Thanks to the fabulous Martina Cole, No 1 Bestselling UK crime writer, New Writing South and Lewes Live Lit for a fascinating evening into the process of crime writing – and for helpful advice on my novel, THE HOSTESS DETECTIVE.
The studio at the Brighton DOME was packed with jolly fans (the bar remained open throughout the interview) and wannabe crime writers.
She advised the writers in the audience to let themselves go: ‘follow the characters, follow each thread as it arises – edit later.’ She adds: ‘If you don’t like a character, you can kill ‘em off.’ Martina laughs in her warm East End twang. She laughs a lot – and so do we as she’s got a knack of making everyone feel at ease, like we are all in an East End pub in one of her novels.
With over 14 million novels sold, and several adapted for TV, Martina found a winning formula with her first novel DANGEROUS LADY. Her advice to me when I gave her my elevator pitch for THE HOSTESS DETECTIVE was that I should believe in what I was writing and create a new genre in crime like she did. Back in 1992 when DANGEROUS LADY was published, Martina innovated the crime genre by writing from the woman’s perspective. She showed her readers the family life of her criminals.
When asked the inevitable question writers are always asked: ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ Martina replied: ‘When Stephen King was asked that at a conference I was at in the States, he replied, “I have the brain of a 4 year-old boy … on my desk!”‘ We all laugh at the joke. But her point is sound: to write is to play.
I’m always fascinated by writers’ processes. Martina writes through the night, no emails to cause distraction, entering the minds of serial killers and rapists – I can almost see her as she pulls on a fag in the dead of night. It’s enough to put a shiver through me. I write in the morning when my brain’s most alert – especially when I’m writing psychopaths like Kinko in THE HOSTESS DETECTIVE.
Martina is hot on research. ‘I did a lot of research into sociopaths and psychopaths. I actually felt really sorry for them. They know from a young age – as young as four or five – that they are unable to feel like other people. They have no empathy. So they imitate. Imagine how lonely that must be, knowing you aren’t like other people.’
For an author of the sort of crime fiction Martina writes, sympathising with the criminal is essential. She shows the other side of the murderer. As one fan notes, ‘I’m always so shocked at how you move so swiftly from a killer performing heinous acts of violence, to domestic scenes of him cuddling his new baby.’
Her new novel GET EVEN promises to deliver the usual fast-paced suspense, gore and edgy East End crime … with a large dollop of swear words and cockney rhyming slang. Two actors read the main characters as Martina confesses she can’t read her own work as she laughs whenever she swears.
She has that knack of keeping her reader turning the page like Stephen King – a skill essential in mainstream crime/mystery and horror genres – which I likened to the method used in Porn fiction to propel the reader through the narrative, in a public lecture I gave with Dr Rob Clucas at the University of Hull.
Martina does a lot of work in prisons with Lewes Live Lit to promote inmate literacy. She believes that people should leave prison better than they went in. ‘It’s shocking how many young men cannot write their own name,’ she says more than once.
Considering her novels are the most stolen books in UK prisons, it’s highly likely she’s succeeding in increasing inmate literacy!