Playlists are my secret weapon for writing

A Rhodes electric piano.

When I’m working on a novel or script, playing an imaginary soundtrack snaps my head back into the project and gets me ready to write – a kind of hypnotic trigger.

As a teenager, I used to make over-elaborate compilation tapes. Then I got into making complicated iTunes playlists. Since 2011, though, Spotify has been my go-to playlist playground, with what feels like all the world’s music a click or two away and clever algorithms to help me find pieces connected by mood.

The first book I recall making a soundtrack for was a now-abandoned conspiracy thriller police procedural called Long Knives. If you’re curious, here’s the playlist:

Although it’s one hour and forty minutes long, the most important tracks are the first two. The first track, ‘Electroconvulsive Shock’ by Peter Broderick, is a kind of instrumental overture that sets the mood – forlorn, minimal, ever-spiralling.

The second is a song, ‘You are a Knife’ by Danish band VETO, which I imagine playing over the opening credits of a TV adaptation or film version.

The funny thing is, neither of these is the kind of music I usually listen to. They were chosen purely because they seemed to work for the book, as if I was the music editor on that imaginary TV adaptation.

I used to make visual mood-boards and sometimes still do; this is an extension of that.

In this particular case, I think I was also after something that would help me picture the action as if it was a Scandinavian crime drama on BBC4, all washed out colours and frosty cityscapes. The theme tune I choose doesn’t sound unlike the one from The Bridge.

The book that eventually got published, The Grave Digger’s Boy, also has a soundtrack. This is more melancholy, with lots of solo piano and mournful cello, as befits a book about memory and obsession. Here it is if you fancy a listen. The same thing applies – I probably wouldn’t wander around listening to most of this music for fun and couldn’t tell you much about most of the artists.

The single most important track – one that I ended up playing on repeat for hours, sometimes – was ‘Theme’ from the 2009 soundtrack album And in the Endless Pause There Came the Sound of Bees by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

There’s a passage in the book where the protagonist, Ben, is with his mother on a beach. I found it difficult to write and extremely emotional. This music – quite cheesy, now I listen back – seemed to suggest ‘bittersweet’ perfectly and helped me access feelings that I keep buried most of the time.

Sometimes, I berate myself over the time I spend tinkering with these playlists. Why have I just wasted fifteen minutes trying to find just the right piece of music when I could have been increasing my word count? Classic displacement activity, you idiot!

Except the more I think about it, the more I think my brain knows exactly what it’s doing.

First, it’s a way of engaging with and meditating on the project without jumping straight into writing. I’m restless with a short attention span – not great for a would-be novelist – and struggle to spend time thinking when I could be cracking on. An hour spent in Spotify focusing on the mood and tone of the book, with the plot and characters slowly marinating, is progress, even if it doesn’t always seem that way.

Secondly, the playlists are important because they help me envision the finished product and conceive of it being credible and successful. If there’s a TV or film adaptation it must be good, right? And it’s certainly no worse than some of the stuff that does end up on TV. This tactic is vital in overcoming impostor syndrome and the fear of the blank page – of the 80,000 words left to write.

Once I’ve got the soundtrack, it also makes me more productive. I can listen to it while I’m walking and thus force myself to think about plot or character problems. It also means that wherever I am – the canteen at work, a hotel room, a train – I can immediately slip back into a virtual version of my own work space.

There are a couple of bits of music that I use in less specific ways.

The first track from Brian Eno’s Music for Airports has become a sort of magic reset button I can hit when I’m suffering from writer’s block. I don’t know exactly how I trained myself with this habit but it works: I hear the first couple of cycles of the piano loop and the tap comes unstuck. It also seems to magically slow my heartbeat when I’m stressed. Handy, that.

My other half isn’t a fan of Michael Nyman or Philip Glass and I’m not sure I am, necessarily, except when I’m writing, but I do find them useful.

Glass – specifically this slightly weird playlist I made myself – doubles my productivity in short bursts. Repetitive, insistent… A kind of amphetamine for writers.

Nyman, on the other hand, is where I turn if I’m working on characters and need to give my emotions a prod. In particular, his soundtrack for Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland is a go-to, giving ordinary lives a kind of poetic grandeur it’s easy to deny them.

And his song ‘If’, written for a Japanese animated adaptation of Anne Frank’s Diary, is similarly soupy but what can I say – I’m a sap. It makes me well up and sometimes I need to be in that state to write what needs writing.

