My guest today is author Robert Crouch.
Welcome Robert, let’s start with you telling us a little about yourself including where you are from.
All over the place! Born in Darlington, near Durham, the family soon moved to Norwich, Reading, Henley-on-Thames and then Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire before I was 8. Then my father died and we headed north to Bury on the edge of Manchester. It took a while to settle in as everyone thought I was a posh Southerner, but I lived there for 17 years before returning south to settle in East Sussex, where I’ve lived for the past 33 years.
I think this constant moving around, seeing new places and meeting new people, gave me a restless nature and a natural curiosity for everything around me. Moving about meant there were few opportunities for lasting friendships, so books became my companions in those early years, fulfilling my thirst for knowledge.
I’ve spent my entire working life in environmental health, which is a fascinating world that few people know much about. Thanks to TV programmes like ‘The Food Inspectors’, we’re best known for inspecting restaurant kitchens to make sure they’re hygienic and food is safe to eat. But we cover so much more, including health and safety in workplaces, pollution control (noise, smoke, dust, light), private housing (dodgy landlords, bedsits), and all manner of licensing from zoos, pet shops, alcohol and entertainments like pop festivals. We’re involved in public health issues like obesity, and we work with the police and all manner of public bodies to protect the environment and the public.
In March this year, with the publication of my first novel imminent, I left local government to focus on writing.
Can you tell us about No Accident and how you got started.
No Accident is a traditional murder mystery with a contemporary and irreverent twist. It features environmental health officer, Kent Fisher, who has more baggage than an airport carousel and a flair for trouble. The story begins with a death from a workplace accident. Except it’s not an accident, as the title tells you. It’s a murder disguised as a work accident.
I wanted to create something different from the routine police procedurals and serial killer stories that fill the crime fiction market. I wanted something that stood out, but could be watched on a Sunday evening at 8pm. No Accident is a whodunit in the style of Agatha Christie, according to one reviewer, but it’s modern, complex and laced with plenty of humour. You also get to learn about environmental health.
It began in earnest with a blog about my work. I used Kent Fisher to write the blog and created a small cast around him to work for a fictional council close to the South Downs. After several years of blogging as Kent Fisher, I was ready to write No Accident, which to my surprise and delight was accepted for publication and came out as an eBook on 20th June this year, followed by a paperback.
I’ve just completed the first draft of the second Kent Fisher mystery, No Bodies, so after editing and rewriting, it should be ready for publication in a few months time.
What made you decide to write books?
I’ve always loved reading, especially books, since I was a child, so it was quite natural for me to want to write novels.
What was your inspiration for your books?
It was a fusion of my love of crime fiction and my work as an environmental health officer. As an EHO, I’ve investigated fatal workplace accidents and complex problems, and felt certain I had the skills to investigate a murder. Inspired by Sue Grafton’s brilliant alphabet series and her private investigator, Kinsey Millhone, Kent Fisher was born. From here, I tried to craft a traditional murder mystery in the spirit of Agatha Christie, but with a contemporary twist to reflect today’s world.
How do you create your characters?
It usually starts with the role a character will play, such as relative, friend, work colleague, suspect, murderer or victim. The role often suggests broad characteristics. For instance, a Chief Executive suggests someone with ambition, a person who likes to be in charge, earns a big salary and so on. From these broad outlines, it’s a short hop to bringing them to life on the page by having them take part in the story. The way they speak and their dialogue brings them to life instantly and their choices and actions deepen their characters and turn them into individuals. I get to know the characters the same way I get to know people in the real world – by talking to them and interacting with them.
How do you get your ideas for writing?
Ideas are everywhere – something seen from a train, a snippet of conversation, a headline in a newspaper. With an EHO as a detective, most of my ideas involve environmental health work. For instance, in the second novel, No Bodies, a woman who has gone missing started a mobile catering company with a man, who’s also disappeared. As EHOs inspect caterers and have national networks, it’s relatively easy for Kent Fisher to investigate and track them down.
I intend to explore many of the areas of work EHOs are involved in as I write more novels. Hopefully, this will add another layer and richness to the stories.
Do you have an agent?
No. While I appreciate that they’re earning nothing until you sell some books, I don’t think they make it easy for writers or themselves. It can take months, even years, to find an agent, because in many cases you have to approach them individually. Multiple approaches are not accepted, and an agent can have a submission for weeks, maybe months, before you hear anything. I have better things to do. I accept that to get to the big publishers, you probably need one, but you could self-publish several books in the time it takes to find an agent.
What challenges did you face as you wrote this book?
