Monday, 25 November 2019



One of the questions authors are regularly asked is where they get their inspiration from. In my case, I'm lucky to live in a beautiful and fascinating corner of the south-east on the Kent-Sussex border. The views from my studio/writing room are stupendous. In one direction, looking towards Hastings,  are fields and and rolling hills, reminiscent of Devon. Sheep and cattle graze on the lush grass. Looking the other way, in the direction of Rye, there are glimpses of the sea. As the light changes so the colours alter hourly. Sometimes the sea is a dark band against a pale sky, then it is brilliant aquamarine contrasting with grey, lowering clouds. I feel quite blessed.

But... like all writers, down the years, I draw inspiration from... other writers. Not to the point of plagiarism  - that would be just wrong. It's not so much about the subject or theme, more about the style of writing. My favourite author is Ian Rankin.

His writing is tense and terse, without a superfluous word or phrase. His books are a masterclass in creating crime fiction. Over the course of almost two dozen books his main character, Inspector John Rebus, has grown from a relatively minor character to a towering presence. This has been helped, to a large extent, by his portrayal on the small screen by the magnificent Ken Stott. 

Taking a lesson from this, I am attempting to 'fill out' the character of my own, DI Sonny Russell. When I started my first book he was just a shadowy idea in my mind, but as I have progressed through the stories I have got to know him better and tried to write more about him, as a person. I'm also a big fan of Val McDermid.


Her writing is quite different. It's still tight and concise but somehow has a different slant on life. Also, in a number of her books, she has two main characters - detective Carol Jordan and a profiler, Tony Hill - which brings a quite different dynamic to the stories. My only caveat with her stories is that they tend to include rather too many gory and forensic details for my liking. Although her latest book is much gentler. And talking of gentler, brings me to George Gently.

Alan Hunter wrote 46 books featuring the eponymous detective and were set in East Anglia, where he lived. The earlier books, written in the 1950s, are very much period pieces which have been very helpful as my stories too are set at that time too. It seems strange, that when the stories were adapted for TV, the locations were moved from the gentle flatlands to the the more rugged north-east. Martin Shaw's character, although nothing like the one created by Hunter, feels authentic, it's just a shame that they couldn't have kept the stories in Norfolk.

I have a gardener friend, who works in the area. One of his customers, an elderly lady, knew Alan Hunter when they belonged to the same sailing club. Apparently she was very cross when the TV series came out. I think I would have felt the same. 

Friday, 15 November 2019

SUCCESS 95% perspiration 5% inspiration

95% perspiration 5% inspiration

Sorry for garbling the quote in the title, which should be "Success = 90% perspiration, 10% inspiration", but as a struggling author I see the odds as being somewhat lower. Most of my time as a writer is spent with my head down, conjuring up pithy combinations of words and amusing phrases and turning them into prose. Then creating stories that, hopefully, my readers will find worthwhile spending time with.

You might think that it is a  solitary life, and in some ways it is. But it's never lonely. The English language is so rich, it's like being in the company of a highly amusing and intelligent group of friends. If just writing was the measure of my success it would be close to 100%. Not for the quality and richness - I have no illusions about my abilities - I know I'm good (head swells) but not that good, compared to the greats. But, looking over what I've put down on the page gives me great satisfaction. If that was all it was about, I'd be a very happy man. But... getting the words down, then corrected and edited is only a small part of the writers burden. 

I'm pretty good at self-publicity. I don't mind standing in front of an audience, selling myself. I don't mind driving distances, to promote my books to a small audience and I don't mind constantly posting on social media making sure I have a high enough profile. There's a saying that "half the money spent on advertising is wasted, but you don't know which half". Not being well off, I can't afford to spend much  on advertising so that doesn't really work for me. So, I do what I can - public appearances and book-signings, personal delivery of books, shameless advertising when people find out I'm a writer. Also, I give talks to WI, U3A and other groups, mainly on gardening subjects, but I still promote my novels whenever I can.

So, if the process of writing is quite straightforward and painless, the 95% perspiration, or hard graft is when I come to actually sell the damn things. So please, if you like what I've done, please lend a hand by spreading the word. Thank you. 

