The Cuckoo’s Calling

Last week I blogged about writing a Romney and Marsh File as a script for the stage. I’ve spent this week turning that script into a short story. It’s the first short story I’ve written. As last week, the breaking of new writing ground has been an interesting and enjoyable process. Perhaps they’ll be more short stories (I hope so) but I don’t have any ideas at the moment. I would like to add a collection of short stories to my writer’s portfolio. At this rate I should finish it around my seventieth birthday. (I can just hear my children’s sharp inhalations as they contemplate me lasting that long and denying them speedier access to their inheritance, such as it is.)

I won’t be blogging next week. I’ll be on holiday. I’m off to Canada to visit my daughter. She’s promised to take me hiking in the wilderness. I just hope she intends bringing me safely back. (Maybe it was a mistake to make her executor of my will and then to tell her that.)

It’s going to be a long old return flight. But I have plans to use the ‘dead’ time productively. The first draft of R&M#5 Particular Stupidities has been sitting in the bottom drawer for a few weeks – long enough for me to feel that the time is right to get it out and set to with the highlighters. So that’s what I envisage spending most of my fourteen hours each way in the air doing. Here’s hoping the travellers with screaming infants aren’t sitting within ten rows of me and that DVT isn’t something I actually suffer from on long haul flights. (Could kind of spoil things to touch down in Canada for a walking holiday only to be rushed off to hospital for an amputation or two. [Note to self: keep receipt for walking boots.])

When I return home I expect to be able to send it off to the gentleman who fixes my English mistakes. And then I’ll be back to R&M#6 Happy Families which was going rather well until I decided to put it on hold for the play script and accompanying short story. It’s good to know that when Particular Stupidities is off my hands I don’t have a blank page to look forward to but a good start to familiarise myself with.


A while ago it was suggested to me that Rope Enough (Romney & Marsh File#1) is the odd one out among the four currently published R&M Files – the bastard child, the cuckoo in the nest. I don’t disagree with this. I think, like the mother who stares wistfully at the child she’s never quite sure is hers (or her husband’s), I’ve always known that RE is different to its siblings. And the more of them I give birth to the further removed from the ‘R&M Files family’ RE becomes.

RE is not representative of the evolved concept of the R&M Files. (Notice that evolved. There was nothing planned about the R&M Files and I can think of one gent who drops by the blog from time to time who will smile wryly at that as he thinks and therein lies the root of the matter.)

One reason RE not being representative of the writing of the rest of the series bothers me is that it’s not representative of the writing of the rest of the series. Another reason it bothers me is that it’s RE that I give away in the try-before-you-buy initiative on Amazon. It’s just possible that RE puts more readers off downloading the second in the series than encouraging them to go for more. And those that do (I don’t know) might just finish the second feeling that it wasn’t what they bargained for after the first. Mmmm… sometimes, like now, I wonder if I might be better off removing RE from Amazon and just kicking off the R&M Files with book two. Or maybe inserting a foreword to RE that covers what I’m struggling to get at here.

So what is different about RE? For a start it’s quite dark, it’s quite serious and it’s almost entirely without humour. That sentence alone is enough to set the book apart from the others and sums up the biggest difference between them. (Remember I have the advantage of being familiar with book #5, a good chunk of book #6 as well as a ten thousand word short story, so I have much more material to back up my assertions with.)

I didn’t discover the R&M Files’ identity until halfway through book two. I have commented before in this blog that it was in book two, Making a Killing, that it occurred to me to start introducing some of my own brand of humour. I started having fun with my characters and I enjoyed it. I’m not sure that I enjoyed writing Rope Enough. (There were just one or two incidental moments where something of my humour slipped out and I remember feeling I should keep a lid on it. I was writing a crime book after all and I don’t think I’d ever read crime novel that was written for laughs.) But I have enjoyed writing the others in the series. Enjoyed as in had a lot of fun and laughs. I see the R&M Files, the concept (post book#1), as light entertainment. Rope Enough is not that.

I can’t know exactly how many readers have been really put off by Romney’s character in RE but I know that there are at least some. I regret that I wasn’t more aware of what I was doing with him. That same person that called RE a cuckoo told me: you may think that Marsh was “unfairly” treated but Romney was your major “victim” in the first book. For anyone that doubts that here is a link to a Goodreads comment that’s worth a look. For the record I don’t resent the feedback. In fact I find it perversely both amusing and dispiriting. (Amusing because Romney provoked such a strong reaction, and in some ways that’s a good thing. Dispiriting because Romney provoked such a strong negative reaction, which encouraged the reader in question to not finish the book and ‘rant’.) The only person who is really hurt by putting off readers is me.

