What’s it like to write a book? How do you start? In my case it all started during a dinner party with friends. The conversation turned to writing and how difficult it can be to get a project like a book off the ground; the hurdles that must be overcome.
Well, yes, it can be difficult, but not for the reasons one might imagine. I’d been a policeman for many years, an occupation hardly designed to prepare one for the task of writing a full-length novel. Except in one important detail. It provided me with detailed knowledge of a particular field. Like everyone else, I knew something about something and that is what I wrote about – crime and policing. The fact that my novel is based in an era 250 years before I was born doesn’t matter. I know about policing and I know the mindset of policemen. It makes a huge difference. An example I like to quote concerns the writer Allan Mallinson whose hero is a cavalry officer during the Napoleonic wars. Mr Mallinson is (or was) a cavalry officer in the British Army. You would know that from the minute you began reading his books even if you don’t have a clue what a horse looks like. The authentic detail flows and the reader feels comfortable that the guy knows what he is talking about. Then comes the bit when the cavalry board a ship for France and immediately you’re aware that the author doesn’t have much idea about ships. At the other end of the Channel, the troops get off and, if you’ll excuse the pun, Mr Mallinson is back on firm ground. What I learned, particularly in my years as a journalist, is to stick to the subjects I knew about. It’s a lesson I’ve tried to adhere to as a writer. So when a friend at the dinner party suggested I should write about the river police (where I had spent part of my service), I thought it was a great idea.
Of course, that’s only the beginning and many (happy) hours of research are needed before fingers can connect with keyboards. For me that meant frequent visits to the National Archives at Kew as well as nearly every major museum in London, the Jewish museum in north London, the Thames Police museum in Wapping and many, many others. I even spent time at the National Newspaper Museum in Collingwood. And when I’d finally written what I thought was a masterpiece it was left to the numerous agents to whom I sent the manuscript to let me know what a total mess I had made of the job. I have lost count of the number of times I have re-written the book. And even when it was finally accepted for publication, that was not the end of the writing. My editor – of whom I have the greatest admiration – promptly sent me no less than 26 pages of notes requiring two or three months of further work. It was a very steep learning curve. To (sort of) quote Winston Churchill, the book which had begun life as my mistress had developed into my mother-in-law. But the rewards in terms of a sense of achievement, have been immense. All I have to do now is finish the second book for which I am contracted, and do it in less time that it took me just to polish the first one.
Ah, shucks, it should be a breeze.