‘Write what you know.’ Authors are always being advised to do that, as if anything else would be too difficult or come across as unauthentic. That’s a bit tricky when you are a crime writer. Unless you used to be a gangster or drug dealer and used your prison time to take a creative writing course, you are unlikely to be writing what you know. I’ve never been to prison and I’ve certainly never killed anyone. Honest, trust me on this, not even once, for research purposes.
I suppose it might have helped if I’d been a detective or a forensic scientist but I am the kind of person who would become obsessed with detail and accuracy, rather than character and plot and the books would probably be less interesting as a result. So, instead, I do some research, to get the important details right but mostly I just use my imagination.
Every one of my books has its origins in a single thought, an idea that kicks them off, a ‘what if?’ moment, if you like. That moment in ‘Alice Teale Is Missing’ comes at the beginning, when a seventeen-year-old girl walks out of her school building one evening, following after-school activities. I visualised her being seen by someone, a teacher, who would look out of the staff room at just the right moment and watch, as Alice walked away from the building and went down a path between two rows of old miner’s cottages. What if, at that point, she simply, inexplicably, vanished.
That was my starting point. Next, I introduced two new characters, Detectives Beth Winter and Lucas Black, who are given the task of investigating Alice’s disappearance. Beth is new and happy to take on the case, because she wants to make a difference. Surely, finding Alice is a worthwhile endeavour but then she learns that her new partner, DS Black, once killed someone. It’s an ominous start to her first major case.
They soon learn that Alice has secrets but then so do most of her friends and family. Almost all of them have something they want to hide. It’s up to Beth and Lucas to work out how any of this is linked to the disappearance of Alice. They begin to realise that her secret was the biggest of them all.
So far, so fictitious but there is one area of ‘Alice Teale Is Missing’ that does border more on write-what-you-know territory than normal for me and that is Alice’s fictional hometown of Collemby. As I was writing the book, it started to look suspiciously like my own hometown. I don’t know why but, from the moment my two detectives, Winter and Black, took a left turn and drove up a hill into Collemby for the first time, I started to visualise it as the place I grew up in; Ferryhill in County Durham in the north east of England. The town hall, the market square, the pubs and shops that border it, are all very similar to the ones I knew. The lay out of my old school helped too. When the teacher watches Alice walk away, she has the exact same view you would get from its staff room and, helpfully, the miner’s cottages are there too.
So why not just set the book in the real Ferryhill, instead of the fictional town of Collemby? I didn’t want to burden myself by having to be entirely accurate and receive complaints that I misspelled a street name or got a detail wrong. Also, I’m not entirely sure that the good people of Ferryhill would be too impressed with me if I made their town the factual location of fictional crimes.
Keeping my town fictional means that Ferryhill and Collemby can be similar but different, when it suits me or my plot. Collemby is a darker, more oppressive place with narrower streets, taller, more Victorian-era buildings and subsequently darker shadows are cast upon its occupants, lending it an atmosphere more conducive to crime fiction.
I also created a derelict railway station for plot purposes. Ferryhill used to have one but it is long gone now, even though the part of the town that used to house it is still known as Ferryhill Station, more than fifty years after its closure. I liked the idea of someone from the town, a moderately wealthy eccentric perhaps, taking over its platforms and buildings, hoping to preserve and restore them but ultimately lacking the funds to do so. When they give up, the location is left in a spooky form of limbo, its nooks and crannies used only by ‘courting’ couples or cheating ones. Alice is seen down there but with whom? That question and others, surrounding the mysterious disappearance of the seventeen-year-old, are eventually answered in ‘Alice Teale Is Missing. I hope you enjoy it.
Alice Teale is Missing by Howard Linskey (Published by Penguin Books)
Alice Teale walked out of school at the end of a bright spring day. She's not been seen since. Alice was popular and well-liked, and her boyfriend, friends and family are desperate to find her. But soon it's clear that everyone in her life has something to hide. Then the police receive a disturbing package. Pages from Alice's precious diary. Who could have sent them? And what have they done with Alice?