Friday P.M at Harrogate Crime Writing Festival

After a great cooked lunch in the dinner hall – again an opportunity to sit and chat with fellow bloggers, writers, agents and publishers – it was back to the main hall once again for a first this year.

Old Blood was the logical follow-up to the regular New Blood panels which have been a very popular part of the festival since it began, but this is the first time that writers who have appeared previously have been asked back to talk about how their work has developed since.

Chaired by Martyn Waites, the panel consisted of Nick Stone, Allan Guthrie, Cathi Unsworth and Mark Mills – all of whom have had considerable success since their first appearances at Harrogate in previous years.

Mark Mills kicked off by firstly talking a bit about his previous role as a screenwriter and mentioned how undervalued he’d felt at times – particularly when he was kicked off set of the filming of a 12 minute short starring Gemma Redgrave, when he went along to see one of his scripts being given the film treatment.  He has since had a lot more luck, particularly with his novel The Savage Garden being selected for a Richard & Judy book club selection which did great things to raise his profile.

Nick Stone, whose Voodoo Eyes is just out, shared banter with Martyn Waites at the fact that his first novel, Mr Clarinet, beat Waites’ The Mercy Seat to a major award on release.   Martyn Waites chipped in that he’s often asked how he starts a novel, how does he begin? His answer to this is that he defrosts the fridge, then cuts the lawn…..

Nick Stone’s King of Swords was optioned in 2008 by Brilliant Films for Direction by Martin (Casino Royale) Campbell – but he’s not holding his breath as average book to screen gestation time is around seven years (unless you’ve written a Harry Potter book).

Cathi Unsworth, who started out in music journalism and loved music right up until ‘Brit-pop’ exploded turned to writing and sees her work as a pop art collage of music, fashion, and a complete ‘surround-sound’ experience of the time and place in the area of London she is writing about. Included in her research is the googling of the number one singles at the time of each murder she features just to add an extra layer of realism.

Mark Mills is considering a contemporary novel for his next book, to give him a chance to write in his own voice, something he says his publishers are a little nervous about. Discussion turned to modern technology and, in particular to mobile phones.

Allan Guthrie said it’s important to try to remove them from plots whenever possible, to destroy masts so they don’t get in the way of a good plot. He then went on to say that he is grounded in his books being based in Scotland and couldn’t cope with dealing with cultural differences even if he only moved a location setting to Manchester. He’s described by Martyn Waites as the ‘only tee-total, vegetarian in Scotland.

A real advocate and champion of the ebook and in particular the e-short story, Allan’s Criminal-E newsletter features new and established writers’ downloadable short stories for great prices (he’s responsible for the quick filling kindle at my house!). One of his own recent ebook releases, Bye Bye Baby has racked up 30,000 purchases since December! (at time of writing, one week later with the other ebooks he has released, Killing Mum and Two Way Split, his sales now total over 45,000!)

The discussion then led on to series books vs standalones with Martyn Waites quipping that if you have the same characters doing the same things over and over, book after book, then you’ve essentially created your very own genre (there followed a little bit of Dan Brown battering, which I’ve found is customary at these events).

Cathi Unsworth commented that he believed that Allan Guthrie’s ‘punk-rock’ approach to digital publishing could well be the best way forward. Things have changed and publishing does not allow 5-6 years for their authors to find their stride anymore (it’s the same in the music industry), so an Ian Rankin (who struck the big time after several books) is unlikely to happen again nowadays.

Ebooks look to replace mass market paperbacks and ‘bundling’ a hardback purchase with a digital download ebook could be the best way forward for both parts of the industry, Allan Guthrie suggested. Or, as Cathi Unsworth commented, we all just go and plug ourselves into ‘the Matrix’ and never leave our houses again!

So, what was up next from the panel? Mark Mills is working on a sequel to his 1935 set The House of the Hanged, with the second book set in 1937. Allan Guthrie has Two Way Split set for release in November. Cathi Unsworth is releasing her new book, Weirdo, in July 2012, featuring Jack the Stripper and going back to her old London roots. Nick Stone’s Voodoo Eyes has just been released and he’s then working on a London-based legal thriller and murder trial seen through the eyes of a clerk. Based partly on his previous job.

The panel then discussed other areas such as self-promotion, including twitter – which Martyn Waites said was great to tell people what you were working on, but no so good if all you ever tweeted was what you’d had for breakfast that morning.

