Meeting Fiona


Some books are about plot, others about place or mood, others about beautiful writing. Talking to the Dead has its share of all those things (I hope), but the book has only one star and that’s its heroine, Fiona Griffiths.

The book had an odd pre-history for me. I wrote the first draft of the book at tremendous speed. Not quite two months, perhaps, but certainly less than three. But the book had been in preparation for maybe two years: the central (first-person) character gathering slowly like mist thickening on a November road.

The initial elements of character were pretty easy to come up with. I’d have my character be young, be female, be Welsh, be hellishly smart (Cambridge degree, philosophy). Because I didn’t want her to be like every other detective, I’d have her non-smoking, teetotal and with close and important family relationships.

But that’s a ticklist, not a character. It’s a list of characteristics that feels rather like one of those Photofit images: a practical way to disassemble a human being into a list of features, but not really alive. The difference between a Photofit and a Rembrandt portrait – well, it’s everything, isn’t it?

I knew other things too. I knew I wanted her intense. Difficult. Dangerous. Unpredictable. I wanted her odd. But that’s so easy to say, and I didn’t want those things to feel stuck on from the outside. If, for example, you’re currently watching Homeland – I am and I think it’s great – you’ll know that the Claire Danes character theoretically has a mood disorder. So she takes some pills now and again. Sometimes she shouts too much. Sometimes she works hard. But the whole nutcase strand seems a bit of an afterthought. Indeed, I’m not even sure that they’re remembering to keep the pills thread alive. The mood disorder, in the end, isn’t that central to the character.

So I knew what I wanted in principle, but didn’t have the essential element from which all those things would naturally emerge. I probably mused on that problem for a year or so, slowly getting closer to an understanding of my character, but still missing the key.

And then – well, I got the key. I can’t tell you what it is, because Talking to the Dead revolves as much around the mystery of the character (Fiona Griffiths) as it does around the crime she’s investigating. But oh my gosh, what a key! The thing at the heart of Fiona’s make-up is perfectly based in fact. Real people have this thing – indeed, my wife once treated one of them. And it’s not just a startling condition to have. It’s so perfectly shaped for a crime novel – with its mysteries, its preoccupation with life and death, its darkness – that I felt bewildered that no one else had used the device before me.

The Fiona that emerged from all this is the most dramatic character I’ve ever written. Dramatic not just because of the situations she finds herself in, but because of who she is. She’ll act in ways that are utterly unpredictable to the reader (or, often, the writer), but ones which emerge from her very essence. Her language too is different from my own. In terms of prose, Talking to the Dead is quite different from anything else I’ve written. Tougher, sharper, odder, more modern.

After a bit of fooling around on the shoreline, I took the plunge, began to write the novel – and it flowed out of me with an intensity and drama I’ve never previously experienced. The character herself no longer felt like something designed by me. She felt – or feels – like a real human being, but a human of exceptional intensity and force. Perhaps it’s partly that I’m writing her in the first person, but she doesn’t really seem outside me. I can witness scenes through my eyes or through hers. (And hers usually offer the more interesting view.)

And Fiona’s also given me the one thing I’m sure of with Talking to the Dead. People may or may not like the book. They may or may not warm to the voice. They may be caught up in the nested mysteries, or they may not. But no one, I think, will read the book and be unpersuaded by the voice. Which makes sense. In the end, I didn’t create Fiona, she just adopted me – and she’s welcome to stay as long as she likes. You can read more about her here.

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My path into TALKING TO THE DEAD was a curious one. I was approached by a well-known figure who was contemplating working with a ghostwriter on a crime thriller. I hadn’t read any crime for a long time, but was intrigued by the project. So I went out and bought about two dozen crime novels, then read them back-to-back over about two weeks. I don’t remember all the authors I read then, but the list certainly included:
  • Val McDermid
  • Linda LaPlante
  • Colin Dexter
  • Minette Walters
  • Nicci French
  • Mark Billingham
  • Ian Rankin
  • RJ Ellory
  • Barbara Vine
From America, I read:
  • Robert Crais
  • Harlan Coben
  • Linwood Barclay
  • Michael Connelly
  • George Pelecanos
  • Carl Hiaasen
  • Sarah Paretsky
  • Patricia Cornwell
  • Kathy Reichs
  • Elmore Leonard
I also read a bit of crime fiction in translation, though not at that stage Stieg Larsson.

