Lynne Patrick in conversation with Trevor Wood
He's a successful playwright who has also worked as a journalist and spin-doctor for the City Council. Prior to that he served in the Royal Navy for 16 years joining, presciently, as a Writer.
Trevor holds an MA in Creative Writing (Crime Fiction) from UEA.His first novel, The Man on the Street, which is set in his home city, was published by Quercus 19 March 2020, winning the
The CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger 2020
It’s been a funny old year, for writers as well as everyone else, though publishing seems to have survived better than many enterprises as many people have rediscovered the joy of reading. Now, if all goes according to plan, we can look forward to the world slowly going back to something approaching normal.
For Trevor Wood, that means a brand-new book. His debut novel, The Man on the Street, won the CWA’s New Blood Dagger last year, and has just been longlisted for the prestigious Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award, alongside veteran crime writers like Val McDermid and Mark Billingham. And with the follow-up, One Way Street, published this month, it’s proving a busy time for him. All the same, he took time out to talk to Mystery People about his career so far as a crime novelist.
Lynne: Many thanks for taking this on, Trevor. I’m well aware how all the promotion around a new book eats into writing time. The world has been a very different place for the past year or so. But writing is a pretty solitary occupation, so maybe the lockdowns and so on have been less disruptive for writers than for most people. How have all the various restrictions affected you?
Trevor: I think that’s true. I’ve been working from home for about twenty years now so my day-to-day life has hardly changed at all, aside from having my wife working in the house as well and insisting on us eating proper lunches together. The biggest disruption was losing all the live events I had set up, including the book launch for The Man on the Street, which was cancelled on the day it was supposed to take place, just before the start of the first lockdown. On the plus side, I’ve done a ton of virtual Zoom events which have probably reached more people than I would have done in real life.
Lynne: Back to basics: what inspires you to write? Where does the first seed of a new story come from?
Trevor: Most of my ideas spark from one small idea. It can be anything: a sudden thought, a newspaper story, a what if question sometimes. The Man on the Street was as simple as that: What if a homeless man witnesses a murder?
Lynne: Do you actually enjoy the process of writing – or are you the kind of writer for whom getting the words down is agony, but who loves having written?
Trevor: I do enjoy it. Some days it’s easier than others obviously, but I’m very much a ‘get something down’ kind of writer. I try to treat it like any other job; I sit down around 9am and work till around five. I don’t set a word count; I’d rather have five hundred good ones than a couple of thousand dull ones. Having said that, I probably like editing the most. I normally go through the previous day’s work before I start on a new chapter. And I’m not a planner, so I’m constantly editing earlier bits of the story to make sure everything hangs together.
Lynne: As well as novels – two currently in print and a third in progress – my own research reveals that you also write plays, one of which, Maggie’s End, I saw at my local theatre a few years ago. Do the two forms require different skills? Which do you find easier? Or more enjoyable?Trevor: Massively different I think. For a start, plays are much shorter – probably only around 25000 words, whereas crime novels hover around 90k. And I co-wrote all the plays, so I only had to write half of them! The only thing that really carries over is dialogue, since that’s pretty much all you write for a play. When I decided to try and write my first crime novel I did a couple of very useful writing courses in Newcastle, and then went even further and signed up for the first Crime Writing MA at the University of East Anglia which was where The Man on the Street was developed. It was a brilliant course; out of eleven writers, five have now been published, including Harriet Tyce and Kate Simants. Never say never, but I don’t think I’ll return to playwriting. I do miss the buzz of sitting in an audience watching the first night of a new play; that’s impossible to replicate. But some of the earlier ones will be back on when the theatres finally re-open, so that will have to do for now.
Lynne: Who do you write for? Is there a reader in your mind when you sit down to write a novel or a play?
Trevor: Not for the crime novels but definitely for the plays. Most theatre tickets are bought by women and theatre audiences are generally older than for cinema say, so our plays were always written primarily for older women, with very strong female characters. I once sat in the audience at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle for a performance of Dirty Dusting and I was the only man you could see. The woman sitting next to me tapped me on the arm at the start and said, ‘You’re very brave coming to see this!’
Lynne: I missed Dirty Dusting – I was on holiday when it was on at the local theatre. But I know what it’s about, and I know what that woman meant! Did you tell her why you were there?
Trevor: No, I just accepted the compliment. My picture was in the programme she was holding at the time so I thought she might eventually work it out, but she never did.
Lynne: OK, let’s get back to the novels! How do you set about writing? How much planning is involved before you can begin? Is there a detailed outline, with timelines and spider charts and character sketches to refer to? Or is it an organic process, with one thing leading to the next as you go along?
