Category Archives: Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival Harrogate 2011

Dennis Lehane interviewed by Mark Billingham – Harrogate Crime Writing Festival – The final event.

Okay – here we are at the last event of this year’s amazing Harrogate Crime Writing Festival and (with the exception of my interview with CJ Box – which will follow soon) my last report to post.

Crime supremo Dennis Lehane took to the stage with Mark Billingham to discuss his work and the huge success he has enjoyed with the cinema adaptations of his novels.

He kicked off by saying how much stories had a been a part of his young life when his father would take him to the farmers’ market for a rush round to do the shopping so that he could then take him to a pub to drink ginger ale and listen in on the stories that his father and his friends would share over beers. Their home was not a readers’ home – the only books they had were a set of encyclopaedias that his mother bought from a door to door salesman in a moment of weakness. He was taken to a library when he was 7 or 8 years old, and that visit changed his life. He went on to say that he will now do anything to support libraries – a rare thing as he admitted that, if he doesn’t want to do events then he is harder to find than Jimmy Hoffa.

He said that others say he must be heavily influenced by Chandler and Hammett, but he is also very much influenced by Wilbur Smith and Alistair MacLean – two authors which were introduced to him by an English aunt. Since that trip to the library, he has written stories – so he’s been a writer since around 8 years old.

He wrote his first novel when he was 15 and a friend of his has the copy for possible blackmail in the future. When he was 16 he wrote a short story and his teacher told him he might want to seriously think about writing more. He wrote a failed novel whilst in college and then, after college, he wrote ‘A Drink before the War’ and then spent a year doing rewrites – an agent took it on after seven months – he feels ridiculously blessed with his route to publication as, in his words, he gets ‘paid to sit in a room and think shit up! – You never hear me bitch. My father ‘worked’ for a living – I know the difference’.

By the time of publication he knew that the characters had the potential for a series. Patrick and Angie are the two sides of his own character. He likes the dilemma of endings – where the result might be the right or wrong, good or bad, thing.

He cited Elmore Leonard as his greatest style influence but also his favourite books as Robert Crais’ ‘The Monkey’s Raincoat’ and Robert Parker’s ‘Looking for Rachel Wallace’.

When he wrote ‘Prayers for Rain’ the emotions of it feeling weary, tired and exhausted kept coming up – he showed it to George Pelecanos who said it felt like the end – and he agreed.

He wrote ‘Mystic River’ when he moved to Charlestown (The Town) in 1993 and he wanted to write about the changes there. He knew it was the best title from the start. Bad things do happen to children, but he feels he won the parental lottery. Some people he described as having the ‘curse of fury’ and they keep coming at you until you kill them. But his own home was filled with love and safety. His friend once asked him ‘How come we made it?’ because they managed to break out of the neighbourhood they were living in.

Harlan Coben’s ‘Tell No One’ came out at the same time as ‘Mystic River’ and helped standalones become more successful. Although, after ‘Mystic River’ he did admit to feeling hemmed in by the weight of expectation he felt others had for his next book.

When he wrote ‘Shutter Island’ he felt that everyone would hate it but the French! It was the fastest book he’s ever written – knocking it out in four and a half months with sixteen hour non-stop writing days. Overnight he wrote 26 points – he knew the whole book there and then. He wanted to give the character of Teddy a hug all the way through the book, knowing that ‘this isn’t going to end well’.

Discussion then turned to the fantastic luck he has had with the Directors who have chosen to adapt his books, with Clint Eastwood choosing ‘Mystic River’ and Martin Scorcese with ‘Shutter Island’.

Of Eastwood, he described with great humour the fact that whenever a problem occurred or there was a disagreement, such as a dispute involving Brian Helgeland and Sean Penn with Warner Bros. He said that Eastwood would simply call those involved and be very persuasive by saying ‘I know there’s a problem, I understand – but… if you did…’ and then would leave the phrase hanging there. There then followed news that Clint Eastwood is a huge smoothies fan and seemed obsessed with them on set, so whilst many thought he was thinking through the mechanics of filming and what was going on on set, it was more likely he was considering what flavour smoothie he’d have next break.

Of ‘Shutter Island’ he said, there’s nothing you can do, you can’t interfere with someone else’s creativity, you can’t say to Scorcese ‘I don’t know, Marty. I think the camera should go over there!’ To ensure that no one could look up the book and blow the ending during the making of the movie, ‘Shutter Island’ was given the working title ‘Ashcliff’. He also mentioned the man he thinks must, worryingly, be his number one fan when he told the tale of a man who, annoyed at someone talking through a screening, left the movie theatre, bought a potato peeler, came back in and stabbed the guy – apparently the episode ended with the victim and the assailant both fleeing the cinema.

Then there is his third great movie adaptation, ‘Gone Baby Gone’ directed by Ben Affleck. Due for release in the UK at the time of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance and pulled from release here by the Director as many had commented that the young actress in the movie looked a lot like the missing toddler and it looked like it may have caused a problem over here. (I count myself as extremely lucky to have attended a London press screening of the movie as it looked amazing on the big screen). The movie gained a lot of acclaim once it hit DVD and word of mouth spread. In Lehane’s words ‘Thirty Days of Night’ crushed it in box office that opening weekend – but compare the reputations of both movies now!’ ‘It’s the most’Boston’ of my films – and made by a Bostonian – In many ways it’s my favourite.’

When fatherhood hit (with the arrival of Lehane’s daughter) he felt he needed to be a good father/hunter-gatherer and ensure he wrote something that would provide security, so he started thinking of writing a big crap book with 75 chapters and 9 serial killers to pay for her college fees! Fortunately, at around the same time, Patrick came back to him, and ‘Moonlight Mile’ was the result.

Just as well, as the other thing that Lehane said he really wanted to get a comment in was on Coldplay’s Chris Martin’s hairline – ‘I’ve said it now, in London!’ – well, it was Harrogate, but I’m sure we all forgave his geography on that one.

For research, he spent some time with transit cops, to see a scene of a ‘jumper’ – ‘They always lose a shoe’ was the anecdote he said he’ll always remember and that it’s often the little comments from research that make it into the books rather than lots of factual information. They also showed him the Acela high speed train book that they keep – saying ‘Look at this one – You can’t even see where the nose is’ – just trying to make him throw up.

