I was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend Capital Crime as a blogger. I duly rocked up to the Connaught Rooms on the Thursday evening where I was greeted warmly by one of the volunteers and handed my goody bag and press pass.
Then the proof of the pudding began. I had written a blog post on how accessible the venue is, now was my chance to see. Now, I don’t know how it would be for a wheelchair user, but for me, on two walking sticks it was fine. Being an old established building, they have put in lifts where they can, but moving from floor to floor wasn’t quite as seamless as one might have hoped. Nevertheless, the stairs were easier to navigate than they might have been and I was fine. The staff of the Grand Connaught Rooms were very pleasant and helpful and I could not have felt any more welcome.
The bar area next to the Edinburgh suite could have benefited from a couple of lower chairs; there was nothing I could sit on, though on the Thursday evening, a volunteer kindly brought me through a chair.
However, this post is not about accessibility in the main, it’s about what a blast I had at Capital Crime; what I did and how much I enjoyed it and how well organised I found it all.
Thursday was a gentle introduction as delegates and authors arrived and I was delighted to see Suzie Aspley, on the shortlist for the Capital Crime New Voices Award, alongside David Smith, whose Pitch Perfect session at Bloody Scotland was also quite spine tingling. Over 100 writers entered and that was whittled down to 10 by a vote of those readers attending Capital Crime. The winner was The prize went to Ashley Harrison with his entry, The Dysconnect with honourable mentions for Victoria Goldman’s The Redeemer and Patti Buff’s The Ice Beneath Me.
It was good to see a few old friends there as authors and bloggers mingled over a glass of wine before I headed off to my digs to prepare for the Friday full day fray.
I arrived in time to sit in on the first round of the quiz, Whose Crime Is It Anyway, in which two teams of debut authors answered questions on each other’s books with a few other bookish questions thrown in for good measure. No question but the bloggers would have won the general questions rounds! A great start to the day and a lot of fun for 9.30 in the morning.
Then I went to the Crime On A Global Scale panel with Shaun Harris, Leye Adenle, Abir Mukherjee, Vaseem Khan, Craig Russell and David Hewson. Asked by Harris what drew these authors to write about their locations, Leye began by explaining that in his book he had wanted to write about rigged elections and corrupt politicians, but he didn’t know enough about America….
David Hewson believes writers should go out and find stories, which is what he did for his most recent Calabria set novel, The Savage Shore. Craig Russell, whose excellent book, The Devil Aspect is set in a remote castle asylum in rural Czechoslovakia. It’s a castle, sayS Russell that even Dracula would have regarded as creepy.
Vaseem Khan lived in India, in Mumbai, through his 20’s. He is fascinated by a modern India in transition, but still full of caste prejudice. He wants to write in a way that presents his country in a thoughtful and a fruitful way.
Abir Mukherjee gets his best ideas in the sauna. His books are centred on 1920’s Calcutta, then the premier city in Asia and the most cultured city on the planet. There were, he told us, riots in the streets when the Book Fair finished a day early. He says it is a fascinating city built on culture and the 1920’s is a period which has been romanticised by Indians as well as the British.
Leye Adenle is Nigerian, writing about Lagos. He wanted to make a lot of money, he says and laughs wryly. The idea for the first book came from a discussion he had with his mother and brothers about violence against women in Nigeria. His mother has always been active in issues to do with women; officially as director general for women’s affairs and as an educator, and as a mother. His first book deals with the naked bodies of women found on the Lagos highway and the assumption is made that these women are prostitutes. But what if it is more complicated than that? His protagonist, Amaka, is modelled on his mother, sass and all.
Craig Russell likes to immerse himself in the places he visits. He finds a different mindset and thus a different personality when he is successfully immersed in the culture and ethos of a location.
Vaseem Khan doesn’t write about a location, but about the people in that location; the ones who make it what it is. He talked about the Parsees and their tradition of honouring the dead not by burying them, but by placing them on stone towers to be eaten by vultures. The Parsees are wealthy and influential, but this custom is becoming difficult in the built up areas of Mumbai, where vultures are often dropping bits of dead bodies on the pavements.