One of my current works-in-progress, the title of which I’m going to be coy about for now, has a soundtrack and theme tune already. The score is a mix of Shostakovich, Bernard Herrmann and David Shire – dark, moody and just a touch spiky. The theme is this wonderfully wonky piece from Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols:

That should give you a clue about what you can expect from the book when it’s done.

And my most recently published book, a collection of ghost stories called Municipal Gothic, has its own playlist, too. It’s a mix of genuinely unsettling field recordings, discordant modern classical music and synthesiser instrumentals. I don’t listen to it for fun but when I want to get into the right frame of mind to write about revenants and ghouls, it’s just the thing.

You’ll notice that I go to quite a bit of trouble over the cover designs, too. That’s another version of the psychological trick I described above: if I can see something that looks as if it already exists, that feels as if it’s got a physical form, it encourages me to make it happen.

The Campaign for Shorter Crime Novels

A pile of slim crime novels.

Crime novels, current wisdom dictates, should be around 80,000 words long. That’s enough to fill 300-400 pages and so feel like good value to a contemporary reader. The problem is, that’s too long.

Most of my favourite crime novelists wrote short and lean. Ed McBain, Georges Simenon, Gladys Mitchell, Ruth Rendell, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Sjöwall & Wahlöö… All of these writers produced classics at around 150-220 pages, or 50-60,000 words.

Here are estimated word counts based on various sources including MetaFilter, and

  • Chandler, The Big Sleep – 57,000
  • McBain, Sadie When She Died – 55,000
  • Rendell, A Judgement in Stone, 59,000
  • Sjöwall & Wahlöö, The Laughing Policeman – 60,000
  • Simenon, The Yellow Dog – 40,000

When I’m deciding what to read, I’m often drawn to slim paperbacks – the kind that fit in your inside pocket. It’s partly about time and patience, of course, but that tight page count also signals efficient writing.

Maybe longer crime novels are better

Perhaps the fact that crime novels have grown longer is good news. Perhaps it means they’re deeper and more complex. Well, not in my experience.

Last year, I made a point of reading a stack of recently published books to help me improve the commercial prospects of my own work-in-progress. While I enjoyed most of what I read, and even recommended some of those books to other people, I did notice quite a bit of what felt like padding.

For example, one character spent a lot of time in Waitrose browsing ready meals. Then unpacking her shopping. Then cooking per the instructions given on the packaging. Then eating while pondering an office romance.

The protagonist of another book undertook renovation work on a flat. This had nothing to do with the plot; it did not reveal anything much about the character other than that they weren’t very good at DIY; and slowed the story down when it should have been accelerating.

You might say diversions like the above add realism and make characters more relatable but I can’t help thinking that if the target word count had been 60,000 words, these would have been the first sections lost to the red pen of a surgical editor. Or, at least, condensed to a single line: ‘She spent too long at the supermarket choosing what to eat for dinner, ate alone, and fell asleep on the sofa.’

I’m a slasher… of words

The first draft of my current project is finished at just over 70,000 words. The voice of the industry is telling me to flog it to 80,000 words, somehow – perhaps by introducing an aimless sub-plot or two, a prologue that will probably annoy people, or some extended moping and brooding by my protagonist.

But my own instinct is in the other direction. I want to hack away at descriptions, get characters from A to B faster and make the dialogue more sparse. If I follow that urge, I reckon I’ll be left with – hey, fancy that! – about 60,000 words.

General writing advice agrees: kill your darlings, remove filler words, combine or remove characters, make sure every scene moves the plot forward or develops your characters, and so on.

I think I’ve decided that I want to write a tight, economical crime novel of the type I like to read. That might well reduce its already slim chances of getting published – “Yeah, thanks for sending us half a book – are you planning to write the rest of it at some point?” – but it will feel right to me.

Although evidence seems to suggest that readers are hungry for long books, I’m hopeful the tide might turn. There’s certainly a growing backlash against films that don’t earn running times of more than two hours and I’m certainly drawn to anything at 90 minutes or less.

Municipal Gothic

Municipal Gothic

Why is my novel called The Grave Digger’s Boy? Well, finding out is part of the fun, but here’s something I’ve kept a bit quiet until now: I’m a grave digger’s boy.

For a year or so when I was at junior school, my dad had a job as a grave digger for the council.

At the time, I thought this was pretty cool. I enjoyed telling other kids who would either recoil or want to know more.

