscript and note any errors with a pencil as they are reading it. The more people who do this, the less errors there will be (and there will be many more that you will expect). If you can afford it, you could pay for a professional proofreader, however, this can be costly.

10 – ENJOY THE PROCESS – You should want to write a novel because it is someone that you want to enjoy. If you find the process a chore or a slog, then writing is not for you. Also, don’t do it if you want to be the next millionaire author. Most full time authors will earn less than the minimum wage with their writing. Personally, I look at writing as a hobby, a means of escape and a way to unwind. I have never tried to get an agent or get my work published. This may change in the future, but by keeping writing as a hobby there is one this that I will always do.

Love doing it.