I am now well in to Book 4 of my Much Winchmoor Mysteries. It’s going pretty well and I’m having so much fun catching up with all the old characters and mixing them up with a few new ones.
I have the murder method, the murderer, the victim and, of course, an entire shoal of red herrings to, hopefully, mislead my readers. I have the ongoing romance between my main character, Kat, and her long suffering boyfriend, Will plus an added complication in the shape of a tall, good looking Irishman with a voice that could melt the polar ice caps.
I’ve also got some new animals to add to the ones that have already appeared in the previous three books. These are Prescott, the feisty little Jack Russell whose bark is worse than his bite, Rosie the laid back labrador and Prescott’s best friend a gorgeous Irish wolfhound called Finbar. Then, there is the pub cat called Pitbull and, new to the gang, the vicar’s cockerpoo called Archie.
But what I haven’t got is a title. And it’s driving me mad. At the moment, the book is called MW4, which I don’t think my publisher will go for as it won’t look very good on the cover.
I’ve never had trouble with titles before. In fact, sometimes the title has been the inspiration for the book or story. (Wouldn’t you just love to have come up with “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, one of my favourite titles ever. I’m not sure why, maybe because it takes me to the original quotation, from John Donne’s poem which includes the lines “never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” Chilling!)
Much of my writing career has been spent writing for magazines where it doesn’t pay to be precious about titles because they will inevitably be changed… and not always for the better. I once wrote a story about a little boy who was embarrassed by his mother’s big swirly cape that caused havoc wherever she went (based on a real life event that my son claims to have been traumatised by). I called it “Here Comes Batman” but the magazine changed to “Oi! Boy Wonder.” Hmm.
My latest serial that has recently finished in My Weekly was inspired, as are many of my stories, by a dog. This one was called Monk who’s a Search and Rescue Dog and the story opens with Monk, alone on a mountain, searching for his owner who’s gone missing.
I loved that opening. So I’ve set it out below, just because I can!
Monk. Opening scene.
The dog stood at the point where the rough stone track forked into two. He sniffed the chill November air. He smelt sheep further up the left hand track. He smelt a sandwich wrapper to the right and his empty stomach grumbled at the thought of food. He smelt rain, thick and heavy, as it swept down the valley and up the fell sides towards him.
But he did not smell what he was searching for. He did not smell the familiar scent of the man. The man who’d trained him, all those years ago, to search the mountains for people who’d got lost. And now, he, the man, was lost. And the dog was searching for him.
And even though he was now an old dog, his legs not as strong as they used to be back when he could run up and down these mountains all day without tiring, yet his nose and his brain were as sharp as ever.
So he’d keep looking, like he’d been trained to do, until he found the man.
He knew no other way.
Does that make you want to read on? I hope so.
I wanted the title of the story to be ‘Monk’. It’s an unusual name for a dog and I felt it set the tone of the story. Needless to say, it was changed and became Castlewick Crag which was ok. It’s an editor’s privilege and they probably know what appeals to their readers better than I do. But I still preferred Monk and if I ever expand the story to a full length novel which I may well do as I loved the characters, particularly Monk, so much I shall revert to my original title of Monk. Something to look out for.
The first short story I ever had published had a brilliant title, even though I say it myself and this one wasn’t changed. Wouldn’t you want to read a story called “Angels on Oil Drums”? That story always retains a very special place in my heart.
But, back to my current work in progress. MW4 and its lack of a suitable title. I’ve spent far too long fiddling around with various ideas, none of which appeal. When it comes to choosing a title, it’s very much a question of “I’ll know it when I see it.”
My problem is I haven’t seen it yet.
And this is where I am reaching out for help. On my Facebook author page, I have set up a post asking for suggestions for a title based on the opening (very short) chapter.
This is it. (Or at least, the present version of it. It will probably change but the gist of it will remain)
MW4. Opening scene
The top of the tower of the church of St Oswald in the small Somerset village of Much Winchmoor was the perfect spot for a bird’s eye view of the village, spread out like a relief map some one hundred feet below. To one side, the village nestles in the curve of the Mendip Hills while the other side is a view across low lying willow-fringed pastureland towards Glastonbury Tor and beyond.
According to the poster on the church noticeboard, it was the perfect spot, too, from which to launch 35 teddy bears in a week’s time. The proud owners (or, as was more likely, their parents) had each paid £3 to watch their precious bears abseil down off the tower, thereby boosting the fund for the restoration of the children’s play area by £105.
It would be, the poster promised, a fun day out for all the family with refreshments and bric a brac stalls in the church grounds.
Realisation came in a flash. Because it was also, without doubt, the perfect spot to commit a murder.
After all, abseiling is only the second fastest way down a church tower.
Ok, so that’s the gist of it. No prize for guessing what the murder method is going to be. But there may well be a prize for coming up with a title that gives me that ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ moment. My publisher likes my titles to contain three words, if possible. (He’s thinking cover design here).
So, if you’d hop over to my author page and add a suggestion or two that would be wonderful.
It’s a great pleasure to welcome fellow crime writer, Robert Crouch, to my blog this week.
