A Man, A Plot and a Killer of a Book
By Ali Hull
Paul Trembling writes crime novels – and has an unusual advantage in doing so: he knows what happens when a body is discovered. He is a CSI – (Crime Scene Investigator) – formerly known as SOCOs. He is the one with the camera, picking up the tiny bits of evidence, armed with gloves.
How did he get into that? Was he a police officer already?
There was a time when most SOCO’s (Scenes of Crime Officers) were ex-police officers, or ex-Forces. Often, they’d been photographers in the RAF or Navy. But I found a different route in. I was already working for the police as an Admin Assistant when they opened up a few posts to internal transfers. These were for Assistant SOCOs, with the limited remit of examining vehicles only – they didn’t have enough fully trained SOCOs to deal with all the low-level vehicle crime which was taking place then, so they created this post specifically to deal with it. I ended up staying in the job for fifteen years and eventually worked my way up to full SOCO – except by then they’d changed the job title to CSI (Crime Scene Investigator), for some management reason. It didn’t make any difference to the job, apart from having to explain nearly every working day that it was nothing like you see on TV!
What was the appeal?
It was a big improvement on Admin, that’s for sure! For a start, there was more variety – even when I was only doing cars, you never knew for sure exactly what you’d find. A lot of it was just routine, but you always got a bit of a buzz when you found a good fingerprint or recovered some DNA. It sounds a bit pretentious to say that I was working for law, order and justice, that’s something a superhero would say – but yes, when it came down to it, that was the job. It was doing something significant, something that made a difference.
How do you cope with the gory side of the job?
One of my first solo jobs as a full CSI was to attend a scene where a young woman had jumped, fallen or been pushed from the top of a block of flats. As you can imagine, it was quite gory. While I was going about my business, a young copper asked me, ‘How do you deal with this stuff?’ I told her that I was still trying to work that out. But afterwards, thinking about it, I realised that there was nothing to work out. The blood and gore didn’t bother me at all. What was foremost in my mind was doing the job right – especially as it was my first one. Had I got enough photos? Had I covered all the necessary angles? Had I got the camera settings right? Yes, at the back of my mind there was sadness for the unfortunate person. But as I gained more experience and saw more bodies – some of them in worse condition – I realised that, by the time I got there, the person who had once lived in that flesh was long gone. I felt worse for the people who remained behind, the family and friends who had to deal with the loss.
What made you branch out into writing novels, and what do you think explains the huge appeal of crime fiction?
Crime fiction is a very broad church, and there are a huge range of styles and approaches, all the way from ‘Cosy Crime’ to dark psychological thrillers. So perhaps part of the appeal is that there is something in there for every taste – and part of the problem is that however you define it, someone will say ‘That’s not why I read crime fiction!’ But if you have to try and narrow it down, I think that all – or most! – crime fiction has in it a sense of mystery. There’s a question to answer, a puzzle to solve. It might be a ‘Whodunnit?’ or it might be a ‘How did they do it?’ or even a ‘Why did they do it?’ It might even be ‘Was there even a crime at all?’ (My novel Local Poet starts off with a suicide, not a murder). And of course, there might be more than one of these elements involved. But the desire to know, to understand what really happened, is quite a common one in people, and I think that crime fiction connects with that really well. And there’s also an element of justice being done. We like to think that, ultimately, wrongs will be righted, lies will be exposed and truth will out. Of course, in the real world, that doesn’t always happen – all the more important to show that it can happen. Don’t give up on the hope! That’s an integral part of my Christian faith: to combat cynicism and despair, my own included, is an important reason to write, and crime stories fit well into that.
What is your creative process? Do you start with the idea for a crime, or what?
I usually start with a person, or perhaps just a picture in my mind. I sometimes don’t even find out what the crime is until I’ve started writing the story. Local Poet began with a vague idea. ‘What if someone accidentally killed a poet – would that get them into reading poetry?’ Actually, it wasn’t even that clearly defined when I started and I was only thinking in terms of a short story. But as I got into it, other elements began to come in. Who was this person who had been killed? How did they come to be there? The back stories of the people involved began to intrude, and had to be woven into the narrative – and eventually, it turned out that it was a crime novel.
After Local Poet, I wanted to find out more about some of the minor characters, so I started with Sandra, a librarian. I also wanted a murder early on, so that shaped the first chapter and gave me the crime to start with. But with Local Legend – centred on Sandra’s husband, Graham – it took me a lot longer to come to the actual crime involved. There isn’t even a body until chapter 5, and that’s an accident. However, the mystery element is there from the beginning, and that’s important. For me, writing is a journey, a voyage of discovery if you like. Of course, there’s some element of planning involved, but I don’t know quite where it’s going until I’m on the way. I prefer it that way. It’s more exciting.
How many novels have you done so far, and how many are jostling around in your head?
