CRIME AUTHORS SPILL THEIR GUTS ABOUT WRITING...
This week: David Videcette
Tell us about yourself.
I’m a former Scotland Yard investigator in the Metropolitan Police with specialisms in terrorism and organised crime. During a twenty year career I’ve searched thousands of properties, interviewed hundreds of witnesses and chased numerous dangerous criminals. Today I use all of that knowledge in my writing, as the author of a series of detective thrillers starring DI Jake Flannagan.
‘The Theseus Paradox’ is the first novel in the series and is based around the five years of my life which I spent investigating the 7/7 London bombings as a detective with the Anti-Terrorist Branch. ‘I can’t tell you the truth, but I can tell you a story…’
I live in London and have two children. When I’m not writing or doing ‘dad stuff’, I consult on security operations for high-net-worth individuals and can also be found commentating on crime, terrorism and policing for various broadcasters and newspapers.
How do you go about plotting your books?
I use real events as the baseline for my stories, so the plot is largely already planned out for me. This is both an advantage and a hindrance all at once – obviously I don’t spend too much time thinking about the plot, but trying to get a ‘story’ to nestle in between the facts can be extremely difficult.
Most of the planning takes place in my head but sometimes I do use ‘mind maps’ on paper to help me visualise things better.
I am a big fan of detailed character biographies. I want to understand who my characters are, what motivates them, and why they act the way they do. We are all products of nurture and nature - our parents and the environment we grew up in. My characters’ biographies go into great detail, often back to a character’s grandparents. This really helps when you run into a problem in the story with one person or another– a detailed biography will undoubtedly give you a motive, a desire or a solution.
How long does your first draft take you?
It takes me six to eight months to write the raw material, which can then be distilled down into a novel. The first draft is only part of the job. It’s then passed to my editor who works on it alongside me for at least two months. I will have to rewrite some parts of the story that she doesn’t like or don’t work, then we will go to a second or third draft. Then there’s the work of beta readers, proof readers and the typesetter to polish it into a finished product. A professional book involves the work of much more than the author. It’s all about the unsung heroes in the background who stand behind its success.
Research: do you find it fascinating or laborious? How do you go about your research?
My background is as a police detective. One of the things I loved about my time withthe Met was all the research that I had to employ in an investigation to work things out. Solving crimes is all about good groundwork, fact-finding and analysis. It’s something I love doing. Secrets are everywhere for us to find. The amount of information you can uncover by interviewing people, visiting places, or even just atthe touch of a few buttons is truly astounding. Social media and the internet are now an absolute gold mine for book research; I use them extensively.
Has your writing style developed over time? And the way you approach writing?
I used to write very long, detailed, reports in my role for the police. These would be read by all sorts of people from the intelligence services through to prosecutors and court judges. These were obviously factual or intelligence assessment based pieces. What that taught me was that all writing, regardless, must have a beginning, middle and end, for people to understand what you’re trying telling them. It sounds really obvious, but I often see written work that seems to forget this.
Over the past five years, I’ve adapted my writing and tested the water for different audiences by writing blogs, comment pieces and articles for the press. Some have been light hearted, some serious and others factual. This has given me a good feel for a variety of subject matter and an idea of what audiences like and don’t like.
When I first sat down and talked about my debut thriller with agents and publishers, I was surprised by how differently they viewed potential readers. They told me that mytarget audience wouldn’t like some of the things in my book because middle-agedwomen didn’t agree with things like sex, drinking and raucous behaviour – a statement which I found pretty patronising to women to be honest, and I wondered how many of those fifteen thousand female readers of my blogs would agree?
What's the best writing tip you've ever been given, and how has it influenced you?
Crime writer extraordinaire, Val McDermid, once said to me: ‘If you want to get to your second draft, you have to read your first aloud’. I think that’s great advice. Reading it aloud really brings it to life. You can spot massive wonky bits in the prose that need tightening up.
My editor has also been a huge influence on my writing, I can’t thank her enough. She loves saying ‘show, don’t tell’ - ‘Don’t tell your audience that two characters hate each other and that one is professionally incompetent, anyone can do that…’
Instead, show the reader how one had a dalliance with the other one’s wife in the middle of the night on the playing fields. Show the reader how one wrecked a crime scene by moving the murder weapon from its resting place. Show your readers what happened using practical, visual examples and let them make their own minds up about those characters.
Who or what are your writing influences?
Much of modern crime fiction (novels, television and films) shows the story from several different angles or voices. Real life isn’t like that. We only ever see things from one angle and hear one voice in our head – our own. Having worked as investigator, I know that we only get to see what we get to see - we don’t have the luxury of looking over the suspect’s shoulder as he or she is committing the crime like we do in the movies. Given my background, it would be an easy form of storytelling for me to do that. It would feel to me like cheating if I could see what the criminal sees! It doesn’t happen in real life, so why does it happen in fiction? As a detective, I can only tell you what I see, when I see it – and the reader will uncover the clues to the case as we go along - exactly as I did in real life.
The TV drama ‘The Bill’ was a huge influence on me and my writing. I worked as a sometime advisor on the show. One of the key things they insisted upon whilst I worked with them was that they only ever told the story from the police perspective. At that point in the history of the show, you never saw the crime being committed unless the police could see it. I’ve carried this on in my books. The reader only sees what my character can see, you don’t get any additional scenes, voices or discoveries unless the detective gets them too, just like it would be in a real life case.
How much do your own life experiences appear in your writing?
I spent twenty years in the police, half of it investigating organised crime and terrorism. I am lucky enough to have worked on some of the largest and most infamous cases of the last decade. It gives me a fairly unique view of the police, intelligence services and governments. I use all this experience when I’m writing. There’s also a lot of me in an emotional sense in my writing. I am a firm believer of ‘know what you write’ - so you won’t find me trying to write a book about a one-legged female pirate with a parrot allergy and a fluency in ancient Cornish!
Do you ever surprise yourself with what you have written?
Ex-colleagues are always telling me how surprised they are by how much I remember about the detail of cases. People who I worked alongside will say stuff like, “Blimey, there’s a lot of content in there that I’d forgotten about - I can’t believe how much detail you can recall!”
Sometimes, by filling those blank pages, it can also give me the key to what mood I’m in or what is going on in my subconscious. When I realise that I’ve just written ten pages of an argument without pausing for breath, I know that it’s probably time to make peace with someone or something in real life! It’s surprising how writing can make you connect with how you are really feeling.
What scene in your latest book did you most enjoy writing, and why?
I’ve just written a scene showing how two characters are at loggerheads. It really made me laugh when I wrote it and I’m still laughing as I read it back. Humour plays a really important part in life and I think it’s important to show this in my writing in the appropriate places, to illustrate both the camaraderie and the battles between police officers.
Describe your current work in progress in five words...
Knockout take on huge case!
The Theseus Paradox
David’s debut thriller, The Theseus Paradox, set against the backdrop of the 7/7 London bombings, was chosen as one of the top ten books of the year by five independent review websites. It became a number one bestseller in its Amazon category within a month of launch and the truth behind the fiction has since been investigated by The Sunday Telegraph, The Mirror, The Sun, Sky and ITV News.