If you like well written crime literature, you´ve probably met Charlie Resnick and Frank Elder (yes, you may buy the books from the linked pages). These Nottingham based police characters are created by John Harvey, the British award winning author.
I asked Mr Harvey to share some of his best writing tips for fiction writers – and the result is this interview.
Christian Wåhlander – Författartipsbloggen: I guess you read books now and then… could you tell me about two authors you really like – and why you like them?
John Harvey: Hemingway – for the style; his prose is precise and tight – not a word is wasted – and yet, at the same time, within that tight framework, it is rhythmic and varied.
DH Lawrence – for almost opposite reasons. His style is quite layered and repetitive (highly influenced by the King James version of the Bible); there’s a tremendous richness to it, which sometimes can be almost too much. He probes and probes away at the feelings and emotions of his characters, rarely allowing them to settle.
The best novel you´ve ever read – and the worst one!
Right now, I’d say the best is ‘So Long, See You Tomorrow‘ by William Maxwell – small and quite perfect. One wouldn’t want to change a word or a punctuation mark.
Worst, I don’t know – I’m forever starting books and then putting them aside. It doesn’t mean they’re bad, just that they don’t appeal to me personally.
You write highly appreciated ”crime novels”, tell me about what it is in that genre that attracts you.
I’ve always been a commercial writer – one who writes for a living and therefore chooses a popular form in which to write. Crime fiction allows the writer to take almost any setting and subject, any group of characters – more specifically, it allows me to write about (largely) urban life in Britain today and to cast something of a political eye over it, at the same time (hopefully) as telling a compelling story with believable characters.
I must say, I really like your plots. Could you in some way tell me how they usually emerge? Do they come to you like a nice package when you take a walk, or do you have some kind of special technique to make them… emerge?
Thank you. There’s no true beginning. An idea will lodge in my mind, often from a news report I read or listen to and I let it lay fallow for a while, waiting to see if other ideas for possible development attach themselves to it – and if they do I’ll begin to make notes about possible settings, characters et cetera. But sometimes, the beginning might be an actual sentence, the tone and promise of which attract me. or I might think it’s time I wrote about such and such a character and from that beginning, construct a story which involves them.
But the plot evolves quite slowly, and I use a large white board and coloured pens to trace the main lines of development, hoping that the links between them will become clearer as I write. Sometimes this doesn’t happen till the last moment. Sometimes not at all, and I have to go back and make changes to the overall shape of the book.
I guess you´re quite familiar with the ”patterns” and ”ingredients” used to catch the reader in novels – not least in crime literature. Could you tell me about some your ”favorite” patterns/ingredients when writing a ”crime novel”?
I don’t think I have those concepts in mind, other than what I’ve already said. Although, in an attempt to explain why people act as they do, especially in terms of some criminal behaviour, there will often be some attempt to provide a socio-economic and educational background and therefore reason for the person’s actions. I suppose that’s what you mean by ingredients.
As to patterns, from Flesh & Blood on, the narratives have become more and more complex (as compared to the earlier Resnick novels) and now I will quite often have two different protagonists operating in different areas on seemingly unconnected crimes and gradually bring them together.
When beginning a new project – what techniques do you use to organize all your ideas?
As I’ve said, I use a large white board and different colours for different elements of the plot; then I have a notebook in which I jot down ideas as they occur to me, or note key points I think it’s important to remember and come back to.
Have you ever considered starting to work as a policeman? You seem to have a sense for how to find murderers?
Good God, no!
What do you think is the most important ”writers skill” when it comes to create a novel worth reading?
For me, there are two: the ability to tell a story in such a way that the reader is always asking, ‘What then? What then?’ ; and a style which is clear and concise and yet pleasing on the inner ear.
You are also a poet. What is the relation between poetry and prose for you as a writer?
For me, the two qualities I hope I carry forward from poetry to prose are a sense of rhythm in the language and the ability to choose the right word.
When in a novel project: do you write every day / how many hours a day / how many pages a day?
It varies a little, depending upon circumstances, but basically – 5 days a week, 4 hours a day, between 750 and 1000 words.
Did you ever make a decision to ”become a writer” way back when?
Not really. I fell into it when I was looking for another way to earn a living other than teaching; I had a good friend who worked, successfully, as a writer of pulp fiction – westerns, et cetera – and, under his influence and guidance, I set out along the same path.
When writing a novel – what in your work makes you inspired?
A good sentence on the page.
What is the most boring part about writing a novel?
Those largely unavoidable parts of a crime novel which involve people knocking on doors or sitting in interview rooms, asking the same old questions – basically, the necessary procedures.
Have you ever felt, when in a project: ”this plot is crappy! I won´t be able to fix it, and people will probably laugh at it…”? And in that case – how did you proceed?
I’ve had similar problems with the book I’m currently working on; I got to a certain stage and realised, not that the plot was ‘crappy’, to use your word, rather that the two strands of the narrative I had planned to have meet, simply would not do so – at least, not in a way that was believable. So I called a halt, stepped away, and after a while, came up with a different structure and some new characters.
When you´re reading a novel – what makes you continue reading?
If I enjoy the style and/or am involved in the lives and emotions of the characters. I’m not especially interested in plot, as such – mysteries generally bore me.
What makes a novel not worth reading, in your eyes?
If the language, the style is cumbersome or lacking in distinction or quality. If there’s nothing more to a book than the story, the plot, I’ll set it aside. Also true of novels that are ‘difficult’ simply for the sake of being clever, rather than because that level of ‘difficulty’ is necessary to tell that particular story.
If a young writer asked you ”what is needed to create my first novel?”, say three things you would tell this young writer.
Read, read and read.
Here comes a real tricky question: is it something else you would have liked to be asked?
“If I had to choose one crime novel that has been unjustly neglected and overlooked what would it be?”
When I ran a small press called Slow Dancer, mainly a poetry press, we published a small amount of crime fiction and one of the novels was ‘Ladder of Angels‘ by Brian Thompson, who is better known as a television script writer and an historical novelist. He wrote one other crime novel before this, ‘Bad to the Bone‘, which was published by Viking/Penguin. I think they are amongst the very best of British crime novels in the last 20 years – sardonic, funny, perceptive, even cruel. Exceptionally well-written and both out of print.