Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival.

Last night I received some fantastic news.

I have been chosen to be one of two bloggers/tweeters in residence at this year’s London launch event for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival and to then attend the festival (21st-24th July) at Harrogate.

It’s a cliche, but this is a ‘dream come true’ as I really wanted to get back there this year, but couldn’t see how I was going to fund another crime fiction indulgence.

To begin with it’s a big thanks to theculturevulture.co.uk who put a call out on twitter to see if any London/Southern based bloggers/tweeters were up for the challenge.  I saw the tweet, answered it with some info on what I’d done before (including my full report of 2010’s festival (copy below) and then sat back to watch what would happen.

Within a few hours, several of my good friends I’d met initially through Mark Billingham’s forum and then at Harrogate began a flurry of tweets stating that they thought I’d suit the post (extra special thanks to Claire and Jo for getting that ball rolling).

Seeing my ‘cheerleaders’, Culture Vulture asked anyone who was supporting an applicant to post their comments on the main site…and so it began.

I’ve never run for anything before in my life, was never a school counsellor or the like, but the passion I had for this task held no bounds, with me tweeting away to a whole host of friends, fellow bloggers, crime readers and novelists – all of whom were incredibly generous with their time and their nice comments.  I hope to share my appreciation with as many of them as I can at the bar area in July (assuming I’m allowed whilst on blogger – duty!).

During and after this Thursday’s festival launch, I will tweet and blog updates and news on what’s coming up and all I ask is that you please spread the word further afield.

Those that have been already know that Harrogate is THE best crime fiction festival in the UK (and likely the World) – let’s let everyone else know that too.

And so, with a huge thank you to all that supported me in gaining this post, I’ll leave you for a while with this to whet your appetite, here’s my coverage of the 2010 festival.

It’s quite lengthy – you may want to go and get tea and biscuits…

2010 Report by Keith B Walters

It had been five years since my last visit to this, the biggest and best crime writing festival in the UK, so I was overjoyed to find that my lovely parents had treated me to a full pass for the whole event this year as my 40th Birthday present.

I set off from home for the four and a half hour drive on the Wednesday before the event, so that I was guaranteed a good night’s sleep the evening before the first events. This worked out great as I succeeded in getting a great parking spot directly at the front of the fantastic venue, The Crown Hotel, and was also in time for a quick walk into town and a Wetherspoon’s before 5pm fish and chips special, washed down with a cup of Harrogate tea.

I had a place next morning on the Creative Thursday Crime Writing workshops, so retired to my room early and worked my novel pitch over and over to get it down to the two minutes I might be given to try to sell my idea to a panel at the Dragons’ Pen event at the end of the day. So, it didn’t end up being quite as early a night as I’d intended.

Thurs.

I woke early and was in the breakfast hall for 7am – knowing that if I didn’t rise at first alarm, there was no wife or children to kick me from my bed.

I bumped into novelist, agent and my tutor for the morning, Allan Guthrie, in the reception area and told him I’d be quiet and sit at the back – to which he responded that he didn’t want any of that sort of behaviour in his class!

Class started at 9am, after a coffee, registration and an introduction by Allan Guthrie and this year’s festival chair, Stuart MacBride.

We were separated into two groups for the tuition sessions, and my first two hour session was Character, Narrative & Voice with Mr Guthrie & Mr MacBride, whilst the second half of the group were off to learn Suspense with American thriller writer, Joseph Finder.

I have attended crime writing classes in the past, but this was the most professionally structured and insightful one I have ever sat in on. Stuart MacBride’s comment that he never wanted to see any of us back in his workshop again because he wanted us all to become writers was a great thing to hear in the opening moments.

Between them they ran a tight ship, with the whole session carefully timed with mobile phone alarms and laptop timeline ensuring that they covered every element and every exercise that wanted to cover within the two hours.

Allan Guthrie’s Skeleton-hook formula to form the basis of your story or pitch in just three or four lines was a superb tool and I took the opportunity to hang my own pitch onto it and presented it as the first one to speak up, just to get it out of my system. I think Stuart realised this as he asked how I felt afterwards and if it felt cathartic to say it out loud – it did!

I was very impressed with just how much I got out of just two hours in that room and how many pages of my notebook I filled with scenes and information that could easily be used in future work.