There certainly were macabre stories – days spent opening up old graves so the newly-dead could join their spouses or siblings, boots through the rotten lids of coffins, slips and falls among the mud and bones…

But it was also utterly mundane. Rotas and requisition orders, job sheets and sheds. Cheese and pickle sandwiches in the back of the van, sheltering from the rain.

Part of being a writer is throwing different ideas into your brain and letting them bounce around until they stick together in interesting ways.

So if The Grave Digger’s Boy is ingredient one, here’s number two, freshly added: John Braine’s The Vodi, which I came across as part of my #reading1959 project, has been described as ‘kitchen sink gothic’ – bleak social realism with an added flavour of the sinister supernatural.

Suddenly, I realise that lots of things I’ve written or have been working on that I’d thought were separate and distinct, aren’t.

For example, there’s my big work in progress – the epic novel I expect to finish in a decade or so that I jokingly refer to as War and Peace but set on a council estate. When I launched into writing last year, something happened that I hadn’t planned or expected: incidents of the uncanny began to manifest in what was supposed to be raw realism.

Here’s an example, from the opening, set in 1957, as two central characters arrive at a half-built council estate after dark, late at night:

John Patrick slammed the brakes on and the little car jerked to a dead stop. He turned off the headlights and they sat in the dark as the engine ticked.

‘Will you bloody give over? We’re nearly there.’

Another sigh, softer, came from between her dark lips.

‘You’re gorgeous, you are,’ he said after a moment. ‘Like a film star.’

She tutted. ‘Well? Go on, you daft sod.’

He looked at her for a moment longer and then pushed a lick of his brown Bryclreemed hair back into place behind a big ear.

‘It’ll all look better in daylight.’

He switched the lights back on and they both started.

Staring back at them from the road was a big cat, as big as a man, with oily black fur and eyes reflecting back as yellow stars.

Irene shrank back in her seat.

The engine purred.

The cat licked its lips, yawned, and bolted away.

After a few seconds, Irene cut into the silence.

‘What the bloody hell was that?’

With a shaking hand, John took the cigarette from between his lips, snuffed it, and tucked it behind his ear.

‘A large female yaws,’ he said.

‘Yaws? What’s a yaws?’

‘A-Mild and a-bitter with a whisky chaser, a-thank you kindly.’

Elsewhere in the story, there’s the ghost of a dead sibling and an echo of Bella in the Wych Elm – “Who Took Mary Cook?” The UFO my dad swears blind he saw might turn up, too.

Another novel, abandoned for now, tentatively titled The Red Lodge, combines the case of the Lamb Inn haunting with the modern trend for buildings ‘protected by occupation’:

“Charlie boy!”

A hand on my arm, those fat digits digging into my bones.

“I’ve missed seeing you.”

“Hello, Uncle Bernard.”

His hand dropped away and he looked me up and down.

“You look like shit,” he said, rummaging in his pocket for a bunch of keys.

I said nothing.

He slapped flatfootedly towards the temporary steel gate with its warning signs and chains and opened the padlocks one by one.

Together, we dragged the gate across rough concrete, scratching a white semi-circle.

Bernard drew on his vape stick and exhaled a blueberry flavoured cloud around his unruly head as he considered the overgrown driveway.

“Got decent boots on? Let’s walk.”

I looked down at my well-worn, thin-soled Adidas trainers, but didn’t protest.

“It’s a lot of land,” I said, partly to break the uncomfortable rhythm of our synchronised steps.

Amid the brambles were the remains of concrete and brick structures, pieces of pipe cut off a few inches above ground, and chunks of rusting machinery. Here and there were burst bags of rubbish, hurled over the fence and left for rats and gulls to tear apart. A lone shoe grew moss.

“Lovely, isn’t it?”

He wasn’t being sarcastic – to Bernard, it really did look beautiful, a virgin plain beyond the frontier.

“They built parts for planes here before the War, until they moved production under Salisbury Plain.”

The house was getting nearer, flooding the horizon with a wall of red.

“There were Italian prisoners of war here until 1947, working on the farms.”

Beneath our feet, concrete gave way to smooth asphalt and Bernard began fingering his keys again.

We stopped at the doorway with its clamshell hood and four white stone steps as Bernard muttered to himself, irritated: “Fucking thing… Checked it before I left the office… Should have… Fuck sake…”

I could hear the motorway in the distance – a constant exhalation – and the wind shaking the brambles, but there was also something else – a high, secret sound.

A signal.

