PJ Brooke is actually two people, myself, Jane Brooke, and my husband, Philip James O’Brien….hence PJ Brooke. Phil and I have had a holiday home in southern Spain for a while now, initially a country cottage just outside a small town in the mountains, about thirty miles south of the city of Granada, and now a house in the oldest part of Granada itself, the Albayzin, where our detective hero also lives. These places shaped our story.
First, we started to learn about our small town. It was on the front line of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 which led to the Franco dictatorship which lasted until 1975. Left-wing guerrillas held out in the mountains around the town until the late 1940s. During the Civil War, and in the years afterwards, at least five thousand local people were shot and their bodies dumped in unmarked common graves. People whom we met still spoke about fathers, grandfathers, and brothers they had lost. We learned how much property had changed hands, and how those families who had supported the fascists had become, and still were rich. Underneath the façade, the town was full of ghosts.
Forward to 2003…the run-up to the second Gulf War. Our little town has a small Muslim community, who are progressive, educated and very welcoming. In the town, both Muslims and non-Muslims alike were campaigning to ‘Stop the War.’ Outside the town, there are some very isolated farmhouses. We saw one from afar , and thought… ’if you wanted to set up a training camp for potential terrorists, that one over there could be a good place to do it…’
And so our story started to evolve. Leila Mahfouz, a beautiful young Muslim woman, is found dead in a gorge outside the town. She is an Edinburgh University PhD student, researching the impacts of the Civil War on Diva, a fictionalised version of our town. The murder investigation by the less than competent local police force develops into an anti terrorist operation, and the story which Leila was researching takes on terrible significance for our young detective, half Scots, half Spanish Sub-Inspector Max Romero of the Granada Homicide Squad, who gets dragged into the Leila Mahfouz case because he was visiting his grandmother in his old home town, and is the only cop in the vicinity with good English.
We wanted to create a detective who is part of a Spanish family. Spanish families, particularly in smaller towns form a close knit unit, much more so than their equivalent in Britain. Sunday lunch with the grandparents is a sacred ritual. This has its advantages, but it also has a down-side particularly for our Max who is constantly phoned up by his beloved abuela, grandmother.
Phil and I work on our writing very much as a team… not quite creative genius/tea-maker fashion, but utilising complementary skills. Before early retirement packages gave us a blissful opportunity to write full time, Phil and I were both professional wordsmiths. Phil was a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Glasgow University working mainly on Latin America. I was a Local Government policy person and then management consultant. Both jobs depend on an ability to turn dull facts into stories that people want to read, and skill in using words for precision, impact and colour.
In practice, Phil and I sit around for hours developing plot lines, arguing whether a scene is credible, interesting, takes the plot in a worthwhile direction, and filling in all those small details on characters which helps bring them alive. Whilst in Glasgow we used to share a long Edwardian bath tub which we had found in a Glasgow flea market, and we sometimes stayed in the bath until it got cold arguing about plot and characters.
We love detective fiction, but can’t stand creaky or contrived plots, and hate it when a book starts wonderfully well, but ends in a muddle of incredible coincidences, disguises, identical twins and ….gosh…the key was in his pocket all along. For us, it’s acceptable for a character to fail to pass a message because he couldn’t get a mobile signal, but he has to be in a real-world location where reception is poor. We check. It’s like the film director who insists that all the props must be accurate, whether or not they appear on close-up. My Spanish teacher checks all the Spanish words and phrases we use. She is, as she says, ‘muy chuminosa’…very picky. So it’s hard work, but we hope it’s worth the extra effort.
Once we have an outline for the next five or so chapters which both of us are reasonably comfortable with , Phil goes into Creative Genius Mode, starts typing and stops thinking. If it’s really working, he can write about two or three thousand words per day. The text can sometimes go in directions we didn’t expect. New characters appear out of thin air, and the agreed plan can go out of the window. This is always interesting. And sometimes useful.
When Phil has a few pages of text down, it’s time for a nice cup of tea, and I start the demolition job on the new material. Actually , mostly it’s ok, but Phil tends to write stage directions which I turn into dialogue. I add description and round out characters. Sometimes I have to put a red line through whole chunks like the time when Phil attempted a sex scene. It was embarrassingly bad. Why is it that chaps cannot write well about sex? Perhaps there’s something profound here?
Sometimes I write entire chapters from scratch, but this carries the risk of pulling the plot in too many different directions at once, so it’s not advisable unless this is new material to fit between chapters which have already been written.
Though working as a team help enormously with accuracy and (we hope) credibility, we regularly check with friends and family whether the text is working for them. During the process of writing ’Blood Wedding’ this was particularly important, as it was our first novel, and it’s always difficult to really, truly believe the other people in your Creative Writing class…including the tutor…when they say it is of publishable quality .And so it came to pass….
My Aunt Margaret , now aged 81, is a wise and experienced reader of detective fiction, and it was with considerable trepidation we gave her the first compete draft of the novel for comment. Despite all efforts, we were still not entirely happy with the ending, but we were more than a wee bit taken aback when Margaret announced that ’she’d enjoyed it, but the wrong man dunnit. It was X, not Y.’
But we thought about it, and she was right. So we revised the entire manuscript wrote another two chapters, and it all worked so much better.
Moral of this story. Two’s company. But five heads are even better than two.
If you want to learn more about Blood Wedding, our website is www.pjbrooke.co.uk. It is the first in a series featuring Sub-Inspector Max Romero.
‘Blood Wedding’ was published in the UK on 1st December 2008 by Constable www.constablerobinson.com, and in the United States by Soho Press www.sohopress.com
P.S. When Jane was working she went on one of those ghastly management courses - assertiveness. I still haven’t recovered. Phil.
Read SHOTS' review