I’ve had three published by Lion Hudson, and I’ve just sent them number four. I’ve also self-published two other novels, a children’s story and several short-story collections. As for how many others… how long do you have? There’s a folder on my hard drive labelled ‘The Back Burner’ which has – oh, let me see… forty-five files of story ideas, outlines, bits started, character sketches, etc. However, this is small compared with the huge Back Burner file in my head, which is constantly expanding. To be a little more specific… there’s the next one in the Local series, for which I’ve started putting together some characters and ideas for the opening chapter. Then there’s a long-term project called The Hidden Libraries which is up to nearly 91,000 words now. It’s a sequel to one of my completed books, and I really need to get it finished. I also have another short story collection that just needs putting together, and… well, you get the idea. I realised a while ago that I probably wouldn’t live long enough to finish all the story ideas I already have, never mind all the new ones I keep getting! Frustrating.
How long does it take you to write a novel, and then how much revision do you usually need to do?
Depends on the novel! The Hidden Libraries which I mentioned before has been an ongoing project for years, mostly because I’ve been focused on the Local series for Lion Hudson. When LH published Local Poet, they asked if they could have another one in a year, and that’s the plan I’ve been working to ever since – a novel a year (plus a few odd short stories here and there). It has been challenging to keep to that, but fortunately I’m only working part-time at the moment, which gives me more opportunity to write. And I have a very understanding and supportive wife: without her it wouldn’t be possible.
I do a lot of revision along the way. As the story develops, I have to go back and revise early chapters to bring in new information or adjust the order of events. But of course, when the publisher has looked at it, there are usually several more stages of revision to go through, which can take a few months. Revision is a process that starts as soon as the writing does, and continues up to the moment that I sign off on the final proofs.
How well have the novels done?
It’s hard to be sure how to measure that. Sales could be better! But most writers would say that, no matter how well they’re doing. The encouraging thing has been the reviews that I’ve had back, which have been generally very positive. Most people who’ve read them seem to have enjoyed them, and that’s brilliant.
Have you thought of branching out into any other kind of fiction?
Actually, crime wasn’t my first choice of genre – I might never have got into it if I hadn’t become a CSI. But I didn’t want all that experience and free research to go to waste. Science fiction and fantasy were where I started, and it’s still something I want to do in parallel with the crime writing. The Hidden Libraries is a fantasy novel, and a sequel to The Empress’s Lover, set in the same world. Most of my short stories are fantasy, my next collection (if I ever get around to putting it together) will be SF.
The great thing about fantasy is that you can give your imagination free rein and invent the entire thing. Which also means you don’t have to worry so much about the research. I love historical fiction, but it’s the amount of research involved that puts me off writing it! I’ve also written some children’s stories – specifically, stories for my children. One of these has been published (Trouble in Toyland), another one you can find on my website (Matt’s Dragon).
I’ve never set out to write romantic fiction, but I do find a bit of romance creeping into a lot of my writing. It’s inevitable. If you write about people, you’re writing about relationships between people, and that’s where romance comes in. There aren’t many genres that I’d rule out entirely. I probably wouldn’t do well with chick-lit – but then again, I’ve written a whole series of fantasy stories about a female dragon slayer; does that count?
How do you ensure that you don’t let real people creep into your novels, with all the resulting problems that could cause?
Oh, I want real people in my novels! Or perhaps I should say, I want the people in my novels to be as real as possible, and the way to do that is to incorporate as much as you can of real people. But that doesn’t mean copying them exactly. It’s more about noticing particular things; character traits, idiosyncrasies, ways of talking and turning a phrase. When I’m developing a character, I do it from scratch. I don’t start with a known person and adjust them to fit, I start with an outline of the sort of person that the character might be and fill in details from different sources: this little quirk, that sort of personality trait. Often, I don’t take these things deliberately from real people, they’re just things I’ve notice in general and filed away somewhere for future reference. I do try and observe people, how they look, walk, talk, act and react. It’s all potential material. But I don’t copy entire people, just bits of them. Being observant of people is probably the most important research a writer can do.
Having said that, people have said to me about some of my characters ‘Yes, I know who that is!’ I point them to the disclaimer at the front of the book – if it looks like a real person, that’s a coincidence!
And tell us something about your age, family and faith…
I was born in 1957, and I’m terrible at maths, so you work it out! (I’m not sure I want to know…) I’m a Christian, a member of the Methodist Church. My wife, Annie, is a Methodist Minister. We’re currently living in Bath where she is in charge of the Southdown Methodist Project. We’ve got three boys, all grown up now. Tom is the eldest, he got married to Charlotte earlier this year and they live up in Nottingham. Matt is the second one, he finished at Uni this year and is currently living with us and working in Bath. The youngest – and tallest! – is Andy, who’s studying Veterinary Science up in Liverpool. We shouldn’t forget Edna, our dog. She’s a lurcher, and we think she’s about a year old, but we can’t be sure because she’s a rescue. We do know she’s quite young, though, because of her puppy behaviour – she chews everything! But she’s also very affectionate and likes to give big doggy hugs and kisses.