When asked if he might return to Patrick and Angie again he only said ‘Never say never’.

His next book is set to be about the Prohibition and features a character from ‘The Given Day’, his only rule being that he won’t write anything set in an era with clothing he wouldn’t wear.

The conversation then went to questions from the audience, the first of which was to ask that, if he loved Boston, then why did he choose to write for The Wire? ‘I love Boston, but I love cities. The issues in The Wire were the same as in novels. It was the same for George Pelecanos and for Richard Price.’

He mentioned that in ‘Shutter Island’ he did have to speak out to say ‘You are being too faithful to me’ – some novel lines needed changing to movie lines.

He’s now looking forward to a new film by David Cronenberg of his short story ‘Animal Rescue’ – he then added that he’s fortunate to be collecting top directors for his work and if he gets Michael Mann then he’s pretty much got a full set.

Conversation turned to the actual act of writing. His first point was that, to write, you HAVE to read. He also said that you have to be clear on your motive – why are you writing? The only reason for writing is that you can’t NOT write. Write it, don’t show it and try to avoid characters just sitting and thinking. He doesn’t like knowing everything from the start as he did with ‘Shutter Island’. With ‘Gone Baby Gone’ he knew some of the details – enough to write it, leaving scope and spaces for keeping his interest going, and it was similar for Mystic River.

He was to appear in The Wire with the memorable line ‘Straighten up and die right, you c***s’ and then had to throw up on the street between McNulty and Bunk, but sadly he had to miss out due to other commitments – but he did get to appear later as a character in another episode. He went on to say that there were a lot of egos all working together in the writers’ room on The Wire – which pretty much led to a sign on the door ‘Check your ego at the door – or we’ll take it!’

A great interview by Mark Billingham and it was fantastic to finally get to hear Dennis Lehane and to meet him afterwards for the last signing session of the festival.

And that was it, the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival was over for another year – but, wow, what a year, what a festival – and at this point I’d raise yet another large glass of the black stuff to Dreda Say Mitchell and everyone else who worked so hard to make this the biggest and the best to date.

Just before the audience cleared from the room, Dreda took to the stage and invited Erica Morris to join her to thank her in front of all of us for her huge undertaking this year to make the festival such a great success.

A very moving speech in which Dreda revealed that she sadly had a family loss earlier in the year and that Erica and the team had worked harder than ever to support her. She then went on to thank all of the team at the festival, the front of house team and Riot Communications , the publishers, the authors, sponsors and the readers who had come along to make it such a success this year.

She closed by saying ‘If I had a moment, I’d give everyone a very big hug – That’s the teacher in me!’

And, for me to close, I’d just like to say the following: Dreda – Thank you – it was (as you said at the launch it would be) ‘The Bomb! – Not a bad bomb, but a good bomb.’

And to those who have read any one of (or all of) my posts – get yourself along to the website and get ordering your tickets for next year – Mark Billingham’s back as Chair, John Connolly and Charlaine Harris are already in the line-up and, it’ll be the tenth anniversary of the greatest UK Crime Writing Festival.

See you there…


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No Place Like Home – Harrogate Crime Writing Festival

The later start on the Sunday morning is always a welcome change, but in most cases the extra hour is spent clearing the hotel room, loading the car ready for the drive home and checking out of the hotel, with just two events left until hometime.

There is a strange tipping point at the festival.  On the Saturday morning events, with plenty of good stuff still lined up, it feels like the festival will have days to run.   Get just past lunchtime on the Saturday and all of a sudden it hits that the following morning it will be packing time.  And so, whilst the panels always seem surprised and impressed at how many turn out for the first event on the Sunday morning (especially after such a long night in the bar for many), it’s a genuine passion for the events and the authors that gets people shrugging off their duvets , keen to enjoy every last moment.

After packing, loading the car, having breakfast and checking out of the Holiday Inn, I made my way over to the Old Swan Hotel for the last time, still with enough time to grab a coffee and a chat with last year’s ‘alibi –search for a New Crime Writer’ winner, Patrick Egan in the reception there.  Turned out that this was a great place to have chosen to hover as the third gentleman to enter the room in search of coffee was Dennis Lehane.  Very fortuitous, as I had a cardboard tube tucked under my arm with a very nice ‘Shutter Island’ movie poster within, which he graciously signed for me there and then.

What a great start to the morning!

10.30am and it was time to take our seats for the penultimate event of the festival: No Place Like Home, chaired by Laura Wilson with a panel, to discuss location in their books, made up of Anne Zouroudi (Greece), CJ Box (Wyoming), Urban Waite (Seattle) and Elly Griffiths (Norfolk).  The discussion kicked off with the suggestion that crime writing seems to have become somehow spliced with travel writing.

CJ Box uses crime and locations to show how people think and react to that crime at that place.  Elly Griffiths actually lives in Brighton, but added that she’s not allowed to write about there as Peter James has that sewn up, besides which she has always thought Norfolk a little strange and spooky.  If she wrote about Brighton it would be all ‘kiss me quick’ hats.  Anne Zouroudi said that she visited Greece as a stranger and had a love affair with what she thought was a beautiful setting, without knowing anything about a dark underbelly that she might not be seeing.  She wanted to write to explain about why her love affair had gone a bit sour – but she’s since comeback to love it again.

How much is made up?

CJ Box invented a fictional town for Joe Pickett to live in as it gives him as the writer a ‘God-like power’ to place things where suits him best. When he writes about actual places he ensures authenticity so that he can face no criticisms.

Elly has to check her details on rock formations etc as she’d leave herself wide open for criticism if she go any detail wrong. Her character works in the same location as Jim Kelly sets his character in his novels, so she’s often wondered what would happen if her character walked into his police station.

Urban Waite has had criticism in the past for how much distance was covered between two locations in a certain timescale in his book – this despite the fact that both locations were fictional !