Can you write about a place you have never been, asks Shaun? David Hewson set his book, Devil’s Fjord in the Faroe Islands without having been there. Abir agreed. H.R.F.Keating never went to India, he says, but Indians loved him. It does help though with details that matter, he says. For instance he did not know ‘til he went there that the earth in Calcutta is black, not red as elsewhere in India. And Police uniforms in Calcutta are white, not khaki.
Craig concurs, saying that the Germans are quick to point out any errors in his books!
My next panel was The Truth in Pieces with Belinda Bauer, Jane Casey, Robert Goddard and Alex North, moderated by Joe Haddow.
Belinda spoke about how the spark of inspiration for Snap came from real life. The murder of Marie Wilkes occurred on the M50 motorway and her young sister and 13 month old son were left walking along the hard shoulder by themselves – yet no-one stopped to help them.
Alex North wanted to write about the relationship between a grieving father and his son – and what happens when a serial killer begins targeting vulnerable children.
In Jane Casey’s latest Maeve Kerrigan novel, a convicted killer has been convicted on circumstantial evidence. It then transpires that the jury had looked him up on the net, so he gets a retrial and is released. Kerrigan’s job is to find evidence that he is guilty. Jane’s motivation for her book was to explore the role of juries and their behaviour, because, she says, juries are nuts!
Robert Goddard’s One False Move looks at the value of the human mind. How Joe Roberts does what he does is a mystery. He has a brain that seems able to outperform a computer. To a games company like Venstrom that promises big profits if his abilities can be properly exploited.
Joe asked each panellist how they plotted their mysteries? Belinda is an advocate of William Goldman hypothesis that each book should have 6 great moments, so she thinks about here she wants those to be. She is also driven by visual imagery, and thinks about the images she wants the reader to enjoy.
For Alex, the ideas and scenes are relatively straightforward, but it’s the connective tissue that is the hard bit. He tends to write the same book three times because he needs to understand the whole book befiore he can insert the detail.
Jane Casey has a chapter plan and plots the whole book before she starts. Then she feels able to push that to one side to let new ideas thrive. She always knows where she wants to go, though. She likens it to building a house. If you have put in the plumbing then you can always re-decorate.
Robert Goddard has written 24 crime novels, all with the same approach. His ideas shape the detail then he asks what would each of his characyers do in a given situation? Location plays a big part in his books, so he will go to his locations and that helps to spark ideas. That’s why he doesn’t make up places, because onmce a location has sparked an idea it can create its own momentum.
There was lots more chat about writing and process and the responsibilities of a writer to hold a mirror to society. A great discussion.
Then it was on to Adam Hamdy and Anthony Horowitz and The Genesis of an Idea.
My goodness but Anthny Horowitz is a powerhouse! He and Adam Handy discussed creative ideas and their genesis, as well as writing for Quibi. Quibi is a Hollywood-based streaming company that stands for “quick bites” of video, plans to take new, premium films shot by award-winning directors like Steven Spielberg and Catherine Hardwicke and present them in short episodic chapters about 10 minutes long. The twist: the stories will be developed exclusively for viewing on mobile phones and Horowitz has written one titled 8 Bodies in a Mexican Morgue.
Horowitz told us that he works intensively from 7am to 10pm. His gut instinct will tell him when he is on to a good idea, then he may road test it with one or two trusted people. He says its important to know what TV and movie makers are looking for at any given moment – for example right now it is all about strong women. Ideas depend on formats when writing for the screen, but with books you can run with any idea.
Anthony does not read crime fiction when he’s writing crime, for fear of ideas bleeding into his work. He finds newspapers a great place for inspiration and will spend three months planning his structure before writing a book. He writes his first draft by hand; finds the 3rd draft to be the most important and usually gives his publisher the 4th or 5th draft. He’s a great believer in a good idea never going away.
Ian Rankin and Don Winslow – The Human Cost of Crime.
Chi Chi Izundu interviewed Ian Rankin and Don Winslow both of whom I could have listened to for much longer. Don Winslow, especially was fascinating and I wanted his session to go on for much longer. Don says that, unfortunately, he rarely has to make things up. There are too many ideas out there and they find him. Ian talked about the real things that happen that are often too real to write about and Don wondered whether if you wrote about the 43 students who were massacred on a school bus, were you exploiting their story, or is it a story that should be told. He finds that a tough call.
