John Knock Interview: “I’ve been involved in story making all my life”

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Scottish Crime Writer John Knock talks me through his work and the many books and authors that have inspired him.

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime fiction and mystery writing?

As a reader, I read Ian Rankin’s excellent Black and Blue, which my father and I were excited about because he remembered the Bible John killings. I then read a lot of the Rebus series and particularly liked Let It Bleed, which had a really well plotted conspiracy thriller that impacted on ordinary people’s lives. I think that is what Rankin does well, drawing on the Raymond Chandler tradition of the corruption of power.

I love thriller movies or great TV series that have a great plot that really makes you work as an audience. I remember as a kid being so disappointed with Colombo. Peter Falk was a fine actor and the character of Colombo so brilliantly created and yet the plots are all open, they require no effort on the part of the audience, which I feel really disrespects them. When I watch or read a thriller, I want to guess it out as I go. When I came across Christopher Brookmyre, I guess that’s what got me really excited because here was someone who had worked for Sight and Sound and got movie plotting. What he did was to give it a great comic voice. A lot of crime writers get their work adapted for the screen, what I think Chris did was to adapt the screen for the novel.

I’ve always been able to work out plots but I needed to find the voice. The skill to give each character a voice and to write with those voices. It took me a while to get there. When re-writing, I always let the voice dominate. What was the character’s experience? What did they know or not know? What did they regard as important or not? That way the reader acts as detective. Bram Stoker did that with Dracula. He’s a mystery writer. The reader has to work out whether to believe the evidence presented to them.  He’s an action thriller writer as well. In fact, until he came across the legend of Vlad the Impaler was going to set the story in Scotland.   Just imagine if you’d asked Irvine Welsh to write it today, that I’ll be close to the style. It’s hybrid. I’m writing a whatdunnit rather than a whodunit.

What is your background and how did you get in to writing professionally?

I’ve been involved in story making all my life. I’ve worked in education, working on group creating, analysing structure and narrative and all that stuff. Therefore, plot and structure and roles etc. was something I naturally can grasp. I just decided to do it for myself.

What took time was the prose, getting it right. I just took the decision to take time to write and re-work bits of material I had being pulling together. Confidence that what you have is good and the feedback from test readers and now readers that what I was trying to do has worked.

Where do you find your inspiration? Are there any particular places or incidents you draw on when you find yourself with writer’s block?

Inspiration is a bit of a misnomer. Writing is a job like any other, it’s task driven. I have to deliver. I have a clear task in my head when I write. Then I might do some research, make a visit, go for a walk and clear my head of all the distractions so I can find a voice, find a plot point or character idea. By setting a wider goal it makes it clear what I have to do. Then I can work to that. Lee Child is great on this; he makes it clear that you are writing for an audience and that you owe them a service. Once you put these two rules together the tension helps to create.

I’m lucky to live somewhere where I can just get out into the countryside and walk. I find listening to radio shows, dramas, comedy, documentaries etc. a great resource. I shelve the block until I do this. So, I’m working on several books at a time plot wise. I get stuck on one, I can just jump to the other. I might hear something I can use and I’ll just mentally shelve it to be drawn on later. It’s all nebulous filled away in the creative cloud, just a feeling and then later I can draw on it. I can’t find my glasses or car keys but I can recall something that clicks into place while I’m trying to get out the door.

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

I have to say Terry Pratchett. I like the way his later Discworld novels were going, dealing with issues that we face but giving them the prism of a fantasy setting. That’s what Brecht was trying to do. So, I have an idea for a Discworld novel and I’d like to write it. He and Neil Gaiman worked on Good Omens together and I’d like to do that. I loved the Sandman series and Neverwhere by the way. He said that it was a proper partnership that they wrote it together not him writing the plot and Terry making it funny.

Anyway, I would like to work with Terry. I get why his daughter has said no more Discworld to protect his legacy. I would want him to keep that focus on his creation and get to the big debates that he was trying to provoke.

I would love to work with Neil on a TV project both my daughter and I are fans. She loves Coraline. Maybe a radio project., it has more scope. I’d also like to work with Agatha Christie. To really play with the genre she created.

Do you have any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?

