Crime writing advice: Plot, place and people with Tony R. Cox

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Tony R. Cox, know as a crime writers' crime writer, outlines the essential elements in his latest novel

As a former journalist, I was taught to write as much information as possible in the fewest possible words. Being an author demands different skills: pictures in near three dimensions have to be painted using words alone, and that calls for many more disciplines.

My first news editor, possibly on my first day in 1970, told me: “Imagine you’ve gone home to your mother. She’s busy. In one short, punchy sentence you’ve got to tell her that story. That, young man, is your newspaper story’s first paragraph.” To a great extent, those strictures are also true of writing crime fiction: tightly composed, with no wasted words, but fully descriptive and lot more rounded.

Deathbeds is the fourth in my Simon Jardine crime thriller series. First Dead Body was self-published several years ago, followed by A Fatal Drug and Vinyl Junkie, which have been published by Fahrenheit Press, who are also the publishers of the new book. Simon Jardine, is still a regional newspaper reporter with a deep interest in the rock music of the 1970s, as I was, but that’s where the similarities end.

The 1970s were an era that included crimes such as police corruption, prostitution, and mind-altering, illegal drugs. The news media, meanwhile, tracked stories of insurrection that threatened the very existence of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland had been an unstable tinderbox of sectarian hatred. The fuse was lit and the 1970s became a decade of murder, executions and bombs.

The plot of Deathbeds is inextricably linked to The Troubles, not just the IRA’s war to win some form of independence from the rest of the UK, and especially removal of the army, nor the retaliatory actions of the Ulster Defence Force and the Ulster Volunteer Force, but the criminal funding through extortion, corruption, prostitution, gun-running and drug-dealing.

I travelled to Northern Ireland several times in the mid-70s for personal reasons and heard many horror stories, the veracity of which was apparent with every visit to any graveyard.

I also blagged a lift from a Derby transport firm so that I could write a feature on how trade continued despite the tension. Such a trip is central to the fictional plot of Deathbeds. Why did I go on that trip? For the same reason that scores of regional journalists asked to go to The Falklands to report on a ‘real’ war in the early ‘80s. Not for fame and glory; it was for the adrenaline rush of writing exciting news. It was natural to base part of the fictional storyline on something I could reach back and resurrect from my memory.

The plot of Deathbeds is from my imagination; some of the locations exist, although the action is also from the inner recesses of my head.

Characterisation has been more difficult this time than previous books. The aim has been to create three-dimensional sentient beings out of the ether. Readers of the previous books will already have met Simon Jardine, Dave Green, Tom Freeman, ex-DCI Adam Ludden and, possibly, Janie Caton. All these characters have a basis in some sort of reality, but they are amalgamations of physical appearance and personalities. In Deathbeds, the readers meet new characters. My aim has been to develop all of them in the hope that readers will relate to them. A fictional world is still populated by people whom the reader must believe in.

Over the years I have encountered drug addicts, drug dealers, and several prostitutes. There have been corrupt councillors and public servants, and the rare senior policeman, as well as several shady people running even shadier businesses. I was once sold cheap car insurance by a chap called Con O’Sullivan. I suppose I should have questioned it based on his first name, but the policeman who told me was sympathetic! Perhaps I’ll write about him in a future novel?

Music plays a key role in all my books. The 1970s was an era of great rock and some delicious jazz and blues. I want Simon Jardine to flourish in this environment: not only does music provide a chronological setting, the clubs and seedy dives offer locations where crime can flourish at the same time as characters seek refuge.

Most authors I know have had some academic training. I haven’t. I was editor of the school magazine in Buxton, I wrote every day, almost without a break from joining the Derby Evening Telegraph in September 1970, through several years at the Nottingham Evening Post, followed by a 25-year career in public relations. I haven’t stopped. I hope readers enjoy this latest crime thriller.

Fahrenheit Press is an independent publisher that has given me the opportunity to reach a wide audience and they continue to support my writing.

Tips for writers

I write crime fiction, but these may cover most genres.

1. Love your main characters: The leading characters may be bottomless pits of naivety or wrong-doing, but they’re yours and the reader has to live alongside and within them.

2. The weather may be important for whatever reason, but if it doesn’t help set the scene, why bother mentioning it?

3. Agents and publishers know the industry much better than we do: they deserve respect. A manuscript strewn with literals and grammatical mistakes is insulting them and says more about the author than probably intended.

4. Self-publishing? Treat readers the same as you would a critical agent or publisher – with respect

5. Beta-readers – the person who first reads the manuscript – can be gold dust. My criteria is: A. someone who enjoys reading my work; B. an intelligent person whose views I listen to and consider; and C. accept that I may have got it wrong.

6. Don’t stop: There will be ups and downs, blocks and mad flurries of writing activity. Writing is more than key-tapping, note-taking and middle-of-the-night sparks of lucidity. It can be simply thinking. But don’t give up.

Deathbeds, By Tony R. Cox, is published by Fahrenheit Press.