With almost 50 years of police experience between them, they are perfectly placed to write authentic crime stories. Bob and Carol are also consultants for storylines on award-winning TV dramas, such as Happy Valley and Scott & Bailey and are presently working with Scott Free Production scriptwriters on a five-part commissioned TV drama series. (see below for full bio).
- What gave you the idea to write novels and how did the story for your first novel come about?
Carol: Friends and acquaintances had always told Bob, he should write a book with all the stories he could tell of real-life events he had been party to, in his 30-year career. One day Bob saw an advert in the local press to join a college course to help you, ‘Write Your First Novel.’ He enrolled us both, to my surprise, and at the end of the first course we had our first draft for Deadly Focus – 120,000 words in long hand!
There is no magic formula to our writing. Once Bob has a crime scene in his mind he can then write about the enquiry until he captures the perpetrators, just like he did in real life, including all the highs and lows of the investigation that he was duty bound to take charge of. When his first draft of around 70,000 words is complete, he passes it to me.
Bob: Carol then adds the emotion. She draws my feelings out of me.
Carol: Not an easy job from someone who has hidden behind the ‘detective’s mask’ for so long, and sometimes they are really harrowing descriptions. I think it’s cathartic for Bob though. He says it’s work!
Bob: There is never the case of not knowing how to move the story forward or writer’s block, because the investigations are police procedure-led and open up automatically, just as they did in real life.
- What have you found to be the most useful experience from your days in the police when it comes to writing fiction?
Carol: It’s just that: experience… Bob was a career detective. I was a support worker taking on several
roles in the 17 years I spent at West Yorkshire Police. My first job was as an accident clerk in the real Happy Valley station, Sowerby Bridge, where I spent 15 of my 17 years.
During that time I was also the Duties Clerk, in charge of connected and miscellaneous property (of crime), which included guns, and drugs. I was also the office supervisor. At Richmond Close, Halifax Police Station, I was the office manager for the trail of ANPR [Automatic Number Plate Recognition], and aided putting case files together for court. I was also married to the ‘man in charge’ in real life.
It really is true that fact is stranger than fiction. No matter how much anyone tried, they could not make up some of the weird and wonderful characters that we have met along the way. We are privileged in that we are able to use their characteristics to make unique, rounded characters for our novels – that’s both criminals and others!
When it comes to sourcing information, Bob and I are very fortunate to have friends who are retired serving officers or other professionals.
- How did you come up with the character of down-to-earth Yorkshireman DI Jack Dylan? Is he based on anyone you know or a mix of people or largely an invention?
Jack Dylan and his wife Jen are based very loosely on our lives. People said to us: ‘Write what you know’, so that’s what we do, and it seems to work. The novels detail the things that we have dealt with: the circumstances that surround a murder but also the effect that it can have on the officer and his family.
- Why did you decide to set your new crime series in Huddersfield and what particular aspects of the town are featured in the first book?
Bob was born in Marsden. When he was a boy, his mum became ill and was unable to look after him and his four siblings, so he was sent to live and work on a farm.
In 1974 he began his police career as a beat constable in Huddersfield. He retired in 2004 with the rank of Detective Superintendent.
In 2002 he took charge of the largest multiple murder that West Yorkshire Police has seen in the last 60 years. The Birkby house fire left five children dead, along with their mother, uncle and grandmother.
In 2019, 17 years after Bob retired, he stood in the dock at Leeds Crown Court for two days, giving evidence to help secure the conviction of Shahid Mohammed, who absconded from the country when he was released on bail by the court, hours before the police had evidence to secure his involvement.
Huddersfield will always have a very special place in our hearts.
As far as aspects of the town, Payback introduces Marsden, the surrounding areas and the police station, and it covers the folklore and some history of Huddersfield.
- Crime novels are usually packed with plot but your books also get praise for their portrayal of rounded characters. What process did you use to create the character of DI Charley Mann in Payback, your first female protagonist?
Our characters are always loosely based on people we know – sometimes several people make up a complex character’s characteristics. This makes it easier for us co-writing, because we both know who we are talking about when considering the character’s goals and motivations.
Charley is no different. Charley is from good old Yorkshire stock. She comes from an idyllic childhood: a farm on Marsden moor. She is largely influenced by her grandmother in her beliefs, and by her father, who would have been a professional boxer had it not been for the need for him to take over the family farm at an early age. She has a memorable voice.
- How do you hook readers from the first page?
I’ve read thousands of ‘page ones’. But, I’m pretty ashamed to say I don’t always read page two. My reading/me-time is scarce in my hectic world, so my rule of thumb is that if I’m not connecting with the material, I move on – and quickly.
Honestly, I wish I had more time to give to other writers, but the truth is I don’t. However, I can tell a lot by the first few pages: dialogue, setting, pace, character, voice etc. That applies to TV dramas and film scripts as well.
So, with the above in mind, no matter how we start a book, we keep our readers in mind. What will make them want to continue reading our books? We take people on a journey from the word go.
10 tips we use to hook our reader on page one:
- Startle readers with the first line
- Begin at a pivotal moment
- Create intrigue about the characters
- Add conflict
- Use a setting as the inciting incident
- Add an unusual situation
- Make the reader wonder
- Introduce something ominous right away
- Set the mood
- Keep the narrative voice compelling
The first sentence for Payback:
‘Charley knew almost nothing about the woman who had married her childhood sweetheart so soon after Charley’s departure, except what she had seen on Facebook.’
