Saturday, 20 April 2013


If book three turns out to be particularly popular, it will be largely down to today. The core of the novel currently lurking on Amazon's pre-order catalogue as "Untitled McNeill 3" has been in my head for a long time - years, in fact. And yet, excited as I was about it, I had felt that something was missing. I was pleased with the premise, and the characters, and the setting. There was a nice twist, part-way though...

...but today, chatting with Anna in an Exeter cafe, I finally saw the real twist. It was a wonderful feeling - a little like finding the £10 note you thought you'd lost, and discovering it's actually a £20.

Now all I have to do is knuckle down and write the rest of the book. Oh, and think of a title that's better than "Untitled McNeill 3".

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Writing On Location

Okay. I admit it's an odd place to find someone typing. I probably cut a somewhat puzzling figure, hunched over my laptop, while perching on the sea wall in the shadow of the Second Severn Crossing suspension bridge. Some authors have a study, or a favourite room where they do their best work (and battle the temptations of Twitter) but more and more I've found myself drawn to the places where my next scene is unfolding. For some reason, writing "on location" really works for me.

The idea came years ago, at a seminar on screenwriting. The speaker, a wonderfully forthright man, caught our attention with an intriguing statement.
"There's no such thing as writer's block," he warned us. "Just a lack of research."
The solution he illustrated went something like this. Let's say you're writing a chapter where your character needs to leave their apartment and walk to a hotel somewhere else in the city. If you find yourself unable to summon up the atmosphere and the sense of place, what can you do? Go and experience it! Walk the route. Put yourself in the character's position and get a sense of how they'd feel.

That advice stayed with me. Plotting the first murder in "Eye Contact", I had a fairly clear sequence of events in mind. But when the time came to actually write it, there were sections where I found myself staring blankly at the screen. I knew what was going to happen in general terms, but I wasn't sure what the next sentence should be.

So I took my laptop and went to Bristol. I went where my characters went, following in their footsteps, picturing them in each setting, until I ended up on the beautifully bleak shoreline of Severn Beach. I'd been typing up rough sections and notes every step of the way – now the challenge wasn't a lack of inspiration, it was almost a struggle to capture the torrent of thoughts.

I'd expected this process to help me with scene-setting, or creating atmosphere, but it did much more than that. Being where my characters were gave me a powerful sense of empathy with them. Suddenly, the story felt terribly real – as though I was researching and recording events which had actually happened.

From then on, I made a point of visiting all the key locations in the book – the old canal towpath in Oxford, the lobby of a Mayfair hotel, a busy Starbucks at Canary Wharf, or a lonely park bench in Winchester. Sometimes it would be a fleeting visit to refresh my memory and take some notes, on other occasions (weather permitting) I'd sit and type for hours. It was always rewarding, and often surprising, as the story shifted and unfolded into its natural setting.

So, the next time you see someone bent over their laptop in an odd location, take a good look around. You might be standing in a future crime scene!

(this piece first appeared on the Kindle Post blog)