Crime reporter turned crime writer
David Mark spent 15 years as a journalist, specialising in crime reporting on a variety of regional newspapers. His experiences led to his creation of DS Aector McAvoy and critically-acclaimed breakthrough novel Dark Winter.
Posted on March 4, 2015 in Guest Author
I’m writing this in what used to be my guest bedroom. It’s now an office, of sorts, though “confinement cell” may be nearer the mark. It’s where I spend most of my time, and wish to goodness it locked from the inside. It has a computer and a million books. It has a snazzy digital radio and old Spectator and Punch cartoons on the wall.
The dustbin contains an empty bottle of Jura whisky and about 150 pages of a manuscript that didn’t print properly and has a big runway of missing type down the centre. Nobody else is home, except for the dogs, and they are sleeping off a breakfast of salmon and Hob-Nobs. I’m wearing a pair of jogging trousers, a dressing gown and biscuit crumbs.
I’m telling you this not because I think you will be even vaguely interested in where I write, but because it’s a bit different to the life I used to lead. This time ten years ago, I would probably have been on my way to the pub.
I’d have spent the morning talking to coppers, councillors, criminals and busy-bodies. Chances are, I’d have been wearing a battered suit and soggy shoes: soaked through from an hour spent sheltering in a doorway and writing up the next day’s splash in a shorthand I wouldn’t be able to read back when dictating it to a copy-taker.
I was a journalist, you see. And if I hadn’t been one, I wouldn’t now be a writer, or able to afford Hob-Nobs…
I started out on my local newspaper in Carlisle when I was 17. I had no right to get the job. They were after graduates, or at the very least, people with A-levels. I didn’t have anything.
I just knew how to string a sentence together and didn’t mind looking and sounding thick. It can be quite the eye-opening and bowel-loosening experience, being dumped in a busy newsroom surrounded by proper grown-ups and being told to turn a press release about new cisterns being fitting in council houses, into “something we can stick on page 5”. But it bloody focuses the mind.
I learned to be a reporter from older, wiser and scarier people who loomed over me, pointed at my computer screen and said things like “take that out, it’s shite” or “paragraph three has too many adjectives”.
I learned from people three or four times my age and who had been there when Fleet Street mattered.
I was taught how to write a news story with the most interesting bit at the top and the least interesting bit at the bottom, to make life easier for sub-editors who couldn’t be bothered to read the whole thing and needed to cut it to fit the page.
I learned how to ask a question without upsetting the interviewee so much they would never speak to you again. I learned how to spot a nutter, and to avoid opening envelopes written in green felt-tip pen.
I learned that you should never, ever, eat a cheese sandwich while sitting on the press bench at Carlisle Magistrate’s Court and listening to the details of a mugging. In essence, I learned to be a local news reporter.
I learned a bit more when I headed South. Not London, of course. London was big and scary and full of people whose socks matched and who couldn’t pronounce vowels properly. No, I thought Nottingham was far enough so headed to the local paper there. It was a culture shock. We’d had big news stories in Cumbria, sure, but it was odd, at 19, to find myself in a city where people occasionally shot each other.
I didn’t like it very much. I had come from a paper where people saw me as a decent writer with loads of local knowledge, to somebody whose sentences were too flowery and who didn’t know one side of the city from the other. I didn’t last long, and headed to the Grimsby Telegraph inside a year.
The two years in Grimsby were my introduction to the East Coast. They, in turn, led me to my seven years at the Yorkshire Post, based in a grotty little regional office just over the Humber, in the city of Hull. Ah, Hull. Somebody should set a book there.
It’s an odd thing, being a reporter. You work shifts, for a start. Some days you’re in an empty office by 6am. Other days you’re down to cover Crown Court and can confidently expect a nice comfortable day of dozing, waiting for juries to come back, and in my case, writing a novel in my notebook.
Sometimes you’re scheduled to listen to the local news bulletins every half hour in case you’ve missed something. Believe me when I say that there is no feeling like driving home listening to the radio and hearing that you’ve missed a riot or a plane crash or the chief executive of the city council being frogmarched from the Guildhall.
If you’re “on calls”, you have the fun of ringing the police and fire service every hour and asking them if anything interesting is going on. If there’s been a crash and you’re short of news, you find yourself genuinely hoping it’s a bad one. If there’s been a killing, you find yourself ringing the newsdesk and saying things like “there’s been a brilliant murder”.
You find yourself nodding at people in the pub and trying to place their face, then remembering that you saw them get sent down for GBH six months ago. But far worse are the days when there’s no news. Like, literally no news. I would never defend the vile chequebook fiends from the red-tops who hacked into people’s phones or went through their emails, but the panic of having nothing interesting to tell your boss can lead you to pretty exotic flights of imagination.
When you’re staring at a blank page and your story about the latest shenanigans at the city council still hasn’t got a quote from anybody interesting, it takes a lot of restraint not start typing the words “..a source said …” and dropping in whatever the hell you like.
It takes its toll. After a while, you start to think that everybody is as cynical and jaded and pessimistic as you are becoming. If you’re not careful, you start writing crime novels in a desperate bid to find another way to pay the bills …
These days I get to sit in my office eating biscuits and making things up. Actually, put like that, perhaps life hasn’t changed that much after all.