He was then asked if he’s planning any further Martyn Waites books or if he will continue with his pseudonym and continue to ‘plow the Tania Carver farrow’ – a question that was met with much laughter and he declined to discuss plowing that farrow before the watershed.

Nick Stone gave a impassioned speech about how he loves to get letters from fans, real letters not emails and how he likes to write replies, he then went on….maybe we should take out the internet in Death Star-style, then go back to queuing at post offices to mail letters, book shops and record shops would return to our high streets….. a fine closing speech to a great panel.

We were sadly an author down at the What Lies Beneath panel, with Camilla Lackberg unable to travel due to illness, but the NJ Cooper chaired event was still very good, with Andrew Taylor stepping in to admirably fill the chair on stage. Steve Mosby, Tana French and Sophie Hannah made up the rest of the panel and, like many of the other panels during the weekend, the conversation took in lots os areas and subjects within its hour’s slot.

Starting with Steve Mosby, he was asked if his recent fatherhood had influenced his writing in any way, particularly as with his excellent latest book, Black Flowers, the father/child relationship seems explored on so many levels. He advised that he had already got very much underway with the book before the birth of his son (who could be heard above his dad from the back of the hall a couple of times during the event) but he was sure that the change in duties/responsibilities must have some bearing on his work now.

He also added, when talking about Mosby Jnr, that it ‘will be a miracle if he grows up okay and not twisted!’

Sophie Hannah discussed the whole question of mad vs sane and said that she notices the odd details and quirks in people when she’s out and about (audience lowers heads collectively for fear of a mention in her next book).

Tana French notes the changes in Ireland and the fact that she’s also lived elsewhere means she can also note changes to places there as an outsider. All of the authors on the panel have lots of personal stuff in their novels. Andrew Taylor thought of his work sometimes as ‘channelling his own internal nastiness’ and, once again, the whole concept and what is now a given that, crime writers are really nice people got a mention.

Sophie Hannah writes about what is obsessing her – she writes the book she’d most like to read but the irony is that once she’d finished, it’s the last book she’d want to read.

Andrew Taylor writes crime because it gives such freedom to write whatever he wants – as long as he puts the odd corpse in every now and again. He no longer feels inferior being a crime writer as PD James and others have managed to infiltrate and make permeable the barrier between literary and crime fiction.

Sophie Hannah admitted to having had ‘oodles’ of psychotherapy and thinks it’s very linked to the writing of crime novels for its moments of revelation.

Tana French added that she thought of characters in crime novels as posing the question ‘will they crack and what will be left of them?’

Sophie Hannah cited a very disturbing case where a dentist and a devout Catholic were having an affair and ended up killing both their spouses. In order to have sex, he would have to knock her out with gas first each and every time.

Andrew Taylor suggested that writing is very much like sculpting in that you never know the exact ‘shape’ of the story until you’ve finished chipping away.

Tana French added a very disturbing thought, that it’s likely we all know at least one psychopath – though not in the Hannibal Lector sense. To which Natasha Cooper added that it was a sure thing that we are all walking amongst strange people every day.

Steve Mosby then told us that he had two influences for the Black Flowers novel; the video for Peter Gabriel’s ‘Digging in the dirt’ where the shape of a figure rises up from the earth in flowers and also a documentary he’d seen online; My father, the Serial Killer.

Andrew Taylor admitted to scaring himself during the writing of the Roth trilogy – with a scene featuring the kidnapping of a 5 year old child and the mother’s sudden realisation that she’s gone. It was a section of the story which he and his wife batted back and forth for a long time as he’d scared himself, his own child also being that age at the time he wrote the scene.

Tana French described herself as a big movie fan – her first editor advised her where to cut locations and scenes was almost in the way a film director would work. When asked what her own greatest fear was, she responded that it would be a world coffee shortage (I’m sure she’s not alone in that one). When describing the appeal of mysteries she said it’s down to the fact that humans ask a lot of questions so we’re fascinated by mysteries. Whereas animals tend to just have three questions for everything: Can I eat it? Is it gonna hurt me? Can I shag it?