I’m currently working on the next novel. It’s going to be set in Glasgow and will feature Craig Miller. I really don’t want to say too much about it until I reach Chapter Five or Six, just in case I end up going off in a different direction. I also want to get the Glaswegian voices right and don’t want to end up being too stereotypical. Glasgow has been very good to me and I want to do it justice.

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up?

I’m looking to read the latest Brookmyre series. I stopped reading him a while ago and I want to get into his newest work. He killed off Jack Parlabane and then brought him back. I agree with him that the hero of a series can get very unbelievable and I always found the other characters much more interesting.   I’m going to find time to read his Jasmine Sharp series.

I am currently trying to read both Lee Child’s Echo Burning and The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connolly. They are two writers that I really admire and I want to enjoy their work. I’m finding crime writers the most interesting bunch as much for them as for their work. I really love the podcast A Stab In The Dark and the interviews are inspirational. It’s great to find writers talking to writers. The crime writing community is a very supportive one. I would like to find the same for the horror community. HP Lovecraft was great in that respect, he supported and mentored other writers including Bloch, who wrote Psycho. I’m looking to get into both communities.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Just to invite readers to give me feedback. Go to the site John Knock Author or email me on johnknock@gmail.com.

Thanks for speaking to me, it has been really interesting to hear your thoughts.

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A Cute Christmas Read for Children

christmas story

This sweet festive poem, complete with adorable illustrations, would make the perfect Christmas gift for the small person in your life. The story is sweet, the illustrations bold and the narrative engaging.

The story starts with three siblings Claire, Ben and Daniel, building a snow queen in the garden, as all children do. Claire begins to create a story around the evil snow queen and before long she explains how Elaine Gale – the evil snow queen has placed a spell on all children to be naughty so that when Santa checks his naughty and nice list no-one has been good and thus no presents are needed.

Happy with their days work they head back in for tea, but soon realise that their story is unfolding in front of their eyes. Realising they are the only ones who can stop Elaine Gale they start about a journey to overcome her evil plan and restore Christmas before it’s too late.

There are issues with the meter, and in some places I suspect that the poem would have been better written as a short story, but I very much doubt its intended audience, small children, are going to notice, and the rhythm and rhyme make this a great bouncy bedtime story.

You can check it out HERE.

 

The Continued Relevance of Sherlock Holmes in Modern Crime Fiction

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Recently, following the release of Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, (read my review of the film HERE), I’ve been on a bit of a Golden Age binge. Alongside my usual re-read of some of the best Christie novels (not Murder on the Orient Express, because it’s not a great novel with a really crappy ending), as well as some more modern novels which either mimic or eco the era.

These include Guy Fraser-Sampson’s enticing novel A Death in the Night, (my review can be found HERE) and a number of Kerry Greenwood’s brilliant Phryne Fisher mysteries (my top five can be found HERE). It was whilst reading Greenwood’s most recent Miss Fisher novel Murder and Mendelssohn that I realised the influence that Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s eccentric detective.

In Murder and Mendelssohn, Greenwood depicts two characters who are obviously based on Sherlock and Watson; Rupert Sheffield, an enigmatic mathematician lecturing about the science of deduction, and his travelling companion, Dr John Wilson, a former army Doctor who was invalided during the war. Sound familiar?

I thought the similarities only coincidental until I read the following passage, in which Dr Wilson tells Phyne’s family about how he came to be Sheffield’s roommate and travelling companion:

‘I was slowly dying of boredom. And grief. My friend said he knew I was looking for an apartment to share and this Rupert Sheffield, a mathematician, was looking for a roommate. They were very nice rooms, we have a housekeeper, and he warned me that he played the piano all night long, and didn’t speak for days on end, and writes equations on the wall, and I didn’t mind those things, because I was moody and still so sad, and angry, because Arthur had left me after only a few years.’ Murder and Mendelssohn page 191.

It was then that I realised just how far Holmes has infiltrated into modern Crime Fiction. Later in the novel, Greenwood depicts a sex scene between Wilson and Sheffield that must have been incredibly fun to write, and is so utterly bizarre that I can’t decide if it’s genius or a contender for the Bad Sex Awards.