We then took a brief break for coffee and then both groups came together again for a DIY Research presentation on Forensics by three of the most respected experts working in their fields, Dave Barclay, James Grieve and Lorna Dawson from the Macaulay Institute.

It was an insightful, if sometimes disturbing, couple of hours which in the main took the form of a Q&A session, giving us the chance to ask about forensic details for our own projects, whilst being advised on real case situations and events. It was a fine line between fiction and fact being walked during the two hours and whilst much of it was done with great humour, I couldn’t get away from the fact that these three people have to deal with real life horrors such as Fred & Rosemary West’s victims and the murders in Soham village.

Then it was straight from that talk to the lunch hall (trying to clean my head of the nastier bits on the way there).

After lunch, the groups split again and my group joined thriller writer Joseph Finder (probably best known for his novel High Crimes which became an Ashley Judd/Morgan Freeman movie and features the author himself in five scenes – must rent it again to see if I can spot him) to analysis what ‘suspense’ means and how it is conveyed in classic thrillers.

In groups of three we worked through sections of Marathon Man, Eye of the Needle and The Silence of the Lambs – selecting the words and techniques used to rack up the tension and the suspense in each. We spent a lot of time on these sections and then were tasked with writing our own suspenseful scene based on attending a crime writing class and discovering that one of our own number was the legendary ‘Harrogate Hacker’ – which led to some fun and suspenseful writing.

And then, at the close of the Creative Thursday event, we were all brought together by Mark Billingham and introduced to the Dragons of the Dragons’ Pen, before he started to pull names from the ‘victims’ box.

The Dragons in question were Julia Wisdom (Publisher, HarperCollins), Daniel Mallory (Editorial Director, Little Brown Book Group), Peter Robinson (Agent, Rogers, Coleridge & White) and Jane Gregory (Agent, Gregory & Co.) – who Mark Billingham introduced as the bastard child of Bodicea and Simon Cowell!

They had about an hour and a half to run through as many 2 minute pitches and questions and comments as time would allow, and I think they got through around twelve in total.

Unfortunately, mine was not one of the names pulled from the box, but it was a very interesting session to sit in on, to see the different techniques and approaches and to note that, in several cases, it was the background of a writer or some past experience that added substantial weight to their pitch.

Although in the details of the event we were advised that if more than one Dragon expressed interest then they would ‘fight’ to get the right to read the first chapters and synopsis, the reality was that in many cases the successful pitchers had to submit work to more than one of the Dragons after the event – several to three of the four and at least one to all four of them!

We were then all invited to a reception by Alibi – the crime television channel – to celebrate their new line-up and for them to award their prize of ebook reader and other goodies to the winner of their crime-writing competition. A few glasses of red later it was time to rush back to my hotel room for a quick change and back downstairs to the opening night festival party (yes, all the previous was before the event had even officially opened!) and the awards ceremony for The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year.

It was at this point that I was pleased to find some fellow members of Mark Billingham’s forum (The BTZ) had arrived – great to see those I’d met before and to meet some new faces and match them to their on screen avatars. This was a continuing challenge over the weekend and something I didn’t accomplish as much as I had wished – but was great to put faces to those names on screen to as many fellow tweeters as possible too.

The awards event was laced with humour as ever and presented by Radio Four’s Front Row man, Mark Lawson. One instance that led to lots of in-jokes was the recent disclosure that Tania Carver who had her first novel in the shortlist was actually Martyn Waites writing with his wife. Many seemed disappointed that Martyn didn’t frock-up for the awards – I was not amongst that number.

Mark Lawson introduced us to slides of his dog (Psychic Fred), as he doesn’t own a psychic octopus like the one used during the world cup, and showed that on the previous Saturday Fred had selected from the eight shortlisted books on his patio the one he thought would win.

Each author then took to the stage to say a bit about their book and to collect a tankard before the winner was announced – RJ Ellory – and, amazingly, he’d been the author selected by Psychic Fred at the beginning of the presentation – so Mark Lawson rushed off to phone his kids to get him to pick some lottery numbers!

The evening also gave the most moving speech of the whole weekend as Reginald Hill (creator of the Dalziel & Pascoe series as well as many great stand-alone novels) was presented with a special award for his contribution to crime writing – what a lovely and humorous man.

