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.

 

 

Armoured Cars

One of the first things we discovered when we started researching Safe From Harm is that cars feature prominently in the life of a Personal Protection Officer. They rarely like their clients to travel on regular transport – the general public are to be avoided (there is a phrase for them in the book that cannot be repeated here) – and they will often be driving specially modified vehicles. Companies such as Jaguar, Mercedes and BMW offer powerful, off-the-shelf bullet- and blast-proof models for diplomats, potentates and unpopular oligarchs (although I suspect every oligarch is unpopular with someone; I guess they just have to hope it isn’t Putin).

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In Safe From Harm Sam Wylde drives a long wheelbase, armoured 7 series BMW. The 7HS is compliant with the requirements of the class VR7 ballistic protection standard. Which means you can fire 400 7.62mm rounds at it from every angle with zero penetration. It is also blast-proofed against fragmentation and ordinance hand grenades. Each of the corners is reinforced for those times when the driver has to punch through parked vehicles or reverse his or her way out of trouble.

Sam’s version has been somewhat modified by a character called One-Eyed Jack. He is actually based on a guy who used to do my MOTs when one of us was involved in the car business (racing and renovating) in South East London. The real Jack had two perfectly good peepers, but if he spotted a fault he’d always say: “I’ll turn a blind eye to it this time, but get it fixed.” Hence the nickname.

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Sam regularly loses her no-claims bonus

When air bags first appeared, one of his customers came in and asked for them to be disabled on the driver’s side. Why? I asked. Because if you collide with another vehicle, Jack explained, you don’t want a Rover-style balloon (that’s a reference to The Prisoner for you youngsters) exploding in your face. It turned out the customer was one of the last of the old-school robbers who liked to stop armoured cars by ramming them. So it gave me the idea that Sam would have her air bag disabled in case she had to ram her way out of trouble. Which she does.

So, cars of many stripes play an important role throughout Safe From Harm, as a means of secure transport, rapid escape and, in two cases, as a lethal weapon. They figure even more prominently in the sequel, Nobody Gets Hurt, when Sam is faced with that old conundrum: how do you bump-start a vehicle with no battery? In this case a vintage Facel Vega. You’ll have to wait and see for that one.

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The beautiful but capricious Facel Vega.

 

Part of this piece first appeared in Crimetime (www.crimetime.co.uk). Thanks to @BarryForshaw3.

HOLDING THE FORTE

 

As with most novels, one of the key elements in researching the Sam Wylde thrillers is making sure the settings and backgrounds are as accurate as possible. There’s always someone out there who will point out that you can’t see the featured street corner from a particular restaurant window (and besides, the windows are frosted). That wasn’t so difficult for book one, Safe From Harm, because it was mostly set in North London, just down the road from us. But book two (working title: Nobody Gets Hurt… which might be a tad misleading) opens in Monaco and moves on to Forte dei Marmi in Italy. Monaco we know reasonably well from visiting the Grand Prix, but Forte…. Well, here’s something we wrote about it, following our research trip.

On balance, Italy has little to thank Mussolini for, but he did gift the country the seaside resort of Forte dei Marmi. Up until Il Duce’s time this stretch of coast, thirty minutes’ drive north of Pisa, was all marshes and mosquitoes. The dictator ordered the land drained and by the 1930s swamp had segued into chic seaside. It has remained the ne plus ultra of Italian coastal resorts ever since, its appeal undiminished, even if that appeal takes a little decoding.

Its setting is, however, undisputedly wonderful – a long, beautifully manicured beach, a collection of high quality, low-rise hotels and villas, backed by what looks at first glance like majestic snow-topped mountains. But the icing on those peaks is actually the marble that gave the town its name (up there are the Carrera quarries, frequented by Michelangelo and, er, James Bond in Quantum of Solace). So the scenery is easy to get; it’s the social mores of the place that take time for the visitor to appreciate and unpick.

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“There are lots of people who just don’t understand Forte,” said the café owner serving us our morning espressos. “You British for instance. But there is a secret to this town. You know what is?”

“Money?” We asked, thinking of the cost of the previous night’s dinner on the seafront.

He laughed. “Well, that helps. No, it’s that Italians come here for rilassante. You foreigners rush around, you must do Lucca, Florence, Chianti. The Italians visit Forte for the relaxing.”

This is evident in the languorous, and unchanging, rhythms of the town. Forte rises late – at my hotel, breakfast was served until 11am. After that it is a stroll or a cycle (bikes are big in Forte and well catered for) to one of the beach clubs, to soak up the sun. There will be swimming in the pool or the sea, and a little light lunch, followed by a siesta. Come the evening there will be a passeggiata around and along the pier, an aperitivo perhaps, possibly some shopping (Gucci, Prada, Vuitton and other essential brands have conveniently set up here), followed by a leisurely and late-ish dinner, a nightcap, then bed. Repeat.

