I want to write my first crime novel but how and where to start?

I was asked this question by someone recently and I gave them an honest answer.

‘I’ve no idea,’ I replied.

I got quite a puzzled look when I said this as I had just told the person who had asked the question that I had published twelve crime books so far. I had to explain further. What I meant by this was that, if there was a right or easy way to write your first book, I certainly hadn’t found it. If my journey in writing could be compared to a drive say, from New York City to Washington DC, some two hundred miles or more, then my journey would have taken in Washington State some three thousand miles away. Nothing about the route I took towards publishing my first book, The Body in the Boot, was straightforward. Let me explain…

My first serious attempt at crime writing came about because of my pain issues. I was working at the BBC at the time, trying to mine data from thousands of audience responses to their online Radio and Music surveys. For someone with long-term pain issues this work was perfect. I could dive into the data and lose myself for hours at a time, however, when I started seeing little rectangular Excel boxes everywhere I looked, I realised that I was probably putting in too many hours. So, I tried writing at the weekends instead.

My first attempt at a crime novel was based on my own experience of having worked for real-life gangsters in Birmingham when I was young musician in the late seventies. When our band’s truck broke down, we decided that a residency would be good as it would allow us to build up some savings for a new one. However, while getting into a residency for this particular gangster was easy, leaving it was not. When we eventually got the nerve up to ask if we could leave, he just gave us a look. Knowing what this person was capable of, I must admit that I came very close to wetting myself. We then hastily assured him that the band would be staying for as long as he wanted. We never asked again. However, the club we worked at wasn’t that bad and it always had some interesting people around.

My detective was based on someone I knew, a taxi driver. The world he lived in was the demi-monde of murky late-night pubs and clubs full of people who lived on the fringes of society. I attempted to write a cynical hard-boiled novel that might read like a latter-day Hammett or Chandler. I wasn’t happy with it though and so I asked my wife to read it. She did and, afterwards, she gave me a look of utter exasperation and simply said, ‘This just isn’t you.’

She was right, it wasn’t. Every word had chafed. I had to admit to myself that it just didn’t feel right, it was like wearing someone else’s clothes. So, I gave up. That was until one day I noticed that there was a new book in our bookcase. It was called ‘One Step Behind’ and it was by Henning Mankell. I read and enjoyed it immensely. There was something deceptively easy about his writing that allowed the reader to be carried away by the story. I then started watching the excellent Wallander series (the Swedish one with Krister Henriksson) and noticed that the little town of Ystad seemed to be a hotbed of crime. In truth though, Ystad has quite a low crime rate and, in a documentary I saw not long afterwards, someone said that they hadn’t had a murder there for years. Mankell had used Ystad as a backdrop to the mayhem that went on in his books because he liked the town and because he could.

This got me thinking. I live in a relatively quiet town and an unusual one at that. Letchworth is the world’s first Garden City and it has a unique style of architecture to go with it. So, why not set a crime thriller there? I really liked this idea but I soon ran up against a brick wall. Who would my main character be?

After much thought a character from my early attempts came into focus. Young Dennis ‘Mac’ Maguire was a policeman and a lifelong friend of my taxi driver detective. Of course, setting the book in the present day would mean that Mac would be in his fifties and I would have thirty years or so of his life to account for. However, this turned out to be quite fun. I decided early on that, as there are so few disabled characters in books, Mac would be saddled with my pain issues. Other than that, I only knew that he would eventually end up in Letchworth. So, what had happened to Mac in the meantime?

Small Heath, Birmingham back in the day

Mac grew up in the back streets of Birmingham, as I did, and, while one of his two friends became a taxi driver and the other a career criminal, Mac had always wanted to be a policeman. As a young and wet-behind-the-ears detective, he had been recruited by a mysterious Detective Inspector, Rob Graveley, who had been sent from London to clean up the rampant corruption going on in the police service including those at the very top. As a team they scammed one of the city’s most vicious gang leaders and this got them all the information they needed to prosecute Mac’s corrupt colleagues. However, this didn’t make him very popular and, for his own sake, he was literally sent to Coventry and there he experienced one of the low points of his life. After some months he finally received a call from Rob Graveley and an invitation to join his new murder squad in London. Rob didn’t have to ask Mac twice.

Mac, of course, doesn’t look back and he becomes moderately famous as someone who can solve the most perplexing crimes. So far, so good. I then had to somehow place him in Letchworth. This is where his wife, Nora, comes into the picture. She hated living in London and so, in looking for somewhere affordable to live, they stumbled across Letchworth on one of their Sunday drives and she fell in love with the town. Mac then commutes into London for his work as I myself did for many years.

Letchworth cottages

The first book opens up with Mac trying to find his way out of a deep dark hole. He has lost his wife and, being no longer able to cope with his longstanding pain issues, he is forced to retire from the police force too. However, I didn’t want my main character to be too dark as I think that the trope of the lone rebellious policeman who has problems with authority and everything else has been vastly overdone. Although Mac starts from a dark place, hopefully the subsequent books show him coming to some sort of terms with his grief and his disability.

Again, so far, so good. I now had my main character but there was just one thing missing – a plot.

As anyone who has ever read a crime novel knows the plot isn’t just important, it’s everything. I once again got my wife to read my first attempt and I got that look again. ‘That’s been done to death,’ she said. And she was once again right. It was all I had though and, at this point, I really felt like giving up. I searched the internet for writing tips that might help and the one that resonated with me was around not giving up on a book but leaving it to ‘marinate’ for a time. So, I took a break from it and tried something else. The ‘something else’ turned out to be my first book The Body in the Boot. After marinating for a couple of years and with a somewhat different plotline, the original book turned into my fourth novel The Blackness. It seems that the advice had been right.

So, I had my first book written but, even then, it was hardly plain sailing. I had the good sense to let my wife and some trusted friends read the book before publishing and I was so glad that I did. Plot holes, typos, implausible situations and even incorrect chapter numbers, they were all there. This showed to me the value of having your book read by readers who aren’t afraid to criticise your work. There then followed several rewrites until finally I could do no more and it was published.

This, however, was not quite the end. I won’t go into the labyrinthine and quite painful process that was self-publishing on Amazon seven years or so ago (they have improved it vastly since then) but the rewrites weren’t quite over. I must have learned something while writing my second and third books because, when I had a look again at my first, I did a complete re-edit. However, although I’ve hopefully now learned even more, I won’t be editing it again. It is what it is, warts and all.

Anyway, I hope that the above has given you some idea of my meandering journey in writing and I sincerely hope that you find an easier road. However, whatever route you take, patience, persistence and listening to others will all help to smooth your way.

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