In the micro-essay at the back of the novel, Sherlock Holmes and me (a love/hate relationship), Greenwood discusses the fact that she believes that the deductive powers Holmes posses are akin to women’s intuition, and that the idea of Holmes and Watson’s homosexual relationship stemmed from her reading of other books which touched on the subject, as well as some of the inferences made in the stories, such as in The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, in which Watson gets shot during the investigation and Holmes becomes distraught at the prospect of harm coming to his dear friend.

Kerry Greenwood is not alone in her desire to bring Holmes and Watson into modern literature and cinema. Not only are many authors and filmmakers still reinventing the character today, but also he is often integrated, in some way, into detective novels. The character remains a key influence in detective fiction, despite the fact that he was created in the Victorian era, and therefore could be considered out of date.

The character of Sherlock Holmes is based on C. Auguste Dupin, Edgar Allan Poe’s detective who appears in three short stories. Despite this, Dupin is not the popular figure in pop-culture that Conan Doyle’s character has become.

This got me thinking about why Holmes and Watson remain such popular influences whilst Dupin is often forgotten. Granted, Dupin is the inspiration for Holmes, but Poe’s stories are not referenced so obviously in modern fiction as Doyle’s are. Partially, this could be put down to the number of Sherlock Holmes stories Doyle wrote, which far outstrips Poe’s three Dupin novellas, but there is also more to it than that.

Fundamentally, it is my belief that Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson embody key characteristics that everyone sees in themselves, and have, thanks to these characteristics, achieved the excitement and adventure that many readers crave. After all, Holmes is a bizarre, often unconventional detective, whilst his companion is a reliable Dr who is as baffled by his friend’s brilliance as Doyle’s readers.

Also, the pair make for the perfect template on which many writers can base their detectives. Duos often consist of one bumbling action man and one awkward eccentric; think of Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings, Bulldog Drummond and James Denny, and, in television, the likes of Jonathan Creek and his various female companions. This is because each member of the pair offers skills that the other lacks, with the more reliable companion usually relaying the narrative and translating the detective’s actions for both the reader through the guise of doing so for other characters.

Ultimately, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson remain entrenched as cult figures in the Crime Fiction space, and as the media continues to remember and reinvent them they will continue to grow and evolve as characters. Although I always lament the loss of fresh ideas to reinvention (Hollywood and the constant remakes), it is always interesting to see new interpretations of classic characters.

Blood Rites Review: Grizzly, Gritty Greatness

blood rites

Having previously enjoyed his novel The Scarlet Coven, I expected great things from Blood Rites, the newest Inspector Paul Snow novel by David Stuart Davis. I wasn’t disappointed.

Set in 1980s Yorkshire, the novel dictates the work of Detective Inspector Paul Snow, a closeted homosexual battling both personal and professional demons.

His case is that of a serial killer charting an uncertain course, with his victims seemingly chosen at random. As he navigates a world full of deceit and violence, he is forced off the case by his dubious superiors who are dismayed at his lack of progress and unconventional methods. Desperate, the detective disappears underground, where a killer is lurking in the shadows.

The inner turmoil of this fascinating and deeply troubled protagonist is what drives the novel, with his dogged determination to unmask the murderer and prove his own worth sending him into some of some of the darkest recesses of human depravity.

Slightly stilted dialogue is the only factor that lets this otherwise dark and tense novel down- it can be hard to follow and it all but ruins otherwise exceptional characterisation. Everyone in the novel seems to speak as if they are narrating a children’s story, in that breathy, posh sort of English that does not ring true with the otherwise gritty, varied vagabonds that the author portrays.

This is earthy, Northern British Crime Fiction at its finest. Blood Rites shows you the very worst of human nature and puts our fears on full display, creating an chillingly atmospheric thriller that you’ll want to reopen as soon as you reach the final page.

 

Celine Terranova Interview: “I definitely owe a lot to fanfiction”

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Belgium writer and NaNoWriMo veteran Celine Terranova talks me through her fascination with sci-fi and fantasy writing and how fanfiction inspires her writing.

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards sci-fi and fantasy fiction?

I’ve always been a big fan of these two genres, as far as I can remember. Every story that I made up when I was a child had a part of sci-fi or fantasy in it. I was especially fascinated by witches, and I used to ask my mother to bring me books about them from the library (every week!). I was also a big consumer of any sci-fi/fantasy film or TV series that I could find, and it’s left a mark in me.

