Nick Tingley, whose debut novel The Bluebell Informant follows Detective Sergeant Evelyn Giles as she battles both an ingenious killer and her own personal demons to solve a fiendish case, speaks to me about writing, inspiration and why he doesn’t really believe in writer’s block.
Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime fiction and mystery writing?
There is something particularly powerful about crime fiction writing. It’s a genre that is very popular with readers and writers alike, and I think part of that is the allure of delving into the deep, dark, basic instincts of humanity and seeing what happens when people are put under extraordinary pressure. Other genres tap in to that, but I think crime fiction does it most realistically and potently.
Practically everything I have ever written – from my very first scribbling as a youngster to my debut novel, The Bluebell Informant – has had a similar approach to it. I’m fascinated by individual characters – how they evolve during the course of the events that I put them through and how they emerge on the other side. I’m not a fan of the happily-ever-after scenario – I firmly believe that if a character walks away at the end of my book unscathed then there wasn’t much point to them being in the story in the first place.
What is your background and how did you get in to writing professionally? How do you draw on your past when writing fiction?
The Bluebell Informant is my debut novel, but I’ve actually been writing professionally for some time now. I started out as most writers do: toying around with short stories and theatre and film scripts. And then, when I was still fairly young, I wrote my first novel – Such Sweet Lies – and it was absolutely awful. I still keep a copy of the manuscript so I can remind myself how terrible it was when I feel like I’m struggling.
I continued playing round with scripts and stories – film screenplays in particular – before I finally got back into writing novels and started working as a ghost writer for other crime fiction authors who, for one reason or another, needed someone else to pen their novels. I think that was the point where I really honed my skills. The more people started tracking me down to hire me for my services, the more convinced I became that I should be releasing work in my own right. So here we are – it’s still early days, but it’s looking promising.
As for the question of drawing from my own past, that’s something I like to steer very clear of. I had a very happy childhood and an enjoyable adult life, and such backgrounds don’t tend to make for great characters or stories in my humble opinion. Even the sad moments aren’t particularly that interesting for anyone other than me, so I find it easier just to ignore my past altogether.
There’s that old mantra of write what you know. And I disagree with that whole-heartedly. My personal opinion is that you should write about the unknown – the things that worry or concern you because you don’t know how you would deal with them – and then learn about it as you explore your plot. I find that gives a heck of a lot more value to my writing – if I’m worried or uncertain about something, the chances are that there are many people out there feeling the same way.
Please tell me about your books. What sets them apart from other similar novels?
The Bluebell Informant is my debut novel and the first of a new crime series about the cases of Detective Sergeant Evelyn Giles. The story follows Giles as she investigates a murder that seems to bear all the hallmarks of similar crimes associated to The Bluebell Killer, a serial killer she brought down a year earlier. However, as Giles gets embroiled in the investigation, a number of questions get thrown up and she is forced to ask herself whether she got it right in the first place or if The Bluebell Killer is still out there and back to start killing again.
What makes the DS Evelyn Giles stories different to any other crime fiction series is that the main character is quite unlike most detectives you get. Giles is a genuine detective who wants to do everything by the book, but she keeps getting forced into breaking the rules, which invariably ends up causing some quite horrific events to the people around her. In a lot of similar stories, the character manages to forget these things between books and moves on with his or her life.
In this series, the focus is on the character of Giles. She is deeply affected by everything that goes on around her – despite the rather cold veneer that she uses to hide her emotions from other people. As the books go on, the reader will start to see that these events have some quite large impacts on her life and how her career and her environment is beginning to slowly change who she is as a person.
Where do you find your inspiration? Are there any particular places or incidents you draw on when you find yourself with writer’s block?
I was asked this question by my wife’s friend a few weeks back and I’ll say what I said to him because I think it’s possibly the most accurate way I’ve every addressed this question:
I always think of writer’s block as a bit of a misnomer. You hear writers complaining about it all the time, but when you ask them to describe what their symptoms are it is very rare that they describe having no ideas to work with. What they usually say is that they have the ideas ready to go but they are tired or they just don’t have the energy or inclination to sit down and write – and they call that writer’s block. Not all the time, mind, but a lot of the time.
But it is a misnomer, and the reason I say that is because what they are actually describing is just a form of mental exhaustion. What you have to remember is that a lot of writers work a day job and then write in their spare time. Most people are pretty tired when they get home from work, but very few immediately go off and dedicate a couple of hours to doing another job entirely. Usually people chill out or go to the pub or play sport – anything to take their mind off work really.
But writers come home and then will sit down at some point and start work again. And – quite naturally – they burn out. In the same way a chartered surveyor who comes home and then immediately goes to the beach to be a lifeguard for a few hours every evening will burn out. The same way a taxi driver who comes home and instantly goes off to be an apprentice plumber for a couple of hours will eventually burn out.
It’s not writer’s block a lot of the time – it’s not a question of inspiration. Inspiration hits you all the time, as long as you write it down so you don’t forget it, you’re never short of ideas (my solution is that I always have a notebook and pen with me all the time so I can just write down ideas whenever they happen to crop up).
It’s work block that is the problem.
And when I hit that point, I often find that the best thing I can do is not panic and just relax for a few days. I don’t think you can rush yourself back into it – you just have to ride the exhaustion out until you’re ready to sit down and start writing again…
That’s my opinion at any rate.
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?
I’ve never really thought of that before. Two people spring to mind, I suppose: Edgar Allen Poe and Agatha Christie. I’m not sure it’s necessarily because I would want to collaborate with them, but I think it would be fascinating to spend time with them to know how their minds ticked. Between the two of them they produced some seminal stuff and I think it would be an absolute pleasure to have the chance to see how they did it.
Do you have any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?
The next Giles novel – The Court of Obsessions – is next on the list, that’s due to be released some time later this year. I know a lot of my readers are looking forward to that one, as they’ll get to see Giles operating more in her comfort zone instead of always looking over her shoulder like in The Bluebell Informant.
Then there is The Butcher of Barclay’s Hollow, which is a novella that I’m hoping to release on the tail end of this year at the latest. That one should be quite fun because it is something a little different in that it is largely about a Victorian policeman (who doesn’t want to be policeman) who is essentially forced to investigate a murder in a small rural village. It was one of those nice side projects that I really enjoyed writing and I think my readers will love reading it – and there’s the opportunity to extend that into a series as well, which is always exciting.
But I think the project I am most excited about is the third Giles novel, The Anonymous Jury. I haven’t started writing it yet, put I’m looking to start soon. I had a few hiccoughs because I started planning the story and then discovered shortly afterwards that a writer I admire had written something that sounded awfully similar to what I had in mind. I was really reluctant to read it because I didn’t want to learn we were writing the same story, but I knew I had to eventually just to make sure.
Luckily my sister-in-law grabbed the bull by the horns and got it for me not long ago, and now I’ve read it I’m happy to say that it is nothing like The Anonymous Jury so I’ll be looking to get my teeth into that shortly.
Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up?
I’m woefully behind on my reading lately so I’m not really on the look out for books that are about to be released, but I am looking forward to getting hold of The Devil’s Evidence by Simon Kurt Unsworth. I read his first book, The Devil’s Detective a while back and loved it so much that I’m eager to dive into the next one.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Thanks for having me, Hannah. It’s been great fun!
I just want to say a massive thank you to Nick for taking the time to speak to me, it’s been enlightening. You can read more about Nick and his work HERE.