The latest interviewee for my crime fiction week is Paul Finch, a former script writer turned author. His latest book, Sacrifice, is due to be published on 18th July.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be a crime writer?
I was a police officer in Manchester, but for various reasons was looking to leave the force in the late 1980s. I’d always been able to write, and though in career terms I made a sideways move into journalism, I began making unsolicited submissions – unofficial trial scripts, if you like – to the offices of THE BILL, which were then at Wood Lane in West London. There was no initial response, so I penned an entirely original police drama called KNOCK-OFF JOB, which concerned a murder inside a police station. This seemed to hit the spot. THE BILL asked me to go and see them, and wondered if I’d like to write for the show. I obviously did, but I didn’t know much about television at that stage. However, I was fortunate in that I’d be coached over the next few years by what, at the time, was one of the best script departments in British TV. For a while I thus had two parallel careers, as newspaper reporter (which included a lot of crime coverage), and writing TV scripts. When I was made redundant from my day-job at Christmas 1998, I felt I was in a strong enough position to go freelance. I’ve been a full-time author ever since, concentrating primarily – though perhaps not surprisingly – on the darker side of the human experience.
Tell us something about yourself that your readers probably don’t already know?
My father, Brian Finch, was a very fine playwright, though he spent most of his working life in television. His career spanned over four decades, and he contributed hundreds and hundreds of episodes to numerous popular shows, including a number of detective series like Z CARS, PUBLIC EYE, HUNTER’S WALK, SHOESTRING, BERGERAC and HEARTBEAT.
Can you tell us a little bit about your latest book?
SACRIFICE is the latest outing for my new police hero, Detective Sergeant Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg. Fresh from his tangle with the Nice Guys in the first book, Heck is pitched into another, even more disturbing investigation, when a series of murders commences which quickly falls into a crazy but cryptic pattern. Apparently random victims are dying in grotesque ways seemingly designed to mock our most popular holidays and festivals. For example, a man is racked half to death and then burned alive on a bonfire on November 5th; at Christmas, a tramp is dressed in a Santa costume, and walled into a chimney, and so on. It’s probably more of a police procedural than Heck’s first outing in STALKERS, but I think I can safely say that it contains all the elements that will become hallmarks of Heck’s adventures: extremely evil and depraved villains, lots of violent, gritty action, and as many blood-chilling scares as I could get in there.
Where do you get your ideas from for your stories?
I literally have what I call brainstorming sessions, during which I dedicate blocks of say 48 hours to doing nothing more than sketching down quick ideas in a pad. I try to draw inspiration from everywhere – what I see on television, what I read in the news, what I see in the streets or while out driving. I’m fortunate in that there is always something that seems to touch off an idea. The result is that I have two files of ‘ready to go’ premises that are each now thicker than telephone directories. It’s a great facility to have given myself, though I add to it constantly. Quite often in the evenings, if my wife Cathy is watching something that doesn’t grab me, I’ll just sit there with her and go through the files, elaborating on or extending ideas, or trying to work out in which kind of context they will be most effective.
Percentage-wise, how much time do you spend researching and how much time do you spend writing?
In my case, most of the time is spent writing. With my police background, I don’t have to do as much research as others writers. I know the police world pretty well. But that said, my own service is now fading into the background, and law enforcement protocols change all the time, so I have to make sure I keep on stop of stuff. Ultimately, I think it’s about 75% writing and about 25% research.
Are there any writers that have influenced you as a writer?
Plenty. I could probably go on about this all day. Those crime writers who’ve impressed me include a number of very familiar names: Peter James and Stuart MacBride for their incredibly intense cop thrillers, Lee Child and James Patterson and so on, but also Canadian author, Michael Slade, whose novels crossed the line between thrillers and horror. In fact, as I’ve always sought to frighten my readers as much as possible, I’m hugely influenced by a number of classic horror writers – MR James, HP Lovecaft, and in modern times, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, Stephen King, Stephen Gallagher and so forth.
How hard is it to keep coming up with different/alternative ways to kill someone off?
It isn’t easy because it isn’t normal, but when it’s your job you’ve got to apply yourself to it full throttle. I’m almost ashamed to admit that, after giving this kind of stuff considerable thought over many, many years, it now comes natural to me to conjure up various elaborately nasty modus operandi.
How do you relax/unwind after writing gruesome scenes?
