Click the sidebar for the first article in the series.
Last time, I wrote about how Star Trek, and the late Leonard Nimoy, moved me out of the childrens’ section of the library and into the world of ‘grown-up’ fiction. But how did I progress from teenage Sci Fi geek to crime writer?
Well like all good stories, it needs an inciting incident, successive complications and a climax and resolution.
The inciting incident:
In 2006 I became unemployed after finishing my latest research contract. This state of affairs only lasted for a week or so – when I progressed to what is known in the parlance as “under-employed”. According to the employment agency who found me temporary work, I was the only receptionist on their books with a PhD in molecular biology. Naturally this proved invaluable as I plied my trade at a local sports centre, answering the phone, practising my smile and filling in quite literally hundreds of job application forms for new research posts.
The stroke of luck was that I worked the evening shift. There was a brief burst of activity for the ten minutes either side of the hour, but for the rest of the shift I was largely left alone.
It was then that I stumbled across NaNoWriMo – the annual challenge to write a fifty-thousand word novella over the month of November. Fifty thousand words seemed a tall order, especially in a month with only thirty days instead of thirty-one. That’s an additional 53.8 words to find each day! Nevertheless, I plugged away and by the end of the month had broken the back of the story with a chunk of thirty thousand words or so. And the theme of my masterpiece… humankind’s first journey to Mars.
Yes, I still saw myself as the next Arthur C Clarke rather than Mary Higgins Clark. Regardless, the story grew in fits and starts and I had tremendous fun using my years of education and reading of scientific journals to fill the tale with accurate science.
Fast forward a few months and I finally found a new research position at the University of Toronto. The job came with a near-vertical learning curve and so the writing took a necessary back-seat. Sadly, the job didn’t work out as I had hoped and eventually I decided it was time to move back to the UK and retrain as a science teacher, something that my Canadian supervisor – master of the ambiguous, back-handed compliment (I think) - said I showed more passion for than I had ever demonstrated at the lab bench.
It was another six months before my teacher training course was due to start and I returned to living with my parents. The temping job that I found to help fund my future study was a lot more interesting than the receptionist position. Based at a major bank, I spent my days ensuring that international terrorists, African dictators and other ne’er do wells didn’t have a junior savings account that they were discreetly funnelling funds into. The hours were long and senior management really were a bunch of bankers. To keep me sane, I enrolled in a creative writing evening course at my local university. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t very good, however the feedback I received was invariably positive and suggested that I could both tell a story and string words together in an aesthetically pleasing manner.
Off to university again, followed by a year as a newly qualified teacher, and it felt as if sleep was a shameless indulgence, let alone writing stories about spaceships. However, even the darkest night has a dawn and eventually the notion of a work-life balance became less a theoretical concept and more a distant possibility. And so I enrolled in some creative writing evening classes again.
These soon became the highlight of my week. Even better, I realised that I could often adapt the writing exercises and homework tasks to my own ends, using them to help me write new parts of my dormant Mars story (this wasn’t always possible of course. Try as I might I could not write about the journey to the red planet in the style of a Shakespearean sonnet).
By now, something strange was happening to my novel. I had always intended it to be a series of interweaving threads following different characters over many years from the planning stages of the Mars mission to the adventures that they have on Earth’s closest neighbour. One of those threads would involve a murder and I found myself writing more and more about the detectives involved, the clues that they were discovering, and how they would piece together the puzzle and bring the evil-doer to justice. Soon, that was the only part of the book I was writing.
It was an epic case of writers’ block on New Years Eve 2010 that changed the course of my writing forever. Stuck in a rut, my mind kept on returning to the part I’d found easiest to write – the murder thread.
I awoke New Years day with one thought in my head. I needed to be a crime writer. It was obvious. And terrifying.
What would I write? My ideas file had a number of one line concepts. It also had some ‘Agatha Christie’ moments where alibis could be broken or clues found in the unlikeliest of places. As I stared at the document, two of them came together...
Like most graduate students, I’d had fantasies about somebody killing my PhD supervisor. Not that he was an unpleasant man; far from it, he was a very supportive and kind mentor. Nevertheless, dark thoughts can visit even the most dedicated student at three am in an empty lab when his experiment fails for the fourth time in twenty-four hours.
Furthermore, the university grapevine was filled with tales of over-bearing and even down-right nasty academics who made the lives of their students and employees hell. And so the idea of a senior scientist found in his office with his throat slashed late at night was born. I won’t tell you the Agatha Christie moment that solves the case, you can read that for yourself in The Last Straw.
The climax and resolution:
Despite all this, I still had a problem. A very big problem. Who would solve the mystery? Next time I’ll tell you how embracing the normal led me to create DCI Warren Jones and has left friends who read the series with a nagging sense of deja vu.