On Thursday 1 June we were very pleased to welcome award-winning crime novelist Stephen Booth who gave an enlightening talk to a packed room in Newark library.
He began by talking about his background and although he has now been a professional writer for 16 years he admitted to starting very young, writing his first ‘novel’ aged 12. He became a newspaper journalist working for local papers such as the Worksop Guardian which gave him a good understanding of deadlines and editing. The role also meant that he had to turn his hand to anything: crime, court reporting, interviews, profiles and even TV reviews (without actually owning a television). His journalistic background provided him not only with writing skills but also a huge list of contacts in all walks of life, which he acknowledged is his greatest asset.
Stephen knew the crime genre but wanted to do something different and so, towards the end of the 1990s, began to create two young detective constables (rather than the grizzled veteran DCIs so often portrayed in other books and TV programmes) and set in the Derbyshire Peaks. At the time, rural locations were seen as ‘cosy’ whilst the dark, gritty stuff was in the cities. With Stephen’s first book, Black Dog, that all changed.
He went on to tell how his book was picked up by publishers and, thanks to a determined and wily agent, managed to secure a two book contract (even though he hadn’t really considered a sequel; a hasty bit of outlining one evening seemed to do the trick).
After a pause for refreshments Stephen took questions from the audience, the first of which was whether he knew how the story was going to end before he started. “No!” was his emphatic reply. The characters drive his story and for much of the time he’s not at all sure where it’s heading; he finds out what’s happening at the same time as the detectives. He tends to write with a non-linear approach so that many sections are developed and then assembled from the individual pieces into a bigger picture, adding key information at relevant points.
“Does the idea for the story begin with a body?” was another question. Not necessarily, apparently, because stories and characters are everywhere – and where they connect is the basis for a story. Other topics covered in the Q&A session included: word counts (“as long as the story needs to be” – Stephen’s biggest book was around 150k words but recent novels have been around 90k); titles (“never have one at the start, a phrase usually leaps out towards the end”); a possible TV adaptation (“dragged on for ages, may happen, may not”); the worries of inserting clues at the right pace (“rely on structural editing and the cleaning up process goes on for months”); favourite crime writers (“mostly female authors such as Ruth Rendell and PD James because they concentrate on character, but also in the US Michael Connelly”); any clichés to avoid (“prefer to use clichés but subverted from their original form”); and the presence/absence of real elements of policing (“a balancing act between authenticity and readability”).
Some attendees had brought along their Cooper & Fry books and Stephen kindly signed them, as well as selling a few copies of his sixteen novels. It was a very enjoyable evening and as Jackie brought the meeting to a close Stephen was thanked with warm applause. There was also some interest in the Fosseway Writers’ summer social and the launch of the Fiction Competition – more on this soon!