I tend to do a lot of writing while I’m out and about, walking the dogs – I use a Dictaphone, and type it all up later. So, strangely, the actual typing tends to be the relaxing part, because I’m not having to think as much. My main hobby is the editing of horror anthologies for the independent press – I’m currently engaged in the Terror Tales series, which is a sort of ‘round Britain’ tour guide of supernatural horror (TERROR TALES OF THE COTSWOLDS is currently up for the British Fantasy Award, if you’ll allow me a brief plug). I do two of these a
year, completely in my spare time, and I’m able to call on the services of some great writers who I’ve met over the years. The main thing is that I’m not doing the writing work on these, myself, so I’m able to relax and enjoy it.
They also allow me to indulge one of my big interests, which is native British folklore and mythology. Of course, it still gets a bit gruesome; I can only assume that I’m so brutalised now that I barely notice it.
Are you one of those writers who wake in the middle of the night with ideas for plots, new story etc.?
I used to keep a pad and pen alongside the bed every night, and sometimes I would wake up and think ‘I’ve got to get that down’. But with the current deadlines I’m working to, I’m usually pretty wiped out come bed-time. I tend to sleep all the way through and almost nothing wakes me.
Have you ever had writer’s block?
Thankfully no. But there have been times when I’ve been mentally very tired. In my experience, if you follow one project after another over a period of months and months, maybe years, without any kind of break, your creative energy runs down to virtually nothing. I have experienced that – when you know you’re not writing well, when it seems an effort to get anything down on the page, when you just can’t face the next chapter. That’s usually a sign that you need a couple of days off (at least), I think.
If you weren’t a writer, what career path would you have chosen to follow?
If I didn’t have any kind of inclination to write at all – in other words, if journalism had held no interest for me either - I’d probably have stayed a cop. My yearning to write was one of the main reasons I moved away from that field. Otherwise, it would have been an ideal career for me.
How long did it take you to get your first book published?
I’d had dozens and dozens of short stories published, not to mention a couple of episodes of THE BILL made, before I actually had a book published. So it probably took several years. Two books, CAPE WRATH, a short novel, and AFTER SHOCKS, a collection of horror stories, both came out in 2001. My first actual full length novel was probably STRONGHOLD, which was published in 2010, which seems a long way down the line – 11 years after I went full-time, though I should stress that I wasn’t trying to write novels in the early days.
Do you have a set daily writing routine?
It all depends on deadlines. I try to do a normal 9-5, but it rarely works out like that. As I say, I tend to walk a lot during the day. This hopefully keeps me fit and allows me to do a lot of dictation, which I usually type up in the evening. It’s a good method for me – it sometimes helps me to put down 4,000 words a day. Though pouring rain can mess that routine up. In addition, there are times – if a deadline is looming and I’m behind – when I just have to write all evening and sometimes all night as well, though I’ll freely admit I find that killing these days. I suppose I’m actually a bit disorganised. I basically work all the hours I need to get the job done. By the same token, when a manuscript has been delivered it’s nice to be able to sit back for a couple of days – an impromptu holiday, if you like – though invariably I end up tinkering with over projects, warming them up, mulling them over, etc.
If you could write another style of genre, what would it be and why?
It would be in the horror genre, simply because I read widely in horror and I’ve written widely in it already – mainly in the short story form, though I’ve also had horror novellas published, and my novel, STRONGHOLD, though historical, was also classifiable as horror. Several of my horror shorts and novellas have been optioned for movie development, and I co-scripted a couple of horror movies, which made it to the cinema back in the 2000s – SPIRIT TRAP and THE DEVIL’S ROCK. So if crime writing wasn’t my first love these days, I’d be back in the scare game for sure.
If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring author, what would it be?
Always learn from your rejections. Seriously, even the most successful of us could wallpaper our houses with the numbers of rejection slips we’ve had in our careers. Do not mope about this, and do not resent it. It’s par for the course. And if an editor or publisher has taken time to explain why he’s rejected your work, at least consider his reasons. He may have a point, and taking that on board could be the difference between getting rejected again next time or making a sale.
Are there any crime fiction books that you wish you’d written?
JACK’S RETURN HOME by Ted Lewis. Which British crime author doesn’t wish they’d written that book?
When you’ve finished writing a book, do you treat yourself to a reward?
To be honest, no. Not specifically. I think it’s just that I’ve fallen into the mindset of it being my job. I don’t consider it a major achievement. There have been lean years in the past, so I’m just glad that I’m writing books lots of people are buying and enjoying. I may give myself a couple of days off, but as I say, that’s usually to recharge the batteries.