Don also talked about the human cost of crime on cops and crime scene attendants. Right now in NYC there is, he says, a massive rise in cop suicides. He and Ian discussed the impact on olice and their families and Don said he had originally underestimated how much the police do care about the impact of crime. They discussed prisons, described by Don as the saddest places full of despair, loss and hopelessness and he reiterated the fact that I’d heard David Baldacci discuss only the week before about the high proportion of black and Latino prisoners who are incarcerated in the States. Do readers realise the impact of that, he wanted to know?
Don is writing about addiction but he says, headlines become labels and what he wants to do is to tell the whole story; to get under the headlines and find out what opiod addiction looks like through the eyes of a young woman, for example. “My job, he says, is to tell a good story with strong characters, but if, on the way, I can inform people I am happy to do that.”
They talked about Brexit, stories that are still too raw to tell and Don said there were acts of sadism committed by the drug cartels that were just so terrible he just could not go there. There was discussion about things that could not be unseen, and how characters sometimes drop all their crap on Don, while Ian finds that Rebus is his therapist.
There was lots more including discussion about how supportive the crime writing community is. I could really have stayed for hours.
But Killer Women awaited…
Killer Women, Amanda Jennings Sarah Hilary Kate Rhodes, Colette McBeth and Julia Crouch kept us on our toes with an excellent discussion about feminism in literature and anti-feminist tropes – including that one with the impossibly dressed woman who has absolutely no agency and sleeps with anyone. Strong women, it was generally acknowledged are nuanced, complex and layered, and seldom dressed in tight skirts and stilettos.
There was discussion about the sexualisation of women and beautifully arranged victims, but the discussion mostly focussed on examining the impact of feminism and the representation of women in fiction.
Women make up by far the majority of crime readers and the publishing industry is dominated by women, yet still women earn 16% less than men in that industry. Is it any wonder that we sometimes despair?
The #MeToo movement and its impact was discussed, along with a feeling that not very much has really changed. Domestic and sexual violence is on the increase, these authors noted, but without a corresponding increase in arrest figures.
The lack of a CWA Dagger for Domestic Noir was mentioned and it was good to hear of a scheme that these authors were involved in which is offering mentoring for black and ethnic minority writers as well as writers from working class backgrounds.
Long may Killer Women continue!
Saturday started with a fascinating session on The Craft of Writing; The essentials of writing a crime or thriller novel with Adam Hamdy, David Headley & Vicki Mellor. Lots of top tips for aspiring writers in this session. Here’s a few:
It’s a competitive landscape so your book needs a strong core and concept and an authentic voice. Know your story and your characters backwards and make them believable in their environment. Care about your characters.
Agents want polite, professional and engaging clients with enthusiasm and a great book. Personality does matter. Find an area of social media that works for you and use it.
Get your m/s to the absolute best state you can, then your agent and editor will improve on it, because you are too close to it. Take advice and don’t be precious, but at the same time, go with an agent and editor whose opinions you trust.
In publishing you need an extraordinary sense of patience. It can take years to build a brand and a readership.
Sometimes success is hard graft; sometimes its down to luck. Never forget that you have to believe in your book, because if you don’t what chance does the sales team have?
All good advice there, folks…
My next panel was the highly anticipated Chilled to the Bone with Ragnar Jónasson, Will Dean, Antti Tuomainen and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir discuss the enduring and global appeal of Scandi Noir with Karen Sullivan.
Lots of fun and laughter as well as informative discussion on settings, location and overall creepiness that contributes to the darkness that is Nordic Noir. Most of our panel had grown up reading Stephen King, which accounts for a lot! Much discussion around puffin hunting and eating puffin – does it taste like chicken, we wonder?
As you’d expect from this panel, they soon were discussing violence and the avoidance of torture porn, with each writer saying that they were much more interested in the aftermath of violence and the ripples it causes than violence itself. Antti says that violence must serve the story and come from the character. He gets a certain amount of satisfaction from people doing things badly for the wrong reasons – not riding with both cheeks in the saddle as he put it. Ragnar only writes in winter; Yrsa only writes in summer. Will writes with his elk forest view and his earplugs in.
