When I first decided to write about a female lead, I knew I’d have to treat her in exactly the same way I did my male characters, in that I’d need to make her interesting, to make her someone readers would get behind and above all, make her someone I’d have confidence writing about.
I was adamant that Beth would see herself as a copper first and a woman second. She wouldn’t be sitting around worrying about boyfriends, doing her nails or any of the things that would mark me out as a writer who didn’t understand my character.
Beth had to be tough, dogged and smart. I can write tough and dogged with ease, but I could only ever make Beth as smart as I am. To this end, I gave her a lateral thought process, but as she was in her twenties, I had to remove any of the cynicism I’d allowed Harry or Jake to have from her thinking.
As a way of further polarising Beth from Harry, I put her right at the start of her career and had her join Cumbria’s Force Major Investigation Team at the beginning of book one, Death in the Lakes.
She was essentially the newbie, although she’d earned her place on the team, she had to prove it, not just to the rest of the team, but to herself.
Her private life was empty, she had her job and wasn’t looking for a love life in any active fashion. If one came along she’d deal with it, but she wasn’t on the hunt for love.
I gave her a backstory that was intended to serve two purposes, number one; it left her with a visible scar that she couldn’t hide, and number two; she had a personal story I could weave into a series thread.
I built a solid team around Beth, but had each of their foundations on soft ground so as to allow understandable human distractions that would in turn pile more pressure on Beth while also bring forth empathetic reactions from her.
The cases I gave Beth were designed to test her physically, emotionally and mentally as I find her fascinating and hope my readers do as well.
When it came to building Jake Boulder as a character, I had a very clear picture of who I wanted him to be. I knew the crime action thriller genre well after reading books by Zoë Sharp, Matt Hilton, Lee Child, Tom Wood and Tom Cain for pleasure and my role as a reviewer for Crimesquad.com.
The leads as depicted by these fantastic authors were all ex-forces, often Special Forces fighters. They had a large skill set and each knew myriad ways to kill someone with or without a weapon. I didn’t want Jake to have those attributes. I wanted him to be a raw untrained fighter. He wasn’t a trained killer, he was a bar room brawler.
For reasons already explained on my Q&A page, I chose to set Jake’s stories in the US. As I’m a Scot, I knew there would be instances where I might make mistakes with the language differences between the two countries, so I decided to cover my backside and give Jake a Scottish heritage by having him emigrate to the US in his teens when his mother remarried. The reason for his parents splitting was another way I could give him an interesting backstory, and I had his shipbuilder grandfather show him a few dirty fighting tricks before he left for the US.
Jake’s character is a complicated one. He’s fiercely loyal to his friends, yet he’s a hot head who enjoys fighting which is why I gave him a job as a doorman at a bar. He’s got a good brain on him, but has little to do with popular culture and he doesn’t even have a TV in his apartment as I made him a reader.
When it comes to his personal life, I made him a commitment-phobe, but also a ladies man. I surrounded him with a wide circle of friends, but he’s only close with one, Alphonse, and as tough as he is, he still finds himself intimidated by the force of nature that is his mother.
I originally built Jake as the man he is with little thought to his emotional depth, but as the first in the series, Watching the Bodies, progressed, I found that side of him more and more fascinating, even if I did hold back on showing too much.
By making Boulder an average guy with no military training, I was confident that when it came to the “boss fight” at the end of his novels, I’d be able to give him credible opponents. As a huge Reacher fan, I’ve noticed that whenever the six foot five Reacher has to face an opponent who’s likely to give him a decent fight, the other guy has to be even bigger than Reacher is so there’s a sense of jeopardy about the battle.
By not making Jake huge like Reacher or an ex-soldier in any way, I was able to pit him against opponents who’d be more than a match for him without me having to make said opponents freakish big or freakish strong.
To me, Jake is the guy I’d like to be. Strong of purpose, determined and loyal to a fault while more than capable of using his brains or brawn to save the day. Who wouldn’t want to be that guy?
For me, Harry is a man after his time. He’s one of the last cops left from the days when rules were bent to breaking point on an hourly basis.
I was watching Life on Mars and House around the time I started writing about Harry and there’s definite links to the renegade behaviour of DCI Gene Hunt and Dr Greg House in his DNA. Stuart MacBride’s utterly incorrigible Roberta Steel (I’m not mentioning her rank because it keeps changing) is another contributor to Harry’s DNA, and while I had all these gruff, uncompromising characters running around in him, I knew I wanted him to also have a softer side behind the angry chaos that was his outward persona.
To this end, I set about putting his personal life through the wringer. There were already plenty of fictional cops with broken marriages, kids they never got to see because of the job and crippling child maintenance payments. As for the ones who had a drink problem, they were in danger of escaping the big bag of clichés all writers hide under their desk.
When it came to his private life, I was determined not to go down the divorce route. At first I wanted him to have a happy home life, but the more I thought about it, the less interested I was in that side of him, and if I wasn’t interested, dear reader, you wouldn’t be either. It was at this time I remembered a conversation I had with Mark Billingham – see influences page. This led to me giving Harry a much darker backstory than I’d originally intended. This backstory did the one thing Harry didn’t want it to do, it defined him. The grief and guilt he felt for his wife’s death steered his every action. Made him make snap judgements, brought out his brusquer side and never left the back of his mind despite everything else that was going on around him.
Yes, I did end up giving Harry a drink problem. Sometimes clichés exist for a good reason, and a man of his time and mindset would always reach for a bottle rather than a therapist’s phone number.
As a way to further torment Harry, I put him right at the end of his career, literally a fortnight after the start of Snatched from Home, he’d be forced to retire. He’d lost his wife in terrible circumstances (no spoilers – read the books) and now he was facing the loss of his job; the one thing he still held dear.
Around Harry I built a team he felt a parental pride and responsibility for. He’d bollock them in a heartbeat, but woe betide anyone else who said a bad word about them. To show another side to him, I gave him a three-legged rescue dog he adored, but typically named Tripod.
When it came to his personality traits I made him a generally angry man as mentioned above, but I also included traits from House by always making him the smartest man in the room.
One thing I was devout about, was making him a font of local knowledge. He knew the people of Cumbria and they knew him. This stemmed from my farmer grandparents; as a child I’d go on Sunday drives with them and whatever direction they took, they’d point at farms and discuss the farmers, their family history and a million and one details they knew about people. Putting this local knowledge into a copper, would I felt, make him stand out from his peers by giving him an insight into where to look for whoever he was after at the time.