Paul Finch. An action-packed combination of possibilities
I often ask writers about their background, because it usually has relevance to their work. This is certainly the case with Paul Finch, whose varied writing experience is brought into play to make his action packed books, featuring Detective Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg, a ‘read at one sitting’ experience.
Tell me about your background.
I was born in Lancashire. My father was in the RAF, then became a journalist and finally a screenwriter. My mother was a teacher. When I left school I went to Goldsmiths College, and then went to join the police force in Manchester, where I worked in Salford for a few years. After this I went into journalism, working for various newspapers in the Northwest of England, among them the Wigan Observer and the Manchester Evening News, before leaving that industry in 1998.
By this time I had begun a parallel career writing scripts for the TV cop show, ‘The Bill’. That came about because, thanks to having worked in the job, I knew quite a bit about it and wanted to write police stories, focussing on the reality of their methods and investigations. I wrote a spec script and sent it in to ‘The Bill’ offices. At first nothing happened, but then a member of the production team suddenly rang and asked me to go and see them.
Looking back, and on reflection, I think they were more interested in the fact I’d been a copper than they were in my writing. I was new to writing professionally and certainly to writing to a discipline, but they coached me from that stage on. In the late 1980s and early 1990s I was working with the best script department in British Television, so I learned a lot.
I worked for ‘The Bill’ on and off right up to the early 2000s. ‘The Bill’ was my professional bread and butter, but I’d also begun writing in my other areas of interest, horror and fantasy. That came from my childhood viewing of TV shows like ‘Dr Who’, ‘Appointment With Fear’ and ‘Quatermass’. I’m still a big fan of genre television and movies. As such, I began writing short horror stories and novellas, which were accepted into various anthologies and magazines both over here and in the States. This meant that I had two paths to pursue when it came to writing. In addition to my TV cop stuff, I also ended up writing audio dramas for ‘Dr Who’, along with horror/fantasy novels and shorts.
The Bill finished in 2008 (I had ceased to work for ‘The Bill’ from about 2003), and from this point on had begun producing horror movie scripts on spec, two of which were finally made: ‘Spirit Trap’ and the ‘Devil’s Rock’. ‘Spirit Trap’ was actually an extensive rewrite of someone else’s original script, but ‘Devil’s Rock’ was mostly my own script, with some input from the director. That was in 2011. By this time I’d also come up with ideas for police thriller novels I wanted to pursue, which projects were finally taken up by the Avon imprint at HarperCollins.
Did the fact your father was a scriptwriter have any influence on the course of your writing career?
My father was a jack of all trades. He could write across the spectrum from comedy to hard drama. His career spanned four decades from the 1960s to the 1990s. This obviously did have an influence on me, but by the time I went to university I had no notion of writing (although I had written short stories as a child). I wanted to have a career in the police because I’d become very interested in true crime, criminal investigation and police work.
I began to get the urge to write again while I was in the police, because I saw and experienced so much bizarre stuff which I just knew I had to record for posterity. This urge became particularly strong when I saw television drama and realised it didn’t bear much relation to the reality of what I was seeing and doing every day. I wanted to tell it how it really was (having said that, I now write action thrillers, which are not especially accurate either, but at least they are grounded in reality). That was when I began talking to my dad. He showed me how scripts should be laid out, but he did not exert influence on my behalf.
One of the first things he told me in those early days was to ‘write what you know’, which is thankfully how I ended up writing for a police show. ‘The Bill’ was very successful at the time, so that was the way it went.
With a show like ‘The Bill’ you can’t write what you want to write, because consistency has to be maintained. So what’s the difference between writing what you have to write and what you want to write?
‘The Bill’ was pre-watershed television, so you couldn’t do things on ‘The Bill’ that you might have seen on ‘The Sweeney’. Those levels of violence, vice and corruption wouldn’t have been appropriate in early evening TV, although there were opportunities for pushing the envelope. I wrote an episode called ‘Protect and Survive’, which was regarded as a particularly violent episode for that period and pre nine o’clock television – and still gets chatted about online a lot today.
Because I was a young writer feeling my way, I threw myself into the discipline of it. I’ve always taken the view that if you’re writing to a discipline there is really no point in trying to break all the rules. You have to give your employers what they want and what they’re paying you for. I allowed my imagination to run wild, when I was writing my horror and fantasy. That was an area almost ungoverned by rules. But with ‘The Bill’ the content was also limited by budget. For example, I would write in a car chase, but it would have to be reworked because a car chase might be too expensive to film for that episode. I had to work within these constraints and be professional, which was something I had learned from my dad. You’re being paid for a job, so you must do the job you are being paid to do.
