Readers often ask why I decided to write crime thrillers and how I came up with the character Billy Lime.
Many writers who are asked this question come up with fabulously inspirational answers.
The best answer I ever received came when I asked a female crime writer at the CrimeFest gathering of authors and readers, which is held each year in Bristol, UK.
“I kept coming up with new ways to murder my ex-husband, so eventually I decided to write crime rather than actually kill him. Every time I kill a character in my books . . . it’s him!”
That was a close escape for him.
Many authors create their characters from snatches of their own life experiences. That’s a recommended strategy in the book world – write what you know about. Patricia Cornwell’s scalpel-sharp Kay Scarpetta is a great example.
Another mega-successful author, Ian Rankin, devised his police investigator John Rebus from the influences of Edinburgh and Scotland, the nation of Rankin’s birth.
Rebus is an intensely convincing character, yet Rankin says he has very little to do with police or their procedures in terms of researching for accuracy. He writes a cracking story that avoids getting bogged down in cop-procedural minutia – a preference I favour both as a writer and reader.
So you don’t really need to write what you know about if you can tell a good story.
John Grisham is said to have a network of connections who help him with his legal thrillers. When he’s stuck on a process or wondering, ‘what would Character X do now’, he rings someone who’d have real-life experience and can provide an answer
It’s a great strategy that I have copied. In the first Billy Lime novel, AMPLIFY, I needed to find out how a passenger might crash a private jet. I asked a pilot, a friend of my brother who was based in Discovery Bay in Hong Kong and flew multi-millionaires around for his living.
Alarmingly, it was far easier than I would have ever believed possible. He also clued me up on the slack security around private jets. So, you don’t need to know what you are writing about if you are prepared to do the research.
When I was trying to work out what I might write for a debut novel, I cast aside the notion of staying with what I knew, which is mostly journalism, business, technology and marketing (it seemed too boring to tell you the truth!).
To help me decide, I walked into the biggest bookshop in my home city and studied what was on the shelves. This was my market research. I dismissed the literary novels as ambitious for a first timer. Next came the non-fiction section and biographies, neither of which appealed. Then, I wandered into Crime.
What I saw was blindingly obvious but I’d never noticed – so many books, but by comparison with other sections, fewer authors. The shelves were stacked with books by Lee Child, Martina Cole, Jeffrey Deaver, Jo Nesbo . . . the list goes on.
In most cases, these authors have hit on a formula their readers loved, and they keep repeating it.
Each of these authors built their following on core attributes of their character, and/or the environment in which they operate. Rebus’s Edinburgh or Bosch’s Los Angeles, for example, create a familiar yet alluring story texture in which readers can lose themselves in a different world.
So my challenge stared at me from the shelves: create a character, location, and story in a world in which readers escape from life’s daily hassles
Inspiration came from a book I was reading at the time, Hey You in the Black T-Shirt, the ghosted autobiography by music impresario and promoter Michael Chugg. The character Billy Lime is a massive, exaggeration of Michael, who was good humoured when I told him what I had done. Better still, he loved the book.
Not only did I discover the character here but the “location” – not a town or city but the global entertainment industry.
So, Billy Lime’s “location” is not a physical place. An added attraction of the music industry, beyond the obvious elements of glamour and cold-hearted business ethos – is the how the business has been turned on its head by the digital revolution. For me, this adds real-world light and shade to Billy’s adventures.
Another challenge at the time was to decide on the name of Billy Lime.
That's a story for another time.