Writers Unlocked

It felt like a return to normality, a real live crime writing conference with actual live authors. Zoom conferences never did it for me – I’d quickly drift off, or busy myself doing something else whilst my camera was off.

This July saw the welcome return of the Theakeston’s Crime Writing Festival at the Old Swan Harrogate, but it was clearly taking place in a new age. Instead of packing knee-to-knee in the ballroom we were seated in a well-spaced and airy marquee over the car park. The bar has usually been in a marquee but this year it was open on all sides and safety was helped by generally fine weather that allowed punters to spill out onto the lawns. Attendance looks like it was kept to a half or less of usual numbers to avoid the event turning into a ‘who-caught-it’ drama.

The C-word hovered over proceedings as some unfortunate delegates and even speakers were pinged or otherwise told to isolate, some whilst already on their way to the venue. It thinned out some panels and ringers boldly stepped in to fill gaps in the ranks. Inevitably the question came up repeatedly – how had the pandemic affected writers? Most responded that they had plunged on with their writing, some even increasing their output without the distractions of regular life. Others struggled with the pressures of home schooling, or having other family members around a normally quiet house, and even being unable to write in a café.  A fair number reported a difficulty in settling to read – as I did ­– whilst others found comfort returning to old favourites rather than tackling new books. It was interesting to see how frequently panelists mentioned relaxing in front of television series and films, or used them as reference points in discussions.

A gentle return towards normal was accompanied by saying hello to old friends and brushing past notable names in British crime writing. Hugging and posing for selfies was mixed with coy elbow bumping as acquaintances were renewed. I attended a very jolly lunch of the Northern Chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association, at which I compared notes with two fellow Level Best historical crime authors Matthew Booth (C) and David Stuart Davies (R).

The Historical Crime panel put the spotlight on the Bernie Gunther novels of the late Phillip Kerr, providing examples of a character with a good heart working within an evil system. Given that my next novel is set inside the Blackshirts and I had just read March Violets, this was a timely event. How much politics should come to the fore was also discussed in a panel chaired by former Home Secretary Alan Johnson. The author of a political plot needs to avoid alienating readers by pushing a particular agenda, and characters of a different political persuasion to the writer should be written without creating caricatures. There was broad agreement that when a book is set in a time and place where great events are unfolding, these should be pertinent to the plot if not actually driving it.

Present in all the panels were discussion of how an author can cater for modern sensibilities and the sharp divides of viewpoint inherent in the current ‘culture wars’. Indeed, there were some subjects raised by the audiences which even the creators of gritty murder and thriller plots knew they must tiptoe around. We may be finally unlocked, but it is very much a case of writer beware.

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