How to write crime non-fiction: advice from Nick Triplow
Nick Triplow offers advice based on his experience of writing the acclaimed Ted Lewis biography Getting Carter: Ted Lewis and the Birth of Brit Noir
Set your stall out early
I used the introduction to fix the life and times that would follow in the book. In effect, an establishing shot that simply says where we are and why we’re here. Initially, I tried all sorts of narrative devices: a significant, but abstract episode from Lewis’s life; or some contextual writing that, whenever I went back to it, read like so much mucking about. I settled, as is often the case, on directness: Ted Lewis’s story is as much about these unfashionable, unheralded places and how they fed into his work as it is about the zeitgeist-riding moments: 50s trad jazz, the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, the dark corners of 1960s Soho, the creation of Brit Noir, Z-Cars and Doctor Who. It’s also about what happens when a good-looking, jazz-loving, cinema-obsessed kid from a small town on the banks of the Humber writes his way into history then drinks his way out again.
Don’t worry about being definitive
Writing the definitive book about any subject is difficult, maybe impossible. I can barely write a shopping list that doesn’t go through three major redrafts and a line edit. Of course, that doesn’t stop me trying to write books that are the first, last and always of a subject. Truth is, there will inevitably be something you can’t quite resolve, a line of research that draws to an unsatisfactory conclusion. With Getting Carter, It took me a long time to accept this would always be the case. I learned to write around the uncertainties and make the unknown aspects of Ted Lewis’s life part of the mystery. Who was this man? Why did he make the choices he made? Chaos is fundamental to noir writing. I reconciled that this would be the case, that I couldn’t know everything. What mattered was how I told the story using what was knowable. Let the research lead you, then shape the story.
Real stories tend not to come neatly packaged
Much of the non-fiction writing I’ve done comes from talking to people with direct experience of the person or subject I’m interested in. But sometimes the stories and anecdotes people tell have been told countless times. With retelling they become embellished, polished and presented as complete. An absolute truth with a neat payoff. Life is rarely so accommodating. It’s important to retain that critical distance. Become a kind of benign investigator, a detective without portfolio, layering personal testimony with recorded fact and established record. Scour existing sources, verify and debunk, mythbust and tear down lines of enquiry – your own if necessary – or admit their flaws. In the end, no one tells the truth. Just their version of it.
Tell good stories
Usually, I write without overly thinking about a potential audience. Even though my fiction tends towards crime noir, first and foremost I set out to tell good stories with engaging characters. With Getting Carter I assumed I’d have to create a readership. Yes, there are Lewis aficionados, but not many; and there are fans of the film Get Carter, and devotees of crime in film and fiction, they’ll be interested, too. But in part, it’s the fact that Lewis and his work have fallen by the wayside, and the how and why that happened, that make him such a fascinating subject. It didn’t make for an easy sell with publishers, many of whom felt he was too niche; but there’s always a market for an untold story. As long as it’s a good story told well.
Find a narrative voice that works to tell the story that needs to be told
For some time I struggled to find a voice that worked. Creating a register the reader would engage with and trust to lead them through 100,000 words is fundamental. I was advised variously to write the book as a ‘noir’, stylising the prose accordingly, which I thought gimmicky and disrespectful – Lewis’s life was sufficiently full of dark themes that it didn’t need my shadowy reinterpretation. Another editor suggested I write myself into the narrative, which I did try, but was never able to do unselfconsciously. It helped, as it usually does, to keep Orwell’s guidance close by: to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. It wasn’t about me; it was about Lewis, his life and times and how he wrote the novel adapted as Get Carter. In the end, I wrote on my own terms and told the story I wanted to tell.
Getting Carter: Ted Lewis and the Birth of Brit Noir is published by No Exit Press. Nick Triplow is also the author of the south London noir novel Frank's Wild Years, and three books of social history.
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