How does an author create the main character in what, in my case, I hope will be a long-running series of cozy crime mysteries?
When I first decided to write a series of crime books, my first thought was to create a classic dysfunctional pair of detectives – like Morse and Lewis, or Dalziel and Pascoe. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that everything had been done in that area. There’d been detectives who loved opera (Morse) and detectives who loved farting (Dalziel). There’d been side-kicks who’d come up the hard way (Lewis) and side-kicks who’d arrived from the privileged groves of academe (Pascoe).
Bottom line: I couldn’t think of anything original to do with two detectives. And then I realised the answer was staring me in the face. My protagonist would be a journalist. Just like me. Or, actually, not just like me.
At first, I decided to make him a newly-hired junior reporter in his first job on a local weekly rag in an imaginary seaside town called Borthington. I thought it was a great idea, rushed to the laptop and belted out the first chapter.
With 3,000 words written, I realised it wouldn’t work. Everything was wrong about my plan. If my reporter was in his first job, he wouldn’t have the experience to solve the kind of mysteries that would come his way. If he worked for a weekly newspaper, he wouldn’t have the pressures – and opportunities – which the daily deadlines of an evening paper provide. And if he was solving mysteries in an imaginary town, I’d have to spend a lot of time describing the town to readers to make it seem real.
So, in the end, I made Colin the crime correspondent on the imaginary Evening Chronicle newspaper in the real-life seaside town of Brighton. I’ve already lost count of the number of crime writers who’ve set mysteries in Brighton – including the greats like Graham Greene with Brighton Rock – but I thought that was a strength. The town has the right kind of louche glamour combined with a darker background of real crime to make a very realistic backdrop to murder mysteries.
When it came to developing the character of Colin, I remembered a comment from the brilliant Sunday Times journalist, the late Nicholas Tomalin. He said the main qualities needed for success in journalism are “a plausible manner, a little literary ability and rat-like cunning”. Colin has all three in spades. He takes big risks to get his stories – and solve the crimes – and relies on his quick wit and easy-going banter to talk his way out of trouble when it comes calling. And in both Headline Murder and Stop Press Murder it certainly does.