You’ve now shifted from horror to writing action thrillers. Is there a reason for this?
I suppose I’ve always brought action into my writing, whether it be cops and robbers, or horror. So I’ve always been interested in writing in the action thriller genre. I’ve increasingly leaned that way in recent times as pure horror is a difficult arena to write in if you want to make a living. Some manage it, but I’ve always found the horror audience smaller than the audience in other genres.
I still do write horror novels and short stories for anthologies and magazines when I have the time, because it’s something I like doing. I also edit the ‘Terror Tales’ series, which are a series of regional horror anthologies. On top of that, I’m always coming up with new ideas for horror movies, and am writing one at present called ‘War Wolf’, so I’m still heavily involved with horror.
There is certainly an influence of both ‘The Bill’ and your horror writing in you ‘Heck’ series.
Yes, Heck is my main output these days, and those novels are firmly in the thriller genre – but they’re at the darker end of the scale. I do occasionally have to be reined in by my editors at Avon, because I can go too far.
My initial Heck novel, Stalkers, was quite a risqué concept in that it was dealt heavily with sexual violence. This came up when I brainstorming for new horror ideas. I discussed it with my wife, Cathy, and told her that I liked the concept but felt uncomfortable about it as well. I don’t like it when fictional violence becomes very gratuitous, particularly sexual violence. Cathy said it would be possible to address this issue by writing it as a police thriller, rather than a horror, so that we’d be dwelling on the police investigation into the crime rather than the crime itself, and that’s the way it turned out.
Some of your action scenes are also very vivid. There is a line between gratuitous voyeurism and the need to address an aspect of a crime or activity in the book.
In the realms of thrillers and action thrillers we do have a kind of tolerance for homicide, but not for sexual violence that results in homicide. I’m very aware of anything that’s titillating and voyeuristic. I’m very concerned about that. With Stalkers I was uneasy about the concept from the beginning and aware that it was not the sort of idea that should be used for entertainment, but I kept everything off camera, so I could tell a serious police story. However, my editors felt that one of the attacks had to be on the page or the readers wouldn’t be able to see the pain of the victims or really experience the evil of the perpetrators. So I decided to use a flashback to show this.
I think readers have a higher level of tolerance to the action violence, the fighting, the shooting and car chasing, because we see so much on movies and television. So I like to go full-throttle at these, and make them as realistic as possible. I don’t think you’re doing anyone a service if you have an A-Team type scenario where hundreds of rounds of ammunition are being fired off and no one’s getting hurt; the same thing for someone falling off a building or through a window. For this reason I don’t apologise for the action violence being tense and hurtful, because it’s the only honest way to go.
You’ve talked about writing short stories. There are differing views as to what function a short story performs. Some authors say it’s a writing form that stands on its own, whereas others say it’s a useful warm up for novels. What’s your opinion on this?
I have a two pronged approach to this, because I developed as a scriptwriter and a short story writer both at the same time. My personal opinion is that short story writing is an exceptionally useful tool in the development of an author because it teaches you to be concise. Certainly in my early years it would take me ten paragraphs to say what could be condensed into one. It’s much better to be succinct, particularly for a modern readership, because there are now so many distractions. It’s no longer the case that people will sit in an armchair reading all evening. I like to think that now I can get in there and get to the point and get the pages turning.
Short stories are excellent training for that because you might have to tell a complete story within five thousand words as part of the deal. I would always advocate that people write short stories. As a reader I’m also a big fan of short stories. I love M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft and the like. I read them avidly and have done all my life.
How did you develop DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenberg? He does seem to get himself in and out of some pretty tense action situations.
I always tell people he was never intended to be Rambo, just a better-than-average copper who found himself in some extraordinary situations. That said, I’ve increased the action content in the later books because of the very positive response of the readers, who picked up the earlier books thinking they were police procedurals and finding they were action thrillers.
However, there are a lot of extremely nasty killers in these books so from the outset I thought they needed a hero who you could believe would go round for round with them. Heck is not Jack Reacher; he’s not a guy who’s six-foot-six and can knock out villains with one punch. This is someone who is tough and determined, but also affable, easy going and just about able to keep a lid on a very difficult background.