Sophie Hannah went on a little more on the subject of fear and building tension in a novel. She said that fear has a lot to do with the content and what is happening to characters that we care about. With fear on the page, just before the reveal, the closer you get to an answer the more scared you are – almost not wanting to know. In real life we don’t get all questions answered – so a crime novel that ties everything up neatly can seem disappointing. The best crime novels leave some unanswered questions and she cited Tana’s novel ‘In the Woods’ where one case is solved and another goes unanswered.

With the main discussion over, the panel was open to questions from the audience.

The first of these was to ask them if they were making money and whether it had all been worthwhile for them?

Sophie Hannah: Said she liked the money, but that’s not why writers write.

Andrew Taylor: You get a good year, then you get a bad year and then you get another bad year…

Steve Mosby: Said that he messed up a maths exam but consoled himself with the thought ‘Don’t worry, you wanted to be a writer.’

Tana French: Said she had a lot more stability with a two book deal than she ever had with her acting work.

They were then asked about their writing structure:

Steve Mosby: Each book he writes in a different way. For the first draft he tries to get 2000 words down per day. Editing is not anything like as scary as a blank page.

Tana French: Writes every day. Doesn’t have an outline, just dives in and hopes. Works to 1000 words per day, but edits as she goes along.

Andrew Taylor: Counts words – but quantity is less important to him than making sure he writes every day, even a small amount. ‘No day without a line!’

NJ Cooper: Tends to write a ‘scene’ then stop rather than work to a daily word count.

Sophie Hannah: For her first draft she’s normally up at the crack of 11am and then works through till 6.30pm. She changes her writing process with each book – if she can move house between books, then that’s even better.

The next panel I had to miss (yes, shock-horror! I missed one!). This was due to me needing to get back to my hotel and get changed and get food before the CWA Dagger and ITV3 Crime Thriller Awards event.

Chasing the Story – which featured journalists who had made the transition from fact to fictional writing was, by all accounts, one of the best panels of the weekend (so I was disappointed to hear that after missing it). Niamh O’Connor had to bow out of the event due to having a baby (a fair excuse and congratulations to her) and I heard that Belinda Bauer ably stepped in at the last minute to take her place.

So, after a brisk walk back to the Holiday Inn, quick spruce up, a toasted panini and a soft drink (the one and only of the weekend as I recall), it was back to the Old Swan for the start of the awards.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was the first time that the CWA Daggers have been announced alongside the launch of the Specsavers ITV3 Crime Thriller Awards and, once again, it was an event where reviewers and fans stood shoulder to shoulder with the biggest names in crime fiction to hear the nominees and winners announced.

Chair of the CWA, Peter James, did an admirable job under very difficult circumstances and it was clear that all the parties involved had had next to no time together prior to the event, which made for a little confusion. Also, it had the strange quality of being awards for a room full of writers which was strangely missing any of those that actually had an award to collect. In most cases the awards were announced and then collected by members of the author’s publishing team or taken away by the person who had announced the winner. I had a conversation with a press photographer after the event who said it was the most surreal awards he’d been sent to photograph as there were only announcers on stage and no recipients to photograph. Nevertheless, as with all these things, it was great to be there and to mix with the great and the good – and both the CWA Daggers and the Crime Thriller Awards with its October lead-up are all things to look forward to. 8.30pm and it was time to return to the main hall to see North American crime writers Linwood Barclay & Lisa Gardner in conversation.

As they took to the stage a loud mobile phone ringtone sounded and it was hilarious to see Joseph Finder rummaging in his jacket pocket for the offending item before rushing out into the corridor. For reasons that I, and many others I spoke to afterwards, could not fathom, they were joined on stage by a lady chairing the event. There was no mention of her in the festival booklet and, having just googled to find out who she was, cannot find a mention of her either. It was totally unnecessary as both authors were great speakers and clearly had a fantastic rapport – I assume having been on the same panel circuits at other events in the past, and yet there she was, bringing in monotone questions, all from a clipboard which she read as an autocue – it was painful to watch at times.

All that was needed was for someone like Joe Finder (with his phone turned off) to run on stage announce the two authors and let them get on with the chat between them (Joe’s talk with David Baldacci the following day worked just fine like that). But, with that gripe out of the way, Barclay and Gardner were a fine double act and very entertaining.

