Today the crime writer Frank Westworth is taking the Edwards Q&A challenge.
Frank, tell us a little about yourself
Me? I am almost impossibly old, have earned a fragile but entertaining living from writing since 1988 or so, but have only attempted fiction in the last five years. Before that, I wrote mostly motoring non-fiction, mostly for magazines.
Prior to that new career moment in 1988, I worked mainly and unspectacularly in the chemical industry, and before that I was a gigging musician for far too many years, with a remarkably consistent lack of success…
Tell us about your new book
Seven Hells is the latest in a series of quick thrillers, featuring characters who appear in my full-length novels. It’s a novella, a slow-burn political thriller that should appeal to readers who enjoy Trevanian, Robert Harris, David Baldacci or Don Winslow.
It’s available worldwide as an ebook via Amazon:
- Amazon UK: www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07KN2WMM5/
- Amazon USA: www.amazon.com/dp/B07KN2WMM5/
- Goodreads: www.goodreads.com/book/show/42856971-seven-hells
- Website: www.murdermayhemandmore.net
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/killingsisters
What was the thinking behind Seven Hells?
The new effort is a prequel, and prequels are surprisingly entertaining to write – and are very challenging too. When I was planning the first piece of published fiction I was aiming at a trilogy of lengthy – 120k words per book or so – stories, and indeed was a little concerned that the plot and characters would be too stretched. Usually I write magazine features, typically around 3000 words, and was daunted by the idea of trying to write something which would be sufficiently interesting to hold a reader’s attention for 120k words. But I was also excited, as it’s quite a challenge for someone who usually writes to length.
After the book – A Last Act of Charity – was published, I was delighted and surprised by the number of readers who wanted to know where the characters had all come from. They wanted more, some back-stories. This was excellent, as I’d tried my best to drop the reader into a complete world, not a new one. In the first chapter, the characters were all doing what they always did, not assembling for a story. None of this ‘getting the band together’ cliché at all. So there was a lot of backstory.
And again I was to be pleasantly surprised.
After publishing the first short story – First Contract – which is a traditional ‘origins’ effort, there were demands for more, using more of the characters who appeared in the first complete novel. And when the second novel – The Corruption of Chastity – appeared, the interest increased. So I wrote another short story prequel, revealing how other characters became involved. And so it continued, until…
…until the current story – the seventh – arrived. Seven Hells is a supplement to the main story arc, but still sits before the first full-length novel. And the eighth tale is mostly complete, as is the ninth. Writing prequels turns out to be fun.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
That’s an easy one. RJ Ellory – Roger Ellory – was impossibly helpful while I was writing the first novel, to my complete surprise. I’d felt very bold asking a man who I knew only through his brilliant writing and a shared passion for guitar music to read my early attempts. I should say here that I’d been trying to write formally and in a ‘stylish’ way, rather than flippantly, as is my way when writing magazine features. Roger’s advice: Write naturally. Do not try to invent a style. Write in your own voice.
I followed that afterwards. And guess what? It was all a whole lot easier. The characters came to life and the writing no longer got in the way of the story. Brilliant advice.
Is there any genre or style of writing you haven’t tried yet but would like to?
I’ve published only thrillers so far, but… but I’ve started work on a science fiction story. I’ve always been entirely intrigued by SF and read lots of it, although less than I used to. Here’s a thing: I started writing and plotting the story – which feels rather lengthy, to be honest – and soon realised that I needed to understand the genre more, so I read seven of James SA Corey’s The Expanse series one after the other. This took ages, as I work full-time and the books are quite long. However, it was an education.
So yes, I would really enjoy developing and writing an SF tale, but first… first I need to understand how a new universe works and how much genuine physics can be used. Then I need to research the actual science to see whether any of the plot devices are worthwhile. This could actually take forever, and as I doubt that time travel is entirely reliable science at the moment…
What aspects of writing to do you find the most tricky?
Being honest is tricky. It’s a paradox. Because it’s fiction it’s OK to say things that would be otherwise unacceptable on the grounds that it is indeed fiction and that the views of the characters do not necessarily reflect those of the author. However, fiction also is a great way of allowing a character to be unacceptably honest – actually reflecting the author’s own view. A surprise discovery was that so many people are offended so easily by even modest and moderate viewpoints. Their definitions of ‘modest’ and ‘moderate’ being rather different to my own.
The way around that is to stage a conversation, a discussion, an argument, with the author’s own view maybe buried in that conversation. So that’s what I try to, with varying degrees of success.
Have you ever use real people in disguise for your books?
Oh yes! That’s a large part of the entertainment. What is also entertaining is observing friends, colleagues who think they’ve recognised themselves. Most of the characters – the regulars, if you like – are based on characteristics of folk I know well. What I try to do is extract and exaggerate a particular mannerism, viewpoint, attitude from someone I know and build a fictional character from that.
