Psst! Do you want a few tips on how to commit the perfect murder? You do? Ok. But, before asking my advice on planning the despatch of your mother-in-law, you’ll probably want to know why I can help you avoid having your collar felt. Stick with me till I’ve outlined the background to how I acquired such esoteric skills.
I come from an Irish Catholic working-class background and I suppose you could say I was one of life’s late developers in the area of personal ambition. I certainly had no idea what a criminal direction I would end up in. Killing people – and getting away with it, was far in the future.
When I took my the examination, at the age of eleven, which would decide my educational future, I confess, I was far more interested in winning Jimmy Smith’s prize 4-er marble than I was in taking tests. Darlings –I won the marble… but failed the 11+. Examination.
So it was off to secondary modern for me. For those who don’t know, secondary modern existed to teach people the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic and then send them out in the world at fifteen or sixteen to have jobs rather than careers. So I wasn’t off to a good start in my life.
Unsurprisingly, after I left school at 16, a long list of dead-end jobs followed. I won’t bore you with a litany of them. But, somewhere along the way, i found ambition. I realised that i wanted to do something with my life, rather than fritter it away.
I’d always been a keen reader, so trying to become a published writer seemed a natural step on the road. Oh boy! Was I in for a shock!
I first started writing in my early twenties, but I never finished anything. I was an amateur. A rank amateur. I knew nothing about research. Nothing about creating characters or plot. I hadn’t a clue, basically.
But hitting the age of thirty concentrated the mind wonderfully and gradually, I learned how to write novels and finish them. It was a long apprenticeship. Apart from what had gone before, from the age of thirty I wrote a book a year for six years before I achieved publication. That book was a romance called Land of Dreams and set in the Canadian Arctic (don’t ask!). But after that brief brush with success, it was back to rejection alley.
By then i was pretty fed up. Nobody likes being repeatedly rejected. My ‘stuff you’ mentality came into play. I felt like murdering someone. So I did.
I turned to crime. I’ve done them all. Stabbings, poisonings, smotherings, bludgeonings. You name it and I ’ve done it. I’ve even hanged someone, but that was after they were dead.
The first book in a crime series is, I believe, the most difficult and demanding. You not only have to master the problems of plotting, clue laying and red-herring scattering and learn about police and forensic procedures, at the same time you have to create a cast of characters who are capable of supporting a series. A pretty tall order for a first effort in a genre I think you’ll agree.
There must be many neophyte writers who have fallen by the wayside in attempting to write crime novels. I might have been one of them if I hadn’t decided to do my own thing rather than follow the crowd.
Maybe the word originality explains why so many fail. That single word strikes terror into the hearts of a lot of new crime writers. I know it did mine.
After a writing history of five rejected romantic novels followed by the publication of the sixth, as well as the publication of various articles, the writing of a crime novel seemed not only much more demanding than anything I’d tackled before, but also extremely intimidating.
Just thinking of all those crime writers who are regularly praised for their devilish ingenuity, god-like intellect and masterly characterisation was enough to have more ordinary mortals, like me, quaking in their boots at the thought of trying to emulate them.
So, how on earth do you set about creating an original crime series? All I can tell you is how I went about it.
I suppose you could describe the Rafferty and Llewellyn mystery novels, which form my first series, as Inspector Frost meets Del Boy Trotter and family. For those who don’t watch British TV, Inspector Frost is something of a bumbler who’s anti-authority, but he’s smart enough to get his man. And Del Boy Trotter is a market trader (market stall not the stock market), who’s into buying dodgy gear. He’s working-class and a bit of a ducker and diver, but witty with it. So if you’re looking for the intellectual, Sherlock Holmes, type of crime novel – steer well clear! Though, having said that, I had one reviewer who likened me to Holmes.
In short, the Rafferty family has more than their share of ‘Del Boy Trotter types’ whose leisure-time activities are far from Adam Dalgliesh and his poetry writing or Morse and his Wagner. The Rafferty family pursuits are nothing so refined. They’re into back-of-a-lorry bargains and other diversions of equally questionable legality.
And Rafferty’s ma ,Kitty Rafferty, often leads the field in such pursuits, using emotional blackmail to make Rafferty feel guilty when he upbraids her. Having far more than her share of blarney stone baloney, she always wins these little arguments.
Given the above, don’t restrict yourself to what you think are the usual sort of police characters if something else would come more naturally to you. Like me with Detective Inspector Joseph Rafferty and his back of a lorry family – try to find the main character that’s right for you.
To get back to this business of originality for a moment, I think we can all agree that being original is a tricky business. A book that one person considers a true original might be thought of as over the top by another. While a third person might consider your hard won originality is nothing more than a poor copy of a well-known writer’s style that’s been given a bit of a twist.
So, originality’s a pretty moveable feast. Publishers themselves are often a bit vague when they try to define what they’re looking for. But, even if they can’t tell you what they want, they find it easier to tell you what they don’t want.
No editor is going to be impressed by a writer who’s a copycat. For one thing, it’ll put the publisher in danger of being sued. So – no second rate plagiarism.