I first ‘met’ Robert on the UK Crime Book Club on Facebook. This is a brilliant group (link here) whose almost 11,000 members include a mix of readers and writers, including some very well known crime writers.
The site was set up in 2016 by David Gilchrist with the aim of discussing and promoting the work of (mostly) UK crime writers and is one of my favourite Facebook groups. I am grateful to David as, through his group I’ve come across some brilliant, new to me authors, including Robert Crouch.
I really enjoyed No Accident, the first book in a series featuring Environmental Health Officer Kent Fisher. I was intrigued by this unusual choice for a ‘sleuth’ so I contacted Robert and asked if he’d be interested in being interviewed for my column, Ideas Store in Writers’ Forum with the option of a longer interview for this blog.
Thankfully, he said yes!
The Writers’ Forum interview is in the current issue but unfortunately, as a result of lockdown the magazine’s publishers put publication on hold. It was published recently, but as many of the WH Smith stores are still closed (at the time of writing this) this issue did not reach its usual number of readers.
So I am reproducing the interview here in which I ask Robert where he gets the ideas for his books.
Ideas Store, Writers’ Forum Issue 223.
“When I had the idea to write crime fiction, I wanted to create something new and distinctive, something different from the police procedurals and private eyes novels around. I wondered if an environmental health officer (EHO) like me could solve a murder,” he explains.
“I was driving around my district when the idea came to me. There was only one small problem. You wouldn’t walk into your local council offices and ask an EHO to investigate a murder. But what if the murder wasn’t a murder? What if it was something an EHO could investigate – like a fatal workplace accident?
“If the murder was disguised as a work accident, the police would leave the investigation to environmental health. Time for my hero, Kent Fisher, to step forward in No Accident, the first novel in the murder mystery series.
“After solving the murder, he’s a local hero with the credibility to investigate more.
“Aware I’d created something unique, environmental health had to be an integral part of the stories. I could give readers a glimpse into a world they knew little about, and plunder my extensive experience for inspiration and ideas.
“I’ve used infectious diseases, such as E. coli, which can kill the vulnerable, in No Bodies, the second mystery. If anyone dies without relatives to bury them, the local council step in. I used this in No Remorse, to draw Kent into another investigation.
“In No More Lies, the police seek his assistance with a cold case, linked to a café he closed for poor hygiene ten years before. The latest novel, No Mercy, features a restaurateur from hell, who complains about the poor hygiene rating his restaurant is awarded. When he’s found dead inside his deep freezer, Kent Fisher becomes a suspect and has to solve the murder to clear his name.
“The ideas aren’t restricted to murder. Having managed an environmental health team through austerity and cuts to public services, I use my experiences in the backstory, to add more depth, conflict and drama to the novels.
“EHOs work differently from police officers. EHOs can go into most workplaces and food businesses, offering almost limitless opportunities for settings, situations and plots that will hopefully keep my stories fresh and interesting for a few more years.
“But while I may harvest my experiences for ideas, everything is fictionalised to protect people. It’s also far more exciting to write.”
Of course, Robert Crouch isn’t alone in using his day job as material for his writing. Agatha Christie herself qualified as a pharmacist’s assistant in 1917 and went on to use her extensive knowledge of pharmaceuticals in many of her novels.
A few years ago now I worked as a village correspondent for my local newspaper and covered such exciting (not!) events as parish council meetings, jumble sales and flower shows. I particularly liked covering flower shows as they always had long lists of prize-winners – and I got paid by the line.
So when I was looking for an occupation for Kat, the main character in my Much Winchmoor Mysteries series, this was an obvious choice as it gave her the opportunity to go around asking questions. She’s found, as I did, that the job doesn’t pay very well, so she’s also a dog walker (handy for discovering dead bodies in out of the way places) and a barmaid (incredibly useful for overhearing local gossip and, sometimes, careless alcohol fuelled talk).
Kat has what is called in recruitment consultant speak as a ‘portfolio career’, which, according to her is: “when you don’t have one decent full time job but a variety of rubbish part time ones that no one else wants to do and for which you get paid peanuts. With, of course, zero staff benefits, such as holiday or sickness pay.”
Do you use the experience gained in your day job in your writing? As always, I’d love to hear from you.
No Accident. The Blurb.
A former gangster is dead. It looks like an accident. Only Kent Fisher suspects murder.
When the police decide Syd Collins’ death is a work accident, they hand over the investigation to environmental health officer, Kent Fisher, a man with more baggage than an airport carousel.
He defies a restraining order to enter Tombstone Adventure Park and confronts the owner, Miles Birchill, who has his own reasons for blocking the investigation. Thwarted at every turn, Kent’s forced to bend the rules and is soon suspended from duty.
He battles on, unearthing secrets and corruption that could destroy those he loves. With his personal and professional worlds on a collision course, he knows life will never be the same again.
Inspired by Agatha Christie and Sue Grafton, Robert Crouch brings a fresh voice and a new twist to the traditional murder mystery.
‘Agatha Christie fans will love it.’ Tamara McKinley.
That made a great interview for the magazine, Robert. Thank you. Now for the ‘extras’. So, what inspires you most? Is it characters? Settings? Or maybe books you have read?
