A slightly different version of this article appeared in Red Herrings, the confidential newsletter published for members of The Crime Writers' Association.
Over the last couple of blog posts, I have charted my journey from teenage Star Trek fan to crime writer, via roles as a research biologist, science teacher, over-qualified sports-centre receptionist and tracker of terrorists (this last job is really not as exciting as it sounds), culminating in a head-banging case of writer’s block that led me to give up (I prefer postpone) my ambitions as a Sci Fi writer and become a crime writer.
This time I want to share with you how sometimes normality can lead to creativity; how unique characters don’t have to be weird.
That my novel would be the first in an ongoing series of contemporary British police procedurals was clear to me from the start. That meant lots of research outside my comfort zone (working out how primitive microbes might survive in the frigid soils of Mars for my first serious attempt at writing wasn’t a huge leap for a molecular biologist; reading the 1984 Police And Criminal Evidence Act to make certain that my DCI didn’t have his case chewed up and spat out by the defence for procedural cock-ups was!).
More scary though was developing my hero. I was always clear that I wanted to avoid the hard-drinking womaniser with multiple ex-wives, haunted by his past misdeeds. Mainly because it has been done extremely well by many others and I wasn’t brave enough to go toe-to-toe with them! However my detective still needed what the publishing and marketing world call a USP – a Unique Selling Point that would set DCI Warren Jones apart from his peers. For months I concocted then discarded countless character quirks and physical peculiarities.
One evening I was reluctantly deciding that whilst, thanks to the Disability Discrimination Act, a one-legged detective with a missing eye might still be a senior police detective, he was likely to be largely desk-bound. This of course has proven to be no obstacle to Lincoln Rhyme or Ironside, but wasn’t what I envisaged for my hero.
And then I realised that the answer was staring me in the face. On the bookcase opposite me were copies of Peter Robinson’s DCI Banks series and Peter James’ Roy Grace series. These two detectives are powerful, well-written characters that the reader cares about, yet both still pass what I call the ‘quiet pint’ test – i.e. would I be happy to go for a drink with them on a Friday night? They are – and I mean no disrespect by using this term – normal blokes. Certainly they have their idiosyncrasies, and both have amassed a fascinating back-story, but ultimately they are socially functional, pleasant enough members of the human race. The sort of character that I actually felt qualified to write about.
And so Warren was born. And pretty soon this ordinary character had a raft of his own USPs, many taken from me.
He’s happily married (I had no idea how rare this is in the genre – readers like to point this out on Amazon!). He enjoys a drink but doesn’t have a problem and he’s in his late thirties (the same age as me – write what you know!). He’s respected and has progressed up the ranks briskly, but he’s no wunderkind. Neither has been repeatedly suspended and passed over for promotion because he keeps on swearing at his superior officers and punching members of the general public.
His taste in music is appalling - yes, that’s me! No classical jazz or blues for DCI Jones – he’s a Heart FM aficionado and his music knowledge is largely limited to that gained from 80s night in the students’ union twenty years previously. He’s also a shockingly fussy eater (me again; Warren’s penchant for removing salad from anything he eats is just one of the many endearing qualities I bring to a meal out).
Now on paper, I will accept that this sounds pretty dull (and I have the rejection slips to show that many in the publishing world agree), but then I had the fortune to submit my manuscript to Carina UK, an imprint of Harlequin. Had I realised that Harlequin was the owner of Mills & Boon and specialise almost exclusively in romance, erotica and ‘women’s fiction’ (whatever that nebulous term means), I wouldn’t have bothered. Harlequin do publish crime novels, but the cover art suggests that detaining suspects isn’t the primary use of an officer’s handcuffs. However, the purpose of the Carina imprint is to branch beyond Harlequin’s usual demographic.
“We love Warren. What’s going to happen to him in later novels?” was my editor’s opening question after we’d ordered lunch at our first meeting. It seemed that it was Warren’s character that had grabbed their interest first. They subcontracted the structural editing to a crime specialist to make certain that it passed muster as a crime novel, but they also wanted strong, interesting characters that readers could follow over many books.
“You don’t think he’s a bit ordinary? He’s basically just me.”
“Not at all. We think he’s a really interesting character to read about.”
Now I could take this one of two ways:
1) I’m sufficiently dysfunctional and weird enough that I conform to the pattern expected of fictional crime detectives – and nobody has been brave enough to point this out to me and suggest I seek help.
2) I am ‘normal’ but have enough quirks to make for a compelling character in a novel.
Being a firm believer in the power of self-delusion, I have decided to accept the second explanation.
I am now several books into the series and Warren is now with me wherever I go. As I sit here in a well-known coffee chain, famous for its questionable tax practises, he’s at the next table. What would he order? Nothing too fancy. Unlike me, he lives on caffeine, but like me he prefers his coffee simple. Later today I shall be trying to buy a new bag for my laptop; I’ve already done a bit of window shopping. “Ninety quid for a backpack!?”, the thoughts could have been Warren’s as much as mine. Warren is a normal bloke and I’m proud of that. He has his demons and as the series progresses, we’ll see more of them. But when it comes to larger-than-life sociopaths, Warren will be trying to lock them up, not out-compete them.