Murder Squad FAQs
If you want to ask questions of Murder Squad, please let us know what they are. We'll publish the replies here.
There are many writing groups and associations around, but most of them have such uninspired names. Where did this group come up with the name "Murder Squad" and how did you determine the criteria for members of the squad?
Stuart Pawson: I was invited to join the group by Margaret Murphy, whose brainchild it was. After accepting I discovered that the other six members were already in situ, so I guess I just sneaked in. We are all members of the Crime Writers' Association, so we knew each other and had a certain affinity. We all suggested a variety of names and at one point there was a danger that we might be called something like "seven unlawful-killing persons". We either held a ballot or gave Margaret executive power, I can't remember, but the result was Murder Squad and it has proved a good choice.
Cath Staincliffe: We wanted something memorable but it took some time to agree. We e-mailed lots of suggestions and then chose the one that appealed to the majority. It was definitely the best choice - the name itself makes people sit up and listen and when they receive e-mails from Murder Squad it's eye-catching to say the least.
John Baker: The name came out of an e-mail discussion between all of us; we came up with lots of uninspired titles before we settled on 'Murder Squad'. We were all Northern writers, high on reputation and generally very well reviewed, but we wanted to sell more books, and each of us felt that we could and should do something to raise our profile.
Margaret Murphy: It's hard to know exactly who came up with the title — this has been very much a team effort, and so many had been put forward over the weeks — but Murder Squad seemed to sum us up. By the way, we have a tag line: 'Crime fiction to Die for...' There were nineteen others proposed before we settled on that one - by democratic vote. As Cath says, it's a title that makes people take notice. I was in Cambridge with John Baker for a bookshop event in the summer. We decided to go into Waterstones to see if they would be interested in a copy of our brochure. We asked to speak to the manager. 'Who shall I say?' the assistant asked. 'Murder Squad.' Admittedly she sussed us out from the safe distance of the staircase before coming down, but if we had introduced ourselves as Margaret Murphy and John Baker, I've a feeling we might have been told politely to make an appointment. As for criteria, Stuart Pawson mentions that Murder Squad was my idea, which meant that I could choose the people I wanted. All are exceptionally good writers, all have been very well reviewed and they are as diverse as the crime genre. Beyond those criteria, I asked people I thought I could work with - hell, at that stage we weren't yet a team - I could afford to be selfish!
Writing is usually a lonely profession. Does it help to have a group of peers to share the frustrations and achievements? How do you support and encourage each other, or is this just a professional association?
John Baker: We are very much individual writers with different styles and different places within the genre, but we have identified an arena, i.e. Murder Squad, in which we can co-operate together. We support each other through talking and listening, through co-operating in the organization of Murder Squad, and we bounce ideas and suggestions around the group before coming to a concensus on our next move. We are not a professional organization (most of us are members of the Crime Writers Association for that reason) we are a loose group of people with (fairly widespread) geographical connections and we find that our ideas about writing are similar enough for us to co-operate around public discussions, and to enjoy each other's company and the occasional meal together.
Chaz Brenchley: Writing is still a lonely profession. Promotion has become a part of the profession of authorship, which is a very different thing. That's where Murder Squad comes in, though it's far from being just a professional association. We were all friends before we were squaddies, through the northern chapter of the Crime Writers' Association. We used to kvetch at quarterly lunches, now we can kvetch incessantly; Murder Squad and e-mail between them have changed our working lives entirely. But we still have to write alone, and no, we don't discuss work-in-progress beyond the odd pungent epithet and the e-quivalent of a mordant glare if anyone's fool enough to ask...
Stuart Pawson: Unfortunately we are rather far-flung, and don't meet as often as I would like to. I cherish the little time I spend talking to fellow writers. We communicate ceaselessly by email and probably couldn't have existed without it. In the writing business you quickly learn that setbacks are as readily available as pats on the back, so there is some consolation in knowing that others are having the same problems, if in varying degrees. More importantly, the success of a Squad member reminds you that the rewards are still there for the taking.