Maybe that’s part of the risk for the novice writer, unless you are someone prepared to sit down and plan a series of books to avoid such eventualities, or an experienced writer. I’m not a planner and when I wrote RE I was very naive as a writer. And I didn’t know I was going to end up writing a series. And even if I had known I’m not sure I’d have been capable of doing things differently. I am very much a make it up as I go along type of writer. It’s the only thing that works for me.

So what? you might say: RE is different. And? The ‘so what?’ is one of the reasons I’ve titled this post The Cuckoo’s Calling. (The other reason is that ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling‘ is the title of the first crime book written by JKR Rowling and by linking this post to the search term I might get some crumbs from her table. Internet browsers who click the wrong button. Every little helps!) Apart from that try-before-you-buy reference above being a so what? when I wrote R&M#4, R&M#5, the start of R&M#6 and the short story, I heard Rope Enough calling out to me across the hundreds of thousands of words, like the call of summer’s cuckoo carrying on the still, balmy evening air across the flat fields and dykes of Romney Marsh. And, like summer’s cuckoo, I can’t understand a word it says, but I get the gist of the noise: here I am the black sheep of the family (cuckoos now sheep?) doing the R&M Files wrong.

Am I sounding like RE has been a bit of a cross to bear? It really hasn’t. And a lot of Amazon readers have liked it. But there’s this nagging compulsion to deal with (particularly) the Romney of RE by focussing on those same elements of his character that some readers didn’t like – the narcissism, the vanity, his views on women of a certain age (There is one passage in particular that I regret including and might one day remove, although with the number of downloads the book has had it’s really going to be stable door time.) – and doing something about them through, for example, the reactions of those he interacts with.

At times (particularly in the latter books) I’ve tried to use his behaviour to make him more of a figure of fun than someone to be taken seriously. Through the series he has evolved into someone that I hope the reader can laugh at for his pomposity, his erroneous thinking, his mistakes, the events that befall him. I want readers to be in on the anachronistic ‘joke’ that he is, to see him more through the eyes of DS Marsh, his patient and more (I hope) likeable sidekick, and her colleagues.

That said, I don’t want him to become a farcical character. He is a policeman who strives for justice. He is incorruptible. He is loyal to his team. He does want to get the bad guys. It just so happens that sometimes he’s a bit of a dick. Well who isn’t in real life?

Bottom line: I don’t want readers to take DI Romney too seriously and in RE I didn’t do enough towards ensuring that, because I hadn’t worked it out for myself.

Springtime for Romney.

Some weeks I wonder what on earth I’m going to blog about in my writer’s diary. Other weeks, like this week, I have so many ideas for blog posts that I hardly know where to start.

I wasn’t planning on powering up the laptop tonight to write this week’s blog-post. I was going to wait until the weekend. I was going to wait because I’ve just finished a first good draft of a writing project and usually when I get to that landmark I open a bottle of wine and a family bag of crisps and watch crap on the telly all night. As a reward.

Should be considered a punishment. I was feeling quite jolly, quite buoyant. I had a couple of glasses of the local anti-freeze with dinner, turned on the telly, watched ten minutes of doom and gloom (the news) and decided that I was wasting my life.

So telly off, laptop on.

Last week I reported that I’d gone straight from R&M#5 into R&M#6. I was confident enough in my idea to have given R&M#6 a title. (I should come clean with my diary here. I started R&M#6 because I had a good underlying plot line that I wanted to get straight into after R&M#5. I even had the title of the book. A couple of thousand words in and the story had veered off at an obtuse angle, the title was no longer relevant and the story was evolving to be far removed from what I had envisaged. Old title New Age Graves. New title Happy Families.) Upside is I have an idea and a title for R&M#7. It’s going to be called New Age Graves.

Anyway, I got twenty-five thousand words into R&M#6, Happy Families, and I had another writing idea. And because I feel pretty confident about R&M#6 and where it’s going to go I treated myself to a week’s break to indulge myself in another project that really had me by the… interested.

I’ve being toying with this project idea for quite a while now. This week I tore into it and I’ve finished a first draft. It’s only nine thousand words but that might be enough….when the songs are included.

Yes, I typed ‘songs’.

This week I have written the first draft for Romney and Marsh……..the musical.

(Tumble-weed moment.)