So although the central actor in all my fiction – JJ Stoner – is a construct, a composite of features from several individuals, several of the other inhabitants of the fictional world are based as closely as I can remember on people I’ve known. A couple of times I’ve used real-life names, too, just for amusement, but ensured that the fictional characters are nothing at all like the real life person whose name they share. So I took a friend who works in the nuclear industry, who’s a Stoner fan, and named a character after him. The character is a priest, so there’s no actual connection apart from their shared name.
Stoner’s boss, the Hard Man, is based very closely indeed on a truly remarkable individual I worked for over several years. The Hard Man is not a pleasant man, certainly not in the current easy-offense world, but he is a highly competent, accomplished and fascinating man. When the real life person read the first book, he claimed to be royally amused. Which was strange, because he has almost no sense of humour. Not in the conventional sense…
What is it that you like best about the lead character in your books?
His clarity of thought. That clarity confuses him all the time – as is the case in real life. Being able to discuss this – where every situation is open to several interpretations and potential responses, all or none of which may be correct – was one of the reasons I eventually got down and wrote an entire book. I wanted to portray a soldier (I have never been a soldier, although both my brother and sister were) who is happy to follow, who doesn’t aspire to lead, to be the top of the class, to be the alpha male. Stoner works freelance – as I have done since 1988 – and accepts or declines contracts, depending largely upon his own internal view of what’s on offer.
He’s not a blind follower, far from it. He questions everything. His morality is clear although it is socially unacceptable for a surprising number of folk to understand that all soldiers are contract killers, either directly in action or indirectly by association. The person who places the kill order is maybe as guilty as the killer. The person who hands the loaded gun to the person who pulls the trigger is similarly culpable. Think also about modern weapons here – drones in particular. Stoner sometime struggles with this.
I also wanted to consider the effects of growing old on a man who has always been vigorous, active and enjoys serious fitness and a good fight. Bar fights feature regularly in his life and those of his friends. I wanted to counter that with a ‘softer’ side, so made him also a keen musician, a guitarist in this case. Think about this for a second – a guitarist depends on the delicacy and sensitivity of his fingers. Hitting things rarely improves dexterity – so there’s another conflict.
Have you ever killed off one of the major characters, and why?
Oh yes. As in real life, no one is safe in fiction. I enjoy my characters being as ambiguous as real life characters are. No one is entirely good; no one is entirely bad. And while one particular action – choose your own – might be entirely acceptable and the right thing to do in one particular circumstance, so it can also be entirely wrong in other circumstances. Banging someone over the head with a length of steel pipe is surely and entirely unacceptable … unless the person on the receiving end is attempting a rape. Harsh and discouraging words have their place, but sometimes direct action is the only way to a successful outcome.
And the more the lines between right and wrong are blurred – as is so often the case – so the situations in which a fictional character can be placed can become more ambiguous. And I enjoy debating – through the characters – whether a contract killing can ever be right. Or whether – as in the case of a terrorist, for example – whether the ends do the justification for us.
So yes, I do kill off major characters, but very rarely and very carefully.
Do you have any particular preparations for warming up the writer-brain, or get stuck straight in?
Two things work for me. A decently long motorcycle ride always works. The fresh air, adrenaline and feeling of achievement seem to combine to produce all sorts of off-beat ideas, and I often find myself rushing through the last miles keen to extract the laptop from the luggage and get scribbling. I usually stop at motels for a night or two, and get a lot of writing done that way.
The other source of inspiration is such a cliché that I’m almost embarrassed to admit it! I enjoy taking a drink or indeed several before sitting down with a large glass of water to let the imagination run free. The inevitable corollary to this is that the following day I need to correct it all, but the wordplay and plotting are usually acceptable, even if the grammar can be a challenge. What I need to be careful of when writing after a glass or two is that in the heat of the chase I forget what’s already happened, so I need to check out the timelines and chronology. Which can be entertaining…
Do your allow your characters to ever take over the plot?
All the time. While I was struggling with my first full-length book I mentioned to Deborah Moggach – a seriously great writer, but not in my own genre – that I was having trouble keeping the characters on the narrow and straight, that they endlessly wanted to be doing something outside the plot. She thought that was funny, and suggested that I should let them play, that I could always edit it back into line later. So I did, and…
…and the writing experience suddenly became hugely more involving and rewarding. I was surprised at how remarkable it is when a construct – which is what a character is – started saying and doing things which completely surprised me. It really is as though they take on a life of their own.
SEVEN HELLS by Frank Westworth
A terrorist atrocity will occur today on the crowded streets of a British city. The authorities have been forewarned, and tactical squads scramble to likely locations. They’re playing a waiting game with a deadly opponent, a religious extremist with a lethal message in mind. But who will make the first move?
JJ Stoner – the ex-military man with a sideline in silencing people – should play no part in this operation. But an old opponent from the times of the Troubles has other ideas. He knows who to manipulate to lure Stoner into the killing zone – and into conflict with his closest friends and allies…
Available worldwide via Amazon:
Amazon UK: www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07KN2WMM5/
Amazon USA: www.amazon.com/dp/B07KN2WMM5/