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My dear imaginary friends

I was asked a great question by a friend and fellow writer over the weekend, and it was this -

Is it a problem if my characters keep changing the ending I'd planned for a story?

It was well-timed, as I'm currently working on characters for a new tvdetective book, and one in particular; a man who'll be so central to the novel (and fascinating, hopefully) that I want him to dominate it.

For a while now, I feel I've been guilty of the old charge levelled at we scribblers of crime fiction - that we let the plot dominate to the extent that it eclipses the characters in a book.

I've always thought this is very likely, if not inevitable, in a form of story-telling which is, by its nature, driven by the plot.  But I do also think that with some thought and work, you can get a balance which means the participants can have at least as much prominence as the storyline.

I won't go too much into my new character - writer's jealousy and secrecy, and all that! - but I'm greatly enjoying getting to know him. He's very weird, which always appeals to me, and I'm currently trying to get his backstory right, to work out exactly why that is. 

But more importantly, he's so interesting and appealing to me that he's now left me working the rest of the book around him.  Which is a first for me, and brings me back to the question that started this blog.

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Darkness in the Sunshine

On perhaps the most beautiful day of the year so far, working on the stunning Dorset coast, I found myself in the midst of darkness.

I was covering the loss of the three Weymouth and Portland fishermen, following the sinking of their boat last week.  And it was an emotional experience.

I spoke to many people who knew the men, and read the scores of tributes which had been left all along the quayside in Weymouth.  And it was impossible to come away without feeling very moved, and deeply saddened.  The men were Dorset born and raised, well-known, and very much loved.

Whilst on the quayside, I was asked by a couple who knew the men - and very kindly, I thought - about how I cope with such difficult times.  It's a very good question, and one I've often asked myself.  Dan does the same in the tvdetective books, and it's some of what he thinks that I think is the answer.

Firstly, every single one of such reports he produces, he always remembers. It's the humanity of such a sudden, unexpected, and utterly unfair loss.  Dan says it etches an indelible mark on the heart, and I'd certainly agree with that.

Secondly, such times can be highly emotionally charged, and the media may be less than welcome.  I tell myself that if it wasn't me doing the reporting, it would be someone else, and they may handle it less sensitively.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, I always try to get what I say just right - not only accurate, but well-judged and appropriate.  Thoughtless or careless words can really hurt, so I do my best to reflect the people who have been lost in the way their friends and family would wish.

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The trick to talks

I've been musing on the trick to writing and giving a talk, as I do some preparation for speaking to the Exeter University Book Group on Thursday (24th May).

It's a question I'm often asked.  And for me, there are two answers - one more complex, one very simple.

The intricate one first.  It's about the preparation.

I think you've got to get plenty of variety into a talk - some humour, a bit of seriousness, some poignancy, a few anecdotes, and also an insight into what you do and why. 

It all helps to keep the audience engaged, stop them switching off.  And that mix of textures can only come from planning the thing, and doing it well.  

I always put plenty of work in beforehand - usually for each hour of a session, there are at least two, perhaps three of preparation.  When I'm teaching writing, it's even more - often four or five hours of preparation for each one of delivery. 

The second part of the answer, the simple one, is this - it's about speaking from the heart.  If you're talking about a subject, it's because it interests you, or you have some considerable knowledge of it, or preferably both.  So, don't be afraid to let it go, the reason it appeals to you. 

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A Slow Turning Circle

I've been feeling a comparison between my mind and one of those supertankers that plough the shipping lanes of this fair planet.

Not because they carry lots with them, or anything such - no, it's because they take a darned long time to change course.

I've been trying to switch from playwright mode into novelist, with what can only be described as limited success.  After the delightful immersion in An Unnecessary Murder, I'm now getting back to trying to edit the new tvdetective book, but... here's the thing.

Every time I attempt to wax a little lyrical - describe some scenery, take a journey through a character's thoughts, or meander off on a little sub-plot, I keep finding myself wanting to write more dialogue and action.

I suspected it might take a while to get over the addiction of the theatrical world, but now it's becoming silly.  It won't leave me alone!

I can only conclude it's the old story of getting old, and it taking a while for the brain to switch modes.  I've noticed it can also happen in the day job - if I'm doing a piece of radio reporting, I have to think very hard about how to make it work, creating the pictures with words, instead of having them there to write about.

Ah well, I think it's coming, or at least hope so.  My poor publishers have been very patient, waiting for me to get over the emotions of life's storms, and then working on the play, before finally getting round to finishing the new book. 

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The teaching bug

I've been doing some work on a couple of teaching events I've got coming up in the next few months - at the Winchester Writers' Conference, and the Swanwick Writers' Summer School - and have been enjoying it greatly.

