He Started With A Wobble

Planning is the key to writing a good crime novel, according to multi-award winning novelist, Peter Lovesey.

Joan M. Moules. Writer’s Forum, May 2005

Wobble to Death was the book which won a Sunday Times first crime novel competition and started Peter Lovesey on the trail of murder. That was in 1970 and as well as winning him ฃ1000 it introduced Sergeant Cribb and Constable Thackeray who featured in eight more novels and on television.

Although it was his first fiction book, it wasn’t the first he had published. That was a sports history called The Kings of Distance which came out in 1968. It was about five long distance runners who dominated the sport in their own era, each of them setting world records. The book spanned a hundred years (1860-1960) and it taught him three important points.

1. Write interestingly about what you know and it will interest readers.

2. Planning is essential.

3. Never throw anything away.

Peter had masses of material from his researches for the unpaid articles he wrote about the sport, but for the book he confined himself to the five ‘Kings’ (two Brits, one American Indian, one Finn, and one Czech)

Peter’s early years were spent in Whitton, near Twickenham, where his father worked in a bank, and his mother at home looking after the house, her husband and three sons. He says one of his childhood ambitions was to be a magician and another was to act. His first role was in the school Nativity Play where he secured the male lead, as Joseph. He worked himself so much into the part that when the Innkeeper said there was no room, Peter pushed him aside to see for himself. After a scuffle, both boys were fitted with wings and given non-speaking parts as angels.

He vividly recalls the day in 1944 when a doodlebug (V1 – flying bomb) demolished the family home. His father was in the army and eight year old Peter was at school. ‘I remember a neighbour coming to fetch me from the school air raid shelter,’ he says. ‘She took me along my street and my house was just a heap of rubble, and there in the front garden, covered in sheets, were bodies. I thought it was my mother and two brothers, when suddenly my mother came running up the road – she had been shopping – and my brothers crawled, dirty but unhurt, through a pile of debris. They had been in the Morrison table shelter which a lot of homes had then. It saved their lives. The bodies were those of our neighbours. After that, we were evacuated to Cornwall. I have written a little about that time in Rough Cider.’

After the war Peter went to Hampton Grammar School and then Reading University to read English. In his first week there he met and fell in love with a pretty psychology student, Jacqueline Lewis (Jax). They married in 1959 during his national service days. He was an RAF Education Officer, which led to his teaching when he returned to civvy life in 1961.

Fifteen years and eight books into his writing career Peter left teaching (he was head of English at Hammersmith College by then) and became a full time writer.

‘Planning is the key to writing a good crime novel,’ he says. ‘At least for me it is.’ Like the master craftsman who checks twice and cuts once Peter plots the story in his head, jotting down important twists and surprises that are essential ingredients in a good mystery. He doesn’t write drafts but he does write a ten to twelve page synopsis of the plot in detail. For him the planning of the book is crucial ‘Once this foundation has been laid, there’s great pleasure to be had from the joy of finding the right words.’

Peter uses real settings. ‘I like the challenge of fitting my story into the map of a place,’he says. In Waxwork he used the real Victorian hangman, James Berry, but the rest of the characters were fictional. Waxwork was the last of the series involving Sergeant Cribb and Constable Thackeray and these books eventually became eight one-hour television scripts. The two detectives went on to feature in six more specially written television stories which Peter and his wife Jax wrote between them for Granada. They divided the work (each doing three) because the scripts were wanted quickly.

‘Never turn down work if you know you are capable of doing it. Fit in with an editor or producer’s requirements if possible. You never know what other openings it may lead to.’

Peter always reads his dialogue aloud, ‘Once you’ve found a voice, a forceful, positive voice, it makes for a compelling story. Believe in it.’

He also enjoys writing short stories. Again, there is something satisfying about the structure of a good short story and he likes variety and tackling something different.

‘You have the freedom to do this in a short story. If it doesn’t work, you haven’t spent a year without earning a living, as you have with a book that flops.’

Recognising that self-promotion is increasingly expected of authors, he tours with two other writers on the Wanted For Murder tour, and in 2003 they issued a CD of songs, verse, readings and discussion that they do in the touring show. His acting talents come into their own in this and in the many talks he gives around the country.

