TAKE EYE OF NEWT
Creating a Crime Series
The creation of a crime series is a bit of a puzzle — in more ways than one — isn’t it? Do you try to create a clone of the fictional British detectives Wexford, Morse, Dalgliesh? Or maybe the publishing world would prefer a bit of all three? Is that a chorus of ‘Yes! Please!’ I hear in the background?
Before I tried my hand at a crime novel, I’d been writing for six years, mainly articles and romantic novels. The articles were (mostly) published, but the romantic novels were all — bar the last of the six — rejected. So, once I’d figured out that romance writing wasn’t really my bag, I decided to turn to crime.
No Need to Make Life Difficult For Yourself
That decision brought my first dilemma. Because as I’ve already said, most of the really well-known fictional (Btitish) detectives, although very different in temperament, etc, were of a certain type: middle class and well-educated.
I assumed I would have to follow suit. Coming from a working-class, Council-house-raised and secondary-modern educated (sic) background this was a conclusion that put a damper on my aspirations. How could I possibly hope to write about such characters? Even trying a second-rate clone of one of them was surely beyond my ability (or desire).
I couldn’t write about such people. Not only couldn’t, but wouldn’t. I didn’t want to write about such people. Why the hell would I? I had no experience of a middle-class lifestyle. Back then, I found the mere idea so completely intimidating that I revolted against it, not least because after thinking about those crime writers regularly praised for their devilish ingenuity, God-like intellect and masterly characterisation, I felt as if I should crawl back from whence I had come and not bother the critics – or anyone else – ever again.
But I didn’t follow that first, wimpish, inclination. My natural bolshiness rose to the fore and I said: ‘To hell with that!’ (or words to that effect…! There might have been a few more common ‘F’*!*!*!s’ in there, somewhere.
Once I’d got that, ‘Bastards!’ stuff out of my system, I decided to do it ‘My Way’. So I took my life by the scruff of the neck, threw out the ridiculous idea of writing about middle-class characters from my Council estate mind-set, and created my main detective character from the police majority; the ordinary Joes who have more to do with the reality of the average copper. None of your Fast-Tracking or Accelerated Promotion for this bloke. He’d have to do it the hard way if he wanted to work his way up.
Okay, I pretty much suspected that the cop character I came up with wouldn’t be the style of detective that seems to most impress the critics. My main man would be the opposite of the critics’ darlings. My copper would be working-class and indifferently educated. Much like me, in fact (that I’ve worked my socks off since leaving school to try to educate myself, is beside the point).
This seemed like a far better idea. Especially as I felt it was essential that my main character, at least, should be someone to whom I could relate. If, by some miracle, my first effort in the genre was published, I might be writing about this character through four, five, six or more novels (I’d envisaged this as a series of novels right from the start. No lack of ambition here!). No way I’d be able to do that if I wrote about a lead character whose background was totally at odds with my own.
Thus was born Detective Inspector Joseph Aloysius Rafferty. Like me, Rafferty is Council-house raised and secondary-modern educated. Again, like me, he’s Catholic (lapsed) and London-born of Irish parents and is one of quite a crowd of siblings (he’s the eldest of six, I’m the youngest of four, but the similarities are there: very important, those similarities.).
Every Need to Make Life Difficult For Your Main Character
Like many of the working-classes who have risen above their roots to get somewhere in life, Rafferty is cursed by coming from a family whose aspirations have not risen with his own. In short, the Rafferty family has more than their share of ‘Del Boy’ Trotter, ducking and diving, types whose leisure-time preferences are far from Adam Dalgliesh and his poetry writing or Morse’s Wagner. The Rafferty family pursuits are nothing so refined. They’re into back-of-a-lorry bargains of dubious provenance and other diversions of equally questionable legality. And Rafferty’s Ma, the widowed Kitty Rafferty, often leads the field in these pursuits, using emotional blackmail to make Rafferty feel guilty when he upbraids her. Having far more than her fair share of Blarney Stone baloney, she always wins these little arguments.