Between them they cover most aspects of the current crop of crime novels, Lisa Gardner concentrating on police procedurals and subjects often ripped from real cases, whilst Barclay deals with ‘what if’ situations for everyday people. I discovered early on in the discussion that I share very similar traits to Linwood Barclay – I also fear the knives upside down in the dishwasher drawer – but I didn’t see it in ‘Lost’ unlike he did. He uses everyday worries as his starting point for much of his work.

Lisa Gardner said she likes to tap into fears – What would I do? How far would I go?

They discussed research with Lisa Gardner telling of her desire and recent opportunity to visit The Body Farm – a place where the staff expect the visitors to throw up when they see the bodies in various degrees of decay. She said she didn’t do too bad and didn’t throw up, despite clearly being in Death’s Acre.

Barclay chipped in that his research recently took him to visit a used car salesman, and he did throw up!

Gardner made it clear that the fiction she writes is just that, fiction – the reality of police work is a lot of paperwork and long waits for DNA results to come back – so research needs to be amended to make it entertaining fiction, with rules bent to suit dramatic requirements.

She also added that it’s often the anecdotes from people she meets on research which are the best bits to drop into the story. One day she was with a medical examiner in Boston, talking through something for a novel when he got a call – a body had been found in the chimney of a brownstone building which was being renovated ‘we get this all the time’ was the throw away line she was given.

Barclay invented Milford, his fictional ‘safe place’, although he added that places were not his primary concern, people and their interaction were more important and putting them into situations. He has in the past written four comic thrillers (which are not out in the UK) and they all dealt with a generic suburb – lots of people wrote to him claiming to live there.

For ideas for his work they are sometimes based on real events or real places. The Toronto Theme Park, Wonderland, had an urban myth of child abductions surrounding the place and this led to the idea behind ‘Never Look Away’.

In Lisa Gardner’s ‘Love you more’ she has an ordinary family in extraordinary circumstances – You don’t know what goes on behind closed doors.

This then led them to discuss the strange comments people make to reporters when a neighbour has been found guilty of a terrible crime:

‘He was a normal neighbour’ – He kept 25 babies in his basement.

‘They kept themselves to themselves.’

They then made comment to the saline killer nurse that was in the UK news that very week.

Gardner commented that she is always amazed when readers tell her what her themes are – she’s unaware of them herself.

Linwood’s new novel ‘The Accident’ is due out in September – he spoke a little about how he writes and about the breaks he takes when writing.

His passion, when taking breaks from one screen is to go and look at another one as he’s become addicted to 9 hole wii golf, currently has a handicap of 10 under and loves to kick his sons’ friends’ asses when they come to play.

He also has model train-sets in his basement, but added that it’s not something you really want to tell people about so it’s better to say you collect porn.

Lisa said that she loves distraction since having her baby, needs music. So she makes music playlists to inspire her to write, then playlists for chapters (apparently Stephanie ‘Twilight’ Myer also has this preoccupation) – despite the fact that for 15 years she wrote in silence, not she has to have music.

Linwood produces a first draft in 2-3 months, working 8.30 – 5pm every day (with golf and coffee breaks) getting a minimum of 2000 words down a day.

When he starts a book he just wants to finish it – being a result of his newspaper writing days, he still feels if he writes the books fast they might get published quicker.

Lisa confessed to spending much too much time in chatrooms and ones that could cause her trouble if the FBI ever go looking (pages on how best to dispose of human remains etc). She gets about 30 pages written in an average week and takes 6 months to get a draft finished.

She used some of her old work experiences and feelings in her books. In her first ‘The Perfect Husband’ she basically killed all her old bosses on the page.

Linwood used his experiences in his early comic thrillers. His Dad used to illustrate automobiles in car magazines, but work dried up when photography took off, so his Dad then ran a trailer park – his father died when he was 16 years old and Linwood wrote ‘Last Resort’ as an ebook, based on that period of his life.

He used to write articles about farming and wrote a long piece on cow disease – convincing himself that, as the first symptom was not being able to produce milk, he must have the disease himself!

Lisa grew up in Oregon and wrote her first book at 17 and sent it direct to a publisher. She was 20 when she sold her first book. ‘I have no employable skills – so please keep buying my novels!’ she told the audience.

Her first book was about a prostitute who solves a murder – she said her mother was SO proud. But her friends never considered it a proper job and offered that she could still babysit for them as a job if she wanted.