If you're joining me at either, I think I can offer you an interesting time.  I've come up with a couple of new exercises, on the dangerous but fascinating themes of secrets and surprises.  They delve into the soul of this being human / writing lark and I'm looking forward to trying them out.

It's all gone to remind me just how much I enjoy teaching.  It was the career I first thought of following, back in those far-away dusty A level days. Likewise at university, until I got beguiled by the lure of DJing and the media. (More drinking, more late nights, more girls etc.)

I suspect the interest in teaching is partly why I became a hack, too - the job is all about informing, but with some entertainment mixed in.  And I suppose that might be part of why I went on to write. Again it's all about entertaining, along with informing.  The kind readers of the tvdetective books who get in touch often say they very much enjoy the insight into the strange world of television.

It's been another part of the writing journey, the getting to know yourself thing. There's often so much going in in these busy modern lives of ours that we can neglect the most obvious area to explore - ourselves.

One of the joys of writing has been getting to know myself better - seeing the things I love and hate come out in print, and often without the input of any conscious thought.  It's curious how that happens, but certainly instructive.

And teaching has been a big part of that.  I love the opportunity to give people a fresh insight or thought about something, and the interactions with those who come along.  It always makes me think, keeps me on my toes, and I often come away having learnt as much as anyone.

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Travelling times

I've been working on ideas for a new tvdetective book, and have been tempted to take Dan and Adam out of Devon and Cornwall for an adventure for the first time.

I suppose it's part of what writers do - liking to try something different, shifting out of the comfort zone, setting yourself a new challenge.  What's life for, if not to move onwards, learn and innovate?

Much of this week has been spent working in London, and it's there I'm considering as a setting.  It's a little different from Devon, to say the least.  Many people may rave about the metropolis, but it's certainly not to my taste. Nor do I think it would be to Dan's, although the tougher and more stoic Adam would probably cope better.

The first thing I always notice about London is the noise. Endless traffic, people shouting into phones and at each other, the near-continual screaming of sirens. It's a setting which would certainly make for a stressful, highly pressured backdrop if I'm dabbling with a thriller of a plot.

Everything in London is such a hustle, whether it's for a space on the tube, or a seat in a bar or restaurant.  Nothing is simple.  I could certainly set some interesting challenges for the boys in the big city.

But then... I came home to Devon and the thoughts started to wane.  I struggle to imagine anywhere better than here to live, so why might I want to write about anywhere else?

The upshot of this blog is that I'm very glad to be home.  To be able to breathe air, rather than chew it, is a simple, often overlooked pleasure.  And to be able to hear birdsong and the trees whispering in the breeze...

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A theatrical question

I keep being asked a question, so I thought here a good place to answer it. The inquiry is this - do I intend to write another play?

My stock humourous answer is currently yes, but only when I've calmed down after An Unnecessary Murder - which probably means in about ten years or so.

I've take the question as a compliment, as nobody has added the rider "let me know so I can be sure to avoid it". Quite the contrary, I've been lifted and flattered by all the kind and warm feedback, so thanks very much to everyone who's got in touch.

Back then to the question, and the answer is yes - I would try to write another play, although not for a while. It's about time I got on with finishing another tvdetective novel first.

(And a quick aside to those of you who keep asking - yes, work on the next one is well advanced.)

My experience of the fascinating world of the stage was a great privilege on many levels. Early in the process of the shaping of An Unnecessary Murder, I realised I was learning a huge amount.  Not only about the theatrical life, but also about the arts of writing character, dialogue and action - very useful indeed for a humble novelist.

As the rehearsals proceeded, I told myself it would have all been worthwhile even if no one came along to see the thing.  But that, of course, was my safety net in case of disappointment (a basic human need, isn't it?), and I was delighted when so many people did.

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The quirks of public life

A strange thing happened to me a couple of weeks ago.  And it got me reflecting on living part of this curious life-lark in public.

It's my happy experience to report that when people want to have a chat with me, almost without exception they're very polite and charming and there's never a problem.  They just want to talk about something I've covered on the TV, or one of the tvdetective books, or more recently the play.

A quick aside here - can I say a heartfelt thank you to everyone who's taken the trouble to get in touch and tell me how much they enjoyed An Unnecessary Murder. Your words have meant a great deal, both to me and the cast and crew. 

Anyway, back to the point, and it was this public life. The most common look you get used to when you serve the penance of appearing on television is a kind of "I know you from somewhere... is it work, do you live around the corner, did I once meet you at a party" type of thing. 

But often people recognise you straight away, and will smile and nod, as is the polite way of we English, sometimes have a little chat, and occasionally a longer one.  Which is never a problem, because almost always it's done sensitively and with warmth and charm.

Do you sense a but coming here?  Indeed you may, and I use the word "but" advisedly, or perhaps butt would be more appropriate.  Because...

Occasionally I get asked to sign the odd autograph, which is all very fine, but on this occasion...

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