Anne includes maps in her books and finds that readers like that – she now sketches out the maps herself first as a guide to her writing. The panel seemed to warm towards the idea of more illustrations in novels – why should they just be for kids?!? She went on talk about discovering about the ‘night of exhumation’ in which bodies are dug up after 4 years and the bones cleaned up and placed in an ossuary. It gave her the idea for a book, ‘The Whispers of Nemesis’ – it was a story that could only be set there and within that culture.

Both CJ and Urban have an advantage in that in their locations they have mountains and valleys to provide mobile phone signal problems. As CJ put it, it can provide an ‘urban closed-room mystery’ when you get somewhere where there is no mobile or internet access.

This then led on to discussion of westerns and the fact that Urban’s love of western movies meant he loved the fact that in his novel ‘The Terror of Living’ he got to include a lot of horses.  It was at this point that Laura Wilson became quite flustered and had to fan herself back down when she started to talk about strong silent, well-hung types, and the discussion took a pause whilst she composed herself.

CJ said that, in his books, he likes to mix up the old and the new, so he has a ranger with an ipod and a playlist entitled ‘Ranch Music’.

Elly said that her character probably just hears the sound of banjos about places like Norfolk – ‘it’s unique to places that you don’t pass through – they don’t lead to anywhere else.’

The discussion touched upon the things that the location and environment control and over which their characters can have little control themselves. A grizzly bear will eat a dead body, the sea will steal, erode and reveal.

Anne spoke about the fact that the Greeks built their churches on sites of their old temples – they are very much aware of their own mythology. We lack this in the UK, we don’t teach our children enough of our own history. In Greece they still use God’s names. She said that when in Greece with her sister a while back someone asked if Adonis had been in – she responded by saying she was sure she would have noticed if he had! ‘If my books tempt readers to go and visit, it feels like a kind of payback for all that Greece has given me.’

Laura asked Urban how much he’d loved writing such a great dark character – the man with the black hat – she then promptly apologised to CJ Box, who was of course sporting his.

Urban agreed that it was great to write about the guy who knows where to get the best knives, where the best dumpsters are to dump bodies.


They then spoke for a while on their favourite books and authors.

Elly said she loved Wilkie Collins – The Shifting Sands – the best writer of place.

Anne cited Sherlock Holmes’ London and, for a non-crime location book, Memoirs of a Geisha.

CJ mentioned that travellers may well get more value sometimes from reading a fiction writer who really knows the location than from a travel book. He went on to praise Denise Mina as a favourite of his.

Where else could they go and write?

Anne would love to consider China, but doubts that she could write about the place.

Urban Waite is currently working on disturbing but enjoyable research on cartels in Mexico.

Elly, having heard Anne speak so lovingly about Greece, said she felt that her character, Ruth, might deserve a holiday there – and maybe she could meet Adonis!

CJ said he was unlikely to leave his area – it still has a deep mine for him to still cover.


Taking care not to overdo the research.

CJ said he made early mistakes with research but recommends bearing in mind what Elmore Leonard says – ‘Leave out the parts that readers skip’. He also added that you need to ensure you include enough background for your character for possible future books, rather than try to force things later in a series.

Urban said that ‘it doesn’t always rain in Seattle – we just tell people that to keep them away!’

CJ said it never rains, he knows people who have never owned an umbrella – never needed one and wouldn’t know what to do in a flashflood.


Perfect locations. Yellowstone Park, empty hotels (ala The Shining), empty underground stations, closed offices in old mines.



Anne said that dynamite fishing is very effective in Greece but that the Greeks are constantly shooting themselves in the foot.

Urban – has a very small carbon footprint that he’s proud of. He rarely prints things off and rides his bike a lot.

CJ – the climate changes every year.

Laura Wilson closed off by adding that both CJ and Urban have a lot more scope than others as they have all the space to do what they want – ‘you have road movies!’

And the discussion came to a close with a quick run down of what’s next from the panel:

Anne – Book 6 in her series – provisionally titled ‘The Bull of Mythros’.

Urban – New book set in the 1990’s based on cartels on the Mexican border.

Elly – A Room Full of Bones – Due Jan 2012 and featuring aboriginal bones in a Norfolk Museum.

CJ – The next Joe Pickett book: Force of Nature.

And that leaves just one final event – coming up soon – Dennis Lehane.



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Saturday evening/night – Harrogate Crime Writing Festival

Special Guests in conversation: David Baldacci & Joseph Finder.

A great double-header event and one that showed clearly that no moderators are required when you get a couple of great crime writers together for what was essentially a good old chin-wag. Within a few moments, this was as though we as the audience were just listening in on a private chat between two writing buddies discussing their work and little anecdotes of their careers.

David Baldacci told a great story where he was mistaken by a fan for being John Grisham in a diner. They spoke about their research and that the best way to treat it is like an iceberg – only ever using the 10% or less you would see above the surface.

Joe Finder did actually ask to be placed in a coffin for his research for ‘Buried Secrets’ – he described the coffin as being very comfortable, something that probably goes unappreciated by most. He also expressed concern that they seem to be pretty much soundproofed – either that or the guy that screwed the lid down was playing a trick on him. Both said that the details of modern technology in fiction need to be ‘juiced up’ when describing the super-zooming in on images, whereas in the real life the investigating team might be standing and cursing over a broken fax machine! With regards to detail, they both receive more criticism over firearms than any other subject/area of their work. And with regards to reviews and any criticisms of the types of book they write, both seemed in agreement that we all want different types of reads at different times – as Stephen King said, sometimes we want a Big Mac & fries.

I had to make a swift exit from this entertaining talk before it got to the Q&A section, but I’m sure that was just as much fun. Despite this being my fourth visit to Harrogate, I had never been to Betty’s Tea Rooms and a lovely invitation from Transworld to meet their authors at a reception there was all the excuse I needed. Some may get a little more than used to meeting the great authors who they read, but I really doubt I’ll ever become that used to it, I am still very often both star-struck and tongue-tied when meeting the names who adorn the covers of the books on my shelves, or tucked under my arm at events.