I had this idea ages and ages ago that there was nothing I could think of that couldn’t be made funny by tacking the words ‘the musical’ on the end. I have loads of contemporary and historical examples that I’ve just typed and deleted because I don’t want to upset anyone by poking fun at meaningful present-day tragedies. Try it yourself. Take a modern day tragedy and give it a headline and then add ‘the musical’ on the end. Could be funny? Maybe it’s just me. I blame Mel Brooks.

Anyway, I had this idea for Romney and Marsh the musical. And this week I’ve written the script. I really enjoyed writing a play script. Like I say, it’s only nine thousand words. I read it through on the bus home tonight and timed it at fifty minutes. But that’s me reading every part and quickly. Add in ten songs and you’ve got an hour and a half easy. Plus an interval and an ice-cream. A few beers afterwards and supper.  All adds up to a good night out.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, musical??? Has he lost his mind? Complementing a series of police procedural novels with a musical? That genre doesn’t traditionally lend itself to song and dance routines. (That’s my whole point.) And what about the music side of things? No sweat. I’m also a song writer. I have written dozens of songs. I love writing songs. Some of them are pretty good. Some of them are real show tunes.

Basically, what I’ve done this week is write a R&M short story around some of my songs. I bet I know what you’re thinking again. That’s a recipe for disaster. Maybe. But maybe not. I keep thinking of The Producers. Or rather the play within The Producers and how it worked (in the film) Anyone else remember Springtime For Hitler? It could work for R&M. What the hell, even if it doesn’t, I’ve enjoyed myself immensely this week and that’s what writing for fun should be all about: enjoyment.

You don’t have to subscribe to the faith I have in this idea. I don’t demand that. But I’ll say this: if you read this blog you probably have enjoyed one or more of my books. So trust me on this. Trust me to know what can work. This can work. Romney and Marsh the musical can work.

There are other good things about this week’s work. I can turn the play script into a short story. Maybe enter it into a competition and up the profile of R&M by grabbing some attention elsewhere. I can tweak it into a radio play and send it to the BBC. Of course, if the musical becomes a Broadway hit then think of the effect on ebook sales of the series.

For those of my trusted and valued readers who are still thinking DON’T BE A FOOL! here is the opening. Let me know what you think. Seriously. Let me know. Please. Try to picture yourself in the cheap seats at your local theatre. And what do you think about the concept. But bear in mind – the R&M Files are, like their author, more interested in having some fun than being taken seriously. There are enough crime writers failing at that, even if they are doing rather well for themselves. Grrrrrr. (See next week’s blog-post.)

A Lamb for a Sheep

Romney and Marsh: ‘The Musical’


Romney and Marsh are standing on Dover cliffs, staring out at the English Channel (audience). Behind them the curtain is closed. Their clothes are being blown by a fan (the breeze). The calling of seagulls and a distant ferry’s horn can be heard.   While Marsh sings the Romney and Marsh Theme Tune Romney is smoking. He is obviously relishing the panorama and the air.

Marsh finishes. Romney goes to flick his cigarette over the cliff but a look from Marsh stops him and he puts it out on the sole of his shoe. Then he places it in the cigarette packet and puts that in his pocket. A seagull squawks and shits on him. With some angry mumblings he wipes at it with his handkerchief.

Romney: So?

Marsh: So what, sir?

Romney: Have you worked it out yet?

Marsh: Sorry, you’ve lost me. Are you still thinking about four down? Cantankerous old git, ten letters ending with ‘n’.

Romney: What? No. Look around you. Where could you possibly hope to find the answer to that up here? Have you worked out why I’ve brought you to this spot?

Marsh: To admire the view?

Romney: Yes. But it’s more than that.

Marsh: Not thinking about jumping are you?

Romney: You know what, it does cross my mind now and again, usually when I reflect on the professional company I’m forced to keep.

Marsh: Thanks very much. Is your pocket meant to be on fire?

Romney: Jesus Christ!

Romney beats at his pocket, yanks out the cigarette packet and stamps on it to put the ‘fire’ out.

Marsh: Just another example of smoking being bad for your health.

Romney: How disappointingly predictable. This is Dover: the final frontier. These are the cliffs of the south-east of England. Their age old mission: to resist the invasion of strange new worlds, to repel new life and new civilisations, to boldly stop foreigners going where too many foreigners have gone before.

Marsh: So apart from xenophobia, this is about history then?

Romney: What isn’t?