The first chapter of Poetic Justice – the prequel to our nine book DI Jack Dylan series:
‘Frank Bland’s hand trembled as he fumbled for the phone. The receiver felt too heavy as he lifted it. His heart was pounding in his chest; his shoulders heaved with the effort of running; his legs felt like jelly. When he breathed in, the cold air froze his throat and lungs. Leaning heavily against the door, Frank dialled 999 and, while he waited for someone to answer, he closed his eyes and left a prayer on God’s answer machine. An angel in the mortal guise of a BT operator answered.’
- How do you keep up with modern policing methods and developments?
Bob and I pride ourselves on keeping up with current police procedures and the cutting edge of the continuing development of forensic capabilities; also the influence of the digital world. We research like any other writer. Luckily, we have friends who are still in the job, who can provide us with up-to-date procedures. In the police procedural genre, the information changes every day. You have to be on top of it, and never take anything for granted, if you want to get it right.
For instance when we were advising on Happy Valley series one, the call sign for the helicopter changed between the writing and the filming. As did the names of departments within the police.
- What kind of questions do you get asked by writers and directors as consultants on popular TV dramas?
Increasingly creators of drama want to create a world that feels ‘real’ on some level. Not every bit of procedure needs to be bang on, because we don’t want to get bogged down with the ‘boring’ stuff. Who wants to watch 48 hours of CCTV of people going in and out of a supermarket to see if you’ll catch one suspect with his hood down?
So, we suggest storyline changes to make the storylines work for the scriptwriter. The clever writers ask the bigger questions, often based on the smallest detail, astute to which changes they will allow themselves. We have worked with some of the biggest names in script writing and each time they primarily ask the same questions. For example: ‘If a police officer is in xxx situation, what would they say?’
Police officers are human. So, if they observe a motorbike rider pull alongside a car at traffic lights, indicate to the driver to wind down the window, see the pillion passenger point a gun and shoot the driver, they are not going to say, ‘Gosh,’ are they?
Basically, we talk through a scenario/scene. What would the drugs look like? How could we get them to the house without the police suspecting. In the particular scene in Happy Valley when the writer, Sally Wainwright, wanted to get the drugs to the dealer, Bob suggested they come in a bag of sand. Delivered with other bags, for the builders working on the house.
Scriptwriters always want something different, something unusual. Factual incidents that professionals have been personally involved with are like gold dust when it comes to writing/portraying fiction. Writers want to be that fly on the wall in the incident room or at the scene of a body in a post-mortem.
There is an emotional quality to the responses of some of the people who watch TV dramas, and who are affronted – as I was – because nothing can really match the intensity of the experiences that are personal to them.
Presently we are working on a five-part crime drama that has been commissioned. It’s very exciting.
- How do you work as a writing duo – do you alternate chapters or do you have another method of working?
Writing together works well for us because Bob’s strength is in the police procedure, so our framework is pretty much set on the chosen crime for the first draft. In the second draft, which is mine, I develop the storyline and the one-dimensional characters, create the descriptions of scenes, write a second storyline thread if that is necessary, as I did in the Dylan series for Dylan’s home life. Writers amongst you will understand that Bob’s background, as well as my experience as a civilian in the police, enable us to ‘tell it as it is’.
Writing has been a steep learning curve for us both – writing a novel was never on our agenda when we left the West Yorkshire Police.
Together we write a bit like the proverbial tortoise and hare. Bob gets the storyline down quickly and when he has finished the first draft he gives me, on average, between 40K to 80K words, depending on the police procedural content of the novel. Then he starts another book. This reads like a crime file.
The second draft is a bit like putting flesh on the skeleton’s bones. I don’t read it through first; I read the first chapter and start my own beginning, whether that is to develop a character or a storyline. During the writing we may speak about how it really felt to Bob to be the man in charge of a murder enquiry. Not how it felt as a police officer – I know that he dealt with man’s inhumanity to man by putting on the mask of the detective – but how it felt as a human being, a husband, a father and friend of his fellow man. This was the hardest part to get Bob to open up about, and share with me his true feelings. ‘If you get pulled into the emotion, you’d never do your job,’ Bob would say on so many occasions.
The narrative is reworked several times before we read the whole thing separately, and only when we are both happy that it is the best it can possibly be, do we send it off to our agent David H Headley and nervously wait for his thoughts.
- What advice would you give to aspiring crime writers?
Do your homework. Readers of police procedurals are more aware than ever of how it happens in real time. Thanks to the likes of the real-life TV programmes where we are up close with an investigation and real-life crime.
Research, research, research. The crime genre readers are unforgiving for letting us, the writers, be lazy. Procedure, the law and advancements in technology make for constant checking and updating our database and we have nearly 50 years of police experience to help us with the basics. No one said it was easy. Police call-signs, the names of departments and even the name of the police helicopter changed whilst we were working as storyline consultants and police advisors for BAFTA winning BBC police drama Happy Valley. Don’t be deterred by the fact you might not know a lot about the genre. We have a superb tool in the internet!
Top Tips: Understand the basics of the justice system, the rank structure of a police force and the powers the police have. Start by visiting your local police force HQ website. If you get the opportunity, attend an open day at a police station. Depending on availability, if you explain that you are writing a novel they may even give you a tour of the station. If you don’t ask you won’t know!
Remember that any investigation is simply a process to uncover the truth.
5WH is something that Bob always used in his police investigations and this covers most things that you need to know: WHO? WHEN? WHERE? WHY? WHAT and HOW?