Interview with Stevyn Colgan
Today I'm delighted to introduce to Stevyn Colgan, author, QI Elf and jam maker extraordinaire! Stevyn has now funded and published several books with Unbound and is always happy to offer his support and advice to us newbies. Although his latest book, A Murder to Die For is now fully funded, you can still pledge for rewards and get your name in the back of book. I can't wait to receive my copy! 1) To start with, could you introduce yourself and tell us about your current project?
Hello! I’m Stevyn Colgan. I’m a beardy overweight Cornishman in his mid-50s with a silly name and a love of tea. I’m one of the ‘elves’ that research and write the BBC TV series ‘QI’ and its sister show for Radio 4, ‘The Museum of Curiosity’. But when I’m not doing that I give talks, paint pictures and write books – seven in print to date.
My most recent project is a comic novel due out in 2017 called ‘A Murder To Die For’. It’s a murder mystery that takes place during a murder mystery festival where everyone – victim, witnesses and probably the murderer - are all dressed as the same fictional lady detective. The fun starts when the police have to try to make sense of it all while coping with 800 crime fiction fans who all think that they can solve the murder too. I’ve loved writing it.
2) Would you mind sharing an excerpt with us, or a favourite quote?
It was so difficult to pick an excerpt that didn’t contain any spoilers! But here you go! (Oh, the fictional detective whose adventures are celebrated at the festival is called Millicent Cutter so the fans call themselves ‘Millies’.)
Outside, the pretty little High Street was awash with spring warmth. Red kites soared high above in a Wedgewood sky. Flies and wasps buzzed busily by. Miss Cutter clones of all shapes and sizes, ethnicities and ages trotted between venues for talks and screenings or followed tour guides around in little fan club groups. Idly, Shunter wondered what the collective noun would be for a group of lady detectives. A sleuth perhaps. Or a murder? He eventually settled upon a gaggle because they reminded him of geese as they waddled about, selfie sticks raised high in the air like long necks as they photographed themselves at locations they recognised from the books.
Outside Mrs Scattergood’s Olde Fashioned Sweete Shoppe, the site of Smitheram’s Grocery in The Dead Do Not Rise, he spotted a brace of bewildered looking police officers and he felt some genuine sympathy for them. They would have been bussed in from Bowcester especially for the event - the village was too small and too law-abiding to warrant its own bobby - and they would undoubtedly be pressed men. No young cop would voluntarily give up the excitement of everyday police work for a weekend of lost property enquiries and being treated as a glorified information bureau by a village full of middle-aged ladies. And what young coppers they were he noted. Shunter remembered an old saying that went something like, ‘You know that you’re getting old when the policemen start to look young’. These two looked like children who’d been in the dressing-up box and Shunter suddenly felt very old indeed. He caught sight of himself reflected in the shop window and frowned. His hair had turned grey in his thirties and his waist had got lost somewhere in his forties. And the frown was doing him no favours; he looked like an old bulldog whose bone had been confiscated. Shunter had the kind of face that you only got if you’d seen the very worst of humanity and, even when relaxed, it remained jowly and sombre-looking although the effect was softened by the laughter lines around his eyes. Also mirrored in the glass were the many Millies around and behind him and Shunter suddenly realised that, dressed in nondescript dark trousers and a short-sleeved polo shirt, he was the person who stood out from the crowd.
3) What inspired you to write this story?