So, that was Thursday’s events – following which most did a sideways shuffle towards the bar area. I lasted a while longer, but not as long as some – it had been a very long and enjoyable day one and there were still three more days to come….

Friday.

Up early, breakfast and into the hall for Christopher Brookmyre at 9am giving a hilarious talk about his life and his books, and in particular the language he uses and the problems it sometimes causes.

He told of a time where he was called up about the fifty ‘F’ words he’d used in a novel draft that he was told was too many. When he asked how many he could have he was told fifteen would be okay – so he assumes there is a percentage within our society who are somehow tripped over the edge at the sound of a sixteenth utterance of the ‘F’ word. He then went on to say that it might cause a black market amongst writers, where they trade unused ‘F’ words if they don’t need fifteen of them in a book and that some may not want to trade ‘F’s because they are ‘saving up ‘ for a ‘C’ word!

Loved his talk and rushed to the Waterstones bookshop afterwards to grab his new novel, Pandaemonium, and got it signed.

10.30am and Bateman (who has recently dropped Colin from his book jackets, he thinks because his publishers think if you squint you might think it’s a Batman book), Jason Goodwin, Robert Lewis and Caro Ramsay took to the stage to represent their individual areas of the Britain under the supervision of American envoy and peacekeeper Joseph Finder. All good banter and fun.

12 noon and it was Knitting Needles at Dawn with Simon Brett keeping Simon Kernick, MC Beaton, Tony Black and LC Tyler in check as they discussed their different styles of writing from bleak psychotic tales to fluffy cosies and everything in between.

Quick break for another great Hotel lunch and then back to the seats for Togas, Gas Masks, Neon and Ray Guns with Laura Wilson chairing discussion between authors who write in the past and the future; RS Downie, Paul Johnston, Richard Morgan and SJ Parris. Discussions ranged from how characters in ancient times should speak in novels to how much of a liberty can be taken with writing about the future when scientific advances seem to be progressing at such a rapid pace.

At 3.30pm the three Forensic experts from my previous day’s writing class took to the stage to analyse passages from new books by Ann Cleeves and Mark Billingham. This resulted in Mark throwing a proof copy of his new novel across the stage when told he’d got one element of detail wrong – not a lot he can do about it as it hits the shelves in less than 4 weeks, but it’s not anything that will affect anyone’s enjoyment of the book.

At 5pm there was a special event to celebrate 120 years of Agatha Christie – and this caused the biggest queues so far – heading round the hotel and through the revolving door and into the car park. Sad to say that I gave this one a miss (the only event I didn’t attend) as I worried it would overrun and I had a ticket for the Crime Writers Association Awards at 6pm, which I didn’t want to miss. So, at least it gave me shower and coffee time!

6pm – The CWA Dagger Awards. (or the case of the missing Champagne….) Other than the fact that the Champagne at this Champagne Reception appeared to be absent (but there was plenty of wine on hand), this was a great event where members of the CWA gathered to present five awards. The ‘big’ awards are held over until the ITV/Specsavers show that’s televised later in the year, but this was still a good insight into the CWA and nice to see current Chair Tom Harper (a previous Debut Dagger award winner) presenting this year’s winner, Patrick Eden, with his award. Was nice to discover that many of my fellow Creative Thursday classmates were also up for the Debut Dagger award – clearly a room brimming with talent.

8pm and it was time to attend a great face to face conversation between two giants of crime writing, who remarkably lived only about seven miles from each other as kids – must be something in the water up there. Ian Rankin and Val McDermid chatted candidly about their upbringing, their books and their characters for an hour, with plenty of funny anecdotes and no signs of the disagreement stirred up by the press a few years back about Rankin supposedly making comment about the excessive violence that seemed prevalent in books written by lesbian crime writers.

At 10pm it was time for the Late Night Cabaret – and Cluedo by any other name, with two teams (Jeff Lindsay & Michael Robotham vs Stuart MacBride & Mark Billingham) chaired by Mark Lawson and his plot ‘complicator’ wheel. The game was for each team to select a victim, weapon and location from envelopes and then create an undetectable murder.

I felt sorry for American Lindsay and Australian Robotham as they had a disadvantage in not knowing who victims such as Ant & Dec, Jordan or Richard Hammond were – something that gave the British team a head start on the best or most humorous methods of dispatch. But, it wasn’t about points of course, all played for great laughs.