And repeat they do. Forte is, like the Hamptons to which it is often compared, one of the few remaining resorts where people regularly decamp for a month or more in season. True, these tend to be a moneyed elite – Giorgio Armani has a villa here, as do various members of the Agnelli family, the F1 fraternity and the Juventus football club. It has a symbiotic relationship with Milan much like Deauville traditionally did to Paris – where the well-held city folks go to play (or in this case, relax). Some book a cabana or umbrella/ sunbeds at one of those beach clubs – the bagni – for the duration of the stay, as their family might have done for generations.

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Nothing baffles the British quite like the ninety-odd wall-to-wall – or fence-to-fence – beach clubs that have colonised the shoreline (in season there is only a narrow strip for public access either side of the pier). With their colour-coded beach huts, changing rooms and umbrellas, sand combed into submission by an army of bagnini, discreet waiters (or butlers in some case), restaurants and pools, they sometimes feel like they have been dropped in from a decadent Visconti movie. But if you want to dip your into the sea, you have to play the game and pay to enter (at least at those that will allow day visitors in).

We told the café owner that paying to sit in a club and line up like sardines on a rack was an anathema to the British. He corrected me on the first count. Unlike in lesser resorts – his head indicated Viareggio next door – the sunbeds are not laid out so close together that you feel like it is a giant grill. He also pointed out that we Brits are expected to lug umbrellas, windbreaks, towels, picnics, children and other bulky paraphernalia down the beach, arriving red-faced and panting. This flies in the face of the whole concept of maintaining la bella figura (the beautiful figure) that the Italians strive for. What you are paying for at a beach club is freedom from this sort of donkey work.

And in the high season of July and August, which you should avoid, pay you will – up to 350 euros a day for a cabana/ tent or two at the swankiest clubs, with food and drink on top. But always take advice as to which club to frequent. Many hotels have arrangements with a particular bagna.

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The Hotel Byron, where Sam Wylde has a rather ill-fated dinner.

The Byron, where we were staying – and where  Sam Wylde will stay, briefly in Nobody Gets Hurt – for instance, had special rates at the simple Beppe opposite (from around £36 a day for a sunshade and two sunbeds), which has few bells and whistles, and also with the aristocratic and usually exclusive Bagno Piero (from £56), to the far south of the strip. Although it is a foreign concept, a day at a beach club, as long as you aren’t paying full whack, is well worth the cost of entry, if only for the top-class people watching and the feeling of being part of a long, unchanging tradition. Besides, we came to Forte to watch the wealthy at repose, and there is no better place for that than a bagno.

In recent years the peace and harmony of that tradition has been somewhat disrupted (again, mostly in high season) by the arrival of the Russians, who don’t quite play by the rules. “You could tell them instantly,” said one local. “The women only ride tricycles because they never learned to balance on two wheels. The men only look at the right hand page of the wine lists, where the most expensive bottles are.”

Forte was not impressed. Its style is far more low key.  For various reasons – including Putin’s exhortation to holiday at home – the Russians have stopped coming in force. Last year the number of armoured Humvees and lurid Lambos parked along the front dropped significantly. Forte breathed a sigh of relief. Normal service had been resumed.

Incidentally, you don’t have to pay Oligarch prices and eat at Bistrot (Via Achille Franceschi 14, calling from UK 00 39 0584 89879) or Lorenzo (Via Giosue’ Carducci 61/ 00 39 0584 874030) – away from the seafront strip there are less swanky choices such as  Nelson Club (8 Via Roma, dialing from UK 00 39 0584 80801), il Timone (234 Via Giuseppe Mazzini 234/ 00 39 584 752759) and Al Bocconcino (7 Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi/00 39 0584 80375), which will feed you good food at something closer to Pizza Express prices. But if you feel like splashing out, or are in a particularly romantic mood, try venturing onto the waterfront for sublime seafood pasta at Osteria de Mare (4 Via Achille Franceschi/ 00 39 0584 83661), watch the setting sun throw painterly strips of crimson across the sky, breathe deep of the sea breeze, just forget about the size of the bill and relax. Then, you’ll have cracked the Forte code for good. Although, sadly, thanks to some good new and bad news that arrives during dinner, Sam doesn’t get a chance to relax.

DETAILS: British Airways (0344 493 0787/ba.com) has return flights to Pisa from Heathrow from £96. Hotel Byron (book through Small Luxury Hotels of the World, 0800 0482 314/slh.com/hotelbyron) offers double rooms from £195 (two sharing), B&B.

Holiday Autos (020 3740 9859/holidayautos.co.uk) offers car hire from Pisa airport from £26 per day.