Marsh: Star Trek. That’s about the future.

Romney: If you think Star Trek is about the future then you just don’t get what Lucas was doing.

Marsh: George Lucas was Star Wars, sir.

Romney: Whatever. Those things are all the same.

Marsh: Is this a British pride thing?

Romney: You make it sound like a racist organisation.

Marsh: I think it’s fine to be proud, so long as that’s as far as it goes.

Romney: Are you not proud to be British?

Marsh: Not always. Not often, actually.

Romney: I can understand that. But I’m proud to be policing the front line at the chalk face.

Marsh: Make up your mind, sir. A minute ago this was the final frontier, now it’s the front line.

Romney: What I’m trying to communicate and what you seem to be struggling to grasp is that I’m proud of my town and its place in history. I’m proud to be counting.

Marsh: As in numbers?

Romney: As in contribution, Sergeant.

Marsh: Right. Got it. Me too. Now we’ve got that sorted, can we, please, go back to the station? I’ve got the paper equivalent of Kilimanjaro on my desk. And it looks like rain.

Romney: When you’ve lived in Dover as long as I have you get to recognise the signs for imminent downpours.

Marsh: So heavy black clouds sailing in faster than a French fleet and lower than a squadron of German bombers isn’t something that concerns you when you’re all exposed up here, no umbrella and the car half a mile away?

Romney: Certainly not. Take it from me – if we leave now we’ve got plenty of time to get back in the warm and dry.

Thunder and lightning. The stage is plunged into darkness. Curtains open. When the lights come on Romney and Marsh are hurrying into one of the neglected and weather-battered WWII anti-aircraft gun-emplacements that dot the cliff top. The concrete and brick structure is now only a crumbling shell, covered in graffiti, littered with rubbish and overgrown with plants that have sprouted from its cracks and crevices.

Marsh: You were saying, sir.

Romney: Weather is not an exact science – ask Michael Fish. We’ll be all right in here for a minute. At least it’s dry. Deluge like that can’t last long.

Marsh: I hope you’re right. I’ve got court in the morning to prepare for and did I mention my paperwork?

Romney: You’re repeating yourself. Foster versus the Crown will be like Grimes’ cake-chute when there are biscuits being passed around – open and shut. Like the biscuits, Foster hasn’t got a prayer.

Romney is looking out of the wide open aperture at the front of the building at the storm raging over the sea. Marsh is exploring the interior, kicking things as she peers into the darkest recesses of the old ruin.

Romney: I’d mind where I was treading if I were you. These old gun emplacements get used for everything from public conveniences to opium dens to lovers’ bolt-hole to vagrants’ doss house. If you’re not treading on condoms, or in human faeces, you’re tripping over syringes and tramps. I remember one time when I was up here in the summer, must have been two, three years ago…

Marsh: Sir.

Romney: I walked in on this pair of pensioners. He had his trousers round his ankles and she was…

Marsh: Sir!

Romney: What?

Marsh: Come here. Marsh has her key-ring torch working.

Romney walks over to where Marsh is investigating a pile of material on the floor. The corner is dark. Romney uses his lighter to illuminate things further.

Romney: Oh dear. Poor old Jacque.

Marsh: You know him?

Romney: Yes. One our celebrity bums. And I don’t mean in a Hello way. Poor old sod. French. Been here for years. What a way to go.

Romney sings The Man with the Special Brew Eyes.

Marsh: Looks like he’s been stabbed.

Romney: Eh?! Where?

Marsh: It’s seems recent. The blood’s fresh.

Romney hurries back over.

Romney: Bloody hell. That changes things. He is dead, I suppose? Have you checked his vital signs?

Marsh: No. I thought you could.

Romney: I’m not touching the old flea-bag. What if he needs the kiss of life?

Marsh: Then one of us will have to give it, sir, and seeing as you know him…

Romney: You must be joking if you think I’m getting up close and personal with that stinking old soak.

Marsh: What happened to poor old Jacque?

Romney: That’s when he was dead.

Marsh huffs and feels for a pulse.

Marsh: I can’t feel anything.

Romney: Call it in and step away, Sergeant, or you’ll be off forensics’ Christmas card list if he croaks. Let’s leave it to the professionals. We shouldn’t interfere.

Before Marsh can make the call there is the noise of a commotion as a man and woman burst in to a timely flash of lightning and clap of thunder. Man and woman scream when they see Romney and Marsh there.

(Just the idea, I say the very idea, of DI Romney bursting into song creases me up.)