Cath Staincliffe: Being able to exchange news about the highs and lows is great and sharing the frustrations and achievements is good. To some degree I think the Northern Chapter of the Crime Writer's Association gives us that opportunity anyway but there's more regular contact with Murder Squad so it happens even more. When we hear about opportunities and initiatives that others in the group might be interested in we pass these on so we work as a network for each other.
Martin Edwards: I'm very much a part-time writer - in terms of hours worked - simply because I have a day job as a partner in a firm of solicitors. So it's tremendously motivating to me to link up with fellow crime writers. I'm constantly learning from friends who are also colleagues. Rivalry doesn't come into it, because we all face the same challenges and there's much consolation to be gained from sharing experiences. There's also the benefit of sharing ideas about ways of marketing one's books as well as the fun of sharing a platform with people who may be very different from each other in many ways, but are equally passionate about writing.
Ann Cleeves: We write very much as individuals. I can't think of any occasion when I discuss a work in progress. The support and encouragement comes afterwards, in discussion about relationships with publishers and sellers. If there's been a small audience at an event, there's someone to go to the pub with later. If a gig's been a great success we can celebrate together. I don't think of this just as a professional association. I like the squad members and admire their work.
Margaret Murphy: Writing is as lonely as you choose to make it. Sure, you have to sit down on your own to write, and because you work from home, it can be isolating, but you don't have to lock yourself away for the rest of the time. In fact, I think that writers must stay in touch with people if they want to stay in touch with their subject matter. My research means that I am constantly meeting people I would never have met when I was teaching full time, and the advantage of being a writer is that you can ask lots of questions without causing offence. This said, it is always helpful to talk to other writers - as in any profession - I feel the Squad really understand the frustrations and the pressures, and it's good to let off steam when you're going through a sticky patch, knowing it will go no further. We read each others work, and will recommend the books of Squad members to the public. It's really nice to hear someone whose opinion you value, extolling the virtues of your novels to an interested audience.
Does each writer have a specialization area, especially when it comes to discussing crime writing, and how formal are your gigs?
We can offer experience in different areas when it comes to events, workshops and residencies. Ann has worked a lot with libraries and prisons, and we have had a number of bookings through her library contacts. Martin is experienced in editing short story anthologies, and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of crime fiction. John has run writing workshops and master-classes for many years and also had the skills to design our website, Margaret has experience of work within education, teaching dyslexic students, as well as tutoring creative writing students for the Open College of the Arts. Cath has worked extensively with groups new to writing, Chaz is writer in residence for Newcastle University, and has lots of experience encouraging young writers to develop their skills. Stuart's dry wit and deadpan reading style has proved popular at readings, conferences and after dinner speeches. Need we go on?
Cath Staincliffe: The gigs have a definite structure but they are tailored to the event. Our most formal would be where we present a rehearsed collage of readings linked by narrators and designed to show off the range of our writing, that type of performance works well at gatherings with a larger audience. Smaller events might see two or three member read excerpts and then talk with each other and the audience about the process of writing or influences on our work, answer questions and let the discussion develop according to the interests of people attending. As a group we cover a number of sub-genres; psychological thrillers, police procedurals, private eye stories so sometimes that will dictate who talks about what. With my Sal Kilkenny series I love the challenge of working within the private eye tradition but also making my own mark on it; bringing my individual style and my concerns to the genre. I'm particularly interested in reflecting contemporary life and raising questions about how we live and a crime story is a brilliant vehicle for exploring that. Though ultimately all the stories are about Sal, her life, home and work and her reactions to the cases she investigates.
Chaz Brenchley: If I have a speciality within the Squad, I guess it's playing devil's advocate, taking an extreme position so that we can bounce an argument about. I think those are the gigs that work best, they're certainly the ones I most enjoy. Formal structures are easier to work with, but spontaneity is more rewarding. It is of course true that spontaneity is best prepared well in advance, but that's a Squad secret...