Peter is an early riser and works to a routine. Eight to five with a couple of hours break during the day and many cups of coffee while working. Some of his time has to be set aside for answering letters from his agent, publishers, and readers. He describes himself as ‘not a workaholic but a hard worker enjoying what I do.’ Seldom does he fall prey to writer’s block. ‘I certainly have times when I find it very hard to move, but I edge around the obstruction, simply persevering until the breakthrough comes. It always does, the flow returns and I’m away again. The planning helps here because I know where the book is going.’

He stresses that it is different for everyone but this is the method that works for him. ‘Crime writing is satisfying because you have to work out a plot with puzzle or mystery that has to be resolved by the end. It imposes a structure that you don’t necessarily have with other types of book. It is a disciplined form of writing which appeals to me.’

In 1991 Peter wrote his first contempory novel, The Last Detective, which introduced Peter Diamond. ‘I had a very odd experience with him. I’ve talked about plotting my books in some detail before writing them. Towards the end of The Last Detective, there was a scene when he was in trouble, up before the Assistant Chief Constable for slamming a twelve-year-old boy against a wall and putting him in hospital. It sounds worse than it was; he was trying to make an arrest and the boy deliberately blocked his way. But while I was writing the reprimand scene, Diamond took over. I had an irresistible sense that this character wasn’t going to allow himself to be roasted by his superior. He was going to give as good as he got and resign from the police. So he did. I had to write two more Diamond books (Diamond Solitaire and The Summons) to get him back on track.’

The Diamond Series has now run to eight books and in The House Sitter, a woman, Detective Chief Inspector Henrietta Mallin from Bognor is introduced. We hear much more from her in Peter’s latest offering, The Circle, which is set in Sussex and was published in February 2005. Diamond, from Bath, makes a brief appearance in this new book which leaves the door intriguingly open.

‘So what comes first?’ I asked Peter, ‘Plot or characters.’

‘Different each time. The initial idea can come from anywhere. Sometimes it’s the background, a character, a theme, but usually the plot, yes. For instance the inspiration for Rough Cider came from a non-fiction book on cider making. I read that they hung a joint of meat inside the barrel of cider to assist fermentation. That got my criminal mind working, and I thought, instead of a leg of lamb in there, suppose it was a skull that turned up?’

He writes the idea down and over many weeks adds other thoughts about the way it could work. The what, where, when, why, who and how. At this stage it could be jettisoned if he wasn’t satisfied he had a good story. ‘Crime books can be set anywhere,’ he says, and one of the most important things is to structure your story well. A strong backbone, an original idea, believable characters (although they can, and maybe one of them should, be slightly over the top)’ Peter also said that dialogue was vital. ‘Your characters come alive by the way they talk as much as by what they say.’

When the subject of titles came up Peter said he thought they were enormously important, but for him they are a treat in store for when he’s finished the book. He works out a top ten and eliminates until there are three left. ‘Then, out of nowhere it seems, comes the only possible title, utterly different from the ones I’ve been playing with. Only rarely have I thought of the title while writing the book.’

Peter’s interest in athletics is still strong. He wrote The Official History of the Amateur Athletic Association and often does articles for sports magazines. (Sometimes, he says, he gets paid for them.) As well as the crime novels he has published four collections of short stories and his work has won awards in many countries. A member of the Society of Authors and Past Chairman of The Crime Writers Association, he has won both their Silver and Gold Dagger Awards (Silver three times and Gold once) and in millennium year the prestigious Cartier Diamond Dagger for contributions to crime writing since 1970. Writing as Peter Lear he did three suspense novels, Golden Girl, Spider Girl and The Secret of Spandau. Several of Peter’s books have been televised, most recently On the Edge, as Dead Gorgeous; and he does consultancy work for other TV productions.

A perfectionist, as befits someone born under the sign of Virgo, his calmness and sense of fun belies the hard work he puts in every day to produce one novel and several short stories and articles each year.

‘I’m a deplorably slow writer,’ he says, ‘but a page a day becomes a substantial novel in a year.’ He enjoys the speaking engagements, but writing novels is still his main activity, and he smiles happily when he remembers how his original ‘wobble’ led to the career he loves.

© Joan. M. Moules.