Such was the case at the Transworld reception which gave the opportunity to meet with their top authors in a very relaxed and informal gathering. And a great line-up they had in place there too, SJ Watson, Tess Gerritsen, Simon Kernick, SJ Bolton, James Henry, Belinda Bauer and (just prior to his own headlining event) Theakstons’ Crime Novel of the Year winner Lee Child. It was great to be able to congratulate Lee on his win in person and, of course, to get a copy signed whilst there, and to catch up with and meet the other authors. The biggest thrill for me was to get to chat to the lovely Tess Gerritsen over Betty’s scones (which she loved), get copies of her latest books signed and dedicated for my wife’s 40th birthday and to thank her for a very special gift she’d brought in her suitcase for me.

A few weeks prior to Harrogate, my wife had spotted on Tess’s website that there were promotional t-shirts for the Rizzoli & Isles tv series being given as prizes to US competition winners. Knowing that she’d love one for her birthday, I dropped Tess an email via her website to ask if I could purchase one to be sent to the UK – a ‘Team Maura’ one which features a scalpel if at all possible. I received an email straight back saying she’d be happy to bring one to Harrogate in her suitcase for me as a gift for my wife! Earlier in the day (whilst I was in The Outer Limits panel) I received a voicemail message from the lovely Liz Hyder (Riot Communications) to say that she had the lovely Tess Gerritsen in reception with a present for me. Unfortunately, by the time I got out of the panel, Tess had gone, but the gift had been intercepted by the true gent Ben Willis of Transworld and stored safely for me (despite the fact he threatened to go for a morning run in it the following morning). I’d always maintained that the UK crime writing community is an incredibly friendly and generous place to hang out – clearly that generosity and friendliness stretches across the pond. Needless to say, my good lady wife was very pleased and surprised with her gift – after I’d first played her the voicemail message!

During the time spent with the Transworld team and their authors, back at the hotel the Criminal Consequences Dinner was taking place, with top authors hosting tables whilst Martyn Waites played gamesmaster. This year the meal also served as a birthday celebration to MC Beaton, author of the Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth novels, for her 75th Birthday. By all accounts, this was another great evening’s event.

By 8.30pm it was time for Lee Child to take the stage with Independent Columnist Christina Patterson for his very own Room 101. (As an aside, there were apparently a number of hilarious scenes in the hotel reception when staff were asked by ticket holders where Room 101 was, and in at least one case were sent upstairs to the first floor – despite it not even having a Room with that number!) Lee Child just exuded ‘cool’ and gave as good as he got, despite the fact that he did say the bartering with Christina as to what could and couldn’t be subjected to Room 101 felt a bit like marriage. All of the subjects/objects up for possible inclusion were crime fiction linked and included the phrase ‘There’s been a murder’, characters looking at themselves in the mirror and describing themselves for the benefit of the reader and, complete with man in Robin (as in Batman) suit standing beside him on the stage, sidekicks in crime fiction. This was a thoroughly well presented and great fun event and the perfect lead up, after a few beers, to the Late Night Quiz.

Hosted by Quiz Night regulars Val McDermid and Mark Billingham, and with the seating swiftly rearranged for a cabaret style night, this was full of all of the usual festival fun. Picture rounds, music rounds (even if that did include Hugh Grant’s singing at one point! – thanks to Mr B) and some really twisted and taxing criminally challenging questions, this had everything – even teams cheating with excessive numbers of people (I will not name names!). Needless to say, the team I was on was not triumphant, but we didn’t come in last – so I took that to be quite an achievement.

Sunday morning’s last two events weren’t due to start until 10am – which meant everyone could relax a little and have an even longer night in the bar or outside in the hotel garden. Fortunately it was a pretty warm night and the weather stayed fine. Knowing that some would be leaving first thing in the morning and that others would be departing straight after the last events of Sunday to head home, it was time for beers and good conversation. I recall arranging to walk back to the Holiday Inn with a few friends, but then, when the time came, I told them I’d stick around to chat to a few others, two hours later and I have no idea how my internal radar got me back to my hotel, but it was a nice night/morning for a stroll nevertheless…..


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VICE SOCIETY – Harrogate Crime Writing Festival

Chaired by author and journalist SJ Parrish, this panel was set to discuss the depiction of sex and violence in crime fiction and whether it is an exploitation of those who have already been exploited.

The panel was made up of authors James McCreet, Val McDermid, Adam Creed and former senior police officer and the inspiration for Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennyson, Jackie Malton.

Jackie kicked off by saying that part of a detective’s strategy is to feed the media, the Jill Dando case being a good example – but it can lead to multiple inputs and things to follow up on. Personally her crime fiction preferences are for more psychological thrillers with her favourite being Val McDermid’s ‘The Mermaids Singing’.

Adam Creed said that in his own books he tends to use a reoccurring theme; people taking the law into their own hands.

Val MCDermid then asked if, as a group, they should be known as ‘Depravity R Us?’ and commented that they all deal with two very powerful forces in their books, lust and love.

James McCreet spoke of vice in Victorian times and that society as a whole was worried that prostitution would affect, contaminate and eventually destroy society. When asked if he though that the historical setting of his books enabled him to distance himself he agreed that it did but added that crime fiction does provide all writers with the vicarious distance needed.

Jackie Malton spoke candidly about her own drink addiction – she now works as a therapist and addiction counsellor in prison and it was quite a strange experience to hear the woman who inspired the hard drinking copper Jane Tennyson on tv talking of her own battles. The fact that she was former ‘flying squad’ does gain her a lot of respect with inmates though.

An interesting point raised by Val McDermid was whether as a society we have in fact created crimes, such as the desire to have items of personal property has led to the desire in others to want to steal it. Certainly in the case of items such as mobile phones this could be strongly argued. She went on to express anger at the growth of Eastern Europeans as the villains and the prostitutes in so many recent novels – a very current racism that seems to have sprung up. Val said that she often wishes that the world of crime fiction was much further removed from the real world violence that we now see so much of (she cited the news that very week of the nurse killing patients through saline drips).

The conversation then turned to gender and violence against women in crime novels with Val saying that women grow up with the worry and fear of being victims because they have grown up in a world that constantly warns them.

James McCreet said that crime fiction is, in a way, like a sexual tension, with red herrings along the way until finally you reach the ‘big pay off’ at the end.

