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My first foray into writing fiction came about when I wrote the novelisation of E.T. the extra-terrestrial. Admittedly it wasn’t the licensed novelisation, but I was five years old, had an exercise book with a picture of E.T. on the cover, a yellow crayon and boundless enthusiasm. My poor mother, trying to get a bit of a lie-in, was loathe to discourage my creativity (she was after all a primary school teacher) nevertheless after my tenth trip into her room for help with a tricky spelling she finally pointed out that I wasn’t allowed to write E.T. because somebody else had already written it. I was gutted.
Fast forward a few years and I always had an exercise book full of scribblings on the go. Mercifully these are mostly lost to history, although I wouldn’t put it past Mum to turn up to my launch event with a recently rediscovered masterpiece, complete with badly drawn cover illustration from my early years. Most of these stories were similarly plagiaristic. One that I am particularly proud of involved a time-travelling car driven by a detective. The car had a computer that spoke and could drive it. Bearing in mind that I’m a child of the 1980's, you can probably guess my influences. That particular story illustrates a life-long problem for me – the word-limit. A school exercise book has forty pages. By page thirty six I was deep into the story but running out of space. In retrospect the lavish two-page illustration of this wondrous car driving underwater surrounded by sharks and fishes (don’t ask) was probably a mistake. I wrapped up the story in record time, completing my tale by sticking a piece of paper to the inside cover and drawing lines on it so I could fit in what I wanted to say.
This fight against the word-limit has characterised my entire writing life. In the early days I just ignored it. ‘Write a four page story on the following subject’, my primary school teacher would say, before receiving my fifteen page masterpiece the following day. Twenty years on I offer my heartfelt apologies, one professional to another – nothing hurts more than the smile a teacher forces themselves to make when an enthusiastic student single-handedly doubles that night’s marking pile.
Over the subsequent years I made numerous stabs at writing a novel, but I suppose my first serious attempt was during NanoWriMo 2005. I was at a professional low-point, working as a receptionist in a sports-centre in Manchester, whilst desperately trying to find a new research position. I knew from the outset that I was never going to reach the target goal of a 50,000 word novella written entirely in November. Nevertheless, I dived in and wrote 30,000 words or thereabouts, breaking the back of a science fiction story. With the basic idea sorted I slowly picked away at it over the next few years. By now, however, it was turning into a very different novel.
I had always intended it to be composed of many different overlapping threads, one of which involved a criminal investigation. Pretty soon that one thread was starting to dominate and I realised that what I really wanted to do was write a detective novel. The question was, how? I had a long list of potential stories sitting in a file on my computer’s hard-disk. Most of them were little more than a single line or an idea. Two ideas in particular suddenly came together. One concerning a motivation, another an alibi.
The next problem was my detective. For years I had shied away from writing a police procedural precisely because I was worried about my central character. Crime fiction is bursting with larger than life detectives, each with their own quirks, flaws and idiosyncrasies. Some of these flaws are so well-used that they have become clichéd. I wanted my detective to be original and I wracked my brains for an idea that would set them apart. The problem was that all of the ideas I had were either taken and being brilliantly written by wondrously talented writers or were just ludicrously outlandish. I was seriously contemplating a one-legged detective with an eye patch when I realised that I was trying too hard.
‘Write what you know’ my writing tutor Danielle constantly exhorts her students, and so DCI Warren Jones was born. Warren and I are roughly the same age (he’s a little older), we were both brought up in Coventry, we both have an embarrassing music collection and we are both fussy eaters.
Now, almost three years and three novels later I can’t imagine life without Warren. I feel as though he’s a living human being and I constantly find myself asking ‘What would Warren do?’
And what about that sci-fi novel? It’s still there, gathering electronic dust in the darkest recesses of my hard-drive. I had a look at it the other day and it isn’t as bad as I had feared. You never know…
Join a writing circle. That critical feedback from friends who know what it is like to struggle with a blank page or a stubborn sentence can be invaluable.