I think these genres give you a certain kind of freedom that you don’t have otherwise. I can speak about difficult or divisive subjects without being too upfront about it. Genre fiction provides a distance that doesn’t trigger the reader’s inner censor. It’s very powerful!

I started writing for Young Adults mainly because I am fascinated by the changes that we undergo at this age. Many opinions that I have were forged by books I read when I was a teenager, and my dream is to be able to have that kind of influence on young readers too.

What is your background and how did you get in to writing?

I wanted to become a writer since I was a child, but I was advised against pursuing it further because it’s not the kind of job that could pay the bills. In Belgium (where I was born), writing is mostly seen as a hobby and not a serious career. At school I was good at science, so I studied Physics at university, but it was not really my passion.

During school and university, I continued writing with little success. It was not really understood or even accepted by people around me. I was then very lucky to discover the fabulous world of fan fictions. Internet really opened for me opportunities that I didn’t know existed. I wrote and published fan fiction for twelve years, and it helped me understand that writing was my real calling. In my “real life”, I quit working in science, I moved to the UK, and started working in a much more creative industry (theatre).

I definitely owe a lot to fanfiction. It taught me how to discipline myself, how to work with a critique partner, how to deal with feedback from readers and how to craft a proper story. I’ve taken all that experience and I moved to writing my own stories a couple of years ago. It was extremely scary at first (it still is to be honest), but I enjoy creating my own characters and settings!

You write a lot of short stories. What draws you to this style of writing? Do you find the limited word count restricting or freeing?

I started writing short stories because of several challenges that I found online. The first one was the 48h challenge for the SciFi London Festival, where I had to write a story and film myself reading it. Short stories helped me make the transition between writing fanfictions and writing my own worlds. I really enjoy having to build an entire story within a restricted number of words. It helps me try many things that I wouldn’t dare trying in a novel. I definitely find it freeing!

Where do you take your inspiration? Are there any rituals you do to get yourself in the mood for writing?

My biggest ideas always come to me in dreams. I have very vivid dreams and I try to write the most important down, because I know they can lead to a good story. I always have a notebook ready in case I need to write down the details of what I dreamt.

I used to have rituals to put me in the mood for writing, for example I would put a specific playlist on, or sit at a specific table. Now, it has become a routine so I don’t need it anymore. If sometimes I need more motivation, I use a timer to get me started (I write for 30 minutes, then I can get a coffee). Usually by the end of the time, I have forgotten about the incentive and I keep writing.

Why did you choose to participate in NaNoWriMo and how are you finding the challenge?

I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time two years ago. I had wanted to do it for years, but somehow there was always something happening in November that prevented me to do so. In 2015, I made the decision to take the leap, mainly to improve my English. I wrote a NCIS fanfiction (which I haven’t published yet) and it was a crazy ride! Writing 1667 words per day, every day, when you have to juggle with a full time job, is not easy. I was very surprised to win and it proved to me that I was capable of crafting a long story in another language than French.

Last year, I participated with my first original novel in English. It was much harder than the first year! I had spent months plotting the story, but I was really not sure of myself. I changed the plot right in the middle of the month, and had to fight writer’s block many times. I won the challenge (50K), but it took me another 8 months to complete the first draft (which reached 100K in total).

This year, I’m a NaNo rebel because I’m writing the second draft of the same novel, Healers. The first draft was honestly not very good, but it is a start! I’m much more confident with my abilities now and I have planned this NaNoWriMo more than I have ever done before. The story is very similar but pretty much all the scenes have changed. The only struggle this year is my new job in theatre, that is eating away all my free time. I find the challenge more exhausting than the previous times, but I enjoy very much the support and sense of community on Twitter!

What style of writing do you enjoy reading yourself? Are there any particular authors you admire?

I read a lot of Young Adult sci-fi and fantasy, because that’s what I enjoy to write too. Most recently, I devoured La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman. He is one of my absolute favourite authors and I was lucky to attend his conference in London in October. I find his stories so inspiring, and they had a big impact on me when I was a teenager.

