Writing the first draft of a novel is where it all begins, and finishing the first draft of a novel is the primary step towards holding your own book in your hand. When I began writing the first chapter of my novel long ago, which finally became You Beneath Your Skin, I had no idea how many times I’d have to rewrite it. More than a dozen, as it turned out.
Writing a novel isn’t for sissies, and writing your first novel is a challenge that only those who have undertaken it will understand.
As part of the guest post series, it is my pleasure today to share writing advice from debut author, Tom Benjamin, who talks about writing the first novel , speaks about the writing life and his crime novel A Quiet Death in Italy.
In this crime novel, English detective Daniel Leicester walks the shadowy porticoes of ‘the red city’ in a series that evokes the beauty of Bologna but doesn’t spell her blushes. The reader can expect equal servings of the local cuisine and ubiquitous graffiti as Daniel unravels the mystery of modern-day Italy to arrive at the truth.
1. What are your preoccupations as a writer?
Power and injustice. I certainly wouldn’t say I sat down with the conscious intention of ‘righting wrongs’ but looking at A Quiet Death and other books to come in the series, this certainly appears to be a preoccupation, as it is in other non-Daniel Leicester stories I have written over the years. Of course, the lone PI is perfect for the task, stepping into an apparently chaotic, unjust universe and attempting to create order, something that strongly comes across in the first novel which concerns not only Daniel (‘entering the lion’s den’) but the back-stories of other characters who in their youth set out to put the world to rights, yet ended up corrupted in the process.
History is also an interest. It was always one of my favourite subjects at school, and although I am not (at least not currently!) out to write historical fiction, I am interested in how the past shapes the present. I think this comes over very strongly in A Quiet Death, in which, as the Times reviewer shrewdly observed – ‘the characters come formed by their environment and history’ – but I think it is also a way I see the world, particularly perhaps as a European writer living in Italy, a sort of living museum. As I write in the follow-up to A Quiet Death, The Hunting Season ‘… those fractured frescoes would persevere long after we had left. In a city that often seemed like a stage set for Shakespeare, we truly had no more permanence than players.’
2. Has your earlier experience as a journalist covering crime contributed to your move into crime fiction? What was it like to go in from being a journalist to writing your first novel?
Definitely, along with my time in the press office at Scotland Yard. In both roles, I was exposed to the nitty-gritty of the criminal justice system and the world that exists beneath the sheen of normality, in fact, the efforts by the authorities to maintain that fragile normality. Many specific examples of crime and procedure, too – for example the appearance of Paolo Solitudine’s body at the opening of the story, the details discussed, etc, were drawn from a genuine visit I made to the London’s River Police HQ by the Thames.
3. Who are the authors whose work has influenced yours?
Influence is an interesting word because it does not necessarily apply to one’s ‘favourite’ authors. Although I have been told there is a fair amount of description in my stories, I have always admired writers who can conjure up a scene with as few a words as possible, whether they are the likes of Bret Easton Ellis, JD Salinger, James Ellroy, or Margaret Atwood but closer to home, of course, there’s George Orwell, the Patron Saint of Plain English Prose – and I think many great popular British writers draw deeply from his well, like David Nicholls, Robert Harris or William Boyd, all of whom provide my go-to beach reads.
4. How important are characters to your novel? Was it difficult writing the characters of your first novel? In what way would Daniel Leicester’s journey continue in the next book in your series?
There are many, many, largely plot-driven stories which are tremendously successful and if you are the kind of writer or reader who likes that kind of thing then great, but although my stories are not entirely character-driven – they are often contingent on context – the nature of the characters is key to how the plot will develop, and I think this is where my interest as a writer lies, what keeps me engaged in the story. Once I have brought my characters to life (a deliberate turn of phrase) then, within the architecture of the plot, their actions often surprise me. They are very much alive.
5. Would you like to name five crime novels that have held your interest in recent times?
The Man On The Street, Trevor Wood
Little White Lies, Philippa East
All In Her Head, Nikki Smith
The Party, Elizabeth Day
Secrets Of A Serial Killer, Rosie Walker
6. What writing advice would you give to someone writing their first novel?
- Invest some time in studying the basics – structure, plot, characterisation, etc – you don’t have to do a course, there are plenty of ‘how to’ books about. We might all think we have a novel in us, but writing is a skill as much as say, playing the guitar, and getting the basics right can save you hours, days and years of false starts and dead ends.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help – ask friends for feedback, take writing advice join writers groups, etc. Even consider paying for feedback from a legitimate literary consultancy (one that doesn’t over-promise) – Cornerstones really helped me whip my debut in to shape.
- Each of us has our own approach to writing, so I am suspicious of these ‘what you need to do is write 500 words then go for a walk, then 500 more’ kinds of writing advice. But what I would say – examine your own habits and try and develop a way to write that suits you, because (cliché alert) a novel is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. A mental marathon, remember that. Personally, as I begin book three, I am starting with a little light training (I should be writing today, but am doing this, for example) then, as my deadline nears, will get more serious and try to achieve around 1500 words a day. But that’s just me.
- Write about what you are interested in, is my last piece of writing advice, so you can maintain your interest and that of the reader across 80,000 words. But plainly, not everyone is likely to be interested in the mating habits of goldfish (although come to think of it, that does sounds like the title to a potential domestic drama) so you also need to be realistic about what you are setting out to achieve. For example, if a goldfish dealer were to be found drowned in his own aquarium and the solution rests with a prize goldfish being trafficked by ruthless criminals, this might sell more than a book on… the mating habits of goldfish. Unless it is that aforementioned drama! Remember – agents and publishers have to pay the rent/ mortgage, too.
7. What is the world and setting of A Quiet Death in Italy like, and what inspired you to set your novel there?
Bologna, Italy, where I moved over a dozen years ago with my wife. Although I had visited Italy, I didn’t know it well and certainly not Bologna, which was off the tourist trail back then. Obviously emigrating to another country with another language, of which I knew nothing, was a huge change. After a few months at a language school, I came to realize I would never truly learn the language in the schoolroom, so I got a job as a bouncer at the door of a homeless canteen. Here, I was exposed to a very different Italy, and certainly one rarely seen by tourists. This, along with reading Norman Lewis’s true account of his time as a British police officer in Allied-occupied Naples at the end of the war – Naples ’44 – got me thinking about how much there was to learn, and share, about modern Italy, and how I might do so through the eyes of a British detective in modern-day Bologna…
8. What is that one thing you’d like readers to know about A Quiet Death in Italy before they dive into the book?
A review in today’s The Herald Scotland said A Quiet Death In Italy ‘could only spring from a genuine love of the location.’ But readers shouldn’t open it expecting Under The Tuscan Sun – as I caution on my website, it is ‘a series that evokes the beauty of Bologna but doesn’t spell her blushes. The reader can expect equal servings of the local cuisine and ubiquitous graffiti…’ You have been warned!
Have you read novels set In Italy? Would you like to recommend any? Would you like to Read A Quiet Death in Italy? What writing advice would you give to someone working on their first novel?
Tom began his career as a reporter in north London before becoming a spokesman for Scotland Yard. He went on to work in international aid and public health before moving to Bologna with his Italian wife. Tom’s first job in Bologna at a homeless canteen exposed him to an Italy less travelled and helped inspire his debut A Quiet Death In Italy. You can follow him at Tombenjaminsays on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and sign up for his mailing list at tombenjamin.com.
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