For Richer, For Poorer is the tenth book in the Jessica Daniel series so far. Without giving away any spoilers from the previous books, could you briefly outline who Jessica is, what makes her tick, and where she’s at in this book?
Jessica is a newly promoted inspector for Greater Manchester Police. The force has recently been investigated for various institutional failings and, because of that, she now has a new boss and a new constable.
She also has a new housemate, which means a lot has changed in a very short period. She’s trying to adapt to all that but, of course, the crime never stops.
The Jessica Daniel books are all set in and around Manchester. What originally made you want to write in this location?
I come from a small town. Not quite a place where everyone knows everyone else, but definitely somewhere in which this person knows that person who’s friends with another person who knows your mum. It feels smaller than it is and, as a kid, you can’t get away with much.
Manchester was my first experience of a big city. There are steepled glass-fronted buildings, beautiful old churches and architecture, plus run-down grimy estates all within walking distance of each other. Then there’s the football and musical culture, Canal Street and the city’s embracing of the LGBT community, pubs, clubs, universities, the canal itself, the industrial heritage and so on. There are few stories that couldn’t be told within a small area – and that means great freedom for a writer.
With a recurring series character like Jessica, how do you decide where she goes next? Do you come up with a plot and fit her into it, or decide on the kind of personal story you’d like her to have and create a case that fits with that?
I tend to figure out the direction of Jessica’s personal life a way in advance. Sometimes I’ll thread something into one book knowing how I want it to pay off four or five novels later. It’s a reward for the long-term readers but doesn’t affect the new ones because everything’s in context.
There’s hardly anything more rewarding than when a reader emails because they've spotted something in, say, book nine – a throwaway line – that links back to something from an earlier novel. I should give out prizes. Even better if the proofreader, my agent and editor have missed it, too.
Since the early books I’ve shied away from writing singular plots. Police officers rarely have only one thing on the go and it’s ridiculously unrealistic to pretend they only work on one thing and don’t have days off. I suppose the hard part is threading together two or three ongoing cases with a character’s personal life – but if it’s not working I don’t mind ditching a whole subplot and starting again. I like plotting a couple of things at the same time so that I never get stuck.
You’ve also written a trilogy of fantasy-adventure books for younger readers, the final part of which, Resurgence, is out in May this year. That’s quite a leap from your gritty crime novels – what made you head in this direction? And how does the writing process vary for these different genres?
It wasn’t really. I wrote the Silver Blackthorn trilogy back-to-back in 2012. At the time I hadn’t written a lot of crime – it’s only since that everything has got out of order.
I only ever write what’s interesting to me at the time. That might be something in either Jessica and Andrew’s crime series, perhaps a standalone book; or YA, fantasy or whatever. I think that if you try to force something that isn’t working, readers will pick up on it. Deep down, a writer knows when something is a load of old nonsense. My hard drive is a shattered corpse of half-formed ideas that no one will – or should – ever see.
You’re quite prolific with your writing, balancing several different series and lead characters. How do you manage your writing schedule? And how long, on average, does it take you to write a Jessica Daniel book?
I suppose . . . but it’s all relative. Perhaps someone else is slow? Aaron Sorkin wrote eighty-odd episodes of The West Wing in four years. Larry Charles and Larry David came up with so many classic episodes of Seinfeld. TV writers routinely produce a dozen or more episodes for a season.
I’m pretty good at discipline. I get up at a set time, write for a set length of time, stay off the Internet, finish when it feels right. Treat it like the job it is.
You don’t see brickies tweeting: ‘Supposed to be building a house so if you see me on Twitter, tell me off LOL’.
It’d be ridiculously unprofessional and yet, for some writers, it’s apparently the norm. I think it’s weird. Why tell everyone you’re not doing your job? Just get on with it.
There’s no particular, set length of time in which you can write a book because it’s separated out. I’ll plot something extensively before getting a word down and regularly have 15,000-word outlines that nobody ever reads except me. Those can take anything from a week to a couple of months to flesh out and I’m often working on more than one at the same time. I use the notes app on my phone all the time. I might think of something when I’m out and about, make a quick outline and then pull that out properly when I’m home.
Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and leave myself a note, then spend half-an-hour the next morning trying to figure out what the hell I meant. I come up with some absolute drivel at three in the morning.
I’m a quick typist, so the actual writing, an 85,000-word first draft, can be completed in perhaps three weeks. That’s only a first draft, though. The second is where it starts to make sense and I get rid of as much erroneous rubbish as possible.
And when the writing is done, how do you like to switch off and spend your free time?
I ride my bike a lot. I’ve cycled 31,000km in the past two years and love the solitude and scenery. I read comics – particularly anything written by Brian K. Vaughan – and am a bit of a binge-watcher. I don’t watch much week-to-week TV . . . except maybe the Bake Off with Mrs W.
I have no patience, though. I probably finish one in every five or six books I start. It’s like that for TV shows. If I’m not gripped in the first half-hour then I’m done. Life’s too short and there is so much entertainment out there in the digital world. Why waste your life reading or watching something you don’t like? Well, unless you specifically want to go on the Internet afterwards to complain about how much you disliked something.
My favourite things at the moment are:
- Parks and Recreation binge (I so wish I knew Andy and April).
- The Surprisingly Awesome podcast (@surprisingshow). It explains why dull things like concrete and broccoli aren’t dull at all.
- The Dear Hank & John podcast, which always makes me laugh. The ‘Oh my God, it’s burning’ joke should run for ever (@hankgreen & @johngreen).
- Saga – the comic by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples (@heybkv & @fionastaples). The best piece of literature out there right now. It is so beautifully brought to life by Fiona, too. Seriously. Buy it. Read it.
- I really enjoy watching Late Night talk show clips on YouTube – Fallon, Kimmel, Conan and Colbert.
- I’ve also recently discovered the epicness of Two Steps From Hell’s classical music. Amazing.