Elements of Heck are based on people I met in the police force who lived to put villains away and would follow any lead, no matter how tenuous. I met detectives who never seemed to go home and worked round the clock. So I liked the idea of a character who is relentless in his pursuit of wrongdoers. Also, Heck’s a bit of a throwback to earlier television cops. He’s been likened to Jack Regan of ‘The Sweeney’, although he’s more personable. I’ve been recently impressed by some American cop shows like ‘The Wire’ and ‘The Shield’. Although ‘The Shield’ was about corrupt policing there was a lead character who would stop at nothing to bring justice to the streets. I love the idea of a dogged, unrelenting hunter of criminals. That was where the ball started rolling, and since then – with the inevitable confrontations that would create – the books have featured progressively more roughhouse.
The last book was very action-packed because it was the final showdown with the Nice Guys Club. Originally, this wasn’t going to be the third book in the series, but there was a demand from readers online to see the next round between Heck and the Nice Guys’. So The Killing Club was a lot more action packed than the books before it.
I did notice that in the chase and fight scenes Heck wasn’t indestructible and he had to think through how to get out of the predicaments he found himself in.
One of the things I like to do with Heck is examine what it would really take to escape deadly dangerous situations. You can’t stand up and knock out with a single blow one villain after another. Human beings aren’t like that. Even the Heavyweight Champion of the World would eventually be overwhelmed by the kinds of odds Heck faces. So Heck has to run. If vehicles are available he’ll use them, or he’ll climb a wall just to put distance between himself and the bad guys. Or he’ll try and hide – he’s not proud when it comes to that sort of thing. He’s also got to grin and bear it if he gets hurt. Although we do break the rules from time to time, because even though he does suffer injuries they’re not enough to put him completely out of action, he does fight and he does get beaten up; if he didn’t it wouldn’t be realistic, although a couple of reviews have likened Heck to a police James Bond. But this is not the case because Heck is a working class character who’s not got a lot going for him beyond being good at his work.
In Hunted which is the fifth book in the series (but was originally intended to be the first), there’s a very prolonged car chase across South London. I actually drove that route because I wanted to make it as real as possible – so if Heck, for example, drove over a traffic island, I wanted to know exactly that that would involve. I also had some assistance from a couple of London Traffic officers who told me what the best route would be from A to B across South London, if you were driving disregarding the rules of the road. I drove as close to that route as possible (bearing in mind I had to drive legally) to see what might happen. So I knew if Heck drove through a particularly narrow part he would take both the wing mirrors off his car, and so on.
The chases and fight scenes are certainly very vivid.
Possibly that’s down to my rugby playing days up here in the North of England. All through my teens and twenties, I played Rugby League, which is as close to a combat sport as you can get. I’m fifty now, but it left vivid memories of hard physical batterings that have never gone away.
As such, whenever I’m writing violence, I try to make it as real as possible. For example, I like to use all five senses – so you hear the crunching impacts of punches and collisions, and smell the blood and leaking petrol, etc. I try to make sure the audience is really put through it.
I think this is why it’s so easy for a reader to immerse themselves in your books.
I hope so. But there may be other things too.
Before I wrote the Heck series I wrote a series of 20,000 to 30,000 word novellas that will be republished as e-books in the near future. In response to these the first time around, there were a number of reviews that said there was ‘a cinematic quality’ to my writing. I liked that a lot, as it’d has become part of my method. I try to write lots of short scenes, in which the plot is moved along through interaction between characters, rather than through big dollops of exposition. I didn’t set out to do that consciously, so it is definitely an inheritance of my screenwriting days. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not all dialogue, although you can develop the characters a lot through dialogue.
Whenever possible, I try to tell my stories as fast as possible – to keep the pace going. But sometimes I have to vary the pace because the story may require a slower burn. For example, I love eerie places. I like creating a sense of fear and tension, because I remember when I was in the police going to search derelict buildings or rundown blocks of flats where, and almost invariably being alone. Everything about those places is appalling. They stink and there’s plenty of damp and dirt. There’s also debris and the sense of loss and wasted lives. Not to mention the sense of fear – as the bad guy could lurking just behind the next rotting doorway This is all part of the real police experience that I try to bring to the public through my Heck novels.
One of the interesting things about being a copper, as opposed to having a normal life, is that it’s like living in another world. You go on duty and you see everything differently. You watch people and places ultra-carefully, you observe, you assess – you don’t miss a single detail. Whereas, as a civilian you never even go to these awful hellholes unless you’re putting a demolition order on them. So I’ve always wanted to make that sort of situation as real as possible in my writing. The smell, the sound and the feel is important.
Why is it that, generally, policemen in crime books have very complex lives?
I remember chatting to my dad when I was still at school about his work. I learned that no one cares about a hero if he’s not vulnerable or devoid of an emotional life. I really didn’t want Heck to be superman. You have to have problems with the character. Heck still has an unspoken yearning for his ex-girlfriend, Detective Superintendent Gemma Piper and they have a very difficult relationship as a result of this, which is getting progressively more difficult as the books go on.