Once the cabaret was over I took lead from a fellow BTZ’er who I spied grabbing book signings in and around the bar, so I went to my room and grabbed some books.

I had a great chat with Peter James (discovering he went to the same college as me and talking about warming up cockroaches for film scenes amongst other things) and the slightly-damaged-by-the-cabaret Michael Robotham.

Things are a little blurry after the final events each day (for some reason I can’t figure) but I think it was also on the Friday evening that I met Vincent from Un:Bound’s website as well and had a brief chat before meeting the other members Adele and Katherine the following day.

It must have been a good night – Ali Karim of Shots was still tweeting that I was in the bar with him and others a good hour after I’d retired to my room, so my other self was clearly having a great time too.

Saturday

9am – Joanne Harris took to the stage to talk about her new book, blueeyedboy, which sounds like an intriguing premise and a scary tale of the internet – will have to seek that one out.

10.30am – Putting the boot in – With Ray Banks (who seems a lot more approachable than anyone would have you believe, Charlie Williams (who did his best to steer his character away from the real-life recent actions of Raoul Moat), Stella Duffy and Craig Russell – chaired by Martyn Waites. This panel centred on the reasons behind authors of crime novels seemingly wanting to increasingly damage their characters both mentally and physically.

12 noon – New Blood – always a good event to hear new writers talk about their first books, although one on the panel this year, Stuart Neville, actually already has two novels (The Twelve and Collusion) out there on the shelves and a third coming soon. He was joined by Belinda Bauer (whose superb BlackLands was a TV Book Club choice), Attica Locke and Liam McIlvanney, and chaired by Val McDermid. It’s always clear from the New Blood events that publishing success might have a large element of luck in it, but a heck of a lot of hard work too.

Quick lunch break and then back for How Dark is your Noir at 2pm, chaired by Barry Forshaw and featuring Karen Rose, Peter James, Christopher Fowler and Steve Mosby. A great discussion about the blurring of the lines between horror and dark crime fiction.

3.30pm and it was time for ‘No, I’m Ian Rankin’ where Ian Rankin was faced with four possible contenders to the Rankin crown; Paul Cleave, Allan Guthrie, Alex Gray and Chris Simms. The best line of this panel went to Rankin himself when he said he’d bought a book that said ‘As good as Ian Rankin or your money back’ and he sent a letter saying he didn’t think it was as good as him and he got a cheque back!

5.00pm Britannia Rules the Page.

Joseph Finder (US), Michael Robotham (Aus), Chris Carter (Brazil) and James Twining (UK) went head to head in a conversation about where classic crime fiction goes back to and which country had the best lineage. Chaired by NJ Cooper who kept fairly true to her promise to remain impartial it was an entertaining dispute despite them feeling the need for Finder to sport an NY Yankees baseball cap and, more shocking, that Twining felt the need to wear a union jack outfit under his suit that even Geri Halliwell might have said no to.

At 6pm those that had chosen to participate in a extra event (me included) took to the main dining area for Come Die with Me, a murder mystery meal with a published author heading each table whilst a small band of other crime writers acted out a short murder mystery for us to solve.

I was very pleased to find I was on Caro Ramsay’s table, so got the chance to get my copy of Absolution signed, along with the copy of her new novel Dark Water that everyone at her table was given a copy of.

Mark Billingham was fictionally bumped off at the beginning of the meal and then we had to ignore that he was clearly alive and well and eating at the table behind us whilst the potential murderers (Chris Simms, Paul Johnston, Stella Duffy and Laura Wilson) gave their statements.

We managed to fail miserably at guessing the murderer’s identity but it was pretty good fun and a good meal nevertheless.

The meal overran and I was worried that I would miss the beginning of the next special guest spot in the main hall, but when we left the dining hall the queue for Karin Slaughter to be interviewed by Mark Billingham was still very long and winding its way into the room.

I had already passed Karin in the car park and had shared a lift when she arrived, so had to ensure I got the copy of her latest novel, Broken, signed after the event as my good lady is one of her biggest fans.

It was an entertaining and very honest conversation between the two writers, revealing quite a lot about Slaughter’s past – who’d have thought she was an exterminator for a few months with a surname like that?

