Writing Crime, Reporting Crime; Story Telling Is Innate In All Of Us.

“Being a writer is wonderful – it gives us carte blanche to get away with everything.” Simon Hall, seven times published novelist, former BBC News Correspondent of twenty years and tutor at the University of Cambridge, tells the gathered members and guests at Hampshire Writers’ Society’s Tuesday night meeting.

Simon loves to ‘people watch’; often from a spot in the pub in his beloved Cambridge. It is characters that drive his writing. Adam Breen and Dan Groves, even Rutherford the dog, the characters that he created for his TV Detective novels work together, not only literally, but together they form a crucial ‘relationship’.

Dan Groves, the TV reporter half of the duo appears to have everything. He also suffers with depression which he calls “the swamp”. Simon tells us that he has received many emails from men suffering the same affliction, saying thank you for giving the illness this coverage; it is good to know that they are not the only ones, the character of Dan is one that they can relate to.

Story telling is innate in all of us, he says. There’s no secret to writing a story, there may even be a formulaic way to do it and plenty of stories start at the end – reverse chronology. Simon once killed off a character; something for which he, his editor and publisher received much criticism – in reality, the character would have survived. But Simon argued the necessity that she be “killed off” – Dan, having had three successes, was in danger of succumbing to delusions of grandeur; he had to be taught a valuable life lesson.

So, here Simon imparts a piece of advice – “Let the story find you. Use your characters and your experiences.”

Research is done on-the-job. Simon recognises that it is important and suggests a researcher try to get as close to the original source as possible, because there you’ll often find an interesting fact to support your research. For his new book which is out in September this year (as yet it has no name – The Editor is a popular choice – although, Simon likes to have at least three words in the titles of his novels) he spent much time researching the city of Cambridge, which of course he greatly enjoyed.

“Writers are a species apart.” he says. It is a relationship, which is possible why everyone has their favourite authors – they can be relied on the to give ‘value for money’. As such, Simon follows four unbreakable rules which he calls the Four S’s

1                 He steers clear of science. Except for on the peripherals – a crime novel will always need a little of science.

2                 He skips on what he calls “slop”, we would understand slop as gore. The reason for this is that he feels he could not write anything worse than the reader can imagine. Most people will say that their favourite scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho is the shower scene. “You don’t actually see the murder.” Simon points out. The mind bridges the gap, your imagination does the rest.

3                 He avoids swearing, using it only to keep the dialogue real.

4                 He doesn’t do sex. His first attempt at writing a sex scene was laughed out of the draft by his editor.

“Humour is ubiquitous in our society”. he says. Humour is what keeps us going, it forms a bond between us. It is therefore omnipresent in Simon’s writing. “Everyone seems to think that the past is terrible and that the future is scary,” he tells us. Horrible things do go on and, as a reporter for the BBC, he has seen some of the worst. But, he truly believes that the majority of people are good.

Report by Lisa Nightingale

Simon Hall – 11th October 2011

Following Simon Hall’s amusing talk,Writing Crime, Reporting Crime last evening at the University of Winchester, our Steering Committee thought you would like to have the following record of his advice for writing marketable crime fiction.

Simon Hall Advised Writers ‘ To Keep the Faith’

Simon Hall ‘s talk Writing Crime, Reporting Crime not only informed but entertained a capacity crowd of writers at the University of Winchester on Tuesday evening, 11 October at the second meeting of the Hampshire Writers’ Society.

His direct discussion of the techniques of crime writing informed writers how to use a strong protagonist to help solve the crime, the subtext to Simon’s tvdetective novels.. He demonstrated how Ben, his protagonist, as a tv reporter, is a mixture of highs and lows but that he is believable and memorable. His dog, Rutherford, adds another dimension to this character.

He reminded the audience how he uses his notebook to record the quirks that bring characters to life. He described a lady in a pub who rattled her empty glass as a signal to her obedient husband to return to the bar to replenish her drink and then nibbled food from her husband’s plate when he had left the table. ‘A character to weave into my plotline’.

As the BBC crime correspondent for the south east, he often works with the police to report crimes ‘These are often searing experiences’. He recalled being asked to report on the terrorist suicide attacks in London in 2005, to seeing the terror on the faces of total strangers as he approached the railways stations and his shock to see a police traffic sign with the words ‘Avoid London: Area Closed’!

He urged writers to be guided by their principles, that this leads to the ‘voice on the page’ and also to develop a relationship with the reader, to invest in their research and to provide all of the clues that are need to solve the crime satisfactorily. Aim for a plot with a series of twists and turns. ‘Readers want value for money…so do publishers’.

During question time he admitted that he writes ’nice crime: no difficult science, nor swearing, …which is an excuse for proper vocabulary, no gore but instead a worthy plot and no sex!

Settings are important as an angle on which to base a novel. He reminded listeners of Morse’s use of the city of Oxford and the multiple settings used by John Le Carre. Periods of history, travel, journeys, even personal tragedies are good starting points. ‘Humour takes us through tragedy’.

Simon Hall’s conclusion was that being a writer is not a God-given art…it takes much research, writing, editing and revision before you convince that commissioning editor and publisher. . We have the talent but it is important to work at it. ’Keep the Faith’!

We also remind you that Jack Sheffield, author of the Teacher Teacher series published by Transworld will give the next talk, Paperback Writer -The Journey Toward Publication on Tuesday , November 8th 7:30 pm, University of Winchester. We can promise you another hugely enjoyable and highly hilarious evening of advice and entertainment. Do come and bring your writer-friends. We want this society to be packed with talented writers.

With all good wishes for your writing success,

PS You may like to take a look at Simon Hall’s blog about the event last night.