It grew out of several things really. The first is that I used to be a police officer in London and I have been involved in real life homicide investigations so there was useful knowledge I wanted to use. Secondly I’m a big murder mystery fan. But here’s the thing … I am rubbish at ‘Cluedo’ – all of my family beat me at it – and Mrs C is invariably much better than me at guessing whodunit when we watch a ‘Murder She Wrote’! It’s been a source of constant amusement to my nearest and dearest for years. And no amount of me pointing out that (a) murder mystery is nonsense and follows a set or rules and tropes, and (b) real-life homicide investigation doesn’t have any rules or predictability, has done me no good at all! Then one day I was asked by a friend to write a ’10 things that happen in crime fiction that don’t happen in real life’ feature, and it suddenly struck me that there was a vein of comedy to be tapped by throwing the two cultures at each other; the procedurally driven, logical modern police investigation method versus romanticised, overly complex and often quite silly murder mystery investigation. ‘Midsomer Murders’ almost crosses that line – my favourite ever episode is the one where a man is murdered by being pegged out on his croquet lawn and bludgeoned to death by his one wine collection, hurled at him by his disabled wife using a replica Roman trebuchet - Genius! I just took it one step further into a full-blown comedy novel.
4) You always seem to have a lot of projects on the go – what else are you working on just
I start work on the new series of ‘QI’ in early December. That’s a full-time job through to April. But I still get time to work on various writing projects. I use the first half of the year to gather material and research for the next book and then, once the new ‘QI’ series has been recorded, I switch into full-time book writing mode. A book takes me around six months to pull together. Currently, I have another completed novel to finish editing and three other novels in various stages of completion (I also have a back catalogue of 17 unpublished novels written between 1982 and 2012 that I’d like to re-visit and bring up to speed. The older they are the worse they get of course! They track the progress of me learning to write over 30 years. I’m also working on a book about art. And I’m still appearing at various live events, conventions, literary festivals and podcasts.
5) A Murder to Die For is a comedy murder mystery – what draws you to these two genres? Why do you think they work well together?
That’s an interesting question! Comedy is one of my great loves and farce in particular. I grew up reading P G Wodehouse, Richard Gordon, Tom Sharpe, David Nobbs, George MacDonald Fraser and such like. And all of my favourite comedy films and TV shows have elements of farce, like the pods and Stonehenge scenes in ‘This is Spinal Tap’ or the wonderful Peter Sellers trying to get into the castle in ‘The Pink Panther Strikes Again’. Two of my greatest heroes and inspirations are Laurel and Hardy and I watch their films over and over again. And ‘Fawlty Towers’ is almost pure farce from start to finish.
As for murder mystery, that was my dad’s fault. He was a homicide detective and he loved reading Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers and he knew Daphne Du Maurier personally. He was always telling me and my brothers about some element in the books that ‘would never happen like that in real life!’ Maybe a memory of that triggered ‘A Murder To Die For’ too? All I do know is that the books were in the house so I read them and loved them. It was a love later cemented by those great 1970s film adaptations starring the fantastic Peter Ustinov as Poirot. Plus I always loved the Basil Rathbone ‘Sherlock Holmes’ films. As for whether the two genres work well together … we’ll see what the readers say! I don’t think it’s been done too often. Comedy thrillers yes but there aren’t a lot of comedy murder mysteries. ‘Jonathan Creek’ maybe? ‘Monk’ and ‘Columbo’ have some great humour in them too.
Incidentally, my dad died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the stupidly young age of 51. At the time that he died, he was part-way into writing his first novel. And it was a murder mystery. This year marks the 25th anniversary of his death and I thought it might be nice to incorporate some of his unfinished novel into my first murder mystery. So I have! His prose is used whenever one of my characters reads from a Millicent Cutter book. He’ll be in print at last – and I don’t have to pay him royalties!
Dad would have laughed at that.
6) Who/what is your writing inspiration?
I’ve mentioned many of my favourite writers already. To the list I’d add Stella Gibbons, Jasper Fforde, Douglas Adam, John Mortimer, Sue Townsend, John Niven, Harry Harrison … there are just so many. Oddly though, my biggest inspiration probably comes from the screenplays of classic British comedies made mostly in the 1950s. I can watch films like ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’, ‘The Naked Truth’, ‘School for Scoundrels’ and ‘Two Way Stretch’ one after the other and never tire of them. There’s great scripting, some fabulous slapstick and glorious performances from people like Peter Sellers, Terry-Thomas, Ian Carmichael, Liz Fraser, Dennis Price, Alastair Sim, Joyce Grenfell … They all take place in a nicer reality than the one we currently live in where politeness counts, nothing is too nasty and the crooks – even if they are the people we’re rooting for – never quite get away with it. I’ve tried to bring some that across into my writing, along with a love of the language too. I delight in writing phrases like ‘The bus was fragrant with lavender and anticipation’. And, as much as I love a good swear, I only use the stronger words when they will get the maximum laugh. Over-use it and the impact is gone. Think back to Python’s ‘Life of Brian’. Six F***s in the whole film and all perfectly timed!
