Crime authors spill their guts about writing...
This week: Harry Bingham
Tell us about yourself.
I’m a uniquely handsome forty-something (passes for mid-thirties). I’ve competed for Great Britain in archery, water polo, and triathlon. I’m technically a full-time writer, except that I do a little part-time work as an assassin-come-dirty-ops-guy for a variety of Middle Eastern intelligence services. I once took Anatoly Karpov, the Russian chess genius, to within three moves of –
(huh? What’s that? You want a truthful answer? Oh.)
So: I’m late-forties (passes for late-forties). I’m useless at archery, water polo, chess and triathlon. I don’t do nearly as much assassination work these days. I write a series of crime novels which feature Fiona Griffiths who, according to the Sunday Times, is ‘the most startling protagonist in modern crime fiction.’
I also run a couple of writing-related businesses that are there to help new writers. The Writers’ Workshop offers creative writing courses and a variety of editorial services to help new writers get their manuscripts into shape. Agent Hunter helps writers find UK literary agents for their work.
Mostly though, I just love writing and try to get as much writing time as I can. It’s not a profession; it’s a vocation. My most recent book, The Dead House, has been selected as an Amazon Deal of the Week and mighty chuffed I am with that news too.
How do you go about plotting your books?
Bits of paper? Spreadsheets? Mind-maps? Whiteboards? Post-it notes? No nothing like that. I don’t even – usually – write notes on my laptop first.
But that doesn’t mean I just push off into the unknown without any kind of map. I generally want to know
(a) something about my very first corpse. All my novels are murder mysteries, so I reckon I always need to deliver a high quality corpse reasonably early in the book.
(b) Something about the crime at the heart of things. I enjoy quite strange, convoluted crimes that allow me to set up a really intriguing and unexpected mystery, but figuring out new variations on that theme can be quite hard work.
(c) And finally, I want to know something about the book’s denouement. As far as possible, I want to avoid the old clichés about “lone female detective enters suspicious premises late at night and without police knowledge only to find crazy serial killer present”. I mean, it’s quite hard not to retread some quite familiar
ground when you’re writing police procedurals, but I do want to keep things as fresh as I possibly, possibly can.
My latest book – The Dead House – starts off with a corpse found in a country churchyard. (No signs of violence, but why is she here? And why does no one claim her? And why is she wearing a thin white dress on this wild October night?) I can’t tell you much about the crime, because I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I will say that the denouement to this book will be unlike almost anything you’ve ever read. It’s that strange, but that darkly plausible too...
How long does first draft take you?
About six months, maybe even a tad more. That’s not particularly fast, but I do edit as I go – and take quite a lot of care with my language – so that my first draft is not horrible, by any means. I also really enjoy the creation process, which not all writers do. Some writers hurtle through the first draft process (because they hate it), then edit at leisure (because they love it.) But it just goes to show, really. Every writer is different and the only ‘right’ way to write is the one that works for you.
Where do you most like to do your writing?
In the garden, definitely. It’s too cold November-February, but even in March, if the day is dry and not too freezing, I’ll just wrap up in about a million layers and sit outside with my laptop. I’m here right now. Two babies just babbling themselves off to sleep for their afternoon nap, a dog snoozing at my feet, cricket on the radio, a blog post to write, then a bit of gentle editing of my most recent manuscript.
This isn’t a job, really, it’s a hobby that happens to earn my living. I love it.
How easy/hard was it to get your first break?
What's the best writing tip you've ever been given? How has it influenced you?
Do you know what? I hate writing tips. I think they’re so often just a load of rubbish. Elmore Leonard once said, ‘Never start a book with the weather,’ so I once opened a book with the one word paragraph, ‘Rain,’ then sent that book to my editor telling him I’d broken six of Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing and I’d broken the first rule with my first word.
For me, the only piece of advice that makes reliable sense is to be utterly perfectionist about what you do. Every word. Every sentence. Every plot idea. Everything. If it ain’t right, discard it. That attitude underlies the success of almost every author you care to think of.
What book do you wish you had written?
It was fairly easy for me. I gave up work – this was back in the late 90s – to care for my wife who had fallen ill. (It’s a long term condition, but she’s a lot better with it now than she was.) While I was stuck at home, I wrote my first novel. I was brutally perfectionist about getting it right, but once I was happy I found an agent fairly easily and we went straight out to market, no messing. We had multiple publishers bidding for the book and it became a bestseller.
I do really admire both Tana French and Gillian Flynn as contemporary crime authors. So classy, but so calm in their classiness – no ‘look at me’ about them at all. But if I had to pick a single book, I’d possibly pick Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. Wickedly good.
How much do your own life experiences appear in your writing?
Not much really. My fictional world is pretty damn fictional, and I’ve got no police background at all. That said, I did spend huge chunks of my childhood in mid-Wales and that landscape jumps into my fiction all the time. I don’t really like those city centre deserted warehouse type denouements, so at the close of all my books, Fiona finds herself a long way out of her Cardiff patch and in the wilds of the Welsh coasts and hills.
What scene in your latest book did you most enjoy writing? And why?
Oh, that’s easy. There’s a scene in a monastery at the close of the book. I can’t tell you much about it, because I don’t want to give away any plot spoilers. But it’s very calm, very peaceful . . . and one of the scariest things I’ve ever written.
Which book or character are you most proud of creating, and why?
I’ve written a lot of books – a dozen novels, a good handful of non-fiction works as well – but the character that I’m most happy with is, by far, Fiona Griffiths, the little detective who storms through my current series. Readers who bond to her feel like she’s not just another fictional detective. It’s more like she’s a real person. She’s more than half real to me – and exciting as hell to be around!
Describe your current work in progress in five words...
Beheading. Wales. Archaeology. Relic. Fiona.