Today we will be delving into the dark underbelly of crime writing with a pro: Nigel Shinner.
That's his real name and not a pen name. He's a crime/conspiracy thriller writer, and hase been dabbling in scripts and screenplays recently.
He's been writing, off and on, for nearly thirty years, but writing seriously for the last eight. In the last seven years, he's written eight books, publishing six of them via KDP. They are all available as ebooks or paperbacks.
-Nigel, what first attracted you to the genre?
I write crime because I'm fascinated by it. I read a lot of true crime, organised crime, and serial killer books as a teenager, and wanted to get inside the head of the criminals. I have no desire to be a criminal, but there used to be something almost glamorous about criminals and gangsters in books and the movies, especially back in the day. The reality of true criminals is somewhat different, and that's what I try to achieve; gritty, hard-hitting crimes committed by evil, realistic people.
-Who were your favourite authors at the time?
I started reading horror stories; James Herbert and Stephen King, mostly. Herbert told very vivid stories in a simple, easy to comprehend way, while King would build characters from birth to their dying breath and everything in between, within a single chapter. But lately, I read only crime and espionage fiction. John Grisham is firm favourite. You don't need a law degree to understand his books but you feel like you earned one afterwards. Peter James is another of my go-to authors. He writes the Roy Grace series of crime thrillers and has had several of his works adapted for stage and TV. His style is simple but the stories are complex. That's the gift, I believe, of great writing: telling complex stories in a simple way, is far better than telling a simple story in a complex way.
-Name three of your favourite books, and why they are your top picks.
That's tricky, but I'll give it a go.
November Road by Lou Burney: Set in the 60s, a gangster finds himself unwittingly involved in the Kennedy assassination, and has to go on the run from members of his own gang trying to tie up loose ends. He travels with a mother and her two daughters for cover, and finds himself becoming too involved, put them all at risk. It a wonderfully told story, capturing the nuance of the era, while putting a new spin on the Kennedy Conspiracy Theory.
Needful Things by Stephen King: When a new store opens in a small town, the owner seems to have only the very rarest of items. Many of these items are the lifelong desires of some individuals from the small, tight-knit community, and they will do anything to attain them. What's the price? Merely a favour. It's an epic tale of how a town is manipulated to turn on each other for the price of their desires. It's vintage King.
Pig Island by Mo Hayder: If you like horror and/or crime, this is both. An investigative journalist, renowned for debunking supernatural events, is requested to research a small island community after stories of satanic activity, demonic entities, and cult behaviour. What he discovers is truly grim and horrific, with a twist. The late Mo Hayder wrote compelling tales with such skill, she made even the heavyweight household names seem average.
-Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I'm a bit of both.
I work to a loose plot. I know my start and my projected endpoint, but the middle is written on the fly. Even the endings are malleable, keeping me wondering how the story will end. If I can't predict the ending, neither can the reader.
-How difficult is it to come up with a crime that has to be solved?
All crimes should be solvable, but not too easy to solve. You need to keep enough hidden to create suspense, but reveal enough to illicit intrigue. There's a fine line between curious ambiguity and being vague, and cautious reveals and total spoilers. I try to keep it simple yet mysterious.
-What is your idea of happiness?
I am happiest when I'm with my children (four) and my partner, usually walking on a beach near my hometown. I don't need to travel to be happy. Happiness should be wherever you are and who you are with. Everything else is a bonus.
-What are your ideal writing conditions?
I generally write early morning or late evening in my writing corner. As long as I'm not distracted by people or noise or the Internet, I can write anywhere. I've even written on a train, playing ambient music to drown out the commuter chatter. The ideal writing conditions is driven by the momentum of the story and the author's desire to write it; the location is secondary.
-Where or when do you feel most inspired?
I have most of my ideas when I'm walking on the beach or driving in my car, alone. But inspiration can come from any source, regardless of how small or insignificant. I read newspapers for local crime stories and work out my own back-story, asking questions. Why did the man deal drugs? How did he become so desperate? What went wrong in his life for crime to become an option? Ask yourself the right questions, and a winning plot isn't too far away.
-What do you appreciate most in your friends?
How supportive and receptive they are. My friends are interested in the process and the ideas, and always ask "What's next?" The support network an author has is vital to their goals. You don't need everyone to be on board with your journey, but you do need them to want the best for you. Also, you don't want a bunch of 'Yes' people in your corner. An author needs the push-back in order to grow.
-Where would you like to live?
Apart from a mansion with a pool and cinema, you mean? Anywhere near to the sea in my beloved Pembrokeshire would do. I don't ask for much from life, just enough money to pay the bills and to have my family nearby. There is a cottage, almost on the beach, near my favourite vista; if money was no object, I'd buy it.
-Who are your greatest influences?
I love the work of great directors, and how they interpret a writer's work: Spielberg, Scorcese, Fincher etc. My favourite film is a cliché but it is one of the greatest films ever made: The Shawshank Redemption. The original story is a novella by Stephen King, but Frank Darabont turns it into a masterpiece: emotive and beautiful while being harsh and oppressive at the same time. The reason why I write is because I'm a frustrated film director without a production budget or actors.
-If there was one recommendation you could give to authors starting out, what would it be?
Read. Read everything and anything. If you aren't writing, you should be reading. Every author's question can be answered in a book; you just have to find the right book. If you need an example of how to write a scene, you'll find it in a book. If you need a demonstration of how dialogue should flow, you'll find it in a book. I've given talks at writer's group and I always say an author should have read at least a hundred books before they attempt to write one. My mantra is as follows:
Read lots. Write lots. Repeat until successful.
-What are the characteristics you believe make a great crime story?
Realism. Criminals are bold and brutal; they don't care for opinions or feelings of the general public. If they want your stuff, they're going to take it. If they want your life, they're going to take it. You have to write characters who have no conscience or moral compass and, unfortunately, these people exist and live everywhere. Pair an evil antagonist with an empathetic protagonist and you have the yin and yang of a great crime story.
-What is the title of your latest story?
It's based in my hometown of Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire. The locals (me included) tend to call it just Milford, dropping the Haven. The title is play on Haven being a safe place, but in my books, there are no safe places.
-Can you give us a synopsis of it?
The story follows the main protagonist over the majority of his life; from his 16th birthday to his 50th. His life is a chaotic blend of unrequited love, parental neglect, and a lack of direction, wrapped around his relationships with a bunch of school friends, some of which end up murdered. The story kicks off with three bodies being discovered in the present, then the story slides back into the 80s, following the group as they finish school, ejected into adulthood, suddenly realising how unprepared they are. The murders are investigated in present day chapters while the story unfolds in the various decades, retrospectively, with the victims being revealed individually as the story moves toward the present. It was a bold undertaking and tested my writing skills and attention to detail.
-What sparked the underlying theme?
Some friends were reminiscing about the period after we left school, and I got to thinking about potential murder stories and life in a small town.
-Are you working on anything else at the moment, or have the germ of an idea for another story you’d like to titillate your audience with?
I've already written another called, Tear Down the Bridges, which is a sequel to my most successful book, Blood on Blue Stone. I'm hoping to release it for the summer. I'm also currently writing a crime thriller titled, I Am No One. Most of my crimes stories are viewed from the victim's or the criminal's point of view, but I Am No One is about an under pressure cop who has been forced to interview a potential witness who reveals a plot to a major drug heist, but, as the details are exposed, people start dying.
Would you like to follow Nigel on social media? His links are the following:-
nshinner_author on Instagram.
If you liked this interview, you'll love the previous one we did with Laurie Campbell!