Then I nipped into Britain’s Toughest Streets with Dreda Say Mitchell, Steph Marland, Amer Anwar and MW Craven talking about how the gritty streets of Britain inspire crime fiction with David Mark. It’s fair to say that Dreda was on fighting fit form. She spoke passionately about how she had found the world of traditional publishing closed to her, but that the digital platforms she thought were built for writers and that world was open and welcoming. Amer also talked about the difficulty of finding a publisher for his excellent novel, Brothers in Blood, which he was told, would not appeal to a broad enough audience. Thankfully he self-published first and that meant enough of us got to read his book and to wax lyrical about how good it is and now he has a publisher.
Mike Craven talked about being a Northern writer; David Mark discussed his love of graveyards and empty churches and Stephanie Marland told us about training to be a bounty hunter.
After that, the next panel was The Wrong Side of the Law in which the excellent Ayo Onatade questioned legal professionals Harriet Tyce, Imran Mahmood, Steve Cavanagh, and Tony Kent. I was too busy laughing to take many notes as this was the panel with all the best stories. It is my experience that practitioners of criminal law have all the best tales and so it proved here. I loved Harriet Tyce’s homage to Lady Hale with her giant, glittering spider brooch, but even better was her clear anger at the way the legal profession does not take account of women who want to have children in their practices. No maternity pay, no career breaks, no flexibility over things like part time working; being a lawyer, she says is damaging to family life.
A cracking panel with fab anecdotes and Steve even gave out some free legal advice to an audience member!
Next up was the fabulous John Connolly – A Retrospective. He treated us to more of a performance come lecture which ranged over the course of his career and covered marketing through covers and tag lines (at which he had a pop or two) e-mails (can’t stand them) and his writing. “Every book I have ever written”, he told us, “I have wanted to give up after 20,000 words.” His advice to writers is to commit to one idea and ignore the voices in your head telling you that the next idea is better. Keep writing, he says. Ours is a conservative genre.
He talked about grief and loss and male friendship being recurring themes in his work whether between Laurel and Hardy in He, or Angel and Louis in his Charlie Parker books.
He says that crime fiction and literary fiction are different. All great fiction, he says, comes from character, but literary fiction demands something more; something extra from the writing.
This was an entertaining and enlightening performance that I would not have missed for the world.
My final panel was Sarah Pinborough, Ben Aaronovitch, and Stuart Turton talking to J.D. Fennell about Fantastic Crime – When crime crosses genres. This was another fun panel, as you’d expect from these three very funny writers. Sarah claims she looks for ideas at mysterious.org(!) but seriously says that weirdness evolves with her story.
Ben is a sci-fi and fantasy fan and just liked the idea of ordinary working class cops who do magic on a daily basis.
Stuart Turton thought about his book Seven Deaths, for 12 years. All he ever wanted to do was write an Agatha Christie book. But she had the genre covered so he had to go quite far afield for another idea. It took him 2.5 years to write Seven Deaths and all the time he was collecting ideas.
Sarah told us that her big ideas start off big and then get smaller until she gets at the truth of them. Sometimes when Ben starts writing he only has the title. He’s a great believer in the Shakespeare rule – “You can steal anything from anyone as long as you make it better” and its corollary – “Only steal bad stuff”.
Does setting matter asks J.D.Fennell? Of course, responds Ben swiftly, if only because it bumps up the word count. Start, whose book is set in an incredible decaying grand house, says that he realised too late that no-one ever built a house like his Blackheath House. He just ‘gothic’d the shit out of it, describing his book as akin to a board game.
Sarah loves the proximity of modern and old in London. Her new book is set in Savannah where the atmosphere is claustrophobic and the people judgemental.
This was a lively and engaging panel with lots of laughs and with an undercurrent of understanding about what cross genre writing brings to the table and how to make it work.
That was a wrap at Capital Crime for me. I loved it and found it warm, welcoming and very well organised. I did not stay for the awards as it had been a very long day but my congratulations go to everyone who entered and to the winners.
I wish I had got to meet more bloggers, but those I did were so friendly and I had a ball over the weekend.
Special mention for Goldsboro Books and their fantastic free shipping policy which meant that I didn’t have to haul my many purchases back to Glasgow. Also thanks to Pan MacMillan for their sponsorship of free tea and coffee – such a boon in a bust programme.
Thanks again Capital Crime – you were exceptional!