And the session closed with Val commenting on the times when the writing and real life just get a little too close for comfort. She once had a stalker write to her to say he was ‘crap at it, but just read a Kate Brannigan, and when I get out I’m gonna get it right!’


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LEGAL EAGLES – Harrogate Crime Writing Festival

Unfortunately I had to miss the next event on the schedule (the Readers’ Book Group with Martyn Waites discussing novels by Cathi Unsworth and Christa Faust) – a real shame as it was Christa’s only event other than the dinner event that I knew I was also having to miss (more of that later).

So, after a much needed break and another great lunch, it was back to the main hall for ‘Legal Eagles’.

Chaired by the hilarious Peter McCormick (Senior Partner of McCormick’s Solicitor, who sponsored the panel) this was an insightful discussion between MR Hall, Frances Fyfield, Martin Edwards and Helen Black concerning how much of their professional legal careers they now bring to bear on the pages of their novels.

Peter’s opening was first class and a pleasant surprise from a speaker who would not have been known to pretty much anybody in the room.  He managed to get his office’s telephone number into the opening presentation several times over, introduced MR Hall as ‘Mr Hall’ – as that was how his secretary had typed his notes.  He also had a few pops at Martin Edwards just to get the ball rolling, saying he’s best described as a man locked in the music of the 60’s – often taking his titles from album or song titles. 

Starting with MR (or Matthew) Hall.  His next book ‘The Flight’ is due out early 2012.  He works a lot with juvenile prisoners – often with very tragic backgrounds – which often move him.  He once wrote a thriller about a youngster dying in the cells as a television drama – he was never made, but he re-used the idea to a certain extent in his novel ‘The Coroner’.

Francis Fyfield was a prosecutor and strongly believes there is no black and white, just various shades of grey.  Her work enabled her to look at people’s lives, to pity their lives.  It entered her bloodstream.  She said she’d love to write a romance with jokes, a book with angels and fairies and true love – but, as a lawyer, she feels conditioned to only put forward the truth.

Martin Edwards always wanted to be a crime writer but continues to write legal books and articles too.  As his legal expertise grows, so does the list of disclaimers in the back of his novels !

Helen Black has photos from when she was younger, outside 10 Downing Street and the National Theatre, so must have originally wanted to be Prime Minister or a famous actor.  She never imagined she’d become a writer, but she never imagined she’d become a solicitor either, so maybe she’d still in with a chance of becoming Prime Minister after all.  She only gives her character one case to work on  – so that’s not too close to the truth!

Martin chipped in with the fact that everyone has bad days at the office but, as crime novelists, they get to go home and kill someone.

They all then spoke about their series characters and the routes/developments of the stories over those series.

Martin spoke of the art of the modern crime writer having to be able to write for continuing readers and new readers – just how much backstory is enough/too much?

And, what’s coming up next from the four authors?

MR Hall – ‘The Flight’ – a tale of the Airbus (piloted by computer) – set to fly London to New York, but it never arrives!

Francis Fyfield – Currently working on Radio Four music programmes – and easy distraction from her writing.  She’s also just finished a standalone novel ‘Gold Digger’ about a collector of paintings.

Martin Edwards – ‘The Hanging Wood’ – just published – another in his Lake District series.  He describes it as a book where ‘something terrible and dark happens’ at the beginning and at the end.

Helen Black – working on a standalone book called ‘2012’ – featuring a politician in an ‘all singing all dancing thriller – bombs going off (during the Olympics) and people saving the world.’

Francis Fyfield asked if perhaps they are all living vicariously through their books, giving their characters attributes and possessions that they’d want to have themselves?

Martin Edwards said ‘It’s all about making stuff up!’

And Francis dispelled myths about plotting by saying she simply writes scenes she wants to write.  Hers are ‘True novels of suspense, as even the author doesn’t know how they are going to end.’   🙂


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NEW BLOOD – Harrogate Crime Writing Festival

Bounding onto stage sporting a headset mic set and doing the first line of ‘Like a Virgin’ before admitting that Martina Cole beat her to it with her ‘Britney’ the day before, festival favourite Val McDermid took to the stage to introduce the ‘New Blood’ event.

This has been a very popular panel since first being put on at Harrogate as it gives readers a chance to hear debut crime novelists describe their route to publication and provides a chance to get started reading new crime authors from their very first book and see how they then develop over, hopefully, years to come.

But it also serves to give those established authors a reason to keep upping their own game, seeing these bright young things rising up as potential threats on the bestseller charts. McDermid announced that she was dealing with this by ‘ritually murdering the panel afterwards’, but she has also got her first children’s book ‘My Granny is a Pirate’ coming out – just in case she needs to change tack.

She introduced the panel, starting with Gordon Ferris, who has had great ebook sales and now in print with 1946 set West of Scotland books including ‘Truth Dare Kill’ – McDermid advising the audience ‘Don’t start any of these (books) if you have to be somewhere in half an hour.’

Julia Crouch, who has written the fantastic psychological thriller ‘Cuckoo’ described how she’s a big Nick Cave fan and loves to run in her home town of Brighton, so often runs along listening to Cave’s ‘The Boatman’s Call’ hoping she may bump into him.

Next up was Melanie (MJ) McGrath, whose ‘White Heat’ has been one of my favourite reads this year. Her book was inspired by a trip to the North Pole which was the followed up by witnessing an attempted murder when she got back home. Much has been made of the food detailed within her book, but she laughed it off by saying that after a few weeks in the region where the book is set ‘the body takes over and you wake up and say “Yay! Whale blubber!”’

Gordon said that he has to set his books in the past as he doesn’t like all the csi and police procedurals. Val McDermid said she did think that ‘CSI Kilmarnock somehow doesn’t have the same ring to it.’

When talking about their style of book or the terms used to describe them, Julia Crouch said she thought her book was a ‘crime of passion’ novel – which essentially meant she could then join the Crime Writers Association and the Romantic Novelist Societies.

The fourth member of the panel was SJ Watson, who has had amazing success with his great debut ‘Before I Go to Sleep’, who simply stated that ‘at the age of 40, I have discovered what I should be doing.’

Gordon Ferris said that what authors do is ‘a craft – not a God-given right.’