Having done my reading, I started to think through what I’d read. Everything involved a crime and some kind of investigation, but that still left a million possible variations. Was the protagonist a cop or not? Was the tale first person or third? One viewpoint or many? Was romance a significant element? What about humour? How about forensic science? Morality? Was the book elegantly written or potboilerish? Was it more thriller or more crossword-puzzle style mystery? How violent?

Because I’m built that way, I created a spreadsheet and analysed my results. The spreadsheet didn’t spit out a Formula For Writing Bestsellers – and I didn’t want it to. But the exercise did help me understand what I wanted to write, and the directions I thought the Well Known Figure would be well advised to travel in. As it happened, that ghostwriting assignment never happened (or not with me anyway), so I was left with a headful of ideas and no obvious outlet for them.

Though I hadn’t previously been a crime-buff, I couldn’t get these ideas out of my head. After all, the crime tale is just a format around which to tell a story. The genre doesn’t need to be limiting – or at least, no more limiting to the artist than the sonnet-form or the iambic pentameter. And in among the stuff I read, there were some really, really good books. Some of them were inspirational in fact.

The kind of book I realised I wanted to write needed a really strong central character. A character so vibrant, so intense and mysterious, that the books would be as much about her as about the crimes themselves. (Oh, and why her?  Well, I’ll talk about that in a later post, but my detective was a woman from the very first.)

Other questions soon answered themselves too:
  • I wanted to avoid a crude moral approach, where every killer must be a sick bastard and where cops spend their time telling each other ‘Let’s put the sick bastard away.’
  • I wanted my novels to be dark, but for that darkness to come from mood and tone, not a splatter of gore.
  • I wanted my books to have a warm human heart: I wanted my central character to have some sustained, close, loving relationships – not merely be the compulsory heavy drinking loner.
  • Oh, and I also decided that my detective would kick against the stereotypes. Instead of being a middle-aged, male, single, boozer, I’d have her young, female, keen to enter a relationship and a non-smoking teetotaller.
  • I wanted my book to have a strong sense of place and to say something about the wider society.
  • I wanted my book to be a proper crime novel: fully inhabiting its genre, unafraid to participate fully in its rules and conventions.
Some of these things reacted against things I came across in my survey of the market – I just got fed up with all those maverick middle-aged cops, the hordes of serial killers with quirkily coded ways of dispatching their victims. Other elements of what I wanted to write picked up on things I found exciting. For example, once I’d encountered the atmospheric writing of Henning Mankell, RJ Ellory and Carl Hiaasen (to name three wildly different writers), I didn’t want my book to be any less placed than theirs.

And I think, in a way, my experience answers that age-old question: do you write for the market or do you write the book you’re passionate about? And the answer is: Both! You have to do both! If you aren’t passionate, you’ll write a rubbish book. If you don’t have a feel for contemporary writers in your area, you’ll be missing the argument. Oh - and now that I've started reading crime again, I haven't stopped. It's where the juice is!
I'm Harry Bingham. I'm the author of Talking to the Dead, the first of the Fiona Griffiths novels.

I am, technically speaking, sane. I have a job: writing books. I have a wife and dogs. I keep myself clean without much need of external help ... but, you know, I've got this thing.

A thing where I have to share my head with an interloper. A young, female, Welsh detective with some strange ways and a surprising capacity for violence. Because I happen to make my living from writing, I have a nice neat justification for this particular form of mental illness. But, you know, I really do share my head with a very unusual person. I've learned how to see things her way with almost as much ease as I see things my way. She's become a part of me - and although I love her to bits, she is a very, very strange woman.

I'd love to tell you about what makes her so strange - what forms her strangeness takes - but I'm sorry to say I can't do that. She's pretty private about these things and she's careful about what she says and when she says it. So there won't be any big revelations in this blog or on this website. You'll just have to read the book.

But she is one hell of a heroine. Someone asked me whether she was the ass-kicking sort and I had to laugh. Yes, she is, only you don't want to bet that it's only your ass she'll kick. And she's exceptionally smart, which is helpful in her job. And she's driven in a way that none of her colleagues are and for reasons that none of them can hope to understand.

You'll find more about about Fiona here. More about me here. But read the book. It's the only way you'll get to find out what it's like to share your head with Fiona Griffiths. It's scary, weird, intense & brilliant. Ordinary life seems a bit duller afterwards.

    About Harry

    I'm Harry Bingham. I'm the author of Talking to the Dead, the first of the Fiona Griffiths novels. There are more FG novels on the way. If you've come here because you are a writer and want help, then you don't want this site at all, you want my friends & colleagues at The Writers' Workshop. And if you're in search of literary agents, you need Agent Hunter, dummy.




    May 2012
    April 2012