There are plenty of major authors that I admire (J.K. Rowling, Orson Scott-Carr, and Tolkien), but if I had to choose only one it would probably be Pierre Bordage, a French author of several series that I revered as a teenager. His style is still a major influence on what I write.

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

I would love to collaborate with the French writer/actor/producer Alexandre Astier. He writes for TV, which is something I would like to get into one day, and he’s a magician with words. I am a very big fan of his work, his humour and his work ethic. I would probably be very intimidated, but I think it would be a unique experience.

Have you got any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?

My main project currently is my novel Healers, which is the first book of a Young Adult science fiction series. Otherwise, I have a couple of projects in the pipeline: a zombie apocalypse story, a supernatural crime podcast, and I also recently completed a sci-fi/horror short story called Video Time that I’ve started to send to magazines.

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

I’m definitely looking forward to the follow-up to La Belle Sauvage. I am also eagerly awaiting the next Cormoran Strike book. Other than that, I recently fell in love with a book by Leah Thomas, Because You’ll Never Meet Me, and I can’t wait to see what she writes next.

Anything you’d like to add?

Thank you Hannah for giving me this opportunity to talk about my projects! If you would like to know more, visit my website: celineterranova.com or follow me on Twitter: @CelineTerranova

Thanks for taking the time to speak to me, it’s been fascinating.

A Death in the Night Review: Another Stylish Modern Novel with the Wit of a Golden Age Classic

a death in the night

Having already reviewed and enjoyed two of Guy Fraser-Sampson’s Hampstead Murders novels, Miss Christie Regrets and A Whiff of Cyanide, I had high hopes for A Death in the Night, the latest Golden Age style modern crime novel in this intriguing series.

Beginning at a dinner dance set in a fictionalised women’s club that Dorothy L Sayers used to frequent, the novel quickly catapults the reader into a fiendish mystery, as a guest is found dead in her room. Shortly afterwards, it is discovered that she has been wrongly identified and her death incorrectly diagnosed as being from natural causes, giving the detectives, two of whom were at the dance on the night of the murder, an incredibly tough case to crack.

Despite the devastation caused by the revelations of the previous novel, the team remains solid and continues to investigate with the usual flare. Bob Metcalfe remains stoic as ever, Karen Willis as confident and capable and as for the flamboyant and Golden Age obsessed Peter Collins, he is still the most hilarious and riveting character I have read over the past two years.

With physical evidence almost entirely destroyed and suspects aplenty thanks to the evening’s revelry, the team employ a combination of modern technology and old fashioned detection to uncover the culprit.

What I love about these books is how Fraser- Sampson effortlessly combines modern police techniques with antiquated language and characterisation that would not be out of place in a Lord Peter Wimsey or Poirot novel. Everyone has an archaic sort of job, such as the Doctor with her private practice inherited from her father. Despite this, readers are never in any doubt that the novels are set in the present day, and this makes for a fascinating education in how to combine styles when writing Crime Fiction.

In all, A Death in the Night is a riveting novel with enough classic detective novel techniques and references to keep readers on their toes.

Santa’s Little Secret: How to Make Sure Every Book Lover Gets the Gift They Adore This Year

Secret Santa

Secret Santa is always a bit of a minefield- there’s always one person who’s impossible to buy for, and there’s the risk that you’ll just get some piece of tat that you don’t want. This is particularly true of those secret santas that have small budgets, as unless the person really knows you well then you tend to just get edibles or pens.

As such, when I was running the University of Chester’s Literature Society, I invented a really cool way to make sure that everyone gets something they want. I thought I’d share it with you so if you’re all out of inspiration then you can set this up and have a bit of fun!

The idea is that everyone writes their name, alongside the titles of three books that they’d like to receive on a slip of paper. The books should’t be anything new off the bestseller list: usually people pick classics that they’ve never had the chance to read but have always wanted to.

Then the papers all go into a container, all scrunched up, and everyone picks another person’s paper. They then pick one book from the list and buy it for the other person, so the gift is both a surprise and a joy. If the limit is higher then you can get a pretty edition bound in fancy fabric or with cool illustrations, if not then you can grab a second hand copy from a bookshop or Amazon. Either way, everyone’s a winner.

Happy Reading this Christmas!