A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forvm

The fifth Jeffrey Flint novel was to be set in Portugal, involving a Roman shipwreck. Flint was going to meet the love of his life and either she would become his permanent sidekick for future books or they would live happily ever after. ‘Blue’ never advanced beyond a first chapter, a few key scenes and a box file dedicated in its name.

My publisher was Severn House, which produced high quality hardbacks but did not at that time have a paperback arm. E-books were still stuff of science fiction. My agent and I discussed how we could ‘break out’. With my hardbacks costing £15 at a time you could buy a Wilbur Smith or Jeffrey Archer paperback for £4.99, so I was never going to achieve high volumes. This was particularly a problem when attending book fairs, literary festivals and the like – my ‘product’ was expensive and specialised. I would remain a niche author unless I was in paperback. As it is hard to jump publisher with an established character or get a paperback house to take on a previously-published hardback, I was in a quandary.

The answer was double-forked. I began to write books in a different style, but it was clear the original style was the way I wrote, so it came down to creating a new character who could be carried across into paperback unhindered by Jeffrey Flint’s backlist.

I am a complete movie nut, and have a great deal of affection for historical / fantasy / fall of Roman Empirescience fiction epics. Flint inherited this love: John Boorman’s Excalibur had inspired ‘Lady in the Lake’. I had started planning a book whereby Flint became advisor to a film akin to ‘Fall of the Roman Empire’. I needed to set it in Britain and keep clear of other epics, so the last campaign of Septimus Severus would become the subject. I had been working in York where Legio VI had adopted ‘African’ style pottery after Severus’ arrived so I was already warmed up to the period.

My agent suggested  a new character – younger, possibly female. Maddy Crowe was born and I started work on my fifth novel.

Fourth Novel

Lady in the LakeWho saw this one coming, eh? This post could have been entitled The Fun Novel, as by the time I started Lady in the Lake I was in full swing. It was the only book I sold on the basis of title alone – mostly Arthurian, but with a nod to Chandler also. Indeed when I pitched it I had only the last page planned – a good point to work towards.

King Arthur has been described as the historical character upon which more scholarly time has been wasted than on any other. The research was entertaining, and my work paralleled Jeffery Flint’s delving into the world of Arthurian myth – those who believe it literally and all shades of other opinions. I was struck again and again how Arthur refuses to die – uncomfortable archaeological finds that point to him being real (or at least, his world being real).

To an extent the book is a road trip for Flint and Tyrone around various Arthurian sites and conventions. More than in any other book they exercise their curious yin/yang male bonding, with Tyrone’s blunt realism providing the foil to Flint’s tree-hugging distrust of the modern world. It is to date their last joint outing.

With a farcical chase scene and an air of continuous disbelief that the True Excalibur has actually been found, this is probably the lightest of the series. With academics playing the two lead characters and most of the supporting cast there is ample opportunity to download that research into the book without it feeling like information-dumping. Academics love to cite facts, then argue them with other academics. With their different political perspectives, Flint and Tyrone come at the problems from different angles, chew them over and blunder towards the final confrontation.

Merlin, the Beast of Exmoor, the Hitler Werewolf murders – this book was a joy to write.

Third Novel

Keen-eyed readers of this site will have worked out that this blog was coming up sooner or later…

ShadesmoorShadesmoor was my third novel, and in many ways the easiest I have ever written. It was sold as part of a three-book deal, at which time I had a title and a synopsis. It was the last of my ‘autobiographical’ novels, in that my final stock of digging tall-stories was mined for the background. For the first time I wrote as one is supposed to  – creative writing 101.

I had an outline. I drafted a list of 30 basic chapters and their main action points. I made little cards with all the character details written down. I did not have to do much research as I’d been working in York in the recent past and details were still fresh. I did my usual series of drafts, back-writing the clues and the sub-plots once I knew I had beginning, middle and end plus the whole cast of characters.

It is also the closest I have come to a classic ‘whodunnit’, complete with country house, old vicarage, body in the study, distressed gentry and bungling police. Flint knows there has been a murder at the outset and walks into the intrigue with open eyes. Hilary Cool (one of my archaeologist colleagues) read an early draft and suggested that the textbook used in an assault was not heavy enough – and proposed a much weightier volume to add punch!

