1. How did you get started writing
I’ve been scribbling stories as far back as I remember. I recall sitting in the living room of the flat in Springburn, must be in the mid-sixties, writing a story called ‘Who Killed Cock Robin?’ which was a detective story about the murder of a TV star. I’ve written plays, comedy, radio shows. Also two wrote and produced two crime dramas for a Glasgow cable TV company, one of which I directed. The other won a Royal Television society Scottish Centre award for best drama. By then I was channelling the bug it into journalism and that led to writing about true crime and now, fiction.
2. What drew you to crime fiction
Given the first story was a murder story, I guess I’ve always been drawn to the dark side, but it’s also what I read. I started reading Ian Fleming when I was about 11 or 12. Then, of course, writing true crime and history, I learned a thing or two about the real underworld. I also spent a few years actually investigating crime for defence teams, which was a real learning experience. I suppose I could try a children’s story or a romance but I think my friends would wonder when the first body was going to turn up.
3. Which crime writers past or present have influenced your style of writing
I was very impressed as a teenager with the TV work of Edward Boyd. He created a series called ‘The View from Daniel Pike’, about a Glasgow private eye. I thought it was wonderful and it made me realise that my home city could be used as a backdrop for thrillers. James Mitchell’s ‘Callan’ is also a big influence. My reading tastes do run more to the American writers – Ed McBain being the earliest influence. His use of the city as a living, breathing backdrop I found very impressive. Later I discovered, predictably, Chandler and Hammett. I’d love to be able to write like Dennis Lehane and Robert Crais. John Connolly is another favourite. William Goldman’s books and screenplays taught me about reversals, where a story can change in a sentence or two, while I’d love to be able to do dialogue like Aaron Sorkin.
4. What was the inspiration behind the storyline of Blood City
There is a story in Glasgow, virtually an urban legend, that back in the early 80s a group of top crooks came together to form a cartel to bring heroin into the city in vast quantities. There had been heroin in Glasgow since the 20s but the drug trade really hadn’t boomed. They each dropped a sum of cash into a pot and the trade was born. I’ve taken that story and run with it, using it as backdrop to the troubles facing young Davie McCall and his friends.
5. When you first started writing did you find it hard to get publisher interest
I was very, VERY lucky with my first book, ‘Blood on the Thistle’. I’d written a series of features for the Saturday edition of the ‘Evening Times’ on old crimes and the then features editor, Russell Kyle, thought I should put them together in book form. I rewrote them and sent them to Mainstream in Edinburgh with a chapter list. Bill Campbell came back to me within days, wanting to see more and it took off from there. When I decided three years ago that I’d gone as far as I could with true crime and wanted to do fiction, it became more difficult.
6. Did you find the experience of writing your first novel different than writing your other factional novels
I always approached the non-fiction with a storyteller’s eye, or at least that’s the way I looked at it! So, although I had the factual story to tell I still laid a storyteller’s sheen over the top. I didn’t change facts but I tried to present them in a way that put the reader inside the story. However, the facts were always there to guide me. With fiction, you are in total charge. You create the world, the people in it and the events, even if it’s set against a realistic backdrop. So, yes, it IS different but, for me, it’s still storytelling either way.
7. Why did you decide to set your novel in Glasgow
It’s where I was born, and although I travelled around as a child – Manchester, Cumbernauld, East Kilbride – I still saw it as my home city. I still do, even though I live elsewhere. They say write what you know and I know a wee bit about Glasgow. However, it has to be said that this story could easily have been set in Edinburgh, or Manchester, or Liverpool, or London. Even New York. Anywhere in fact. It’s Glasgow because that is what I know and I hope I bring the city alive but the actual plot, like any good crime novel, could take place anywhere.
8. Bloody City is a novel full of interesting and unique characters, did you have a favourite to write about
Well, Davie McCall’s the central character so I’d have to say him, even though he’s hard to write, given he doesn’t say a lot. But it’s all going on inside him. I do like the two cops Knight and Donovan. Knight’s a bit of a monster but I like writing him while Donovan is more thoughtful. Not to mention honest. I had to be careful they didn’t take over as the book is not a police procedural. Other writers are doing that and doing it well and there was nothing I could add to the genre.
9. what kind of research did you have to undertake for your book
A lot of studying maps, reading old newspaper articles that I have salted away in cupboards, a few questions for friends of mine who knew about certain aspects of the storyline. The rest I drew from my years researching other books and the investigation work.
10. Are the characters in your books based on any real life No and I have to stress this – NO. They are all completely fictional.
11. Since you have started writing crime novels have any known authors given you any advice I did years ago have long conversations with Peter Turnbull, who wrote the ‘P’ Division procedurals set in Glasgow, and he gave me a few pointers. While working on a local paper in Glasgow’s West End, I got to know the Late Jack Gerson, who wrote a fine series of crime novels but also practically invented the three-part TV thriller. He taught me a few things about pace. Until recently, after Blood City was written, they were the only two crime writers I’d ever met.
12. Do you see any of your characters personality in yourself and vice versa
I’m not as taciturn as Davie McCall. Well, maybe sometimes. He’s also pretty direct when he takes action, I tend to panic and run around flapping my hands. I suppose the one closest to me is Frank Donovan. I’ve written another book called ‘Queste’ in which the central character really is a mixture of a friend and me, with a few tweaks.
13. What do you see for the future of Davie McCall in your books
There’s a story arc of four books, although there is a self-contained plot in each one. It gets bloody. Will he continue beyond the four? Wait and see….
14. At the moment there are numerous authors setting their books in Glasgow, what do you think sets yours apart from the rest
I don’t believe there is a problem with any number of stories being set in Glasgow. If we were writing about London, or New York, this would never be an issue. Mine is not a police procedural, not that all Glasgow books are in that genre. I hope it carries more than a whiff of reality, although it IS a thriller so it’s not exactly the way things are. I need people to sympathise with certain characters so the city’s underbelly is slightly idealised. It’s tough, it’s gritty but not without humour, which I believe is important. I said the story could be set anywhere, which is true, but I’ve tried to make the city – my city – a vibrant backdrop to the action.
15. As a blossoming crime writer do you have words of advice you can share
Persevere. It’s a hard business and rejection is the name of the game. You’ll send your material out and it’ll come back or be ignored. But if you have faith in it, keep plugging away. And keep writing. Don’t just write one book and then push that alone. Write more. And if you can, write every day, even if it’s just a sentence or two. They say writing is rewriting and I think it’s true. You have to work at it, hone it, plane it till it’s as smooth as you can make it. You’ll be discouraged but you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself down and start all over again.
Blood on the Thistle Frightener:
The Glasgow Ice Cream Wars (with Lisa Brownlie)
No Final Solution
A Time to Kill
Deadlier Than the Male
Scotland’s Most Wanted
Glasgow’s Black Heart
Douglas Skelton is appearing with Quintin Jardine on October 25 at the Dundee Literary Festival and a Bloody Scotland in the Road event in November in Stirling along with Michael. J. Malone and others.
Amazon Author Page