Delighted to welcome Neil White, author of The Innocent Ones, to the blog today for a guest post. It’s not Neil’s first time here, as he’s already had a chat with us about plotting his novels and setting up a new series. So I was intrigued to see what he’d come up with this time around for his new book. More about that new book later (it sounds fantastic), but this time Neil is here to talk about influences. They’re hard to define…
Without, as they say, further ado, over to Mr White.
Influences are hard to define, because our whole life influences us, those small things along the way, like the people we meet and the places we visit. For a writer, it’s more about looking at what impressed me along the way and made me want to emulate it.
Books are the first thing to consider, because to be a writer, you have to be a reader first.
As a child, I followed the well-worn path of Enid Blyton, and I longed to visit islands where weird uncles forbade me from going in secret tunnels. As a young kid on a Wakefield council estate, this was never going to happen, but perhaps that was why I was a dreamer. In Enid Blyton, I read about lives and places I could only imagine, so my imagination was fed and took me away on different adventures.
The Three Investigator Series from Alfred Hitchcock was another big favourite, and I remember reading it in bed and feeling that delicious thrill of terror, where I was scared to turn the page but knew that I had to. From then, that was what I sought in books, that churn of the stomach, the tightness of the chest, and it took me to horror for a while. Stephen King was in his pomp when I was a young teenager and I lapped those up. And James Herbert. And Peter Straub.
My father was a big science fiction fan but I could never quite get it. I did read all the Doctor Who novels, and in fact loved them more than the television versions. You don’t get wobbly sets and naff costumes in the novels. Instead, you got the vision of the storyteller but unhindered by costume and set budgets. Once I decided I wanted to be a writer though, it was always going to be crime.
I was thirty when I decided, having just qualified as a solicitor (I went to university late – that’s a whole other story) and I needed a new challenge. I’d ditched horror by this stage, after finding myself rarely scared anymore, but crime never failed to intrigue me. I’d even chosen crime as my preferred field in my legal career. Perhaps it was those Petrocelli episodes back when I was a child (if you don’t know it, Google it).
My throwaway line has always been that I became a writer because I never learned to play the guitar. Perhaps there is some truth in that. One big draw for me in my musical preferences was the quality of the lyrics. From the age of around fifteen, books took a backseat to music, but I was always drawn to some well-spun words, particularly when they tell a story.
I grew up surrounded by Johnny Cash, my father’s obsession, and his songs were always small stories set to music, and often about criminal justice, in a loose sense. Prison songs, gunfighter ballads, tales of murder and revenge. When I think back through my favourite artists, lyrics have always been at the forefront.
Paul Weller, back in his Jam days, was my first big love. I was only seventeen when The Jam disbanded, but I managed to see them twice, and in the years that followed I would spend many happy hours talking about his lyrics or reading the album sleeves. Going Underground is just about perfect lyrically, summing up that feeling you get when the world around you seems insane. Town Called Malice is a perfect little tableau of small-town life in Thatcherite Britain.
The Style Council occupied my devotion for the next few years, and I was always straight to the record shop to buy the new single on twelve-inch and pour over the musings of the Cappuccino Kid.
The quality waned though and my next loves were The Smiths and The Pogues, both lyrically-fantastic. Shane McGowan is one of the best lyricists the UK music scene has produced, even through his boozy haze, and Morrissey one of the most unique and poetic.
One of my favourites though is Paul Heaton. I’ve followed him through all his versions, from The Housemartins to the Beautiful South and then into his solo career, and I don’t think anyone can touch him for lyrics. Sharp, often witty, he just nails it for me.
The reason I’m talking about music rather than writers is because I think prose isn’t about words or descriptions, but about rhythm. The words have got to bounce and roll, with no missed beats or bad notes. The reading should be effortless, and it’s the rhythm that drives it.
That isn’t to say that writers haven’t influenced me. I was trying to write when Lee Child’s first book, Killing Floor, came out (and if we’re going back to music, it’s also the title of a Howling Wolf song). When I read it, I realised that I wanted to write like that, where the pages just turn themselves.
In terms of style, however, my main influence was W.P. Kinsella. Many of you might not know of him, but he wrote many whimsical tales set around Iowa and similar areas, often with a baseball background. His most famous book is Shoeless Joe, which was made into the film Field of Dreams, with Kevin Costner and Ray Liotta.
What I loved about his writing style was that it took the reader straight to the porch of an Iowa farm, corn blowing in the breeze, and there was a real poetry to his writing. It was his style that was the first that I tried to mimic, and again it was about the rhythm. To give an example of how I tried to emulate it, here first is a paragraph from Shoeless Joe:
“Two years ago at dusk on a spring evening, when the sky was a robin’s-egg blue and the wind as soft as a day-old chick, as I was sitting on the verandah of my farm home in Eastern Iowa, a voice very clearly said to me, “If you build it, they will come.””
This is a paragraph from my second novel, Lost Souls:
“She was standing by an open-plan lawn in a neat suburban cul-de-sac, with the hills of the West Pennine Moors as a backdrop, painted silver as the rising sun caught the dew-coated grass, just the snap of the crime-scene tape to break her concentration.”
The rhythms are similar.
In terms of influences, there have been many, but the biggest one in terms of finding my style was W.P. Kinsella.
Thanks Neil, fascinating stuff!
By day, the park rings with the sound of children’s excited laughter. But in the early hours of the morning, the isolated playground is cloaked in shadows – the perfect hiding place to conceal a brutal murder.
When London journalist, Mark Roberts, is found battered to death, the police quickly arrest petty thief, Nick Connor. Criminal defence lawyer, Dan Grant, along with investigator Jayne Brett, are called to represent him – but with bloody footprints and a stolen wallet linking him to the scene, this is one case they’re unlikely to win.
Until help comes from an unlikely source…when the murder victim’s mother says that Connor is innocent, begging Dan and Jayne to find the real perpetrator.
Unravelling the complex case means finding the connection between Mark’s death and a series of child murders in Yorkshire over twenty years ago. Father of two, Rodney Walker, has spent years in prison after being convicted of killing of 6-year-old William and 7-year-old Ruby back in 1997.