Melanie McGrath added that she is often ‘surprised by how profoundly you need to know your characters.’ ‘Only by really knowing them allows them to tell you what they are going to do next.’

Julia Crouch, who wrote the first draft of what was to become ‘Cuckoo’ as a NaNoWrimo (National Novel Writing Month) project said that she ‘Hadn’t realised how many times you can re-write a novel. She continued to speak of her publishing experience and clearly had a lot of respect for readers and for library events.

Before going to the Q&A section of the discussion, there was time for each of the authors to mention what was next for them:

SJ Watson – A novel currently titled ‘Nine Lives’ (although subject to change). He is fascinated by identity and its fluidity – the masks we wear at different times – and there’ll be more sex in this one.

Melanie McGrath – Book 2 is about a month away from being finished – will feature more sex (and possibly more whale blubber) with sexual and political skulduggery in the same region as ‘White Heat’.

Gordon Ferris – ‘Bitter Water’ – a sequel to ‘The Hanging Shed’, in the first person again and set 2-3 months on from the previous book in high summer. He promised an outbreak of violence, a pattern being formed and metered out to the bad guys – rapists/thieves – in the form of vigilantism. Mean streets, Mean city, Mean people.

Julia Crouch – ‘Every Vow you Break’ – Set in upstate New York (she knows the area and the them very well as her husband works there a lot as an actor). The story centres around a family who go there, where the husband is an actor. There’s a stalker in it, and it doesn’t end very well…..

And then it was time for the Q&A section, kicking off by asking about each author’s oute to publication and whether their published book was their first novel.

SJ Watson – Not a typical route to publication at all. It wasn’t his first novel, but it was the first one he’d managed to finish.

Melanie McGrath – ‘White Heat’ was her first fiction book, but she had several non-fiction books already published. It took her a couple of years to find a suitable route into fiction publication.

Gordon Ferris – Has a large back catalogue. He shot to fame overnight, after 12 years. His kindle published download had an ‘invisible’ rise on amazon to the top of the charts with 120,000 ebooks sold. Now his work is available in paperback, he feels he’ll be able to better judge if writing is his career.

Julia Crouch – Described her route as fairly ‘cushy’ – after redrafting her NaNoWriMo entry until ready, she submitted a synopsis and 5000 words and was sold within 3 weeks to Headline.

Were there any changes in the books?

Julia Crouch – Yes, in the first NaNo draft they all died – just to get the thing finished!

SJ Watson – Couldn’t recall any changes.

Gordon Ferris – No major changes to the plot. ‘Kenny’ became ‘Douglas’ but that was the only change he could recall. Comments on their writing processes: SJ Watson – has early starts and writes whilst half asleep.

Melanie McGrath – Likes to be writing fairly early, starting with getting up at 7.30am

Gordon Ferris – Starts at 8.30am and rewrites until he throws it away!

Julia Crouch – Using the NaNoWriMo concept for first draft meant it was done very quickly. She uses post-it notes and colour coding – don’t all authors love their stationary!

And all agreed that they use [ ] brackets for all the unknown parts of their novels as they go along.

[Insert BIG bit of plot here ! ]


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Harrogate 2011: Out of this World.


Thanks to @UnBoundBlog: Un:Bound: Events, My latest latest entry covering the Out of this World event at  Theakstons Crime Harrogate can be found over there on their excellent site at this link:

More to follow back here soon.


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Harrogate Crime Writing Festival: Saturday morning ; Tess Gerritsen

My Saturday morning was an early start, and I do mean early (particularly for Harrogate). I was set to interview C.J.Box in the Holiday Inn breakfast room at 8am before dashing back to the Old Swan for the 9am Special Guest talk by Tess Gerritsen.

Not wanting to chat over too much munching, I took my breakfast by 7am and then, at 7.30am texted his publisher to let them know where I was seated so he could find me at 8am (not all of us wear a great big cowboy hat for ease of identification, so I’d gone with a t-shirt with a great big fingerprint on the front). Unfortunately there had been a breakdown in communications – and I received a text back. The planned 8am meet and then taxi trip with Mr Box and his luggage to the Old Swan had seemingly become an 8.50am meet and a walk to the other hotel. I couldn’t see how I was going to conduct an interview whilst walking along the streets for less than ten minutes, so I had to make an early phonecall to explain that, as I was covering the whole festival this really was the only slot I had to do the interview (bad as that felt, it was the truth) and by 8am I spied the man in the hat entering the breakfast room – Mr Box had arrived, so it was coffee and down to business.


8.55am and it was time to bid a fond farewell to Mr Box and to make a run to the festival hotel to take a seat at the back of the packed hall for Jenni Murray to take the stage and introduce Tess Gerritsen.

Thanking her for ‘The Surgeon’, which Murray described as a novel which made her keep checking her lights around the house and that doors were locked, Tess thanked Murray and stated that it was her first time sharing a stage with a Dame.

Tess went on to say that the whole premise of the danger of blood tests and medical records being used by a surgeon to find next victims was too good a concept to pass up. She said she’d always felt a little like an outsider – closest to Jane in her novels – her being a character who in a way ‘gave birth to herself’, and meant that she couldn’t kill her off – which was the original plan.

Turning to her latest novel ‘The Silent Girl’ – the book draws on her own Chinese heritage which she described as a topic ‘we don’t often talk about in the US – too uncomfortable’. Some time back she’d planned a book with an Asian character in a romance and was advised not to as it wouldn’t sell.

‘Many of us as a minority do a subconscious head count when we enter a room.’ Her father had a frayed jacket – her mother said it would make everyone think Chinese don’t know how to dress – ‘we all watch and make sure we’re all behaving as a culture/race’.

She then went on to cite a favourite story ‘Journey to the West:- The Monkey King’ – If you do not avenge the wrongs by your parents, you are not worthy as a person, it’s a Chinese rule to be a worthy person.