Linwood read the Hardy Boys, Agatha Christie and Nero Wolfe when he was younger, then moving on to Hammett, Chandler and McDonald. He started writing crime fiction when he was in his twenties. ‘Plot is the skeleton – I have to have a sequence.’

Lisa said that she loved puzzles and her family always played word and maths games. Suspense for her is the working out of puzzles, the catharsis of getting to the other side. We want to experience the things we write and read, but the closest drama we might experience on a daily basis might be a papercut. It’s wanting to be entertained and have a veil drawn back on a world we don’t know – it’s why The Silence of the Lambs was such a hit. In reality, the biggest issue for many cops is taking a pee, though – due to the amount of equipment they have to carry these days!

Linwood backed this up by saying the prime piece of equipment in the car for law enforcement officers on a stakeout is a plastic bottle ‘to take a whizz’.

Lisa said that the best writing guide for characters should be: Goal, motivation & conflict (and the conflict should include a lot of violence!)

Linwood said he couldn’t write a book set in the UK, he’d have too many complicated issues with afternoon tea and scones!

From his work on newspapers he added that, knowing how keen reporters are to announce their scoops and how they got them, there is no way that ‘they’ (in the current Murdoch phone-hacking scandal) didn’t know what was going on.

The conversation then turned to their current reads or favourites:

Lisa Gardner: JT Ellison – Where the Dead Lie, Karin Slaughter – Fallen, Tess Gerritsen – The Silent Girl.

Linwood Barclay: Ross McDonald still his favourite. Best book read this year – Defending Jacob by William Landay – like Presumed Innocent but way better, and Joe Finder’s Buried Secrets (even if his cell phone rang earlier!)

On plotting, Linwood said this was the toughest part for him. He needs to know the big picture. He makes changes in revisions but he needs to know where the story is going to end up.

Whereas Lisa said that she can’t know the ending beforehand. Her books have to follow logical steps as they are mainly police procedural but the twists often come to her as part of the research conversations.

 

And, above all, remember, no one ever has to see your first draft!

 

And so to the last panel at the end of a thoroughly enjoyable, but thoroughly exhausting Friday, and a real change to the norm for the festival. Howard Marks – to many known as ‘Mr Nice’ from his autobiography and film made from it starring Rhys Ifans, was one of the most renowned dope dealers of all time.

During the 1980’s he had 43 aliases, 89 phone lines and 25 companies throughout the world. And now, he has turned to the fictional world of crime which his first novel ‘Sympathy for the Devil’.

Interviewed by Mark Lawson, the event was opened by Lawson stating that this was a double first for the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival.

It was rated ‘X’ in the programme and it was the first unsponsored event they had ever held. To this Marks replied that he had tried to get sponsorship from Rizzla but they wouldn’t assist. And that set the tone for the whole conversation, with much of it about his drug dealing and very little of it about his fiction book.

I only had to look around me (the main hall now set out with circular tables and candles (cabaret style) rather than the formal rows of seats) and populated with lots of faces who hadn’t been at the other events so far this weekend – this was a different crowd, this was the crowd that ‘got’ Howard Marks and what he stood for back in the ‘80s and probably still now. I can’t say I count myself amongst that number.

The conversation was bit of a struggle at times, with Lawson having to ask if the memory losses that kept occurring were due to Marks’ past, to which he responded ‘No – I’m f**king old, man!’

Coming out of jail to a £100K deal for the book ‘Mr Nice’ and loving the title he was given as ‘The Most Wanted Man in Britain’ did little to endear him to me.

Marks now does a one-man show five nights a week and reads from his books in pubs and clubs, saying that it beats standing in book shops with a glass of shite wine in his hand.

That and the fact that he maintains that he writes better when he’s high, all compounded just to make me think that this was a brave choice for this year’s festival, but Howard Marks isn’t about his new foray into crime fiction, he’s still Howard Marks and it’s the fan-base he already has which is the one I expect he’ll stay with.

Or maybe I’d have felt different after a few more beers? – Somehow, I think I’d still feel the same.

And that was my Friday done and dusted. With an early start the following day, as FMcM Associates and Corvus had kindly set up for me to interview C.J.Box before the first event of the morning, meaning an 8am breakfast interview, it was time to head back to the Holiday Inn to write up some notes, transfer photos and drink coffee, lots of coffee.

 

Keith

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