And, of course, right in plain view, I’ve been writing about haunted council houses and factories:

In more concrete terms (no pun intended) is there perhaps something about the way the houses were constructed? In the Sunderland case journalist Ken Culley slept in the haunted bedroom but, despite apparently making every effort to spook himself, saw no evidence of anything supernatural. What he did observe was that the construction of the house made it simultaneously cold and stuffy, and that opening the window caused a localised breeze to swirl around the foot of the bed, numbing his feet. Light and airy may have been the intention but large rooms with high ceilings, sparsely furnished, offer great potential for echoes, reflections and strange circulations.

Focusing on the connections between all of this, more items from the memory banks presented themselves – a body of family stories, from the morbid Lancastrian side, that must have settled in my subconscious.

Greaty Aunt Ann, for example, who tried to kill herself by walking into the sea but came back to shore to get an umbrella when it started raining.

The great-great-uncle who tramped around the country during the depression of the 1930s sleeping in graveyards: “They’re safer than anywhere else; it’s the wick ‘uns outside you’ve to worry about.”

A vague tale of a relative, or family friend – urban legend, more likely – who worked as night-watchman at a funeral parlour and ran screaming from the premises when at two in the morning, through the action of tightening muscles and trapped air, a corpse sat up and groaned at him.

My grandmother’s story of a childhood acquaintance from Crawshawbooth who awoke to find a rat that had eaten its way into her bedroom from the attic chewing at the tip of her nose and cheeks.

My current project, which I’m unsubtly trailing on Twitter, sits in the same territory – the darkness of recent past, the modern world weighed down by the old, blood on the lino.

‘Kitchen-sink gothic’ is good – and there’s an anthology that uses that title. I gather ‘gothic realism’ is also a term that sometimes pops up. But I prefer ‘municipal gothic’, perhaps because it suggests a Venn diagram of two of my favourite projects, Hookland and Municipal Dreams.

I’ve been writing municipal gothic by accident until now but I reckon it’ll be deliberate from here on.

He’s a creep, he’s a weirdo

A figure in an alleyway.

In writing The Grave Digger’s Boy, I didn’t want to take a detective character off the peg and so created Ben Hodge – a loner, but not in a cool way; and, frankly, a bit odd.

Having grown up with Inspector Morse, on TV and in print, and later graduating to Scandinavian crime writing, from the earliest books I wrote (unpublished) I’ve tried to avoid the obvious tropes.

I just didn’t feel there was room for another middle-aged police officer struggling with personal relationships, drinking too much, driving a vintage car and obsessing over one genre of music or another.

And then, of course, there’s Monkfish:

My first attempts to break free of cliche didn’t really work.

I tried writing detectives who were professional, didn’t drink to excess and had functional families. An interesting exercise in realism but a recipe for boredom: Detective Inspector Graham Beige.

Next, I thought about what a 35-year-old detective might actually do in their spare time in the 21st century and came up with a character who sat in the dark playing video games.

Do you know what? This almost worked. But… It’s not very sexy, is it? (Sorry, gamers.)

In recent years, I worked on multiple versions of multiple novels about an uptight careerist struggling to make connections with his colleagues partly because he doesn’t drink.

This was better, and I still hold out hope for pulling this together in a meaningful way, but in writing a cold character unsure of his identity, I ended up with one lacking personality.

In recent years, there’s been a trend for distinguishing otherwise generic detective characters by giving them mental health conditions: uncontrollable rage, multiple personality disorder, psychotic delusions, autism, obsessive compulsive disorder…

I played with this a little, too: one detective was maintaining an imaginary dialogue with a dead colleague via voicemail; another was haunted by a manifestation of the persona he’d inhabited while undercover – a sort of partner who existed only in his head.

Again, these were interesting ideas, but didn’t quite cohere as I hoped.

In Ben, it feels as if it all came together.

That’s partly because I started with a character in a moment and let the story grow from there.

At points in constructing the plot of The Grave Digger’s Boy, I would find Ben pulling to do things I didn’t want him to do, that didn’t work for the story as I’d envisioned it.

But I couldn’t stop him, could I? The character had an internal power source of its own and would go where it wanted to go.

So, Ben behaves compulsively, inappropriately and badly at times. He’s awkward, emotionally stunted and not terribly likeable, at least on the surface.

What should happen, what I gather from reviews is happening, is that Ben grows on people. Or, at least, they come to understand him, even if they wouldn’t particularly want him to be their new flatmate.

And he does ‘grow’, as the cliche goes. His adolescent fascination with Esther Garrett, and the way it manifests, is a reflection of immaturity – of a childhood disrupted and interrupted.