Staying with ‘The Silent Girl’ she was asked if the swords skills and Martial Arts in the novel were based on knowledge or research, to which she said that her son has studied Martial Arts for some time. Martial Arts have a long cultural history and belief in Chinese female warriors – it’s a very old theme, not just in Hollywood. Jenni then asked Tess if the kitchen scenes in the book were autobiographical and if the little girl’s comments and memories are of her own father, with all the tiny knife cuts and scars on his hands. She agreed that absolutely they were – her father had a hard job in a hard world and writing those scenes had really moved her as essentially she was writing about her own childhood and her own father.

Conversation then moved to ‘The Bone Garden’ – a book which came to her when she’d read of child bed fever – such a disturbing scenario which she felt compelled to write about as a piece of medical history – and it was something that could have been prevented.

A lot of readers cite ‘The Bone Garden’ as a favourite, but it was not a best seller compared to her other novels. Tess said that in her work she is always looking for constant tension, conflict and crisis in everything she writes. She ‘seesaws’ between books, with Rizzoli and Maura taking turns at centre stage – subconsciously they are like a married couple – they tend to make up again in the next one.

Many readers liked Rat in ‘Killing Place’ and that character will take centre stage in her tenth novel in a similar way to her bringing Detective Barry Frost forward in ‘The Silent Girl’.

Readers clearly know what they want and expect from Tess Gerritsen. She described a reader approaching her whilst on a tour for a Space Programme book and telling her she wanted her to ‘write a twisted serial killer book with sex’ – the reader in question was a teacher of eight year olds. Her readers were once polled and ‘women as victims’ was the preferred genre, it provides the largest readership (women) with their worst fears to read.

But, she maintains, that it’s very important to identify both with the hero and with the victim/s. The character of Jane Rizzoli ‘started off as classically a bitch!’ but she’s evolved as life has become fuller, married, settled, has child. Maura Isles is very different – constantly struggling with her relationships.

TG: ‘I know a lot of smart women who have made bad decisions when it comes to men’ JM: ‘So do I!’

Tess said that having children makes you fearful, makes the world a scary place and she added that Stephen said, of having children, that ‘the world has teeth’. Jane Rizzoli loves her job vs. a husband who doesn’t want her to lose her life or leave her child without a mother.

The television series ‘Rizzoli & Isles’ has hit the highest ratings in the US and a second season is underway. In the UK, Alibi TV will start screening the first season this September. The pilot episode is ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘The Surgeon’ combined and Tess commented that it’s a very rare thing that the full team behind the show is female.

The writers wanted to know if Jane Rizzoli had a middle name – so they could use it in a future storyline – so she had to think one up for her then. As is often the case with books to tv, changes are made, but the casting of a 6’ tall model, Angie Harmon, as Jane came as quite a surprise to fans. There is no husband character in the television show – they wanted to concentrate on the relationship between the central characters – as a result of this the show has also gained a large lesbian following. Also lined up to play Maura’s adoptive mother is Jaqueline Bissett and Maura is played by Sasha Alexander (of NCIS fame).

There then followed the customary Q&A section of the session, this kicked off with the question of why women appear to like books where it ‘could’ happen to them – Tess responded that it wasn’t dissimilar to children wanting to read books about things happening to children in their books.

For advice on writing, she suggested writing a first draft right through – no revisions – just write to the end and then, edit! As to which narrator to use to tell the story she simply said that if you can ‘hear the voice, then that’s the one to use’.

Her mother learned English through US horror films – so much of Tess’s childhood was spent in screaming cinemas. Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (the B&W version) was the one that left her most deeply affected – ‘the person you love is no longer the person you love.’

Her mother thought her books weren’t scary enough, and a friend of her son’s simply said ‘Dude. Your Mum’s sick!’

Of her own books ‘Gravity’ is a favourite – she read about the theme in a journal and had a ‘what if?’ moment. She described it as a little like ‘Alien’, to which Jenni Murray responded ‘Not read that one – not sure I shall!’

Tess then spoke of the effects of the tv series on her characters and said she does plan to rewrite the characters as she goes. One possible change is Barry Frost – described as pale in the books and played by an African American actor (Lee Thompson Young) in the tv show!

She spoke of writing scary scenes and the process she uses.

She builds tension – the monster can get you at any time he wants, but he hasn’t chosen to do so – yet! The prelim to an attack is far scarier than the actual attack – her horror movie watching clearly helped her develop this technique. She describes herself as agnostic – as a scientist – always requiring proof and that’s how Maura is.

Tess’s mother and aunties have seen lots of ghosts – she hasn’t.

Her mother told her that she hasn’t seen ghosts because ‘we live in America. America is too young!’

And then Jenni Murray wrapped things up by pondering the thought as to whether Tess Gerritsen would be thrilling the world with her great novels if her mother had taken her to see Hollywood musicals instead of horror movies….


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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.



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Friday morning at Harrogate Crime Writing Festival

Friday morning came and I was out of bed on the first alarm – I always am at these things, as no wife or children to alert me if I oversleep.

A hearty breakfast at the Holiday Inn and a brisk walk back to the Old Swan Hotel for the first event of the day.

Martina Cole interviewed by Dreda Say Mitchell.

An illuminating and, at times, hilarious discussion between these two writers of tough gritty London and the South based crime kicked off with Martina, dressed all in black and with her microphone headset, bounding onto the stage to announce that she and Dreda were thinking of ‘doing a Britney’, but that they couldn’t as they’d both had a wash that morning!

Cole was an inspirational speaker – I’ve always found her work a little too heavy on the dark side for my liking as a rule, with few redeeming features to her character, but I loved hearing her speak and will be seeking out more of her books as a result.

Both spoke of their involvement with prisons and writing groups within and of their love of theatre, particular of their support of the Theatre Royal, Stratford – where I saw an excellent adaptation of Cole’s The Graft a few months ago.

There were comments and subjects I never expected to come up, such as Cole’s love of tv show ‘Come Dine with Me’ which she described as having everything – Food, idiots….

It was great to hear of her start in writing too, and her putting on a phoney posh voice when top agent Darley Anderson called her, as she thought it was one of her mates winding her up.

The thing I’ll take away more than anything from Martina Cole’s talk was her inspirational ‘Go for it!’ attitude and advice to anyone in the room who wanted to write, saying that if she and Dreda could make it, then…..

Top lady and a great start to the first full day at the festival.


