Wednesday, November 9, 2016

My Guest: Keith Dixon

My Guest this week is an award-winning author of excellent CRIME THRILLERS who will be talking us through the Dark Art of crafting that one element without which no decent thriller works. This is Secret Sauce indeed! Ladies and Gentlemen...

Keith Dixon

Criminal Behaviour

“Where do you get your ideas from?” … is a question that no one has ever asked me.

Which is a shame, because the answer is quite interesting.
As a writer of crime novels I could say that my stories are ‘torn from the headlines’, and in most ways that has been true. It’s often been the case, however, that far from being excitingly modern, the headlines have been several years old. For example, the story of The Bleak is of a group of scientists working under a criminal mastermind to poison thousands of people. This idea derived initially from the story of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, which released Sarin gas into the Tokyo underground in the mid-nineties. Similarly, the back-story of Lorenzo Strano in The Strange Girl was told to me by a former police commander who’d witnessed a similar situation years ago in her own workplace.

What’s interesting (well to me, anyway) about the manner in which the ideas then germinate is that the villain usually arrives very quickly, growing out of the research, not just my imagination. If you have a series hero, as I did with Sam Dyke, the fun part is then pitting him and his known qualities against the bad guys or girls in the narrative.
However, in my latest book, Storey: A Crime Novel, I had a new central character to introduce and I’d decided to involve two villains in the unfolding of the tale. This was in part because I’d decided to write in a different style, one influenced by the great American crime novelist, Elmore Leonard. Leonard was famous for his amazing dialogue and also for the fact that sometimes his ‘heroes’ were barely on the side of justice. Often they were petty criminals or people who were neither particularly good nor bad, but ordinary. So I wanted to create a hero who was essentially decent but self-sufficient enough not to be worried about mixing with villains. Thus Storey became an ex-policeman, someone who was honourable and on the side of the law, but capable of talking to crooks on their own terms, knowing what they were like.

Starting my research, I began by reading the local newspapers from Coventry, where the action was set. What soon struck me was that the bad guys usually worked in small gangs and their villainy was often mundane, if sometimes cruel: drugs, robbery of betting shops and the like, selling counterfeit wares. The gangs usually comprised 4-6 people who weren’t very bright, had known each other a long time, and had been brought up in tough conditions. Sometimes firearms were used in their villainy, but often they weren’t – though this was changing.
I decided on a gang leader early on—someone with intelligence and forcefulness, but without high ambition. Later in the book he’d meet someone who was a world-class villain so my man had to be lowly enough to be impressed or cowed by the super-crook. As I started to invent him, these were some of the notes I made:

  •  Need to set him off, show him in action, so needs a crew
  •  Then have fun individualising the crew
  •   Have had very intelligent villains in previous books, time for someone perhaps more realistic – someone trying to just get along, then gets involved in more than he anticipated.
  •  Also want to show him aware of his role as ‘leader’, needing to discipline gang members but also nurture them.
  • Then there are gang tensions – up-and-coming or ambitious members wanting more than the leader is providing.

So as I wrote, the character of the leader evolved in relation to the people around him, as well as in relation to his function in the plot.

The leader is called Cliff Elliott and he has three crew members: Dutch, Tarzan and Gary. Part of the fun of being a writer is watching characters create themselves as they talk – so while I had their names and general physical traits, I knew very little about them as people until they began to interact with one another. Elmore Leonard (whose nickname was ‘Dutch’, incidentally, a little in-joke) said he used to write ‘in the voice’ of his characters until he knew who they were and how they’d react. Then he’d start writing the book proper. I don’t have that discipline, but I know that characters come alive when they begin to talk, so you need to be alert to how they reveal themselves, and what their conversation says about their past as well as their current mind-set.

For example, I discovered as I wrote that Cliff slept a lot in the afternoon and did his thinking alone in his room, not with the men. That wasn’t something I anticipated, it arose out of the interaction between the men as the storyline took place. This meant he was often detached from his crew and this consequently fomented antagonism.
The other crook is a con-woman who is based on a real character, a Scottish woman who tricked her so-called fiancĂ© out of many thousands of pounds and led to the suicide of the man’s mother and sister. I wanted to explore this woman’s behaviour to see where it came from, so had Storey tangle with her as well as Cliff Elliott. I wrote frequently from within her point-of-view, and it was interesting to see the world from the perspective of someone who was relatively intelligent but bitter. And definitely cunning.

The way the book evolved proved to me again that I need to plan, to know what the characters are going to actually do. But it also showed me that there’s lots of fun involved in the writing process itself, as characters reveal who they are. This is what writers mean when they say characters begin to take over … as soon as they act or speak they reveal something about how their brains work and you, the author, have a sudden insight into who they are. This then colours their interpretation of what happens to them as the plot evolves – not necessarily what happens but how they think about it. Their understanding of their situation is what interests me as an author.

And of course the shooting and fighting …

Keith Dixon was born in Yorkshire and grew up in the Midlands. He’s been writing since he was thirteen years old in a number of different genres: thriller, espionage, science fiction, literary. He’s the author of seven novels in the Sam Dyke Investigations series, the first in a new crime series, Storey, and two other non-crime works, as well as two collections of blog posts on the craft of writing. 

When he’s not writing he enjoys reading, learning the guitar, watching movies and binge-inhaling great TV series. He’s currently spending more time in France than is probably good for him. 


Thank you, Keith, for a useful and practical peek behind the curtain at the genesis process for that most essential of crime thriller ingredients, the villain. I wish you well with the new novel. (Readers: as a dedicated Sam Dyke fan, I have already bought and read Storey and it more than lives up to its promise. Highly recommended, so don't miss it!).

Eric @

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