Martina Cole – Crime Writing Tips

Martina ColeThanks 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!

Halloween Polari Literary Salon


Medusa won the prize for best Halloween costume at Polari on Sea in Hastings.

Polari really is the “edgiest literary salon in the UK” as one Tweeter put it – it’s clear why events sell out. Paul Burston hosted with Halloween charm in horns and Vg Lee nearly scared the punters off as the Wicked Witch of Endor.


paul & Vj Lee







The Good Son_cover


Paul McVeigh was first up and made the audience chuckle reading from his debut novel set in N.Ireland, The Good Son. Shortlisted for the Guardian Not the Booker, lovable young Mickey Donnelly has a dog called Killer and is in love with the girl next door, but even so, everyone calls him ‘gay’.




Erica Smith, wearing super-chic net veil and black velvet ears read from her novel in progress, Circus Skills for the Over-50s. The story opens with the heroine puking into the glove compartment of her car (the novel does what it says on the tin). Down from London she discovers the joys of the nudist beach whilst blackberry picking! A breath of fresh air from Chick Lit! Hurry up and finish it!


Chris Green


Chris Green – Oh, what a show! We must first note the Hubba-bubba pink suit. If that wasn’t enough to hypnotise, his delivery was – not least because he is an Olivier award-winning performer, but mostly because he is a trained hypnotist with the inside track on how you get to be a famous one. He had the audience in stiches with his tales of fake TV celeb hypnotists. I am so buying the book: Overpowered!: The Science and Showbiz of Hypnosis.





Diane Perry read poems that reminisced upon her life and loves with soft delicacy and a sharp eye for detail, which is her style. I drifted into her world of harvest festivals remembered and loves too sorely not forgotten.



Adam Mars Jones


Novelist and literary critic, Adam Mars Jones’ coming out story turned into a family trial (his father is a judge). The dark humour and ‘coming out’ observations as he read from his recent memoir in his deep, haunting voice held the audience in thrall as if watching the Wilde trial in the dock. Superb – especially considering he got the nightmare final slot.




Paul set up Polari eight years ago. Fed up with not getting readings when Chick Lit writers are constantly being invited to do shows, out of sheer frustration, he set up his own salon. It started small – just him and a few friends, but there was a gap in the market and Polari was destined to turn into the UK’s edgiest salon.

We chatted as the dregs of the evening were toddling off home, or to find another Hastings drinking hole. Paul, Adam and myself pondered its success. Paul, modest that he is, said it was when Will Self came along to read that things really kicked off, but as Adam chipped in, it was always going to be a success.

Polari has winning formula: Paul lets writers deliver what they want, how they want. I am delighted to be reading from RUFIUS at the Southbank in February, when Rufius will come out of the closet after 1600 years. I asked Paul if an actor friend could perform Rufius. Paul replied, ‘you can do whatever you want.’ How many debut novelists who don’t write mainstream fiction get to have that freedom at the Southbank Centre?

Polari has a daring and charismatic host and a loyal following, but its edge comes from giving the mic to voices that the general public would rarely, or likely never hear of – alongside big names such as Ali Smith and Berardine Evaristo.

At a time when publishers are under increasing pressure to back books that they know they can sell, Polari is showing us that writing which is not mainstream can draw in the crowds. I went alone – as Gorgons tend to be unpopular – and sat between two loyal fans. Anny and Ruben go to practically every Polari event. I can see why they are hooked.

As Ali Smith put it: ‘I love doing Polari – a blend of audience sweetness, panache, cleverness and really good fun’

I was warned by best-selling author Steven Saylor (who gave my novel a rave review) that it would never get published in the US. My guess is that the US (excluding the Bible belt) is likely just as starved of edgy material as the UK audiences. Polari across the Pond … has a certain ring to it, don’t you think? In the meantime, I’m joining the Polari groupies!

Photos: A curtsey to Polari official photographer and poet, Anny Knight 



St. Patrick’s Day, Liberalia & the Toga Virilis


17 March has been a good excuse for a drink since Ancient Roman times. The Liberalia was a feast that celebrated the maturation of young boys to manhood.

For the Liberalia ceremony, Roman boys (around age 14), discarded the toga praetexta, which was decorated with a broad purple border. The boys donned the clothing of adulthood, the pure white toga virilis, or ‘man’s gown.’ The garment identified him as a Roman citizen and an eligible voter.

In the novel, Rufius throws a party for Aeson’s ‘Toga Virilis’ (coming of age). And Rufius reflects on his own ‘Toga Virilis’ – how he never really upgraded to the adult toga of a magistrate or senator, never qualified to wear an adult toga with wide purple boarders that singled out a man of his class, as his sexuality had excluded him from taking up public office. As a cinaedus he was an ‘eternal boy’.

The celebration on 17 March was meant to honor Liber Pater, an ancient god of fertility and wine (like Bacchus, the Roman version of the Greek god Dionysus). Rufius approved of the wine-glugging!

Ovid mentions the feast in his almanac entry for the festival. This ancient rustic ceremony included a procession in which the devotees carried a large phallus through the countryside to bring the blessing of fertility to the land and the people. At the end of the procession, a virtuous and respected matron placed a wreath upon the phallus.

While Liberalia is a relatively unknown event in modern times, St. Patrick’s Day is an opportunity for modern Westerners to celebrate the Patron Saint of Ireland. It is possible that the reason these festivals share the same date is an example of the Roman Catholic Church choosing an existing pagan festival for a Christian one. There is no academic research I’m aware of to support this claim, but it is certainly a pattern.