Lynne: A homeless person is an unusual protagonist to say the least, and not easy to research. When Mark Billingham embarked on a novel set among rough sleepers, he went to live with them for a while. How did you go about collecting background for Jimmy’s way of life for The Man on the Street?
Trevor: It’s thought that around ten per cent of the homeless population are ex-servicemen, so that was my starting point. I was in the Royal Navy for sixteen years so I understand what that’s like, and obviously I know a lot of other ex-servicemen. One of the earliest things that helped me start was a fantastic map of Newcastle, drawn by an artist and based entirely on conversations with the homeless community. That gave me a lot of ideas about things I could include in the book. But I realised I needed more than that, and also felt that I shouldn’t just talk the talk, so I started volunteering at the People’s Kitchen, a wonderful Newcastle-based charity that feeds around two hundred homeless people every day of the week, as well as providing clothing and other essentials. I’m still working there now, three years later, every Tuesday afternoon, as one of the chefs. I find it hugely rewarding, incredibly tiring but also very useful.
Lynne: You clearly know Newcastle very well indeed, and in far more detail than the average man in the street, as opposed to on the street. How much research did you have to do to being those less obvious locations to such vivid life?
Trevor: Though I’m not from Newcastle I’ve lived very close to the city centre for nearly thirty years and have loved every second of it. So I kind of saw the book as a love letter to the city that’s always treated me as one of its own. Despite that, when I was researching The Man on the Street I wandered around with a camera, taking in areas I thought I would want to include, taking lots of pictures to make sure I wasn’t missing anything and to get the details right. I really wanted the city to be another character in the book.
Lynne: It was certainly that. I’ve only been there twice, and after reading your book I felt I could find my way around.When you wrote The Man on the Street, was it intended as the first in a series? Or was the idea of a follow-on something that came later?Trevor: No, it was written as a standalone. It was only when it was out on submission that it became obvious that publishers felt it should be a series. I was reluctant initially as I really want if to feel authentic and I didn’t want my homeless protagonist tripping over bodies as if he lived in Midsomer, but I eventually saw a way to make it into a trilogy which is where we’re heading now.
Lynne: Publishers do love a series. The Man on the Street was your first novel. It’s often said that the second book is much harder to write than the first. Was that your experience? Why do you think that was?
Trevor: I think it is slightly easier when it’s a series, as you already have a group of characters that you know well. (In the version of The Man on the Street that went out on submission I’d killed off one of the main characters but when I realised it was going to be a series I saved his life in the final edit so I could have him for future books!) The main problem with the second book in a series is that you’re writing for two different audiences, those who’ve read the first one and those who haven’t, so you have to work out how to get the balance right, reminding readers of the really significant events from book one, but without giving away any spoilers.
Lynne: A book, especially a first book, is a very special thing. When you held your first copy, did it feel familiar – or completely different from the manuscript you initially sent out?
Trevor: It was hugely different from the original manuscript. While it was on submission one editor wanted me to do a significant rewrite to help him convince the rest of the acquisitions team. I did the rewrite, but he still couldn’t get it through acquisitions. Fortunately the new version went out to other editors – and found its way to the brilliant Jane Wood at Quercus, who snapped it up.
Lynne: Without giving away any spoilers, can you tell us a little about your new novel, One Way Street? Why did you decide to revisit Jimmy’s world?
Trevor: Of course. In One Way Street, a series of bizarre drug-related deaths among runaway teenagers has set the North East’s homeless community on edge, and when one of Jimmy’s few close friends is caught up in the carnage he’s compelled to try and find out what’s going on. All of the main characters from The Man on the Street make an appearance, including a couple that you might not have expected to see again – I certainly didn’t; it was a real surprise when they suddenly turned up! That’s what happens when you don’t plan!
Lynne: Finally – are you planning more adventures for Jimmy? It would be good to know we haven’t seen the last of him.
Trevor: Yes, the last book in the trilogy, Dead End Street is almost finished. I’m working on the final edits at the moment. It’s scheduled to be released in early 2022 but in the current climate it’s hard to be certain about anything.
Lynne: Thank you, Trevor, for taking the time to answer my questions. Fingers crossed for huge success with One Way Street. I look forward to reading it.
The Man on the Street is published by Quercus in paperback and hardcover, also available in e-book and audio.
One Way Street is published 10 June 2021 in hardback, e-book and audio.
To read a review, click on the title.
The paperback edition is scheduled for the autumn.
Theatre lovers may also want to look out for Trevor’s plays, written in partnership with Ed Waugh:
Son of Samurai
Good to Firm
Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives in Oxfordshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.