Paul Finch on ‘The Killing Club’
The inspiration for the DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg novels came from a variety of sources: not just from my own life as a cop, but my lifelong fascination with the hard-boiled detective medium, and my desire to branch out a little more into mainstream writing.
For a long time as a writer, I’d worked in the horror/fantasy fields. I still do when time permits. But after a couple of decades of this, I was feeling an urge to shift my focus. Not necessarily by some great distance or into a different genre, but laterally; to move the goalposts a little, if you know what I mean.
It wouldn’t be a great wrench, my first professional credits were in cops and robbers stuff. After I left the police in the late 1980s and became a journalist, I embarked on a parallel career at the same time, writing television scripts for the ITV police drama, THE BILL. This was a lot of fun, but it had its limitations. We were restricted by the nine o’clock watershed on British TV, and so weren’t able to tell our crime stories in warts and all fashion. This was particularly underlined to me as the 1990s became the 2000s and we saw some really uncompromising cop shows from the States.
THE WIRE is an obvious example, but also THE SHIELD, BOOMTOWN, and more recently, perhaps the most in-yer-face example of this to date, TRUE DETECTIVE. I can’t tell you how much this was my kind of stuff. By the time TRUE DETECTIVE hit our screens and won so many plaudits, I already had two Heck novels out, with a third nearing publication, but with its grim undertones – and in my typically egocentric way – I felt as if it vindicated my decision to tell dark and twisted cop tales.
My days as a horror writer had aided and abetted this. What can I say?; I seem to have a natural feel for the horrible, and I wanted my thrillers to be as gritty and scary as possible. And Avon Books (HarperCollins imprint) were more than happy to give me that opportunity.
So in a nutshell, that’s the story behind my Heck ambitions. I wanted to write the toughest, darkest cop story ever, with an edge to it like broken glass. And yet my average working day doesn’t reflect any of this. It’s one of the quirks of my approach that I try to avoid sitting in front of a computer with curtains drawn and my head buried in the keyboard. I feel I can give my imagination fuller rein if I’m out and about, particularly on a nice sunny day, walking our dogs across the meadows, or ambling around town – in both instances dictating into my voice-recorder (and typing it all up later).
I suppose it’s a tad ironic, these “dark and crazy dreams” – as one internet reviewer called them – emerging from my thoughts on nice sunny days with birds twittering in the hedgerows. Of course, we all have our own method for producing novels, because it can never be straightforward. The sheer physical effort required to produce a story that may be 150,000 words long is enormously taxing before you even consider the multiple layers you need to weave into it.
One of my peculiar practices is to lay those layers separately.
Whether this is indicative of my script writing origins, I’m not sure, but I plan in detail beforehand, each chapter broken up into separate scenes. After that I design my characters. At one time I used to fill entire sketch pads with character notes. Now I spend less time on this, simply basing each one on someone I know from real life. If I’ve done this successfully, I tend to find the dialogue flows naturally – and that’s usually my next stage; the dialogue. Once all that’s in place, I’m happy to move onto the actual prose, the part of the book I feel needs to be crafted with most discipline. For example, if your story is already driving along, the last thing you want to do is overwrite all the bits remaining to the point where they feel like filler or padding.
Don’t get me wrong, I love descriptive work. There’s nothing I enjoy more than the creation of ghastly landscapes: eerie urban ghettos, lonely rural tracks where appalling events may be enacted. Evoking atmosphere is absolutely essential in thriller and horror writing, but as I’ve said, don’t over-egg this pudding. You don’t want to bog your reader down with anything when the real aim is to have him flying through the pages.
This rule applies even more to what I regard as the most challenging part of my personal book-writing process: the action sequences.
A writer friend of mine once said: “How on earth do you convey action scenes in prose? Why don’t you just leave that to the film-writers?” I could only respond that this is my thing. Heck wouldn’t be Heck without big dollops of action: grimy, realistic fighting as he attempts to overpower ruthless opponents, desperate chases, prison breaks, bank robberies and murder scenes. And none of this is ever easy or slick. It’s become a Heck tradition that he gets put through an absolute wringer during the course of these adventures, and I’d be short-changing my readership if I didn’t drag them through the wringer with him.
But again, this is a complex process, which requires some intricate work. I suppose I could say lots of things on this matter that might be worthy of note.
Like – action scenes work better with short, sharp sentences.
Or – action scenes work better if you stay alert to all five of your character’s senses; in other words, the hero must smell the cordite of the gunfire, must hear the crash of colliding cars, must feel the pain of kicks and punches, must taste the blood in his mouth, must see the world through a kaleidoscopic prism of deluging rain, vehicles screeching across roads, trains roaring overhead, etc.
But this is how it works for me, not necessarily for someone else. The only universal rule with action sequences, I firmly believe, is pace.
If you want to put action in your book, remember that you’re not just competing with films and TV, but with video games as well, where everything happens at breakneck speed. So you must do the same. Keep it taut. Don’t stop to describe the beauty of the urban waste when you’re in the middle of chasing a hoodlum across it. Don’t stop for an introspective moment about why your hero punishes himself like this, when the gang of gunmen close behind are going to punish him a lot more him if they catch up.
Get on with it: wham, slam, bam!
Sounds easy, I suppose, when the reality of course is that it’s anything but.
Look the best advice I can probably give is take what you can from all this stuff. It won’t work for everyone, it’s horse for courses. But the common denominator to success stories is always, sadly going to be work. There’s a popular if trite phrase, which I’m often guilty of using myself: “It writes itself.” Well, you don’t need me to tell you that nothing writes itself. We, the authors, do the writing. And that’s the only way it’s going to happen. However we approach it, however we go looking for inspiration, however much we sit down and plan, ultimately we have to bend our backs and write.
That’s the only real advice I can give. If all else fails, forget this personal methodology – just write.
(c) Paul Finch
Find out more about Paul at http://paulfinch-writer.
About The Killing Club
Get hooked on Heck: the maverick detective who knows no boundaries. The perfect read for fans of Stuart Macbride and Luther.
DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg is used to bloodbaths. But nothing can prepare him for this.
Heck’s most dangerous case to date is open again. Two years ago, countless victims were found dead – massacred at the hands of Britain’s most terrifying gang.
When brutal murders start happening across the country, it’s clear the gang is at work again. Their victims are killed in cold blood, in broad daylight, and by any means necessary. And Heck knows it won’t be long before they come for him.
Brace yourself as you turn the pages of a living nightmare. Welcome to The Killing Club (click to pick up your copy online!)