Rack up the Main Character’s Difficulties
To give Rafferty even more problems, I provided him with a sidekick preordained from birth to look with a jaundiced eye at Rafferty’s outlook on life, his theories and conduct of cases and his less than law-abiding family. DS Dafyd Llewellyn, the university-educated-only son of a Welsh Methodist minister, is more moral than the Pope and thinks the law should apply to everyone – even the mothers of detective inspectors. Luckily, I spend very little time inside Llewellyn’s head and only mention his interests in passing, so I avoid the problems I’d have if he was my main character.
Place Your Character in an Environment That Resonates
Once I had the basics of Rafferty, his family and his sidekick sorted out, I had to place my main man in his environment. And after all I’ve said about his background, I felt there was only one place I could use as a setting for such a character. Essex. You’ll understand why it seemed his natural habitat.
We’ve all heard of the ‘Essex Man‘ euphemism as a term for people who are stupid and common, with criminal tendencies. We’ve all heard ‘Essex Jokes’ (What’s an Essex Girl’s idea of a really classy meal? A wooden chip fork with her takeaway). Politically-incorrect they may be, yet they’ve stuck. But, unlike the stereotyped depiction of the working-classes in ‘Essex’ jokes and many of the older British crime novels, as chip-eating, adenoidal and terminally stupid, I wanted to show that there is intelligent life, not only in Essex, but also amongst the working-classes themselves.
As far removed from the intellectual, Sherlock Holmes type of sleuth as it’s possible to be, Rafferty is the typical, down-to-earth British copper. Okay, he’s not exactly deeply intellectual, or highbrow, but intelligence, like most things, comes in different guises. His background has given him a street-wisdom of a kind that’s often far more valuable in police work than the more academic intelligence.
But Rafferty has to work with the partner I’ve given him — Dafyd Llewellyn. Unsurprisingly, at first, Rafferty resents this intellectual copper. He resents his superior education and superior morality. Poor old Rafferty has far more chips on his shoulder than in his takeaway supper where Llewellyn’s concerned.
Unlike Rafferty, Llewellyn likes to examine the facts of a case immediately, rather than go off on flights of fancy. Worse, he has a tendency to run a coach and horses through Rafferty’s favourite theories, which are often outrageous and tend to indulge his various prejudices to the full. Rafferty, of course, thinks the more politically-correct Llewellyn takes all the fun out of police work. What’s the point in having the usual working-class prejudices, he thinks, if you don’t occasionally indulge them? Besides, it’s amusing to tease Llewellyn, who needs taking down a peg or two.
Of course, this series was created in the early Nineties, before Political Correctness came into its own. Nowadays, to survive in the modern police service, Rafferty has had to learn to bite his tongue and push his prejudices underground, though, as he has come to trust his tight-lipped partner, Llewellyn still gets the full force of his ideology.
You could say the pairing epitomises the famous George Bernard Shaw saying, with which I shall take a bit of artistic license. You know the one: ‘It is impossible for a Brit to open his mouth without making some other Brit despise him.’
Yet they manage to rub along together, helped by both Rafferty’s overactive Catholic conscience and Llewellyn’s stern Methodist moral code. As the series and the cases progress, so does their relationship. They both come to agree that a man consists of rather more than his accent.
Anyway, all this furious thinking produced Dead Before Morning from the steamy cauldron; a crime novel which features a prostitute bludgeoned beyond recognition, a suave, social-climbing doctor and an idle hospital porter, who had a few ‘nice little earners’ of his own. In this first novel, Rafferty has just been promoted to the rank of inspector in the CID. His beat is Elmhurst, a fictitious town based on Colchester, the old Roman town where that original Essex girl, Boadicea, used to hang out and harry the centurions.