Lots of young men are a bit like Ben when we’re young – I certainly was, which of course helped me write him. But we learn through life, university, work and relationships how to function.

Ben is a person who lacked those opportunities, or failed to seize them, and so is only half there when the novel begins. At the end, he’s whole, for better or worse.

You can buy the book via Amazon UK or Amazon US. If you’ve already read it, please rate it and/or leave a review either there or at Goodreads.

Publication day reflections

The Grave Digger's Boy

I’ve been waiting a long time for this and now it’s here, it feels… weird. Good. But weird.

It’s one thing to daydream about being a writer but quite another to know that people are actually downloading something you’ve written and reading it.

I’m as nervous about family reading it as I am about strangers. I feel exposed altogether.

I’ve done everything I can. I had the idea. I wrote the book. I rewrote the book. I rewrote the book. I rewrote the book.

It’s as good as I can make it, and I’m proud of it.

But will readers like it?

The reviews so far are good, which is encouraging.

(If you have time to leave an honest rating and/or review, by the way, that would be great.)

But there’s a lot riding on it, for me at least: if this book is successful, however you choose to measure that, it increases the likelihood that I’ll get to write another, which I so badly want to do.

I’ve got the next idea in mind – something set in post-war Bristol – and have started plotting and researching.

Anyway, publication day. Here it is. There the book goes, out of my control, no longer mine to own.

The Grave Digger’s Boy is available via Amazon in the UK and US and is best enjoyed as an eBook, though a paperback is also available.

Agatha Christie and Dario Argento: playing fair in crime fiction

Profondo Rosso.

Heads-up: this post doesn’t contain spoilers, I don’t think, but does discuss the mechanics of structure and plot.

Although The Grave Digger’s Boy is a wintry psychological thriller very much in the contemporary style there is one very old-fashioned thing about it: it plays fair with the reader, as per the rules established by the mystery writers of the golden age.

I’ve mentioned Hillary Waugh before. He’s best known as the author of what is arguably the first police procedural novel, Last Seen Wearing, published in 1952, but also wrote a manual of crime writing that was my bible as a teenager.

In Mysteries and Mystery Writing he discusses at length the conventions that emerged in the 1920s through the works of writers such as Agatha Christie and S.S. Van Dine, as recorded by Ronald Knox in 1929.

Here’s an edited version of the list:

  • The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
  • All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  • Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  • No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  • No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  • The detective himself must not commit the crime.
  • The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
  • The ‘sidekick’ of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  • Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

They were in some ways a reaction against earlier writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, in his Sherlock Holmes stories, frequently sprang surprises on readers, resorted to imaginary poisons, or the intervention of previously unmentioned animals.

If Agatha Christie had written, say, ‘The Speckled Band’, she would have felt obliged to mention at the outset of the story that Grimesby Roylott kept snakes, which Conan Doyle did not.

Adherence to these rules encouraged the development of ingenious tricks amounting to a literary version of the misdirection techniques used in magic – putting clues in plain view but in such a way that the reader’s eyes don’t settle on them, announcing a clue here while letting of a flash-bang there, and so on.

After a while, though, readers got wise.

If there were any cakes with almond around, you knew cyanide would be involved.

If anybody’s face got ‘obliterated’, you knew the victim wasn’t who everyone supposed it to be.

Solutions became tortuous, playing fair by the letter of the law, but going against the spirit, especially in so-called ‘locked room’ mysteries, so that readers once again began to feel short-changed.

The rules, which were never really rules, remember, were eventually overturned by hardboiled crime writers such as Raymond Chandler. They were more concerned with mood and character than games or puzzles. Here’s what Chandler wrote in his essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’:

I suppose the principal dilemma of the traditional or classic or straight deductive or logic and deduction novel of detection is that for any approach to perfection it demands a combination of qualities not found in the same mind. The coolheaded constructionist does not also come across with lively characters, sharp dialogue, a sense of pace, and an acute use of observed detail. The grim logician has as much atmosphere as a drawing board. The scientific sleuth has a nice new shiny laboratory, but I’m sorry I can’t remember the face. The fellow who can write you a vivid and colourful prose simply will not be bothered with the coolie labour of breaking down unbreakable alibis.

As a teenager, I was a Chandler obsessive, and came to dismiss Christie.

Growing older and wiser, though, I’ve come to appreciate her artistry and to be less impressed by the dazzle of Chandler’s prose.

