Saturday, April 12, 2014

Guest post - Stephen Booth

Aline here. I'm delighted to welcome Stephen Booth to Type M.  He's a highly successful British writer with a string of awards and commendations, notably as the winner of the CWA's Dagger in the Library and the Barry Award for the Best British Crime Writer of the Year; he's been a finalist in the Gold Dagger too. His books have been published in fifteen languages and recently his back list novel, Black Dog – which he talks about here – has been taking America by storm since it was published by HarperCollins ebook imprint, Witness Impulse (my publisher too!)

Here in Britain we're hoping to see his Peak District series, set in scenic Derbyshire, on our TV screens before long.

Time is a strange thing for a writer. It can be a friend, or an enemy. And I’m not just talking about those pesky deadlines which make such an interesting sound when they go whooshing past.

When you write a series of mystery novels, you find yourself switching between two parallel timelines – the real one that your families and friends exist in, and a fictional one inhabited by your characters. In a way, we’re all Time Lords living in a Dr Who episode. I’m very aware that my protagonists, detectives Ben Cooper and Diane Fry, are aging much more slowly than I am. When they reach middle-age, I suspect they’ll regenerate into younger versions of themselves.

The relationship with fictional time becomes more difficult to handle as years pass in the real world. We all like to think we improve as writers over time, that each book we produce is better than the last, thanks to our finely honed plotting techniques. But for readers, all those books exist simultaneously. When you’re 14 books into a series, the worst thing a well-meaning reader can say to you is: “I think your first book is the best one.” So I’ve been going downhill ever since, have I? I might as well give up now…

Sometimes, it’s nice if we can allow our first book to settle gently into history and become a ghostly memory. But often the ghost comes back to haunt us.

I wrote my first novel when I was 12 years old. It was a science fiction story about astronauts landing on a planet and meeting aliens (well, it was the 1960s!). For years, I worried that my mother had kept that juvenile sci-fi epic hidden in a drawer and would one day produce it for visitors like an embarrassing childhood photograph. It never happened, for which I’m eternally grateful.

But what if your book has been published, and begins to take on a life of its own? The first novel in my series about two young Derbyshire police detectives Black Dog was written way back in 1998. That might not seem such a long time ago, but it was a different century, a different millennium, a world wholly unlike the one we live in now. The internet was a thing most of us thought was imaginary. People didn’t walk around permanently plugged into their smartphones and MP3 players. We even trusted our bankers.

In the newspaper office I worked in back in the 90s, we had just one cellphone. It was kept locked in the news editor’s desk and was issued only when someone needed to be in touch with the office and might not be able to get to a public phone box. Reporters and photographers fought over the privilege of using this amazing device. It was about the size of a house brick, and you had to be careful not to snap off the antenna.

In the police service, junior officers weren’t issued with cellphones either. As detective constables, Ben Cooper and Diane Fry wouldn’t have had phones at the time, only radios. But I recall thinking that cellphones were becoming more common, so I decided to let my characters have them in that first story. It was a good choice!

I’ve been thinking about this passage of time recently. Thanks to the digital-first imprint Witness Impulse, my early Cooper & Fry novels have been getting a new lease of life in the USA through ebook editions. The series was re-launched from the beginning with Black Dog. Amazingly, it sold so well that it reached number 1 on Barnes & Noble’s Nook bestseller list.

So thousands of new readers have been picking up a book written in the dim and distant 1990s and no doubt expecting it to be a contemporary novel, since it’s only just appeared on their ebook readers. And they find themselves reading about characters who drive around in cars no one has manufactured for years, young police officers who marvel at the ability to communicate via cellphone and never think of googling someone they’re interested in. Ben Cooper actually goes into a bookstore for information, for heaven’s sake. And people shop at Woolworth’s. Woolworth’s!

I can only assume that readers accept the fact they’re reading something historical. They must be taking all the archaisms into account, the way you do when you’re reading a Sherlock Holmes story and enjoying a description of Holmes and Watson travelling in a horse-drawn cab through a Victorian fog so thick that it obscures the gas lamps.

But of course Black Dog was a contemporary novel when I wrote it. There’s nothing I can do now to make those distant versions of Ben and Diane aware of 9/11, or anything that’s happened in the world since 1998. Strangely, this means that Cooper & Fry are still aged in their twenties for many readers in the USA, while here in the UK we’ve reached Book #14, so the same characters are well into their thirties and know all about the banking crisis and the use of social media Those two timelines are rapidly becoming three.

And then there’s the prospect of a TV series. Cooper & Fry are currently in development for a UK crime drama. Once you sign over your rights for the small screen, you enter a whole different universe where your characters begin to evolve in unexpected directions. If that happens, I might just go back into my Tardis and shut the door. My world is much bigger on the inside anyway.


Hannah Dennison said...

Welcome to Type M Stephen! Your comment about the cell phone made me laugh. My first newspaper job was in 1977. I was a cub reporter and was always getting lost on Dartmoor and Exmoor (my patch) - no pay phones even. Congrats on your TV series - I'll look out for that and hope they keep your vision :)

Rick Blechta said...

Great to see you gracing our humble blog pages, Stephen, with an excellent and interesting post.

Stephen Booth said...

Thanks, folks! It's good to be here. :)