Alongside the main story runs a humorous sub-plot, in which poor Rafferty is ensnared in the first of the series’ many family-induced problems. My fifteenth Rafferty & Llewellyn procedural, Kith and Kill (pb and ebook), like the previous fourteen, has poor Rafferty embroiled in more trouble than a Victorian lady of the night sans the morning-after pill.
Location. Location. Location.
Apart from Rafferty’s working-class background and his family’s teeny-weeny tendency to ignore laws they don’t like, there was another reason I chose to locate him in Essex. And that was because of the county’s historical connections. Many of the towns and villages in Essex are associated with the early settlers in America. And because of its port links, the entire area has always been close to the religious dissent stemming from Europe.
A bit of a dissenter himself, having been force-fed Catholicism from the cradle, Rafferty is against religion of any persuasion as a matter of principle. So it’s no wonder he feels at home in an area with such strong dissenting traditions.
One of the reasons I wrote the kind of crime novel I did is that my mind has a natural tendency to see the humour in a situation; especially a situation that contains a large dollop of Sod’s Law. In Rafferty’s – and my – experience – Sod’s Law really does Rool OK. So why fight it?
I must have done something right because on only its second outing, Dead Before Morning, that first Rafferty & Llewellyn crime novel, was taken from Macmillan’s slush pile and published. It was also published in the States in hardback and paperback, by St Martin’s Press and Worldwide, respectively.
But after eighteen novels published the traditional way, in 2010 I decided to split from my publisher and become an indie. Although a difficult decision at the time and involving sleepless nights and plenty of anxiety, it’s not a decision I’ve had cause to regret.
I took a chance, and did it ‘My Way’, when I created that first Rafferty & Llewellyn. I also took a chance and did it. ‘My Way’ when I became an indie. But both decisions have paid off. With my sizeable backlist becoming an indie was a no-brainer.
And, let’s face it, if we weren’t independently-minded, cussed types, set on doing it ‘Our Way’, I think the publishing – and the reading world – would both be a lot poorer.
Rafferty and Llewellyn police procedural series
Dead Before Morning #1
Down Among the Dead Men #2
Death Line #3
The Hanging Tree #4
Absolute Poison #5
Dying For You #6
Bad Blood #7
Love Lies Bleeding #8
Blood on the Bones #9
A Thrust to the Vitals #10
Death Dues #11
All the Lonely People #12
Death Dance #13
Deadly Reunion #14
Kith and Kill #15
Asking For It #16
The Spanish Connection #17
Casey and Catt Police Procedural Series
Up in Flames #1
A Killing Karma #2
Reluctant Queen: Historical Novel About the Little Sister of King Henry VIII
The Egg Factory: Medical Suspense Set in the Infertility Industry
Land of Dreams: Romance
WRITTEN AS MARIA MEREDITH
The Wishing Fountain
Strangers on the Shore
How to Format a Novel for Amazon’s Kindle
How Not to Pick a Loser – Dating Advice for the Second Time Around (New Age #1)
Writing Woes: How to Avoid Them and Get it Right Next Time (New Age #2)
Various, mostly about Writing, Historical Biography of People and Places and New Age. Published, variously, in The Lady, Writers’ Monthly (now defunct), and assorted county magazines.
I haven’t written articles for a long time now. I simply don’t have the time. But I’m afraid my advice about ‘How to Do It’, is much the same as anybody else’s: Study the publication, recent past editions, preferred structure (sentence length, para-length, simple words or more intellectual, etc).
Yes, I know, it seems an awful palaver, for something which mostly earns you not a lot. Maybe you’d be better off putting all that effort, all that research, into constructing a series of novels and self-publishing. But, be warned, there’s far more competition in that game now than when I started in 2010. Don’t expect to earn your fortune, and the goal-posts seem to change with the wind.
But if you prefer to have control of what may turn out to be your life’s work, and are prepared to build an audience gradually, the life of an indie may suit you better than handing your rights in the works to a publisher. Let’s face it – books published digitally never ‘go out of print’. ‘Nuff said?