This charming author resides in my own city, Sydney, but I met him in Melbourne. It was during the Queermance Literary Festival, a small event for us gay themed writers down-under. He also has the sexiest website for a writer I’ve seen so far. It’s perfect! Everything you need to know is on one page.
Meet Nigel Bartlett, the author of the Vintage/Random House release, King of the Road. This crime novel is an example of how far we’ve come in representing gay characters in the mainstream. The protagonist just happens to be homosexual, but this fact means little to the story. He just is, and that’s fine.
Here are Nigel’s tips for writing…
1. Don’t be afraid of the brick wall.
When I’m writing, I often reach a point in the story where I think, “Oh crap, now what?” That’s because I’ve put my character in an impossible situation.
In the past, I would panic at that point. I’d probably stop writing for a few days and wander around in a funk, thinking I’d have to ditch a few chapters, rework whole scenes, go back in time and take my character down a different path.
However, if I did that, I’d almost certainly find him facing another brick wall, and I’d be faced with the same decision all over again.
Instead, I’ve learnt that these impossible situations nearly always just seem impossible – and that they are, in fact, story opportunities. They’re opportunities to build suspense, have my character use his wits to get out of this situation and even for him to head off in a direction I’d previously never thought of.
In the old days the answers would come to me at random times – on the bus, in the shower, while chatting to a friend. That still happens of course, but now, instead of going into a panic and abandoning the writing, I brainstorm. I step away from the computer, take up my pen and notebook and I have a written conversation with myself.
“What would you do if you were in that situation, Nigel? What would your character do? What might he do that he’s never had the courage to do before?”
I write bullet points of crazy ideas, hare-brained options and ridiculous strategies – and out of those comes something workable and realistic.
Often these situations are quite mundane, but they’re vital to the story. For King of the Road, my character David had ‘acquired’ someone else’s iPhone, but he couldn’t get into it without the passcode, so I had to think of a realistic way he could do that. I had to think of a way for him to find out the passcode in a way that was realistic and wouldn’t make the reader think, “That would never happen.”
In another situation, David didn’t know the password to someone’s computer, so he simply couldn’t get into it – but that in itself became part of the story. David had to abandon the computer and use other means to find out what he needed to know.
For my next book, David wants to find out someone’s address, but the only information he has is a car number plate. I’ve managed to find a way of doing this, which I’m quite excited about. I wouldn’t do it in real life, but that’s because I generally avoid breaking the law. David, however, can do what he likes, because he’s fictional.
The other day I was discussing with a friend ways you could discover personal information about people without them knowing, and two cops walked past. I hope they didn’t hear me!
2. Pay attention to life
Writers need to observe what’s happening around them. Indeed, it could well be the case that we’re writers because we’re observant, and that we want to put down on paper our reactions to what we see in the world.
These days, though, it’s far too easy to have our heads buried in our smartphones when we’re out and about. I’m as guilty of this as the next person, but I know that many of my best ideas come during those times when I’m watching strangers.
Waiting for a train, bus or ferry, walking to work, standing in line at Woolworths – these are all times when (if I’m paying attention) I can focus on the way someone walks, the way they smile (or don’t), the way they talk to someone else, the way they attack their sandwich, the clothes they’re wearing, their hair, their jewellery, the slogan on their T-shirt, the mole sprouting out of their neck.
I started writing King of the Road before the days of smartphones. I was in Brisbane once and waiting for a river ferry with my parents and some friends. I noticed a young guy also waiting for the ferry. He was in his mid-20s, tanned, dark hair, muscly arms, clearly a gym-goer.
The way he was standing reminded me of a Greek statue, and it seemed to me that he was quite conscious of the way he looked, the way he held himself – as if he was posing for an audience.
I thought to myself, “He’s so up himself. He thinks he’s a right Adonis.” I was being both dismissive and judgemental while also (reluctantly) admiring him for the effort he’d put in during his workouts.
Somehow, that thought became a line in King of the Road about one of the principle characters, a police officer called Fahd. And, in fact, it shaped his whole character and the way David views him. Fahd, with his Adonis-like attitude and David’s divided feelings about him, now plays a central role in my next book.
If I’d had my head in my phone, who knows what would have become of Fahd?
3. Push your boundaries
I’d never dreamt of writing a crime thriller. I thought King of the Road was going to be a literary novel focusing on a family’s trauma – how a family tears itself apart when a gay uncle loses the child he’s been looking after for the weekend.
In the first draft the plot was boring. It was full of angsty, blame-filled conversations, long silences and lots of rumination. Nothing was happening, and the people in my writing group told me so. One of them said, “Nigel, this is about a missing child – it’s a crime story.”
It had been years since I’d read a crime novel or thriller. I’d loved Agatha Christie as a teenager, but only as a guilty pleasure. In my late 20s I’d devoured John Grisham’s The Firm while on holiday. I’d also terrified myself by reading Silence of the Lambs after seeing the film (the book is scarier, just FYI). But I’d never thought about writing that kind of book.
When confronted by my writing group, I could have gone either of two ways: I could have ignored them and struggled on with a boring story with no plot that would probably never have been published. Or I could have risen to the challenge and tried something I thought was both:
a) beneath me (I saw myself as a literary writer) and
b) beyond my capabilities.
Strange, I know, but I used my snobbery about crime fiction to mask the fact that I both loved it and thought I couldn’t write it.
I chose the second path, but that meant doing something totally new and scary for me. I became a huge advocate of the motto “learn by doing”. I started rewriting King of the Road as a crime thriller and at the same time I taught myself about the genre.
I read Ian Rankin, Kate Atkinson, Peter Temple, Peter Corris, Patricia Highsmith, Jo Nesbo, Dennis Lehane, Harlan Coben. I read heaps and heaps of great crime fiction. I read one of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books and I thought, “That’s what I want David to become by the end of King of the Road – a gay Jack Reacher. Fearless, independent, tough.”
I watched crime and police dramas on TV – The Bill, Luther, Scott & Bailey, The Wire, Jack Irish, The Killing, Whitechapel. I watched the Dragon Tattoo films, the Jason Bourne movies, high-quality dramas like Michael Clayton (with George Clooney), kidnap stories like Ransom (with Mel Gibson).
I’d like to think I was a good student and learnt well. I learnt by reading, watching and (most importantly) by doing. I pushed my boundaries and went beyond them. I couldn’t believe it when King of the Road was published. It went on to be shortlisted for Ned Kelly crime fiction award.
Next week we’re going to meet another fellow Sydneysider, Nic Starr, an mm romance writer with technological tips.