PJ Brooke is
actually two people, myself, Jane Brooke, and my husband, Philip James
O’Brien….hence PJ Brooke. Phil and I have had a holiday home in southern Spain
for a while now, initially a country cottage just outside a small town in the
mountains, about thirty miles south of the city of Granada, and now a house in
the oldest part of Granada itself, the Albayzin, where our detective hero also
lives. These places shaped our story.
First, we started to learn about our small town. It was on
the front line of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 which led to the Franco
dictatorship which lasted until 1975. Left-wing guerrillas held out in the
mountains around the town until the late 1940s. During the Civil War, and in the
years afterwards, at least five thousand local people were shot and their
bodies dumped in unmarked common graves. People whom we met still spoke about
fathers, grandfathers, and brothers they had lost. We learned how much
property had changed hands, and how those families who had supported the
fascists had become, and still were rich. Underneath the façade, the town was
full of ghosts.
Forward to 2003…the run-up to the second Gulf War. Our
little town has a small Muslim community, who are progressive, educated and
very welcoming. In the town, both Muslims and non-Muslims alike were campaigning
to ‘Stop the War.’ Outside the town, there are some very isolated farmhouses. We
saw one from afar , and thought… ’if you wanted to set up a training camp for
potential terrorists, that one over there could be a good place to do it…’
And so our story started to evolve. Leila Mahfouz, a
beautiful young Muslim woman, is found dead in a gorge outside the town. She is
an Edinburgh University PhD student, researching the impacts of the Civil War
on Diva, a fictionalised version of our town. The murder investigation by the
less than competent local police force develops into an anti terrorist
operation, and the story which Leila was researching takes on terrible
significance for our young detective, half Scots, half Spanish Sub-Inspector
Max Romero of the Granada Homicide Squad, who gets dragged into the Leila
Mahfouz case because he was visiting his grandmother in his old home town, and
is the only cop in the vicinity with good English.
We wanted to create a detective who is part of a Spanish
family. Spanish families, particularly in smaller towns form a close knit unit,
much more so than their equivalent in Britain. Sunday lunch with the
grandparents is a sacred ritual. This has its advantages, but it also has a
down-side particularly for our Max who is constantly phoned up by his beloved
Phil and I work on our writing very much as a team… not quite
creative genius/tea-maker fashion, but utilising complementary skills. Before
early retirement packages gave us a blissful opportunity to write full time,
Phil and I were both professional wordsmiths. Phil was a Senior Lecturer in
Sociology at Glasgow University working mainly on Latin America. I was a Local
Government policy person and then management consultant. Both jobs depend on an
ability to turn dull facts into stories that people want to read, and skill in
using words for precision, impact and colour.
Phil and I sit around for hours developing plot lines, arguing whether a scene
is credible, interesting, takes the plot in a worthwhile direction, and filling
in all those small details on characters which helps bring them alive. Whilst in
Glasgow we used to share a long Edwardian bath tub which we had found in a
Glasgow flea market, and we sometimes stayed in the bath until it got cold
arguing about plot and characters.
We love detective fiction, but can’t stand creaky or
contrived plots, and hate it when a book starts wonderfully well, but ends in a
muddle of incredible coincidences, disguises, identical twins and ….gosh…the key
was in his pocket all along. For us, it’s acceptable for a character to fail to
pass a message because he couldn’t get a mobile signal, but he has to be in a
real-world location where reception is poor. We check. It’s like the film
director who insists that all the props must be accurate, whether or not they
appear on close-up. My Spanish teacher checks all the Spanish words and phrases
we use. She is, as she says, ‘muy chuminosa’…very picky. So it’s hard work, but
we hope it’s worth the extra effort.
Once we have an outline for the next five or so chapters
which both of us are reasonably comfortable with , Phil goes into Creative
Genius Mode, starts typing and stops thinking. If it’s really working, he can
write about two or three thousand words per day. The text can sometimes go in
directions we didn’t expect. New characters appear out of thin air, and the
agreed plan can go out of the window. This is always interesting. And sometimes
When Phil has a few pages of text down, it’s time for a nice
cup of tea, and I start the demolition job on the new material. Actually ,
mostly it’s ok, but Phil tends to write stage directions which I turn into
dialogue. I add description and round out characters. Sometimes I have to put a
red line through whole chunks like the time when Phil attempted a sex scene.
It was embarrassingly bad. Why is it that chaps cannot write well about sex?
Perhaps there’s something profound here?
Sometimes I write entire chapters from scratch, but this
carries the risk of pulling the plot in too many different directions at once,
so it’s not advisable unless this is new material to fit between chapters which
have already been written.
Though working as a team help enormously with accuracy and
(we hope) credibility, we regularly check with friends and family whether the
text is working for them. During the process of writing ’Blood Wedding’ this was
particularly important, as it was our first novel, and it’s always difficult to
really, truly believe the other people in your Creative Writing class…including
the tutor…when they say it is of publishable quality .And so it came to pass….
My Aunt Margaret , now aged 81, is a wise and experienced
reader of detective fiction, and it was with considerable trepidation we gave
her the first compete draft of the novel for comment. Despite all efforts, we
were still not entirely happy with the ending, but we were more than a wee bit
taken aback when Margaret announced that ’she’d enjoyed it, but the wrong man
dunnit. It was X, not Y.’
But we thought about it, and she was right. So we revised the
entire manuscript wrote another two chapters, and it all worked so much better.
Moral of this story. Two’s company. But five heads are even
better than two.
‘Blood Wedding’ was published in the UK on 1st
December 2008 by Constable
www.constablerobinson.com, and in the United States by Soho Press
If you want to learn more about Blood Wedding, our website is
www.pjbrooke.co.uk. It is the first in a series featuring Sub-Inspector Max
P.S. When Jane was working she went on one of those ghastly
management courses - assertiveness. I still haven’t recovered. Phil.
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