Okay, so where do you start? You start by asking
yourself a few pertinent questions. About yourself, your background, your family, warts and all and then maybe oomph it up a bit.
Maybe, like British Prime Minister John Major, your family has a circus or funfair background? Maybe you could have a sort of Gypsy Rose Lee type in there somewhere? A travelling crook detector with her crystal ball ever at the ready! Outlandish, perhaps, but then wacky might be just your thing.
Or maybe your working background’s a little more conservative? In insurance, for instance.
An insurance investigator could get to look into a lot of suspicious deaths. And he doesn’t have to be your average stereotypical insurance worker, whatever that is.
Maybe he desperately wants to get out of the insurance business and into the world of entertainment. An insurance investigator as comedian, perhaps, given to cracking tasteless jokes at the crime scene. A man who’s learned to judge the witnesses as he would judge an audience.
They’re just a couple of ideas to get you thinking. Feel free to use them. Or not!
To get back to me, and the choices I made when I was creating my crime series. I decided on the surname Rafferty because I wanted his name to suggest someone who was a bit of a scruff – a rough Rafferty, in fact. I chose the name Llewellyn for his sidekick because i wanted to give the suggestion of royalty.
In Dead Before Morning, the first in tis fifteen-strong mystery series, alongside the main story runs a humorous sub-plot, in which Rafferty is ensnared in the first of the series’ many family-induced problems. I’ve just finished Kith and Kill, my fifteenth in the series, and, like the previous fourteen, it has Rafferty embroiled in more trouble than a Victorian lady of the night sans the morning after pill.
To return to similarities, I thought if Rafferty shared class and education with me he might as well have other elements of similarity. Why not? Other writers do. Would a non—classical music lover have created Morse? Would someone who knows little and cares less about poetry have created the poetry writing Adam Dalgliesh? Well, possibly, i suppose. But it’s far more sensible to make use of elements from your own life.
I wanted a character I could empathise with. One who was as near me as I could get. Believe me, it helps! (even though I’m not a man, I made Rafferty male because I felt the relationship with his ma was important and I felt, rightly or wrongly, that there would be more scope for humour with a male main character).
And with that first crime novel you’ll have enough trouble creating a plot that conceals as it reveals, with coming up with clues, red herrings, a satisfying denouement and the rest. You won’t need to increase your difficulties by having a lead character from a totally different social background from yourself as well.
My background is Irish-Catholic working-class. So is Rafferty’s. I was educated (sic) in a Roman Catholic secondary modern. So was Rafferty. I come from a large family. So does Rafferty.
There are a few differences, of course. Apart from the differences in gender. But the basic elements of similarity are there, which all help to give the writer a ‘feel’ for a character and their background, something I regarded as essential when I hoped to carry him through a series of novels.
There are a lot of working class policemen out there – just like Rafferty – who have risen up the ranks, perhaps leaving behind them the less savoury habits of youth and family. Often, they’ll have had to shed or at least conceal, certain aspects of their character: prejudices of one sort or another, for instance. Or, like Rafferty, a family with a love of dubious ‘bargains’.
But just because our policeman character has found it necessary to change doesn’t mean to say his family would be so obliging as to do likewise. He would have parents, siblings, nephews, nieces and so on, all with their own ideas of what constitutes right and wrong. And all beyond the lead character’s influence or control.
Imagine such a family. They’d be only too likely to embarrass your lead character.
Now, i know we’re talking fictional policemen here, but just think again for a moment, of John Major and his family. Of Terry and Pat and the trapeze-artist, gnome-loving father. Nothing criminal there, of course. But still, what ammunition they provided his enemies – of whatever political persuasion. He must have often wished he had been an only, lonely orphan. Rafferty often wishes the same!
It doesn’t take a major (go on – groan!) Leap of the imagination to see that a policeman, in a position of authority, with the need to be seen to uphold the law can easily be embarrassed by a less than honest family. He could even have his career put at risk by them.
I was well into my stride now and decided that if Rafferty was going to be working class like me he might as well have other elements of ‘me’ – it not only makes life easier, it also helps me relate to the main character and to the past which has helped to shape him
But in order to have a ‘past’, he’s got to have memories. And the best memories, from the point of view of believability, are one’s own memories.
Which is something else you might perhaps care to bear in mind if and when you start creating your own mystery series.
I’ll give you an example.
In Down Among The Dead Men, the second in the series, I had Rafferty reveal – just as I remember doing – that as a schoolchild he and his classmates would attend Friday afternoon Benediction at the local Catholic Church and sing Latin hymns without – as they had never been taught any Latin – having a clue what they were singing about.
Not much, perhaps, in the broad sweep of a novel, but it’s little touches like that which help to bring a character to life. Which perhaps helps a reader to identify with them, to the point of saying, ‘yes. I remember doing that.’ it helps to make it all more real.
Once i had Rafferty down on paper, i gave a lot of thought to his sidekick. But that’s for the second in my three-parter posts. So tune in next time!