Next up was Penned In.

This was the one event on the list that I was a little unsure of as to whether it would work for me – as essentially the panel was made up of former prison inmates who made a writing career for themselves whilst inside and are doing pretty well out of it now they are on the outside.

The panel was chaired by investigative journalist and crime author, Duncan Campbell, who unfortunately tripped up as he stepped onto the stage, a pattern which was followed by Cass Pennant who followed him in similar style – resulting in nervous laughter from the audience, not daring to mock too much.

I’ve joked to my wife in the past that if I committed a crime and served a bit of time for it, it could just be the space and time that I need to concentrate on my writing without having the day job and bills to concern myself with – This event threatened to reinforce that idea. However, despite the fact that all the men on the panel (Erwin James, Cass Pennant and Jonathan Aitken) had become successful in a new writing career as a result of starting to write in prison, there were stories of very dark experiences at times which I wouldn’t have wanted to face.

The common thread seemed to be that these men were able to read and write in a place where not everyone else can and, as a result of that, they were chosen to help those other inmates. Everything from reading letters from briefs and assisting with replies to penning love letters to girlfriends on the outside – they each became very useful to the others on their wings. Cass said that he realised just how important reading was to inmates when one told him he was ‘on the moon’ because a book he was reading placed him there and that’s where he was escaping to whilst he read it. He’s the first person to be titled a ‘Hooliologist’ for his knowledge of football hooliganism and is now known as ‘the book man’ to others inside who look to him for contracts (of the publishing kind!).

Jonathan Aitken illustrated how respected he was in prison when an inmate walked along the corridor holding a letter he’d written for him, shouting ‘This MP geezer of ours – he’s got fantastic joined-up writing!’ Aitken’s letters of love to the ladies of Brixton also made him very popular.

Erwin James confirmed that his favourite read whilst inside Wandsworth Jail was Papilion – which he read three times – he knew that there was no chance of escape from Wandsworth other than through books. He also agreed with the comment that a prisoner is at times free-er than a free man on the outside.

The last panel of the morning was entitled Wrong ‘Uns, and was, I thought, one of the most impassioned panels – mainly due to some serious opening up to problems in her past from Mandasue Heller and some strong arguments during the discussions from Denise Mina.

Alex Wheatle and Craig Robertson made up the rest of the panel, which was chaired by James Twining. The discussion began by asking the panel if they believed there was such a thing as ‘evil’. Denise Mina suggested that crime fiction enables us to unpack veiling of truths and that, if you want your children to become psychopaths, then you really need to work at it.

Craig Robertson also agreed that he didn’t believe that there was such a thing as ‘evil’.

Mandasue Heller then told of a terrible attack that she’d suffered when younger, by a man with a claw hammer and that she’d been very badly treated by the police afterwards as she understood that there had been a number of attacks on prostitutes in the area and they had little sympathy for anyone regardless of their own situation, tarring all victims with the same brush. Later, she suffered a tumour behind her eye, meaning that her balance was impaired whilst on stage – so all this led to her sitting and starting to write down all of her problems – a memoir too personal to publish, but enough to make her realise that she wanted to write.

Alex Wheatle spoke of needing to include context/background to the reasons why people can turn out the way they do.

The conversation then turned to fictional violence and whether it was necessary to up the gore quota to outsell an author’s previous novel or books by others.

With his superb debut novel, Random, Craig Robertson wanted to put the reader inside the killer’s head to make the reader as uncomfortable as possible (it did) but all agreed that there is still a strong case for good writing meaning that not so much violence needs to actually be ‘shown’ on the page.   Alex suggested that a slow-down in the lead up to the scene of violence can greatly improve the pace/action and recommended watching Sergio Leone movies to see great examples of how that pacing can work so well.

Denise Mina stood up for violence – she likes her gore and wasn’t ashamed to say so.

‘We’re not buying books about cats!’

She said that we all like the fact that we read things that we maybe shouldn’t and she recommended the movies of Beat Takeshi for great examples of the aftermath of violence.

‘I like a bit of gore – Let’s be honest about it’. She went on to say that many people probably bought books where characters are stabbed to take on holiday to reduce the chances of them wanting to stab their own families whilst away.

James Twining stepped in to say that, from the discussion so far, all seemed to be in agreement that the increase in violence in books was a mirror on society and not a distortion of it.

Craig Robertson fell into trouble with Denise at the fact that he had a sex worker killed in his second novel, Snapshot.

But should books be restricted?

‘Everybody read dirty bits’ in books at school, advised Denise.

Mandasue agreed and added that ‘The Happy Hooker’ was a favourite when she was younger.

So, has the battle been lost – our children have already seen bloodshed/violence on the internet and in videogames, but in books it’s usually different, in most cases there is a resolution at the end.

Denise Mina suggested that those present in the room should start a ‘secret censorship’ – we should go out and mark books by Robbie Burns and Milton as XXX and put them on a high shelf in bookstores and libraries and tell children not to read them!

Alex Wheatle stated that he felt that publishing and books in general was still too white middle class and was still under-represented in black authors/editors and readers – he’s on a mission to improve that.

The panel was then asked for their favourite anti-heroes:

James Twining: Glenn Close’s character in ‘Dangerous Liaisons’.

Craig Robertson: Robert Murdoch (going for a very topical name), and then added James Stewart as Mr Potter in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’.

Denise Mina: ‘Violent Cop’ by Beat Takeshi – despite the fact she’d discovered it by accident in thinking she was renting another in the ‘Maniac Cop’ horror series. She also added Humbert Humbert from ‘Lolita’.

Alex Wheatle – Noodles from ‘Once upon a time in America’.

Mandasue Heller – Bette Davis in ‘The Anniversary’ – pure evil and fascinating to watch.

Craig Robertson then got the chance during a Q&A session to redeem himself with Denise Mina when he told her he did feature a bit of male rape in his first novel.

And Denise commented that she felt that we are a much more visual culture now – and, as a result of that, we don’t want a lot of detail and long descriptions of landscape, we just need glimpses of scenes.

And that was Friday morning up until lunch-bell.

Five more panels to go on this first packed day of criminal activity.


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