Editors were also kind. They asked for one character to be developed more, which was best served by writing a new chapter mid-way through and weaving the character into the rest of the book.

So with Shadesmoor I was in my stride, but the pressure was on. Three books in three years (which meant in real terms, nine months to write each book) was the challenge. And for book 4, I had only a title and a last page.

Byron's Shadow Byron’s Shadow was my second novel, but it was almost my first. Like many aspiring writers I had several projects on the go, part-finished or in early draft. My love of Greece inspired me to write the book – the light, the ouzo, kebabs and Nemea wine – let alone the archaeology poking from the ground in every direction. The first draft was part historical novel, part detective story. It alternated in telling the ‘historic’ story of Byron F Nichols with that of a young archaeologist called Jeffrey Flint who comes across a murder in the 1980’s.

When offered a book deal by Severn House, I set Byron aside and wrote the archaeology-detective novel that became Darkness Rises. That featured an older Jeffrey Flint getting into another scrape in England. This was followed by  a three-book in three years deal, which was great as I already had Byron in first draft and the plot of Shadesmoor sketched out.

Now I had a series, Byron needed to conform. The whole ‘historical’ story was discarded – although it remains as the ‘back story’ which only I know, and which Flint is forced to uncover fact by fact. Flint had to be young at the time of the murder, as certain fixed historical facts demanded it. This meant the book could indeed have been a ‘prequel’. However, over the table of an Indian restaurant my editor pointed out that as readers now ‘knew’ Flint and his colleagues we could not go back to his student days. It would mean unlearning the story arc he had already followed.

So the story was restructured. The two time frames now see Flint as a student stumbling across the crime, but the older (maybe even wiser) Flint travelling back to Greece to investigate. I just had time to slide a couple of references into the first book hinting at what had happened before. When the series was republished by Endeavour I took the opportunity to cheekily drop in a few more references to events in Greece. Like a multi-layered archaeological site, ‘Byron’ becomes both prequel and sequel.

Darkness RisesMy first novel Darkness Rises has been re-released as an e-book by Endeavour.

Of course, it was not my first novel. I meet new writers regularly who have finally climbed that creative mountain and produced their first book and want to rush it into print. They are surprised when I suggest it needs a few more drafts, independent editing or even needs to be put aside and treated as a ‘trainer novel’. Generally the reaction these days is to self-publish it anyway. When we read of author’s success with their ‘first novel’ it often isn’t, in truth.

Like many writers I penned my first novel as a teenager (quite literally with a pen). It was a post-apocalyptic teen survivalist story, of the kind that became popular about 30 years later.  When at university and reading a lot of science fiction, I started writing fantasy and macabre as aged 20 there was precious little real life to write about. This was long before I discovered the technical part of creative writing – I was simply after plot, pace and character. As many writers I toyed with short stories – to be told there was no market for them any more. The typed first drafts are still in the eaves, somewhere.

The decision to become a writer came when I was facing unemployment on leaving university in the dire job market of the early 1980’s. By then I had accumulated enough anecdotes from university life to write my first adult novel, the sub-David Lodge satire ‘Graverobbers’. It was sent to a few people, one of whom left a Reader’s report inside the typescript. My ears burned at the words ‘dreary and tepid’, the manuscript hurriedly went into a box to be forgotten.

Or not…

Taking greater care to study the market and writing styles, when I was 28 I produced an intensively researched Jeffrey Archer-Lite thriller set in the Caribbean (The Golden Silence). It was good enough to attract a London agent, who suggested that as the action/adventure market was overcrowded I write an archaeology thriller. I already had Byron’s Shadow partly written, but all those earlier first drafts called back to me. My fantasy short stories provided the vanished Lucy Gray and the mythology and landscape of the Darkewater Valley, while Graverobbers was cannibalised to provide the Darkewater Museum, the Dark Ants and a host of supporting characters. Shadow in the Corn was a story I already had in my head, just needing to be written down. It was re-titled and re-edited for its Kindle release.

So Darkness Rises was my first novel. Kinda…

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