Bill Todd Interview: “As a kid, I made up adventure stories in my head”

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Author Bill Todd, who created the Danny Lancaster series, talks me through his work and why it’s so popular with readers.  

How did you come to define your writing style? What drew you towards crime fiction?

As a kid, I made up adventure stories in my head, in bed, in the dark, picking up where I’d left off when the light went out the next night. If real life is not fully grabbing my attention I’ve always had a tendency to return to an escapist story in my imagination.

I was drawn to crime fiction by the huge opportunities it offers to explore any field of human activity. Create a believable character and the world is his or her oyster.

Tell me about how your background in journalism and travel writing. How does this influence your writing?

Being a journalist, you have an inquiring ‘what if…?’ mind which is a big help writing non-fiction and fiction.

Most of my working life has been spent on local and national newspapers. Nationals have the big headlines to tell the big stories but my heart has always been in locals. It’s more intimate and a good local paper is a real public service, probing, informing, entertaining.

They are suffering badly these days as a result of social media and now coronavirus. But it’s amazing how many problems suffered by a lonely pensioner for months or years can suddenly be fixed when the local rag wants a quote from the source of the difficulty.

The job puts you in lots of fascinating places – criminal, political, celebrity – and you meet all sorts of people. All of this, every little detail, is fertile ground for fiction.

My books are based in Brighton but scenes are set in all sorts of places and many of my travel destinations have featured. These include Namibia in West Africa. I love a desert and the Namib is awesome.

What aspect of your books do you feel attracts your readers and makes your work so hard to put down?

If knowing what attracted readers was an exact formula everyone would do it. It’s the alchemist’s great secret.

My Danny Lancaster crime thrillers have a loyal following but I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t welcome more.

Danny fans seem to like his character and outlook on life although he does manage to infuriate them at times. Readers also respond well to the characters around him such as artist Wanda Lovejoy and Detective Inspector Pauline Meyers.

The relationships and settings are recognisable and accessible and readers seem to enjoy being drawn in.

So far I’ve written seven Danny Lancaster books, including one of short stories. I’ve also written three short military history books based on family papers – my father’s diary in France 1944, a great uncle’s war in Palestine in 1917, and the story of a young woman on course to be the RAF’s first woman pilot who was killed in an air crash.

Where do you find the inspiration for your work? Are there any specific exercises or tricks you use to get your creative juices flowing?

Most often I’ll be wandering along, mentally miles away, when an idea comes out of nowhere and hits me. It’s almost like a physical blow.

I develop the idea as far as I can, then push it away and try to ignore it. I never start writing until the compulsion is overwhelming. Then, if the idea seems sound, a first draft comes pouring out.

I used to spend long periods in my home office, the record is 17 hours. Now, pre-lockdown, I favour cafes or pubs using my mobile phone and a neat little foldable bluetooth keyboard.

After many years working shifts in noisy offices I’m able to screen out any surrounding noise.

What books do you enjoy reading yourself and how do these books influence your work?

I enjoy many varied crime writers. I started with the likes of Frederick Forsyth, Jack Higgins and, of course, Conan Doyle. It’s hard work following authors I enjoy while discovering new ones.

There’s a long list that features Simon Kernick, Peter James, Vaseem Khan, Stuart MacBride and Peter Robinson. Not forgetting the many talented indies such as Andy Barrett whose gritty crime books are based on his work as a real life CSI.

If you could collaborate with any writer, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

Shakespeare would be wonderful to work with. His dialogue is razor sharp and he wrote some cracking crime stories.

If I had the skill I’d step into the shoes of Philip Kerr. Sadly, he died in 2018 and I really miss his wonderful Bernie Gunther books.

Beyond that, I’m probably too much the solitary observer to collaborate effectively.

What does the future have in store for you as a writer? Any upcoming projects you would be happy to share with me?

I’ve been working on a number of projects including a new Danny Lancaster plus a standalone crime thriller. I’ve made a bit of a mistake here because it’s like trying to ride two horses at once. Very soon I’ll have to pick one and gallop it to the finish line.

During my travel writing I kept a personal diary. After visiting 50+ destinations it runs to more than 500,000 words. A lot of that is what I had for breakfast and laundry arrangements but I’d like to edit it down to the interesting experiences and encounters. I also have a handwritten children’s story written and illustrated by my grandfather in the 1960s for my brother and I. It’s about two caveboys and I’d like to do something with that.

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to in the future?

I like to keep my options open as widely as possible. I like to be surprised and am always prepared to shoot off at a tangent if something promising bobs up.

One thing I have to do is avoid JK Rowling’s Cormoran Strike books. My main character, Danny Lancaster, is also a disabled ex-soldier. Danny appeared in print before Strike but I don’t want to risk any subliminal cross-contamination. That said, Danny’s fans have very firm views on Lancaster versus Strike.

Anything you’d like to add?

I would urge readers to discover some of the hugely talented indie authors out there. Many of their books are as good, or better, than the big bucks famous names, and often much cheaper, even free.

I’d also urge readers to review, review, review – even if it’s just a few words. Authors are really encouraged by reviews and a brief comment on Amazon, Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, is a real boost. Also, support on social media is vital oxygen for one-man-band indie writers with no in-house PR machine.

And finally… thank you, Hannah, for inviting me to feature on your blog and thanks to your readers for their time – Bill Todd.

Thanks to Bill for taking the time to answer my questions. If you’re interested in learning more about Bill and his books, then you can find out more here.

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