He doesn’t have an easy time in domestic matters either. The books were outlined so long ago that the original problem between Heck and his family is now no longer valid. Initially I’d developed a story where Heck’s father had been a miner on strike while Heck was a policeman, and they had fallen out over that. That had to go, because by the time Stalkers was published, that back-story that would have put Heck in his fifties. So I had to create an even more turbulent family background. Heck has a deep unhappiness at this level, which haunts him constantly but also pumps up the dynamic and makes the readers root for him all the more. Despite Heck’s cool outer persona, he’s actually a bit of an underdog, which is someone who, as writer, I can really feel for.
With regards to your characters there are some dynamic interactions that really bring out their personalities and make them feel three dimensional. It’s probably as a result of your scriptwriting heritage.
Possibly, but I always go out to make my characters believable. I base them all on real people or amalgamations of real people. What I do with a new project is list the new characters and put next to them the name of the person I most want to base that character on. I find that helps me see them, although they invariably change and move away from that original blueprint. I’ve told people this at various social events I’ve been to and have actually been asked if I’d put them in my next book. In fact a friend of my wife’s said: ‘Would you put me in your next book and kill me horribly?’
I feel even something like an action thriller is not going to work if you’ve populated it with cardboard cut-outs, because if there’s no emotional subtext I’m not engaging the readers enough. If you have a character you really feel for, you’re going to be worried if they’re in danger and you going to want cheer them if they win.
I had a great sense of ‘look behind you’ as a reader. I suspect this does come from your horror background.
I love suspense. I also like a great hero and heroine, but suspense is really important. And yes, I suspect this is an inheritance of my horror interests. That said, fear is an elusive emotion to instil in a reader. I once described fear as humour’s dark twin. In a writing context, making someone laugh is as difficult as making someone frightened. But I think I’m reasonably good at making people jumpy, so I go all out to put as much fear and tension in a book as I can – and that applies equally to my thrillers. So, in Heck there are plenty of moments where he or someone else is alone and they suspect an enemy force is very close and they can’t see them. Or they can see the darkness, or the mist, or the ruined corridors. I like that frisson of fear, because as a reader myself I love it when I get that creep up my spine.
I always used to ask myself when writing horror, what makes me scared?
Well, I get scared by everyday things that are off kilter or seem wrong for no obvious reason. I find weird mysteries disturbing, but also things that could be real. I used to say that ‘I prefer my horror if it could be happening in the next street.’ This has certainly carried over into the Heck series, with the Nice Guys Club. This is an organisation that exists beyond the sight of the regular criminal underworld. No one knows who they are. The characters investigating them get a hint they exist, but the evidence only comes in at a trickle. I love that sense of a dark mystery.
If these techniques work, then I’m delighted. But they aren’t techniques I consciously sit down and employ. I just developed them over years of writing.
What’s your process for writing a book?
My first draft is always dictated. I have a Dictaphone that I talk into usually when I’m taking the dogs for a walk. Then I stand in my office and play it back. Writing a book this way helps me think about the pace. Sometimes the first draft is a bit muddled, because it’s pouring out of me, but I often put the second draft on tape as well and play that back. That really helps to identify if the story’s sagging, or if there’s a clumsy bit of phrasing. It also helps with the proofing process. As I go on I fix and tidy up things. Then I tape it again. I feel that if I get into a tense scene and can hear myself reading it and at the same time note my voice speeding up, my breathing becoming shorter and faster and such, that’s when I know the scene’s working.
I do all my dialogue on tape too. When I’m on my own I even do the different voices, which would sound ludicrous if someone were listening to me. My family must wonder what’s going on in my office sometimes. I find that helps with quick-fire dialogue.
I also try to keep it naturalistic. If you’re just speaking naturalistic dialogue into a Dictaphone it’s not carefully modulated, it’s more like broken sentences and thoughts coming out the wrong way. I might edit all this out on the third draft, but I might also leave it in because it sounds more natural. I do a lot of interacting with myself on the Dictaphone, even with my short stories.
I also ask my wife Catherine to assist. She’s been a stalwart all through my career. She’ll tell me straight if something doesn’t make sense, or if it’s repetitive or unnecessarily wordy.
All this is very useful, as it means the final copy only goes off to my publisher when I personally am doubly satisfied that it’s working properly
This is very useful, because I can play something back and because I know what it’s all about and I can hear whether it’s too convoluted or not working properly.