Bill Kitson, a retired finance executive, was born in West Yorkshire. He is an avid fan of cricket and cryptic crosswords and is also the former chairman of the Scarborough Writers’ Circle. Identity Crisis is the sixth instalment in the Mike Nash series, following Kitson’s gripping thrillers Depth of Despair, Chosen, Minds That Hate, Altered Egos and Back-Slash. Here, Kitson talks about creating a serial killer and keeping up interest for a book series.
With the sixth book in the Mike Nash series, Identity Crisis, due for release at the end of May, I’ve had time to reflect on the advantages and disadvantages that surround writing a series. There has always been a great demand for detective series, from Conan Doyle, Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and John Creasey to Ian Rankin and Val McDermid. Nor is it solely a British trait. American, Italian and, most recently, Scandinavian crime writers have all been highly successful. They also transfer well to film and TV – increasing their popularity.
I joked once that my advantage was in not having to invent as many characters, but I found there are risks attached to maintaining the same ones. An obvious one is to make the regular characters mere observers. Unless the characters’ life experience is reflected in the books, they become two-dimensional, caricatures, and ultimately, unsatisfying. I have a life outside the books, why shouldn’t my detective? Events should touch them just as they touch the writer. They should age, get married – or divorced, have children, lose family and friends. Anything less, and the books become little more than an extremely wordy cryptic crossword. A well-known novelist once told me, ‘Your characters should be so believable you would recognize them if they knocked at your door’. However, if they did – I’d have a problem!
Naming characters is very important, in several ways. The name should ‘fit’ the part. I’ve changed several names, usually in my first draft, because they didn’t feel right. They should also be right for their origin. To help with that, I use http://www.behindthename.com/ which gives origin and meaning of first names from anywhere in the world, and from different religions and ethnic groups. This has to be correct, or the author loses credibility. I once heard a TV detective asking a Muslim what his Christian name was. Woops!
I also avoid similar sounding or looking first or last names. If a reader has to stop every time they see the names Michael Roberts or Martin Robins to decide which character I’m referring to they will eventually lose patience. This is particularly so with thrillers, where I’m striving for pace. If a reader has to stop, it takes several pages for them to pick up speed again. A chart is probably the safest way to prevent this happening, especially the longer the series goes on. When I get a minute I WILL do one!
Along with reflecting changes in the characters’ lives, fashions dictate the subject matter of books set in any particular era. Unless the story is set before the war – the days when the detective gathered all the suspects together in the library to unmask the killer are long gone. Many small towns are without libraries nowadays, let alone most houses! Writing present day crime books and striving for realism can be uncomfortable, particularly when real life imitates fiction. Only three days before I wrote this article, a tragic event locally mirrored something I wrote a few months ago. This is by no means the first time I’ve written about crimes that later became headline news.
Having the same detectives throughout enables me to indulge in a little office banter, humour that lightens what are sometimes fairly grim scenes. The humour, sometimes black, is a natural reaction to some of the horrors that police and forensic officers, plus pathologists encounter. Once more, it reflects real-life reaction along with realism and accuracy from my research into the subject matter of the plot.
The setting for a series is almost like having an extra character in the books. I borrow scenes from real locations adapting them to my fiction world, amending them to fit the plot. In Depth of Despair, the template for Desolation Tarn is in fact two lakes that are fifty miles apart. Similarly, in Minds That Hate, one of the characters walks out of a house (in Northallerton), down a ginnel (in Thirsk) and fifteen minutes later is in woods alongside a river (near Ilkley). In real life that is about a seventy mile journey.
Using real places can have disadvantages. At a speaking engagement last year I let slip the true location of the alley where the victim was abducted in Chosen. One member of the audience reacted with horror. ‘I’m never going to walk down there again,’ she told me. Fact and fiction had collided.
The beautiful and diverse scenery of North Yorkshire is the greatest inspiration for me, and I hope it provides scope to describe settings that the reader will enjoy. Sadly, I know I will never be able to do them complete justice. But then, I doubt if there are many authors who could.
Above all, with both the challenges and disadvantages, I’m pleased I decided on a series. It’s been a lot of fun – and it isn’t over yet, by a long chalk.