I caught up with Robert to find out a bit more about his book, how he came to write it, and what he’s working on now.
I love Porter and Styles, Porter in particular is a great classic, well-rounded hero (and my new fictional crush). Who are your favourite fictional investigators? And why?
That’s almost like asking me to rank my children! In no particular order, I love Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole. As much as he conforms a bit to stereotype (relationship problems, drink problems, bit of a loose cannon), he’s just such a compelling character that you can’t help but like him. Jeffrey Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme is right up there too, thanks to his unique circumstances, and having to rely on brains, not brawn. I’m a sucker for characters with a sense of humour as well. If it’s done well, a splash of levity in what can be a dark genre, can work a treat. I’m thinking here of characters like Elvis Cole (Robert Crais), Myron Bolitar (Harlan Coben). I could keep going with some of the great British Detectives currently gracing a page – Rebus, Marnie Rome, Tom Thorne, Aector McAvoy. Rattling through the list makes me realise who many there are, and worry whether or not there’s room for Porter, at what’s already a pretty full table!
The plot in WFBTC looks at corruption in business, what inspired you to write about this and did you do a lot of research for it?
I needed a scenario that would let one of the antagonists bridge a gap over a number of decades, and didn’t want to go down the out-and-out gangster route. The notion of someone hiding behind a cloak of respectability felt like something it’d be fun to play around with – this idea of a public persona versus what goes on behind closed doors, and taking hostile takeovers to a new level to expand an empire. A great example that springs to mind would be The Devil’s Advocate, with Al Pacino taking it to the extreme as the Devil / Corporate lawyer. I didn’t actually do a whole heap of research for that part of it if I’m honest, as I didn’t go into a lot of detail about the corporate side of it, so was able to play it pretty fast and loose.
Did you set out to write a series? If not at what point did you realise you would be?
That was the plan right from the start, but Porter wasn’t originally going to be the central character. The backstory is that WFBTC is actually the second novel I wrote, but the first I sold. While the first one had Porter in, he shared the stage another character who you’ll meet in book 2. Feedback I received was that there wasn’t one voice strong enough to drive the narrative forward, so I had to make a choice, and Porter won! He got the leading role in WFBTC, and I’ve since gone back and re-written that first effort to put him front and centre.
What comes first for you plot or character? And how do they evolve?
So far for me it’s been plot first, character second. Each of the Porter & Styles books has started as a “What if x, y and z happened”, and the characters have followed pretty close behind after that. Once I have that basic outline, I sit and create a bio for each of them – job, family, personality, likes/dislikes, any quirks – that I can refer back to when I need to decide how they react to & interact with other characters and situations. That helps me get inside their heads, so I always have that in place before I start anything new. From there, it depends what I subject them to as to how they evolve. Take Porter for example, I’m trying to make sure he keeps developing as a person, and doesn’t just bounce from case to case unaffected. He’s got the death of his wife shadowing him, as well as his family life and partnership with Styles to flesh him out, and hopefully that helps readers relate to him both on the job and beyond it.
Have you always written?
To varying degrees, yes. I wrote short stories and poems as a kid and into my teens, but when I went to University, that stopped for a while – think I went from the age of 18 to 26 without doing anything creative. The idea for my first book popped into mind when I was in my early thirties, but I didn’t actually finish a draft until I was 40. Part of me wishes I’d just cracked on and finished that sooner, but if I’m honest, my writing wasn’t good enough back then. I just didn’t have the tools to do it justice. When I went back and re-wrote my original first ever manuscript earlier this year, it was surreal at times, reading it and thinking ‘why on earth did I write that?’
Are there any books and/or resources that you found useful?
I’ve read a few books on the art of writing, but my favourite is “On Writing” by Stephen King. I’d recommend that without a doubt. The other thing I did that helped a lot, was get myself along to some F2F crime writing courses. Creative Thursday at the Harrogate Festival was awesome. It’s a full day of workshops with some superb authors, and included the chance, albeit a tad nerve-wracking, to pitch to a panel of agents and editors. Some of the smaller festivals run these as well. I’ve been on a few at the Newcastle Noir festival, with sessions from authors like William Ryan, which really helped me with plotting and structure. Lastly, it’s worth a look to see what writing groups you might have locally – It’s a great way to get some feedback on your work before you release into the world.
Do you have any advice for writers starting out?
It’s been a steep learning curve over the last few years, but if I had to narrow it down, my first piece of advice would be just get your book finished. Sounds a bit obvious, but so many don’t even get that far. Have a routine, whether it’s a daily word count, or a time of day you write, and you’ll be amazed at how much you can get done. Different things work for different people, so work out what that is for you, and stick to it. Secondly, don’t hide away on your own in a dark room, hunched over a laptop. Get out to festivals, mingle with authors and readers. Lastly, if you can, find a good editor to go through your work before you submit to an Agent. I did that second time around with the WFBTC manuscript, and it really opened my eyes. I’d credit that with making enough of a difference, and polishing the book to the point that it was picked up by The Blair Partnership. I used The Literary Consultancy, on recommendation from a friend, and they were fab.
What are you working on now?
My book deal is for the first two in the Porter & Styles series, so waiting to see how they do before I give them a third outing. In the meantime, I’m working on a couple of standalones set in the North East that I’ve yet to share with my publishers. The first is a domestic thriller, and deals with a teacher, convicted of killing a pupil, but who maintains his innocence, and the effect on the victim’s family when new evidence surfaces, nine years later. I’m onto the second draft of that now. The other is a police procedural but written from a female POV, which is new for me, and has been quite a refreshing change. This one deals with the notion of people taking the law into their own hands when they feel let down by the police. Both very different from Porter and Styles, so it’s fun to be able bounce between all of them – keeps me fresh!