Martin Edwards: The gigs aren't formal. In fact, it's fun to try out different ways of presenting ourselves to different audiences. It's also nice to mix and match sessions with different members of the Squad. This helps to keep our gigs fresh, entertaining us as well as the audience. The 'collage' of readings we have put together works very well and shows the diversity of our work, but 'conversation' style events involving perhaps only two or three members are, to me, at least as enjoyable because they help project the different personalities and enthusiasms of those involved.
As a group of writers in the same genre, do you find that combining your efforts and talents helps you market your writing, and what kind of marketing initiatives do you have as a group?
Cath Staincliffe: Dead right we've improved our marketing! And this was the main impetus behind our formation. A well produced brochure, our website and e-mail newsetter are the main initiatives we've developed so far and we're still in our first year. And the fact that there are seven of us means we all have particular contacts and networks who we can interest. In our first 6 months we got 50 bookings for appearances in bookshops, at literary festivals, for reader's groups and writing events, so we knew we were onto a winner. It's still early as far as assessing the effect on sales but it can only be positive. There's been keen interest from the press and media too with people impressed at our efforts to market and promote our work as a group.
Ann Cleeves: We do what we're asked to - creative writing workshops, readings in bookshops, in schools and in work places, appearances at festivals. My murder mystery script, devised with a friendly crime scene examiner, came as a response to a librarian who wanted to attract younger people and families into her building. It's great fun, especially when High School kids do the acting. The Murder Squad certainly seems to be effective in helping us become more widely known outside our geographical area. It's hard to tell how that will feed through into sales.
Margaret Murphy: Time will tell if our sales have been positively affected by our association. We do know that libraries have bought in multiple copies of our books, and have actively promoted our work with their reading public. We also know that bookstores have asked us to sign copies (and a signed book is a sold book!) of our titles. Our profile is certainly higher after six months as a group than we had achieved as individuals over a period of years. Apart from the strategies Cath has already mentioned, we provide posters and fliers to organisers of events, where they request it, and our website, which is updated weekly, has a list of all our gigs.
John Baker: This is difficult to answer because we don't have numbers. Our aim is and always has been to raise our profiles and that is why we come together and why we provide forums in which our work can be discussed. We hope that the spin-offs will make us rich and famous, but none of us has advertized for a housekeeper yet.
What kind of advice do you give to aspirant crime writers?
John Baker: Develop a taste for porridge. Do your own thing. Don't listen to the advice of other writers.
Chaz Brenchley: The best general advice a would-be writer can listen to is never to listen to general advice, except in the presentation of work to agent or publisher. Anyone propounding rules or principles that are supposed to apply to everyone is a charlatan. Every writer is unique, or ought to be, and so your problems are unique. If you can find a mentor, someone who'll work over your manuscript with you one-to-one, then you've found a treasure - so long as you remember that even a guru can be wrong.
Stuart Pawson: Advice to aspiring crime writers? Rob a bank. This will give you first-hand experience and lots of free time. Otherwise, stop aspiring and get typing.
Martin Edwards: The two things an aspirant writer needs are determination to keep on writing, whatever the setbacks - and an ability to overlook well-meant advice that conflicts with what they truly believe is right for their own writing career.
Cath Staincliffe: Enjoy. And don't give up the day job - yet!
Ann Cleeves: Finish the book. Having brilliant ideas isn't enough.
Margaret Murphy: It's difficult to give general advice, because writers by nature are so individualistic. Ask the Squad how they write and some will tell you that they compose directly onto the word processor, I can't. I have to do a hand written first draft, chapter by chapter, no matter how rough it may be, before I can commit anything to the computer. Some of us write early in the morning, others are night owls. Some plan meticulously, while others believe in the 'organic principle'. I will say - and it's a truism - you learn about writing by writing. It's no good saying how you would write, but you just don't have the time. If you care enough about it, you'll make the time. Read - a lot - and eclectically. As for the question of whether or not to take advice. I think Kipling said it more eloquently than I could: 'If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you But make allowance for their doubting, too...' And that's the paradox.