Crime authors spill their guts about writing...
This week: Trevor Wood
Tell us about yourself...
I’m a very late starter to this novel writing lark – I’m 61 and when my debut novel, The Man on the Street, has just been published. It’s about a homeless veteran who sees a murder but no-one believes him, and is set in my home city, Newcastle. I’ve lived there for almost 30 years and consider myself an adopted Geordie, though I still can’t speak the language. In previous incarnations I’ve been a successful playwright and have also worked as a journalist and spin-doctor for the City Council. Prior to that I was in the Royal Navy for 16 years joining, presciently, as a Writer. I’m a huge music fan, still dragging my ageing limbs to Glastonbury most years, and to get out of the house once a week I’m a volunteer cook at the People’s Kitchen, which feeds hot meals to over one hundred homeless people six days a week.
How do you pick character names? Do any have special meaning to you?
The protagonist in The Man on the Street is called ‘Jimmy’ and is named after a couple of people who came up in my research for the book. The first was a well-known face in the city, a homeless man who was regularly seen around town, often riding on the Metro. Sadly, he died a few years ago, but he was such a character that his story resonated with me.
The other ‘Jimmy’ was the writer of a book called ‘The Veterans’ Survival Guide’ which is a raw, disturbing and profound warts-and-all biography written by a former soldier called Jimmy Johnson. After enduring two tours of Northern Ireland, in which he saw some horrific things, Johnson ended up with terrible PTSD which saw him spiral downwards, ultimately committing murder twice. I’d commend the book to anyone interested in the subject.
Bizarrely, I then chose to call Jimmy’s wife Bev, completely failing to join the dots until it was too late when I suddenly realized that my sister-in-law and her husband are also Bev and Jim.
Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you tackle it?
I wouldn’t exactly call it writer’s block but because I’m not a plotter, preferring to see where the characters take me, I occasionally have a what the hell happens next? moment. When that happens I go jogging, which always helps – I usually return with half-a-dozen ideas, not all as good as they seemed at the time but there’s always one or two that move things on. And it’s a win-win because thinking about the plot helps me forget how much I dislike jogging. It’s also a necessary habit to have when you spend most of your time sitting on your arse at a desk with a very handy fridge just down the stairs
Research: do you find it fascinating or laborious? How do you conduct your research?
I don’t do a lot during the writing process, preferring to get words down on a page rather than continually stopping to look something up, but do like to do a fair bit of background before I start and some more once I’ve got a decent first draft. Because The Man on the Street was very much set in the real world, right in the heart of Newcastle, I spent a lot of time walking around taking photographs of places that I wanted to use. It’s amazing what the camera reveals that you haven’t noticed with the naked eye.
How easy/hard was it to get your first break?
I don’t know anyone who’s found it easy. It generally takes a lot of patience, perseverance and a great deal of resilience. I have a ton of rejection emails from both agents and publishers. The first agent I managed to get was a very bad fit for me as well – I never actually met him face to face despite several attempts to do so, he was always ‘busy.’ It was no surprise when he failed to sell the book (not The Man on the Street I hasten to add) and then offered to publish it himself. I politely declined and gave him the required notice. It proved to be the best thing I could have done. My real break, I think, was in getting a place on the inaugural Crime Writing MA at UEA. It not only improved my writing ten-fold but gave me a much greater understanding of the industry and marginally easier access to agents and editors and ultimately led to me being represented by the outstanding Oli Munson at AM Heath who is everything my first agent wasn’t.
How has your writing style developed over time? And the way that you approach writing?
I’ve co-written around a dozen plays, mostly comedic in tone, so when I first sat down to write a crime novel I stuck to what I knew I could do. I was confident that I could write dialogue so I wrote in first person, which is basically a very long monologue. I kept it light and humorous - and no one wanted it. Comic crime is not currently in vogue, unless you’re the ridiculously talented Mick Herron. When I started the MA at UEA I decided not to waste the opportunity and took a huge step outside my comfort zone by ditching all of the above and starting from scratch, aiming for something darker and perhaps more honest. The course forced me to examine and justify every decision. Which perspective would work best to tell the story? What about voice? Would your character really use ten-dollar words or are you just showing off? Past tense or present? What structure are you going to use? When and where was it going to be set? Why there and then? I could go on but I think you get the picture. If you can answer all those questions then you’re well on the way to producing a coherent novel.
What is the best writing tip you have ever been given? How has it influenced you?
There are so many, I’ll try and stick to three of them, two of which work well together. Despite setting my book in the homeless community and wanting very much to capture the reality of that environment I also wanted to write a fast-paced book that would keep readers turning the pages. My two favourite tips combined have, I hope, helped me achieve that. The first is from the genius screenwriter William Goldman, which is normally described as ‘Enter late, leave early.’ I like to come straight into a scene/chapter without a lot of pre-amble, sometimes half-way through a conversation rather than having someone knock on a door, enter a building etc. Then, once it’s done its job, I finish the chapter at its most interesting point and then get out. This approach combines well with Elmore Leonard’s famous advice to ‘leave out the bits readers tend to skip.’ For me that’s pages of description – I like to keep my description short and sharp, certainly no more than a paragraph.
Finally, the most succinct advice on how to shape a story I’ve ever heard is ‘put your character up a tree and throw rocks at them.’ I’ve seen it attributed to Nabokov but suspect that’s tosh – whoever really said it deserves a pat on the back though, it’s perfect.
What/who are your writing influences? Has this changed as your career has developed?
My first attempt at a comic crime novel was definitely influenced by the things I liked to read at the time, Colin Bateman, early Chris Brookmyre and Carl Hiassen to name a few. When I began writing The Man on the Street I knew that I needed a complete change to write from the perspective of Jimmy, a deeply-damaged, PTSD-suffering, homeless veteran. His voice had to be less coherent, his thoughts more fractured. So I immersed myself in two writers that couldn’t have been any more different to my earlier influences: James Ellroy and David Peace. I wasn’t trying to copy what they do, not sure I could if I wanted to, but I think that reading them was almost like getting permission to try something a little different.
What book do you wish you had written?
As a big music fan I wish I’d come up with the idea for Daisy Jones and the Six but not sure I could have carried that off so I’ll opt for one of my favourite reads of recent times: The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh. It’s a brilliant high-concept, slightly futuristic crime novel set in a gated community populated entirely by people who are living under assumed identities as part of a witness protection scheme. The twist is that they’ve had their memories wiped so don’t know whether they were innocent witnesses or criminals themselves. Which isn’t a problem until bodies start appearing. One of the many creative touches I loved is that they’ve all had to choose new names, combining Hollywood stars and Presidents so you get characters like Spiro Mitchum and Marilyn Roosevelt, which as a way of choosing character names, is about as much fun as it gets.
Do you ever surprise yourself with what you’ve written?
All the time. The joy of not being a plotter is that you never quite know where your story is going or what will happen from moment to moment. I love the moment when your character does something completely unexpected. It sometimes means you have to rethink some earlier element of the plot but I think it’s a price worth paying. My entirely personal theory is that if I don’t know what’s going to happen next it will be very hard for any readers to guess it. I’m entirely with Lee Child on this: he says that once he knows what the story is he wants to move on to another story so if he planned out what was going to happen he wouldn’t really see the need to write it.