HOW TO WRITE A THRILLER

 

We don’t know.

We aren’t being facetious or disingenuous. What we mean is, we can’t give you chapter and verse about how to write your thriller. Plenty of the questions we get online and at events are about writing techniques, plotting, characters, research etc. and mostly our answers are a variation on “it all depends”, “it just turned out that way” or “I don’t know how we did that”. What we can tell you is how we wrote Safe From Harm.

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That blank page moment (“Cat on a…? On a what?”

But before that, a couple of recommendations. If you are interested in plot and storytelling, try John Yorke’s Into the Woods (Penguin). It is subtitled “A Five Act Journey Into Story”, which tells you it is mainly aimed at film and TV writers, but plenty of what he says applies to any form of storytelling. And unlike most how-to-write-the-perfect-script books, this one is very readable.

For the sorts of thing we can’t tell you about structure, we would also suggest Writing Crime Fiction: An introduction: a 60-Minute Masterclass by William Ryan and M.R. Hall, which you can get on Amazon’s Kindle site for a bargain £1.99.

We know Bill Ryan and he is a skilled, insightful and thoughtful writer with a quartet of excellent books under his belt. M.R (now Matthew) Hall is the author of the very successful Coroner Jenny Cooper series. Both writers have backgrounds in the legal profession (Hall got his big break writing Kavanagh QC). Both know of what they speak. And their suggestions on narrative, pace, character etc. applies across the genres.

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Now, what about Safe From Harm? Well, it all began with an ad on Gumtree. One half of RJ Bailey had been writing reasonably successful historical novels but had reached the point where a change was due. Something where the good guys could send a text for help, rather than a carrier pigeon.  A contemporary crime novel or thriller. But what? Psychological thrillers tend to be one-offs, and we wanted to produce a series. And the police procedural is a crowded field, although there are writers out there continually finding fresh angles (for example, Eva Dolan’s excellent Zigic & Ferreira novels and Stav Sherez’s Carrigan & Miller, whose latest outing, The Intrusions, is top notch). But we wouldn’t be among them.

After a few days of musing (i.e. staring into space), it was the other half of RJB who found the ad on Gumtree that would kick-start the novel:

“We are looking for an experienced female CPO/PPO/Driver with a knowledge of security for our clients in Westminster.”

       PPO/CPO means Personal Protection Officer/Close Protection Officer. In other words, a bodyguard. I didn’t think I had read a novel with a thoughtful or sympathetic bodyguard in it. And female? That piqued our interest. It got better.

You will be driving a young family with three children who are all schooled in London. During the summer 2-3 months may be spent in Monte Carlo with possible short trips in the winter months to St Moritz.”

Sounds great, eh?

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The family car

“You will be driving the new Rolls Royce Ghost and MUST have previous experience driving luxury cars.”  

       There was more, but that was enough to start our imaginations running. Who would apply for such a job? And why a female? Are there even any women bodyguards out there? We both were aware that Kate Middleton had a female PPO, but she would be employed by the state, not answering ads on Gumtree. The answer is: yes, there are lots of women bodyguards  – JK Rowling, Beyonce and Rihanna have all used them.

So this is where we began. With a character to create. This is our preferred entry to writing.  Some hugely successful thrillers, I know, are more high concept. They have tag lines such as:

Amanda thought she had the perfect life. The perfect husband. The perfect child. And then she discovered she didn’t.

To which our response is always: Welcome to the club, Amanda. (We’ve been married for a while now). Actually, we are being unfair. There’s some great psycho-, grip-lit, whatever you want to call hem, out there. We have particularly enjoyed Blood Wedding by Pierre Lemaitre and The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson. But it might be time for a moratorium on missing children/partners.

I think plenty of these start with the plot and twists, but rather than map out our arc from the get-go, we opted to try and flesh out our PPO before we even had a plot or set pen to paper (although in reality only one of us does the actual typing).

There was an immediate barrier to this. We knew nothing about the world of bodyguards. So, as always, the first rule of research kicked in: find someone who does. Which is why we flew to Dublin to meet Lisa Baldwin.

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Safe From Harm: a woman in a man’s world

Lisa doesn’t look like anybody’s idea of a bodyguard. The former professional swimmer is the complete antithesis of the brick-outhouse-with-earphone model – petite, in her early thirties, fit and gym-toned but certainly no heavyweight. She has been a PPO for the best part of a decade. She gave us a list of why the wealthy might want female protection. Firstly, the principal client (almost always male) might have seen The Bodyguard and not want their (possibly much younger) wife hanging around with a handsome male. Or, for cultural/religious reasons they might not want their wives and daughters hanging round with any men.

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Geri Halliwell: Bodyguard? What bodyguard?

Plus there would be situations where a woman would blend in more than a man – taking the kids to a playground, for example (black-suited heavies tend to draw attention to themselves and the client), shopping for underwear (again, men always look awkward and obvious among racks of lingerie) or, crucially, visiting the lavatory. The main perceived risk to the family members she guarded was kidnap and ransom. Lisa’s job was to make sure that didn’t happen.

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This bodyguard blends in

But what about her lack of bulk? What if she had to fight off would-be kidnappers? “If it ever gets to that stage,” she said, “then I haven’t been doing my job properly. It’s all about assessing the situation and getting your clients out safely if something isn’t right.”

Armed with her advice and on-the-job stories, we returned to London and worked up our PPO character, creating a whole “legend” for why she was on “The Circuit”, as it is known (she is ex-army, like many of them) and imagining the strains of being both a bodyguard and a single mother. After three weeks of “woodshedding”Sam Wylde, PPO to the rich and not-always famous, was ready to keep her clients safe from harm. The idea was that this strong female character (and a cast of supporting characters) would keep readers engaged across several books in an on-going series.

All we had to do then was write the first one.

However, before we began, we had to have an ending. I have read many a good thriller that slightly fades in the final furlong. I think this is often true of psychological thrillers, where the heart-thumping set-up ends with: Meh. Really?

So the first thing we wrote was the opening line:

“There is a man coming to hurt us.”

Which is also the start of the climatic fight scene. And then, to make sure we knew where we had to get to, the epilogue section opens:

“I am waiting to hurt a man.”

Which suggests it’s a revenge thriller. But it turned out to be much more than that. And we still don’t know how we did it. But we do know we’ve got to do it again.

 

Safe From Harm is out now from Simon & Schuster; the sequel, Nobody Gets Hurt is due in 2018.

 

 

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