This is almost impossible to answer inspiration is everywhere. It could someone you see in the street, an overheard snippet of conversation, a headline in a newspaper, a comment on social media.
I love the characters I’ve created, the relationships they have, and the way they develop with each story. I love the South Downs setting I’ve created, Kent’s animal sanctuary, his workplace and job. I love coming up with the most complex and baffling plots I can.
But most of all, being different inspires me most.
It’s taking situations and themes you wouldn’t normally associate with crime fiction and building murder mysteries around them. A murder investigated as a work accident throws up a very different type of story and process.
My sleuth is an environmental health officer. He works differently to a police officer. When I started, I thought an EHO would struggle to investigate a murder. After all an EHO doesn’t have the powers, technology, forensic support, national database, DNA and a team of dedicated officers to help.
Instead, my EHO has to be more imaginative and creative to get to the truth. He has to work much harder and approach a murder investigation in a different way. That’s what inspires me most.
Being different certainly works for you. Your settings are great and I love the touch of authenticity your day job gives you.
So, how did your writing journey start?
Like many authors, I imagine, it began with reading. My father taught me to read the newspaper when I was four, so I had an early start. When I started senior school, English soon became my favourite subject, especially the writing stories. I always achieved high marks thanks to my love and enthusiasm for stories.
For my 13th birthday, I asked for a typewriter and produced a comic/newsletter to entertain my friends. When I’d saved enough money from my paper rounds, I bought a much sturdier portable typewriter and wrote my first novel at the age of 17.
It still sounds pretentious, no matter how I describe it. That’s why I didn’t tell the publisher my age, believing they would think I was a precocious kid who thought he knew it all. They sent me a lovely letter, which I still have, complimenting me on my characterization and dialogue, but no offer to publish.
Sometimes, I wonder if life would have been different had I revealed my age.
Life, women and work got in the way after that. While I kept writing, it wasn’t until the early 1980s that I published my first piece of work. It was an article on the harmful effects of bonfire smoke. I sold it to national magazine, Practical Gardening and received about £40, I think.
More articles followed, including a regular column in Writers’ Monthly on technology. Computers were starting to become more widely available, along with the internet and email. It was great to get in at the beginning and secure a regular feature, which ran until the magazine closed down.
But I’d always wanted to write novels. After a couple of mediocre psychological thrillers, I found my niche with murder mysteries, thanks to Miss Marple, Morse and a fictional PI called Kinsey Millhone. Determined to use what I knew, I created Kent Fisher, an environmental health officer who solved murders. The stories were intended as a contemporary classic whodunit in the vein of Agatha Christie.
Thanks to Fisher’s Fables, a humorous blog about my experiences as the manager of an environmental health team, I found my author voice. It led to my first crime novel, No Accident, being published in 2016. Since then I’ve written four more whodunits.
I remember Writers’ Monthly and have always loved technology so I probably read your column!
What about your plans for the future?
I can’t think beyond the Kent Fisher novel I’m writing. As a pantser, I don’t plan in any detail. I usually have a scene, a snippet of dialogue or a theme I’d like to develop and start from there. As I write each chapter, the story becomes more complicated. I have more ideas as I progress until I reach a point where I have a fairly good idea what the story is about.
As the actions of Kent Fisher and other characters determine where the story goes, there are always surprises in store. They don’t always behave as expected and can take the story to places I hadn’t foreseen. When this occurs in the backstory, it can have a profound effect on what follows.
Before I start the next book in the series, I have to consider all the backstory issues, like Kent’s work, his animal sanctuary, relationships. Once I know where I’m going with these, I begin to think about the murders.
As long as this continues to work, and I write to a publishable standard, I will continue with the Kent Fisher mysteries.
I’ve also started writing a collection of the humorous events that I’ve had during my career as an environmental health officer. It’s provisionally entitled, When a Health Inspector Calls, and is a work in progress.
Sounds great! I’ll look out for it. Now, tell us three things we might not know about you.
I’m half Italian, though I can’t tell you which half.
I won a national 500-word short story competition at the age of 12. This is what prompted me to ask for a typewriter for my 13th birthday.
At the age of four, I almost drowned in a swimming pool. We were in a circle, playing Ring a Ring a Roses and I went under. No one noticed for some time, I was told, so I was lucky to survive. I was 15 before I plucked up the courage to enter a swimming pool again. That’s why I’m happy to remain on dry land.
Thank you so much for a fascinating interview, Robert. It’s been fun.
In a crowded crime fiction market, it’s difficult to offer readers something original and fresh.
Inspired by his love of cosy murder mysteries, featuring characters like Miss Marple, Kinsey Millhone and Inspector Morse, Robert Crouch drew on his extensive experience as an environmental health officer to create a different kind of detective.
Only Kent Fisher’s not a detective – he’s an environmental health officer who uncovers a murder only he can solve.
This fresh approach to the murder mystery adds a contemporary and often irreverent twist to the traditional whodunit, offering readers something familiar but different.
After reading No Accident, bestselling author, Tamara McKinley, believes ‘Agatha Christie fans will loveit.’