Tuesday, 5 November 2019



As a writer it's important to get the seasons right. If you don't, or get them out of sequence, the reader will notice and it will spoil the story. Daffodils and lambs in spring, warm sun and trees in full leaf in summer, ripened corn and morning mists in autumn, snow, frost and leafless trees in winter. Those are the archetypal indicators. But it's much more satisfying if you can give an indication of the time of year more subtly.

In Blood on the Shrine, the narrative starts with snow falling heavily. I had a strong sense of that wonderful stillness that descends when snow covers everything. I pictured a bird, landing on a branch and a fine curtain of snow falling off the limb. Then, after a few days the temperature rises and a thaw sets in which makes driving treacherous.  

In Blood on the Strand there is a terrific summer storm and heavy rain that lasts for days on end. I felt the frustration of my detective, Sonny Russell, being cooped up and running out of things to occupy his time.

I've just started on book five, working title, Blood in the Garden, and hadn't decided on a time frame. Then I corresponded with a good friend, who has an allotment and, because of the plants I talk about, the scene is now firmly set in late summer/autumn.

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

JOURNEY'S END - well not quite

well not quite
A few days ago I finished writing the fourth book in the DI Sonny Russell series of crime novels, BLOOD ON THE CARDS. It came as something of a surprise.

I started writing it back in December 2018 with only the germ of an idea  - that the body of a fortune teller would be found in a WW2 pillbox near Appledore in Kent. Besides that, I hadn't a clue where the story was going to take me. 

I remember listening to Anne Cleeves, the author of the Shetland and Vera novels that have been so successfully transferred to the small screen. She was choosing her eight records on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs and said there were two types of writers - plotters and pantsters. 

Plotters know exactly where they are going, even to the extent of creating a graph or wall chart, showing the characters, the locations and the plots and just how they are going to react with each other. Pantsters, on the other hand, literally fly by the seat of the pants, following every twist and turn of the story they are creating. Writing like a reader, they are never sure where the narrative is going to take them. I'm one of those. 

I do enjoy the writing, above everything else - editing and promotion for instance - and feel quite bereft when I come to the end of a story that I have been wrapped up in for nearly a year. I would quite like to get on with the next instalment, but first the hard work really starts.

I will have to go through this first draft, carefully checking for inaccuracies, to make sure the chronology is correct and that the narrative floes. I will then hand my baby over to my better half, Greer, who after a lifetime in journalism is more than qualified to check for errors I've missed. I then like to pass it on to a beta reader* to get his opinion of the story. (Very sadly, a good friend who fulfilled that function on the last manuscript, passed away recently so I will have to find another trusted friend to take his place. Not an easy task.)

Then, when all are satisfied, it's off to the printer. So, although the writing is done, there's still a long way to go. However, if you haven't already met DI Sonny Russell, Aggie, his faithful Jack Russell terrier and DC Johnny Weeks, the first three books are available in paperback or kindle.

*beta reader is usually an unpaid test reader of an unreleased work of literature, who gives feedback from the point of view of an average reader to the author.

Thursday, 3 October 2019



Fresh fish stall at Compass Point.

As well as writing books and designing gardens, I also find time to model narrow gauge railway layouts. In a former life I was a professional model maker, making, amongst other things, houses, teapots, cars and robots in a variety of materials. Most of the time I was up against a deadline and tied to a maximum price, which could often lead to a feeling of stress. I'm glad to have left that behind and can now make models, purely for my own pleasure - without the stress. Well, up to a point. For my sins, I take my model railways to exhibitions. As the current layout, Compass Point, is the inspiration for my crime novels, I take some books along too.

DI Sonny Russell's railway carriage home

The shows are usually great fun, I meet lots of nice people and receive compliments for my work. Usually. Generally, the exhibitions are reasonably close to home and just for one day, plus my friend Terry comes with me and is happy to transport the layout in his transit van. However, I've agreed to take part in a two day exhibition in Fareham, which is a two-and-a-half-hour drive away, so I will need an overnight stay. In addition, Terry isn't coming so I've had to pack everything into our Fiat 500!