Both St. Patrick’s Day and the Liberalia share the ritual of praising Bacchus by having a jolly good drink. Having Paddy blood flowing through my veins, I’ll raise my glass to both, by Bacchus!

Desire & Deceit in Alexandria

Desire & Deceit sml

Tonight I watched a live performance of Mike Walker’s radio play set in Egypt in 130 AD, The Glass Ball Game. It brought to life the tragic love story of Hadrian and his young lover, Antinous.

The cast delivered a brilliant performance  among the glass cabinets of London’s Petrie Museum. Egyptian mummies and statues of Horus peered out at them and time stretched as we were transported back to ancient Roman Egypt.

The flamboyant, ever fabulous John J Johnston (Rufius would love him) asked Mike Walker about his version of this rarely dramatised love story.

JJJ & Mike walker

‘It’s a great love story,’ Mike impressed upon the audience of academics who know the tragedy and the ancient Roman social mores that would have ridiculed the Imperial couple.

Marguerite Yourcenar writes about the great love of Hadrian’s life in her Memoirs of Hadrian. Hadrian fell in love with Antinous in Bithynia when Antinous was a boy. When Antinous is 21 years old he drowns on a boat trip down the Nile with Hadrian. Hadrian deifies Antinous and founds many temples in his honour.

Over two hundred years later in RUFIUS the Temples of Antinous burn along the Nile as the Christians run riot when the destruction of the temples in Egypt was at its height during the long fall of paganism. Centuries after Hadrian and Antinous’ tragedy, the political atmosphere under the Christian Emperors resulted in Roman law becoming increasingly intolerant to heretical worship. Intolerance was behind the laws that condemned cinaedi, men like Rufius and Antinous who took the ‘passive’ role, becoming more severe. Antinous would have faced a loss of dignity. Rufius faced public burning in 391 AD.

If Antinous did take his life, it would have been the only honourable escape. The alternative would have been to have lived the life of Rufius. This young man was no Rufius. You would have had to be a certain type – thick-skinned and with an exhaustive sense of humour – to live openly as a cinaedus in ancient Rome, by Bacchus!

Antinous was too old at 21 years to play the boy without feeling shame. He likely would have been ridiculed. In Mike’s brilliant play, Antinous commits suicide, rather than live his life in shame, never  able to live as a man.

St Valentine & the Gnostics

cupid14th February has been a holiday since ancient Roman times. The Roman festival of Lupercalia, a spring festival coincided with this date.

As with many pagan festivals, St. Valentine’s Day appears to be an example of the Roman Catholic Church substituting a saint’s feast day for a popular pagan holiday. There were three saints called Valentine who could be associated with the theme of love. Valentinus, the Gnostic mystic is a less likely contender as he would have been condemned as heretical by the Nicenes (Catholics), however if he was the inspiration for this date, it is the only Gnostic Christian day in the Christian calendar.

Valentinian literature is filled with the imagery and metaphor of spiritual love and marriage.

Valentinus did not deny the physical dimension of love, but sought something greater, something transcendent and hidden, which can be missed if we do not penetrate beneath the surface of sexual union.

‘That fire burns only at night and is put out. But the mysteries of this marriage are perfected rather in the day and the light.’ (The Gospel of Philip)

Two books in RUFIUS were possibly Valentinian: The Gospel of Philip and the Pistis Sophia.* 

Both The Gospel of Philip and the Pistis Sophia were condemned as heretical by the bishops and after much destruction of temples and libraries across the ancient world, on 4 March 398 A.D., a law was promulgated that condemned all heretical books to the pyres. That would have included not only religious books, but books of mathematics and astrology.

‘We command that the books containing the doctrine and matter of all their crimes shall immediately be sought out and produced, with the greatest astuteness and with the exercise of due authority, and they shall be consumed with fire immediately under the supervision of the judges.’ (Theodosian Code, Law 16.5.34)

Thanks to book-loving monks and, of course, thanks to Rufius, the Pistis Sophia survived. When I first came across it in the British Library in 2004, I was intrigued as to how it got there. It must have had an interesting journey from ancient Egypt to Georgian London (it was probably copied in the Ancient Library of Alexandria.)

Rufius tells the story of the Pistis Sophia’s survival. In the novel I call it The Book of Wisdom.

The story of the Pistis Sophia, or the Askew Codex (named after Dr Askew, the collector who bequeathed it to the British Library) is fictional, but thanks to many experts including the curator of the manuscript at the British Library, Dr. Nersessian, it is a plausible tale.

Askew Codex Image 

Askew Codex (MS 5114) 


*In RUFIUS, I assign the Pistis Sophia to the Ophites, but it is just as likely to be the work of Valentinus, or another Gnostic group.

Rufius first spoke to me in 2004

Sarah_Dartmouth house_June 14_smlRUFIUS isn’t my first attempt at novel writing, but it was a novel that scared me. Why? Because when I first heard Rufius’ voice (calling myself a novelist  means I can dodge the men in white coats), I realised he was talking to me from ancient Rome. As schoolgirl Latin, Carry On Cleo and Gladiator were all I knew about ancient Rome, I tried to ignore his lisp chattering away at me. But Rufius is insistent, by Bacchus!

Ten years later, having infiltrated the Classics community, gate-crashed many an academic conference, the most memorable being ROMOSEXUALITY at Durham University, and made a lot of fascinating friends on the way, I can now say I know something about ancient Romans and the way they viewed their sexuality – which is very different to modern Western ideas.

Carry on loving, the Roman way

Credit: Alamy