On writing – with Peter James and Nicci French

October 22nd, 2010

I’ve just enjoyed a great literary debate on how writers create their heroes at the Canterbury Festival with Nicci French and Peter James. Peter James’ Dead Like You had just hit the number 1 spot for paperbacks, making it a double victory for his Roy Grace detective series, after its no 1 in the hardback charts.

Roy Grace, he explained, was based on a real person. Peter spends around a day a week with the police, observing what really goes on. He said that when he met David Gaylor as a young detective, surrounded by files, he asked what they were. ‘These are all my dead friends,’ David replied. ‘They’re unsolved murder cases and I am the last chance the victims have of justice and their families have for closure.’ From this exchange sprang a lifelong friendship – and the Roy Grace character. We all found this very refreshing, as there are far too many detectives-with-a-drink-problem-and-a-failed marriage in fiction today – while failed marriages are quite common in the Police Force, a detective with a  drink problem ‘wouldn’t last two minutes’, according to Peter.

Nicci French is the writing name of the husband-and-wife team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French and their twelve best-selling psychological thrillers all feature a strong female central character. They start their novels from a situation – what if you try to break up with a boyfriend and he just won’t go? What if you fall in love with someone you really know nothing about? Nicci commented that one thing all their female heroes have in common is that they ‘don’t know they’re in a thriller – they think they’re just leading ordinary lives, so their immediate reaction is to deny the danger. Then they can see the danger but most of the people around them don’t believe them.’

 What Peter James, Nicci French and I all have in common is that we research our books very thoroughly – Nicci, Sean and I have done a great deal of reading around psychological abuse, for example, and Peter’s research is probably the most thorough of any fiction writer today. But the research never slows the action down, and the feeling that comes through is of real people in really difficult – even terrifying – situations.

We also talked about romantic heroes, as in writing Lovers & Liars I found that many of the characteristics that make for a romantic affair – lovers who seem strong and powerful, who want to spend time exclusively with you, wanting to know where you are and what you’re doing all the time, thus shutting out the outside world can often develop into controlling and abusive husbands. Many of the heroes of classic romantic fiction, such as Heathcliffe and Mr Rochester, would, in reality, make selfish and controlling mates. Do we, as novelists, have a responsibility to our readers to expose such men?

Nicci and Sean talked about how they write together but apart – they talk about a prospective idea, then one writes a chapter, passes it over to the other, who edits it and carries it on. Peter James, sparing valuable time out from completing his next Roy Grace, works to music, writing most of the book with jazz in the background, but changing to opera for the last thirty or forty pages.

Having read every single Roy Grace book, plus all twelve Nicci French thrillers, I’m really looking forward to their next books, and if you haven’t discovered them already, then you have a huge treat ahead of you.

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