Afterwards, at the book signing, I told her I was hoping to be the UK signmaker who became a crimewriter, as that was her previous business. She seemed impressed with this and the fact that I knew what was meant by the ‘Kisscut’ of her second novel’s title.

So, with Mrs W’s Karin Slaughter book signed, I could relax again, and how better to do that then with the Late Night Quiz with our hosts Val McDermid and Stuart MacBride?

There was a particularly Scottish feel to the whole proceedings (no real surprise there) but it did add to the humour when trying to identify classic tv theme tunes such as Cagney & Lacey played on the bagpipes. The charades round was also great fun, as was the match the photos of dogs to their crimewriting owners – a round which led to one of our team casually asking Mark Billingham whilst washing his hands in the gents if he happened to own a dog – it gave us a point, but we needed a lot more than that to get anywhere near the top spot against some of the stiff opposition we had from other teams.

The cup was taken by the first place winning team headed up by Jane Gregory.

And then we all slid our way back in the general direction of the bar once again for more chat, more book signings and more drink (of course). Despite all the things that had taken place so far, it was still hard to believe that this was the final night of the festival already. If one thing was lacking (for someone who attended all but one of the events) it was the time to see more of the people there – the thirty minutes between each event just allowed enough time for leaving the hall, a quick toilet break or a coffee (rarely time for both), a quick hello to two or three people and then it was back into the queue to go back in the hall again.

But, having said all that, it’s still so much better organised than other festivals I’ve been to where events take place in different rooms at the same time. At least with Harrogate, if you want to take it all in (as I did) then you can, without missing anything but some barfly time.

Sunday

The organisers had thoughtfully gone for a 10am start for the last morning, giving enough time to breakfast and to get the room cleared of clothes and books and into the car ready for departure later in the morning, and some time for a few headaches to ease, I’m sure.

First of the two Sunday panels was ‘James Bond, Eat your Heart Out…’ hosted by Meg Gardiner and featuring Sean Black, Jeremy Dunns, Zoe Sharp and Jo Nesbo.

Discussion was about where we go for the next thrill, now that the Bond franchise looks like it needs a good kick into the new world as most of us now own the technology, previously only used by spies, in our pockets.

Good fun discussion as with all the panels and a great and well attended signing session followed in the bookshop.

And so we came to the final event of this year’s festival, 11.30am and it was time for ‘Double Jefferdy’, with Mark Lawson chairing an excellent discussion with Jeffrey Deaver and Jeff Lindsay about crime writing in general and more specifically to their series characters (Lincoln Rhyme and Dexter Morgan) and to the latest novels to feature them (The Burning Wire and Dexter is Delicious).

The plots of both new novels and the extracts read sounded great, with a villain creating electricity surges and bolts of energy from the power lines in Deaver’s latest and Dexter becoming a Dad and seeking people who believe they are vampires which leads to elements of cannibalism in Lindsay’s latest.

Then, like all good things, it was over – it was time to queue for the last signings of the festival, cast casual waves to those we could see leaving the reception or getting into their cars to head off home and to send emails and messages when we got back to all of those we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to, or even get to catch up with at all during the busy, fun packed days spent in Harrogate.

I remember the buzz I had in 2004 when I attended just an afternoon and the following morning’s events and that made me desperate to go to every event in 2005, which I did.

Circumstances meant that I haven’t made it back for five years but thanks to my lovely family I was able to this year. It’s credit to all of the authors that take part, the fans that attend and to the fantastic organisation by Sharon Canavar and her team with the great sponsorship by Theakstons (who have agreed to sponsor the event for the next five years!) that make Harrogate the best Crime Writing Festival in the UK and, from what was said this year, likely in the world.

Keith B Walters

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival.

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. « Books and Writers -- Topsy.com

  2. Pingback: Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. « Books and Writers | Beer For Beer Drinkers

  3. Jo

    Keith,

    It is but a pleasure to have been able in some small part to help you get this post. I am, as always looking forward to the pleasure of your company in the bar, in-between panels.

    See you in 169 (yes I’m counting already) days.

    Jo xx

  4. Jan

    Congratulations on being selected for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival this year. That’s a great report on last year’s event. Having read it, I feel like I was there in person, even though I’ve never been. But I really want to go now.. Thanks!

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