Crime authors spill their guts about writing...
This week: Joel Hames
Tell us about yourself.
I’m Joel Hames, I’m 43 years old, with a wife and two daughters, I live in rural East Lancashire, and I started writing a few years ago after a career in law and finance.
That’s the boring stuff over with.
I love reading – anything and everything. And I love writing. I studied English Lit at university, and despite working in very different fields for a long time afterwards, I always felt writing was what I was born to do. I didn’t think I’d end up writing crime, but that’s the direction my mind seems to bend in. I like looking for the hidden angle, the surprise, the message between the lines, the secret that was always there, just below the surface – which may account for my love of the cryptic crossword. My first novel was Bankers Town, a no-holds-barred semi-fictionalised account of crime and death in the City against the backdrop of the crisis of 2008. I was delighted with its reception, but went for a broader readership with my next novel, The Art of Staying Dead,
which took a down-on-his-luck human rights lawyer and plunged him into a prison riot and a political conspiracy. The novella Brexecution followed, a black comedy thriller written in eight days following the referendum in 2016, and I currently have one novel (Dead North) with my agent, another (No One Will Hear) completed, and a third in the outlining stage.
When I’m not writing I like cooking, watching TV, and burning off all that food, drink and sloth by practicing mixed martial arts.
How do you go about plotting your book?
I’m very much a planner. There are scraps of paper all over the house, audio recordings, ideas I come across in the “notes” on my phone months after I’ve finished a draft – and when I find them in time they all make it onto a handwritten one-A4-page-per-chapter outline that eventually morphs into a OneNote file. I’ve tried Scrivener, the dedicated software tool for writers, but apart from the nifty function that lets you write in green on a black background like Tron or someone hacking NASA in the eighties, it wasn’t really for me.
The outline, when it’s complete – which can take three months or more – lists every event and many of the conversations in the novel. As a result, the actual writing, when it flows, flows quickly – I wrote the draft of No One Will Hear in less than eight weeks.
Where do you most like to do your writing?
Where I have to do it and where I like to do it are two very different things. I’d like a nice quiet room with a desktop computer and a printer and a door I can shut when things are getting noisy outside or the dog is being overly affectionate, and we have that very room, but unfortunately it’s my wife’s office and I’m only allowed in when bearing cups of tea.
So instead I sit on a dining room chair with a laptop on the sideboard in the living room, and try to ignore everything else. Which is easier said than done.
Research: do you find it fascinating or laborious? How do you conduct your research?
Fascinating, I’m afraid. I get swept up in it and end up following things further than I need to for the purposes of the book. But I do think it’s important that fiction contains the ring of authenticity. If my character’s getting from Blackpool to Leeds by train, she can’t show up half an hour after she’s left. If he’s barging his way into a police interview and getting away with it, he needs to know PACE
(the Police and Criminal Evidence Act) back to front, which means I do, too. If he’s a professor of renaissance poetry, he needs to know his Sidney from his Spenser. If she’s firing a gun – well, if you get your guns wrong you might as well just shoot yourself, because there will be plenty of readers, particularly in the US, who’d do it for you. Fiction may create its own worlds, but outside the realms of fantasy, those worlds have to be grounded in reality.
I tend to do most of my research online, through official sites where possible. When that fails, I’ve found both readers, and other writers, and sometimes parents at the school gate, can offer invaluable insights that the net just can’t give me.
How has your writing style developed over time? And the way that you approach writing?
I’m far more succinct. I don’t lecture the reader. I avoid florid language unless the plot or character absolutely calls for it, something which has taken me years to achieve. I don’t use too many long sentences. I cut unnecessary paragraphs, plot developments and sometimes characters – even if I like them. As a result, my books are a little shorter than they were – around 85-90k as opposed to 100k plus – but they’re more accessible and faster-paced.
What is the best writing tip you have ever been given? How has it influenced you?
Your reader isn’t stupid, but they don’t know your characters and they don’t know everything you know about them. Provide the information they need to work out what’s going on at the right time – whether that’s providing enough back story to ensure that a novel in a series works as a standalone, or signposting the emotional journey of a character a little more clearly so that surprises actions are both plausible and authentic.
What book do you wish you had written?
There are thousands of books I wish I’d written, but I think Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News is pretty much the perfect piece of literary crime fiction, a masterpiece of a
page-turner with prose like liquid gold and some of the most wonderful characters you could hope to come across.
How much do your own life experiences appear in your writing?
Bankers Town was full of me and the work I’d done in the City. Not the fraud, I hasten to add. And definitely not the murder.
I do try to use locations I’m familiar with – Dead North is partly set in a fictional village in the very real Forest of Bowland, where I now live. But again, that’s really just about authenticity. So at the same time, I’m not averse to stepping right outside my own experience – I might have been a lawyer, but I was a very different type of lawyer to Sam Williams, and I’ve never shot anyone or been in a prison riot. As long as everything that could be real is
researched and written well enough to seem real, that’s OK. No One Will Hear has a character walking through woods in Cambridgeshire. I don’t know those woods, but I was able to track down photographs and lists of the trees native to the area. The same book has a scene on a Norfolk beach which I haven’t visited in decades, but I found some people from the area who were happy to confirm and embellish my descriptions for me. Personal experience helps, but really it’s just a shortcut to making sure everything is authentic.
What scene in your latest book did you most enjoy writing? And why?
There’s a poem in No One Will Hear. Yes, you read that right. A poem. One of the characters is a professor and a lapsed poet. I dreaded writing that, but when it came to it I sat there and it just came. Of course, it helped that I wasn’t sitting at that damned sideboard but in a quiet pub, alone, with a pint of bitter and a nice Japanese whisky. But I still liked it when I read it sober the next day, so I’m happy enough.
What’s the best and worst thing about being an author?
The best thing: positive comments – whether on Facebook, in a review or in person. That someone else read your book and likes it – it never ceases to amaze me. Someone else once described it as that feeling you get when your child makes a friend at nursery. It’s like that.
The worst thing: when you decide something doesn’t really work and you have to completely change the structure and plot of your entire novel to fix it.
Describe your current work in progress in five words.
Love, death, some light redemption.