Everything packed in a Fiat 500

Luckily Terry came round and he helped carry everything down from the studio. Set up, the layout is a total of 2.8 metres long or over nine feet. In addition there are trestles to support it plus a proscenium arch and lighting board - also, rolling stock, transformers, cables, tools etc, etc. Not to mention an overnight bag and a box of books for sale. Phew! It was a struggle to get everything in and I made sure to take photographs so I know how to repack it on Sunday after the show. Hopefully I'll sell a few books, which will help to make it worthwhile. Not sure I'll accept the invitation for another two day, long-distance exhibition again. Unless I hire a van, of course.

If you're anywhere near Fareham this weekend, do come and say hello.

If not, remember, you can obtain my books and kindles on Amazon 

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

MEET THE AUTHOR - making another exhibition of myself

making another exhibition of myself

As an author with my own publishing company I have to wear several hats. As I writer, my life is, by nature, solitary. I work either on my laptop in bed (!), in the sun room or sitting on the sofa when there's something on the TV that doesn't grab my attention. Bed is nice, as I have distant views of the sea and the sun room looks over the garden. However, the best place is in my purpose-built studio.

Built around the backdrop for my medal-winning 2007 Chelsea Flower show garden it looks, and feels, like a railway carriage. I have even better views of the channel, which can be distracting when an interesting ship sails down-channel. 

However, the hat I love and dread wearing in equal measures is the one when I'm promoting my books. It means meeting the public - something I really enjoy as I love talking to people. But it brings the stress of having to perform along with periods of inactivity, waiting for the public to turn up. On top of that, I tend to stand up for long stretches and that plays havoc with my lower back. But, it has to be done. 

So, if you see me at one of my book-signing or meet the author and his dog days, please say hello but also feel a little sorry for me.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

A BIRD IN THE HAND or a bird in a book

a bird in a book


When I'm writing my DI Sony Russell crime stories I try hard to establish place by describing the surroundings. Because much of what happens occurs in the countryside, birds are a very good way of fixing the setting. In this extract from BLOOD ON THE TIDE, the distinctive cry of curlews and oystercatchers help to establish the maritime setting.

Boats of differing sizes and colours stood about the yard, some resting upturned on blocks of wood or trestles, others sitting on the stony ground shrouded in green canvas. Lengths of timber leant against the boatshed, coils of rope and piles of chain cluttered the ground, creating hazards for the unwary. A thin haze hung over the estuary, obscuring the horizon. Unseen oystercatchers called as they searched for food and the mournful cry of a curlew came from some distance away.

In BLOOD ON THE SHRINE, I wanted to capture the quiet that a thick coating of snow brings to the landscape. 

THE LANDSCAPE looked picture perfect. The fields were covered with a pristine coating of white, sparkling in the winter sun. It was so deep that the fences and hedges that formed the boundaries were reduced to amorphous mounds. Trees, skeletal in form, were festooned with shimmering coatings of snow, an occasional bird landing on a branch sending a cascade of flakes spiralling to the ground. In the distance a plume of smoke rose lazily from a chimney but there was no sign of anything moving. Sheep and cows were either under cover or huddled in field margins, waiting for the farmer to bring fodder.

                                 Robin                                                                Great Tit

Away from the coast there is a completely different selection of birds. In BLOOD ON THE SHRINE I tried to portray a quiet woodland, the one I remember from my days camping as a Boy Scout.

Although cool, it was a calm evening. The rain had held off. The only sound was the wind, soughing in the trees and the song of birds. Russell could identify some: robin, great tit, wren and a couple of others he wasn’t sure about. Then there was the distant sound of a whistle and within a few minutes, a locomotive came into sight, pulling a pair of work worn carriages which rattled and clattered slowly over the crossing as the train climbed the slight gradient and disappeared out of view, round the bend.

Black-headed gull

Back at the coast black headed-gulls join the other birds in an extract from BLOOD ON THE STRAND.

The sun had come out from behind the clouds. It was going to be a warm day. Seabirds could be heard along the river: the rising, bubbling note of a curlew; the insistent piping of oystercatchers overlaid with the raucous bickering of black-headed gulls. In the distance a halliard clattered rhythmically against a mast. 

All three books are available in paperback or Kindle. Details on the right of the blog.