Author Interview: Peter Bartram

Peter BartramSomething a little different for the blog today – an interview with an up and coming writer. Admittedly, that’s an up and coming writer with 22 books behind them, but Headline Murder is his first foray into crime fiction. It’s the first in the Crampton Of The Chronicle series of murder mysteries. My review of the book will be up tomorrow, which happens to be the publication date for the book as well – what a coincidence!

Anyway, on with the interview which, technically, Peter conducted with himself, not me. But if it proves popular, maybe I’ll start pestering some more of the authors out there. You know who you are! So, over to Peter.

How did you first get involved in writing?

My first ever professional writing job was as a reporter on the Worthing Herald, a weekly newspaper in Sussex. But I’d always been interested in writing. I edited an unofficial magazine a school – it was a bit of a rebel. I was once carpeted by the deputy headmaster for running an editorial criticising the school dinners! It wasn’t the last story I’ve written that has caused a stir. But I don’t think you can be a good journalist if you’re afraid of taking on vested interests.

Did you always plan to be a writer?

I don’t know that “plan” is the quite the right word. Certainly, there was nothing else I ever wanted to do. I remember when I was in the sixth form at school, all the boys were called to an interview with the headmaster to discuss their careers. My friends were going in to the interviews saying they were planning to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects – and then getting some wise advice. I went in and said I was going to be a journalist. The head had a particular hatred of journalists for reasons I never got to the bottom of. He had a look of horror on his face and said: “Is there anything I can say to dissuade you from this course of action?”

“No, sir.”

“That will be all then.” That was the only advice I ever got from him.

So you had to make it on your own?

Not quite. Fortunately, I knew somebody who worked for the Daily Mirror – Jack Greenall who drew the daily Useless Eustace cartoon. It was a big draw in those days and syndicated to more than 500 newspapers worldwide. Jack gave me some terrific advice. He said: ask the local paper editors for an interview even if they don’t have a job available at the moment. I did and one editor saw me. He didn’t have a job at the time – but a few months later a vacancy became available and I got the job.

Was it a big step moving from journalism to crime writing?

In one way, it wasn’t that big. As a journalist you get used to writing every day. You have deadlines to meet, so you don’t have time to sit around agonising over writers’ block. You have to get to the typewriter – or for the past 30 years the computer keyboard – and bat out the words. I guess what I’m saying is that journalism trains you in the craft of writing – and usually writing quite quickly. But of course there is a world of difference between writing about something that has actually happened in the real world and something that is only happening in your head.

How do you get your ideas?

That’s the question that writers get asked most often – and it’s probably the most difficult to answer. I think every writer gets their ideas in their own way. There’s not some kind of formula you can apply. In my case – and remember I’m writing crime mysteries – it starts by asking a question. (The old journalism training coming in again – journalists need to be adept at asking questions.) So, in the case of Headline Murder (my first Crampton of the Chronicle novel) I asked: what would happen if somebody committed a murder, somebody else was blamed for it, but then a few years later something was going to happen that would point the finger at the true killer? Of course, that’s just the bare bones of an idea. You then need to think of ways to build it into a satisfying story.

What exactly do you mean when you say “satisfying story”?

In a crime mystery, it’s a story with some well-defined characters and a story which works at a number of levels. There will be a central mystery – which is the one that is finally resolved towards the end of the book. But, then, there will be smaller mysteries which are solved as the story progresses. In other words, like real life there are several different things happening all at the same time, but being resolved in different ways at different times.

Do you just start writing from page one or do you plan in advance?

I’m a great believer in planning. And I think you have to in crime mysteries because there are things that happen later in the plot which have to be signalled earlier on. It’s not very satisfying just to spring events on readers without at least giving them the chance to have worked it out for themselves. When they’re surprised, they need to say “Ah, yes, that’s why so-and-so did such-and-such in chapter three.” So I plan my novels in scenes – in the book I’m currently writing, there are 72 scenes. A scene can be anything from 250 words to 3,000 words in length. In each scene I’ll plot what’s going to happen but I won’t necessarily work out how it’s going to happen. So when I’m writing I’ve got a clear road-map of the plot and I know what I’ve got to achieve in each scene. There’s another reason I work this way. I’m writing humorous crime mysteries, so there need to be jokes. I’m simply not clever enough to be thinking about complex details of plot and making up funnies at the same time.

How did you first get into crime writing?

I sat down and wrote a crime mystery. In fact, I wrote two. But, in my opinion, the first one wasn’t good enough to publish, so it sits mouldering in a file. After I’d finished it, I thought about crime writing a bit more and decided I needed a central character – protagonist, if you like – who could run through a series of books, as that seems to be what publishers want. There are thousands of crime novels out there and I was racking my brains trying to think of an original protagonist. And then I realised the answer was staring me in the face – the protagonist would be the crime reporter on a newspaper. He’d have to solve the crimes in order to write a front-page story. And I’d be playing to my strengths because I already knew a lot about the newspaper background from my years in journalism.

Will there be more Crampton of the Chronicle novels?

I hope so. There are already some short stories on the website at www.colincrampton.com and I sometimes post stories on my Facebook page at www.facebook.com/peterbartramauthor. I’m currently working on the second full-length novel. I don’t want to give too much away too soon – but Colin makes some powerful enemies when he investigates the strange theft of a What the Butler Saw machine from the pier.

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