Until I found my voice, I couldn’t make this story come to life. I wrote two previous versions, but never finished either. I could have moved on, but I felt the story was good enough and different enough to persevere with. In the end, it was a blog I wrote about my work, and some of the crazy things that happen, that gave me my voice. I switched to first person present tense to deliver No Accident and everything fell into place. The reader is there with Kent Fisher, seeing what he sees as he sees it. As i wrote, I discovered things along with Kent, which gave the story an immediacy and freshness that far exceeded my expectations.
That raised a second challenge – as everything is seen through the eyes and attitude of Kent Fisher, the story could become tedious. Feedback and reviews suggest the story isn’t tedious, which is a relief. I also have to show other characters as they are, not just as Kent sees them, but that’s a fascinating challenge I enjoy.
What’s your writing schedule like? Do you strive for a certain amount of words each day?
Now that I’ve left local government, I don’t have to write at 10pm each night. I now start at 8.30 in the morning and finish around 1.30 for lunch. In the afternoon, I work around the house or deal with social media, emails and the business end of writing. I do this on weekdays and take a break from writing at the weekend, though the brain is always working and analysing. Ultimately, I would like to write 9-5 on weekdays.
I think people get hung up on words. I prefer to aim for quality not quantity. I start each morning by reviewing and revising what I did yesterday to get my mind back into the story, and then continue from there. Some days I can rattle off 3.000 words, other days 500. It doesn’t matter as long as I’m happy with what I write and the story moves forward.
How do you cope with writer’s block?
I’m not sure I’ve really suffered from it. I know when something’s not working. It’s that inner voice that you ignore at your peril. When this happens, I backtrack to see if I can find out why. If I can’t, I then leave it to my subconscious to work it out. It always does. It may takes hours, or days, occasionally weeks, but it never lets me down. I learned a long time ago that if I try to force my mind to come up with the answers, it won’t. Then I would have a block.
Which writers influence you the most?
None in particular. I read books by lots of different authors, as I’ve always done. For me, a good story is a good story. I once started a Regency Romance by mistake, but ended up thoroughly enjoying the story because it was well written with engaging characters. As I write murder mysteries, the plot is crucial, so I’m always interested in how the story is constructed, how the crime is investigated, how the writer throws readers off the scent and so on. Watching Inspector Morse or Miss Marple on TV taught me a lot about how to disguise a murderer, for instance.
If I had to pick one author, it would be Sue Grafton. I love her relaxed, conversational style of writing and the mixture of plot and backstory. I’m also a huge fan of Tom Sharpe, who wrote so many funny stories. I think humour is vital in stories and missing from most of the books I read, which is a shame.
How do you develop and differentiate your characters?
They grow and develop by taking part in the story. It’s what they do that defines them, I guess. This means I get to know them the same way as a reader does, little by little. I like to let them evolve and develop a life of their own. It’s much more fun that way. When I’m revising and rewriting, I soon spot if I’ve overused something, or if characters behave or sound the same. While editing No Accident, I realised nearly all my characters had grey eyes. I’ve no idea why, but it wasn’t obvious when I wrote the first draft.
You have told us what you like to write, but to relax, what do you like to read?
Mainly crime, but I love good stories with engaging characters, high stakes, especially if they offer something different from the norm. These days, I try out new authors because I review the books I read and enjoy spotting someone who offers something extra. Robin Roughley with DS Lasser would be a good example of a police procedural that rises above most others, in my opinion. Simon Kernick gives Dick Francis a good run, and I’m rather partial to Joy Fielding’s suspense/women in peril novels because she creates great characters that you really care about. And I’ve already mentioned Sue Grafton, who writes with warmth and humour.
What plans have you got for future books?
The plan is to write a series, featuring Kent Fisher. It’s started with No Accident and continues with No Bodies. No Chance will be the third, and No Diving is likely to be the fourth. I’m sure you can see where I’m heading here.
What is the hardest part of being an author?
That’s a good question. I think the hardest part is realising that this novel you spent years on, lavishing it with love, care and attention, revising and polishing it until it shines, is only one among millions. People buy it, read it, and move on to the next. Occasionally, a reader will write a review, but most don’t. Why would they? It’s only another book to them.
It’s humbling and sobering as you have such hopes and expectations for your first novel, but it helps me keep my feet on the ground and makes me more determined to write better books in the future.
Can you describe the feeling when you saw your published book for the first time?
Everyone around me was excited, but I didn’t start to enjoy myself until people told me how much they enjoyed the book. That’s what matters to me – having a story that gives people pleasure.
Lastly, is there anything else you would like to add?
Thank you for the opportunity to talk about my work and No Accident and for some interesting and probing questions. I think it’s great that you’re prepared to give writers a chance to share their work with your readers and followers.
Thank you for being my guest today and good luck with future books.