Dame Agatha was a brilliant technician and the best of her books have the lightness of P.G. Wodehouse laid over a cast iron structure.

And others have since shown that fair play certainly needn’t mean a lack of atmosphere or art.

Dario Argento, the Italian filmmaker most famous for the bloody and stylish supernatural thriller Suspiria, started out making gialli – a type of crime movie which typically features black-gloved killers picking off victims one after the other in gruesome ways.

Despite sharing some DNA with slasher films such as Halloween or Friday the 13th, the best giallo also draw on Agatha Christie and other classic mystery writers.

Argento’s Profondo Rosso, or Deep Red, is simultaneously the most beautiful and unnerving of all the giallo and the fairest crime story ever put on film. I certainly had it in mind while working on The Grave Digger’s Boy. (I can’t say more without spoiling both my book and Argento’s film, which I highly recommend.)

My novel isn’t an Agatha Christie – nobody gets stabbed with a knife made of ice in the library of a country house; there’s no rounding up of suspects in the drawing room at the end – but I do think a reader who is really paying attention will be able to work out ‘whodunnit’.

Good luck!

You can pre-order The Grave Digger’s Boy for 99p right now. It’s out on Monday 19 August.

Estates, graveyards, flats and fields

A foggy housing estate.

I’ve tried writing all sorts of novels in various settings but somehow, mysteriously, always find the characters drifting back to housing estates, council graveyards, rented flats, rundown pubs and fields on the edge of town.

There’s an obvious reason for this: it’s the world I live in and have always lived in. It’s the world most of us live in.

Bins in the yard. Litter in the hedgerows. Brambles and bus stops.

Terraced houses.

In fact, I have a suspicion that if you could climb into my brain and wander about, you’d find a landscape that resembles the outskirts of a fading town – all traffic-calming measures, ditches and fly-tipping.

In other novels I’ve written (unpublished, as yet) these settings have crept up on me. The stories somehow always leading police officers away from the nice end of town to the terraces and industrial parks where I feel at home.


I used to worry that people would find this boring and un-glamorous but, growing more confident in my instincts, I’ve come to think it only enhances the horror of the crimes I’m writing about.

After all, these are the places where murders really happen, where murderers really live and work – next door to you, me and Auntie Pat.

I want people to respond the way I do when I watch Car Share or This Country only with added unease.

When I describe suburban houses that are a little worse for wear I hope people will think, oh, I’ve been here.

If I describe the broken windows of an unremarkable Gothic chapel in an overgrown cemetery, I want the reader to picture a place they know.

We’ve all stopped to buy something at the One-Stop Shop on the new estate on the edge of town. We’ve all been to a christening in a post-war church on a new estate. We’ve all seen sitting rooms full of laundry, toys and half-finished cups of tea.

Like the details I’ve borrowed from true crime, these help sell the fiction.


The Grave Digger’s Boy takes place in London, Exeter and Okehampton, with a brief excursion to Birmingham, but even so there’s a touch of Subtopia in the treatment: dual carriageways, waiting rooms, scraps of woodland, new-builds and laybys that could be almost anywhere.

Though I can’t claim to have done it consciously, this all echoes the sense of drift and loneliness that defines the protagonist, Ben Hodge. He doesn’t belong anywhere but that’s fine because everywhere is nowhere.

How rural bus rides inspired The Grave Digger’s Boy

Fogged up windows on a bus.

My novel, The Grave Digger’s Boy, starts on a country bus and comes back to that setting multiple times. In fact, the book was largely inspired by two separate experiences on buses.

The first took place outside in Devon where I heard a stranger telling fairy tales of violence on the upper deck.

It was outside Okehampton on a country road in the rain. The chassis was shaking and wet branches kept booming against the steamed-up windows.

The young man was wearing grey tracksuit bottoms. He gripped a plain black holdall in one hand and a tiny mobile phone in the other, which was pressed against his ear.

His voice was loud – he wanted the other passengers to hear the news, that he’d just got out of prison, that he’d nearly killed somebody in a fight, that he never paid for bus tickets because the drivers were too scared to make him, that he was nearly home and ready to get drunk, stoned, laid.

Prison, he announced, was a piece of piss. It wasn’t his first time, he said, and he didn’t expect it to be his last.

I didn’t make eye contact or, I hope, show any sign that I could perceive his existence. I looked into the fog on the glass or at my hands and occasionally into the middle distance.

It wasn’t just me – nobody on the bus seemed to be aware of him which only made it all the more obvious that everybody was. He was a black hole.

That got me thinking about how people, and maybe especially British people, react in these situations. We’ll let people do outrageous things in public spaces because the alternative is too dreadful to consider: social awkwardness and the sapping of time and energy, with the risk of actual violence itself way down the list.

He’ll get off soon, we think, or I will – just a few more stops. But between stops, you’re trapped – locked in a box with a terrifying stranger.

What could a man like that get away with? I wondered. What would he need to do before anybody would stand up to him or push back?

And that’s where my character Aaron Greenslade came from.

A parked bus.

I lived in Penzance for six years and didn’t run a car which meant I spent a lot of time on the so-called loser cruiser, rushing up the coast road to Helston, or winding around the lanes of Penwith.

It was on one of these expeditions that I saw a boy perched on the seat behind the driver’s cabin, reading a comic. The driver was evidently his father and talked to him, quietly and caring, before the bus set off and at stops along the way.

I guessed that the drivers’ rota and a custody agreement were incompatible – that every now and then, this child had to spend a day riding up and down in his dad’s bus, perhaps eating lunch in a depot canteen.

Something about it struck me as utterly melancholy – who, when they are eight or nine years old, wants to spend hours driving up and down in a fogged-up bus looking at the same industrial estates, hedgerows and bus stations?

Here was my protagonist, Ben Hodge.

* * *

How a writer’s brain works – or how my writing brain works, anyway – is to perceive entire stories in moments, or extrapolate entire lives from a few details.

Even more useful, though, is the capacity to store incidents and faces and then, later, crash them together like atoms in a reactor to create bigger, better, more complex stories.

That, for me, is what a novel is.

Start with a corpse

Start with a corpse.

Ed McBain, author of the long-running series of 87th Precinct police procedurals, was once asked how he devised plots. His answer was: “I usually start with a corpse.”

McBain (a pseudonym for Evan Hunter) was talking about the seed of a story rather than literally about how to structure a book but, still, pick up ten crime novels and look at the first pages and the chances are most of them will contain either a dead body, or the promise of one.

Devouring crime fiction as a teenager, and reading how-to manuals such as Hillary Waugh’s On Crime Writing, I’d absorbed this rule and stuck to it throughout the first few (unpublished) detective stories I wrote.

But The Grave Digger’s Boy, which is out in a few weeks, doesn’t start with a corpse – it begins with the absence of one.

In fact, this is the second novel I’ve written with that as the seed. The other, a manuscript that lurks in a virtual desk drawer, was called Fears Grow for Missing Sam and had an entirely different plot, setting and cast of characters to The Grave Digger’s Boy.

What both share, though, is a grim fascination with the idea that without a body, those left behind are stuck in a kind of purgatory, unable to move on. Sometimes, this awful suspension last for decades.

All murders are sad. Murders that never resolve, that hang in the air, are the saddest of all. The fuel for much of the best crime writing is, I think, the probing of these emotions.

One tangential influence on my novel – though influences are hard to pin down in the memory – is the ongoing subplot which runs through the series of books Arnaldur Indriðason’s wrote about the Icelandic detective Erlendur. Over the course of several novels, we learn that Erlendur’s brother disappeared in the snow as a child, leaving Erlendur obsessed not only with that case but also disappearances more generally.

In the real world, I find myself haunted by the disappearance of Suzy Lamplugh, whose parents died without knowing what had become of her. News coverage of that story ran at intervals throughout my childhood and every now and then her face appears on TV or in the papers when some new lead emerges and, inevitably, dwindles. Another search was carried out just a few weeks ago and new witnesses occasionally come forward.

There’s also the case of Helen McCourt whose disappearance in 1984 led to a notable example of a murder conviction in the absence of a body. Her murderer, Ian Simms, was convicted using DNA and to this day refuses to reveal where or how he disposed of her remains.

And, of course, it’s hard not to think of 12-year-old Keith Bennett, who was killed by the moors murderers in 1964, and is yet to be found. Or, rather, whose whereabouts has been concealed out of pure malice.

It’s unlikely anyone reading The Grave Digger’s Boy would guess these or the other real criminal cases I had in mind because by the time they’ve been through the blender of my brain, all that’s left is a sort of essence – the mood rather than details.

Crime writers, awful carrion creatures that we are, are drawn to these cases, yes, by the sheer emotional power they hold, but also because of the complexity they instantly bring to the plot of a novel.

After all, stories that start with a missing body provide two mysteries for the price of one – a whodunnit, and a where-is-it.

Or is it three? With no body, it’s hard to say for sure whether a character was actually murdered. Or maybe it’s four: can we even say for sure they’re really dead?

Becoming a novelist

Illustration: a dead body.

With my first novel, The Grave Digger’s Boy, being published by Bloodhound Books next month, I’ve been reflecting on how I clawed my way to this point over the course of several decades.

The first step, I think, was when I wrote a story that took up eight pages of my creative writing book in Miss Morris’s third-year class at junior school in Bridgwater.

The story was about aliens fighting Saxon warriors at Stonehenge and each page had about 20 words (bottom half) and a pencil drawing (top half).

When I reached three pages and the story still wasn’t done, other kids started to gather round: “He’s going on to a fourth page!”

I decided to aim for six, smashed through it, and by page seven everyone was willing me on.

They cheered when I wrote THE END and I was famous for a day or two after.

Then at secondary school – a comprehensive lurking at the bottom of the league tables – Mrs Newton, an English teacher who expected a lot of us regardless of our backgrounds, decided we were all going to write novels during the summer holiday.

Mine was a cliched sci-fi piece, probably amounting to 5,000 words, about a city under a dome.

I’ve a feeling the US Navy turned up at some point, too, because I’d been reading a lot of Tom Clancy. I typed every word on a word processor on my Commodore 64 and printed it on a whining, chattering dot matrix machine.

(That printer, long-gone to landfill, was important. Once I’d told my parents I wanted to be a writer, they spared no expense or effort in helping me realise it, even though we were, frankly, poor and have never doubted that I’d make it one day. The same goes for my very supportive little brother.)

After school, there was a long stretch in which I wrote dissertations, poems, short stories, sketches, sitcoms, and the opening chapters of about 375 different novels, all the time getting a bit better at the business of putting words together in interesting ways.

The next milestone was non-fiction: in 2006, a few years out of university, 30,000 words on The Beatles.

I invented this project to release the pressure of the day job and to test myself – could I, for once, actually bloody finish something substantial? I did, and got interviewed on US radio, and reviewed in Rolling Stone. I felt my spirit expanding.

Next, it was back to fiction, via NaNoWriMo. This once-a-year exercise in getting-to-done isn’t without controversy and won’t work for every writer but, crikey, did it ever work for me.

I hammered away at my project before work, during my lunch break, and on the commute home – 800 words here, 500 there, adding up to 1,600 every day.

A stream of consciousness historical-horror-fantasy was the output – absolute rubbish, but 50,000 words of rubbish. And if I could manage that, why not 80,000?

So, approaching 30, I started writing crime novels in earnest. It wasn’t much fun. In fact, it was torture.

I’d have an idea, get excited, and then decide I hated it by chapter five. But with NaNoWriMo in mind, I didn’t give in – I finished them anyway, like a runner pushing through the pain barrier.

The first one was bad, I think, but it was 75,000 words long, and had a decent plot. The second, Fears Grow for Missing Sam, was better. The third… Well, Local Man Found Dead, I think, had something about it and I there were entire stretches of which I felt proud. A couple of publishers expressed interest, albeit not quite enough. I’d like to revise it again one day and maybe see it in print.

Meanwhile, I’d slowly been turning my way with words into a living, writing papers, letters, speeches, leaflets, articles and so on, in central government. I was getting paid to exercise my writing muscles, essentially – absolutely priceless.

When my partner, Jess, got a job in Cornwall, the chance to write more of what I wanted to write presented itself. I wrote and edited full time for six years, sometimes to contribute to the rent, sometimes with a view to getting published, but always at my desk from 9 to 5. One way or another, I turned out 2,000-5,000 words most days.

During all this, I co-wrote with Jess several non-fiction books on beer and pubs, which won awards and garnered general acclaim, further boosting my confidence. I started to think of myself not as ‘someone who does a bit of writing’ but as A Writer.

From being A Writer to being A Novelist is only a short hop. Between corporate blog posts, magazine articles and rewriting other people’s books, I used my time in Penzance to write and rewrite five novels, including The Grave Digger’s Boy.

Now, it’s being published, and I can’t tell you how excited I am – it feels like the end of a long slog with a heavy load.

In the coming weeks, I’m going to indulge myself by sharing some insights into how it came to be – the real life crimes and personal experiences that inspired it, my connection to the settings, and how my study of crime fiction over the years influenced its shape and structure.