7) What does your typical day look like?
I’m pretty disciplined. Most freelancers are! I go into my office at 9am and work through to 11am where I have a 20 minute break. Then I work through to 1pm where I have an hour for lunch. The afternoon is a repeat of the morning with a break at 4pm for tea and biscuits. Then I work through to 6pm before leaving the office and shutting the door, knowing that I’ve put in a six to seven hour working day. I might doodle in a sketchpad or make notes in the evening while watching TV but the working day is over. I take the weekends off, mostly.
That’s an ideal week, mind you. Sometimes I have to go shopping, or fix the garden fence or paint the kitchen ... that’s life! But I never stop thinking about writing. In fact, some fairly dull repetitive tasks provide great thinking time. I always have a notebook with me and the voice recorder on my smartphone is invaluable. I can’t tell you how many great ideas I’ve had while walking the dogs or mowing the lawn. Things change during January to April when I’m five days a week on ‘QI’ and I do most of my personal writing at the weekends ... if there’s time.
8) Which part of the writing process is your favourite, and which part do you dread?
The best bit is the editing. But, to get to that stage, there’s the part I dread … putting one word after another until I have 80-120,000 of them! The physical, mechanical process of getting the first draft done – even though I love to write – is the hardest thing. But the editing! I have so much fun with that, swapping chunks around, adding plotlines, removing plotlines, killing off characters … I usually go through anything between 10-20 reviews and re-writes before I end up with a book I’m happy with.
9) What is your number one distraction?
My dogs! Sadly, we lost one of them to cancer a few months back but the remaining one is still a needy little sod who wants hugs, food, water, and to be let out into the garden at every opportunity. And she barks at EVERYTHING. I’ve learned to tune out the noise. But I can’t tune out those big puppy eyes and waggly tail that say to me, ‘Gimme a hug!’
There’s a great website called coffitivity.com that Stephen Fry introduced me to. It plays a loop of the background noise of a coffee shop and it’s amazing how much that helps my productivity at times – if only because it drowns out other distractions like the dog barking at the poor old postman.
10) Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Mostly a pantser but I do have a pretty clear idea in my head of the plot from A to Z when I start writing. I keep lots of notes and I have bookshelves full of notebooks.
11) Tea or coffee?
Tea. All kinds of tea. I’m something of a tea aficionado. My default tipple is Twinings Earl Grey, black, no sugar. Made in a pot with loose leaf of course. But I drink many other types of tea and tisane. I love jasmine tea and make the occasional pot of nettle tea using the garden weeds. And I recently discovered Kusmi teas. Their Euphoria brand tastes of chocolate! Extraordinary stuff.
12) What are the most important three things you've learned about writing, editing or publishing (or all of the above!) since you started your journey?
These are the three answers I always give:
- Books don’t write themselves. If you want to be a writer, get on with it. You may never get a book deal. If you don’t it’s their loss. But you can be sure that you’ll DEFINITELY never get a deal unless you write.
- Do it for you. Write because you love writing. If you don’t love your work why would you expect others to love it?
- Be proud of the fact that you have done something that 99% of the public will never be able to do. You’ll hear many, many people say to you, ‘I think I’d like to write a book one day’. They won’t. Because they haven’t.
13) What's your favourite quote on writing?
I have two. The first relates to the three pieces of advice above:
‘Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you're doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing’- E L Doctorow (1931-2015)
The second is about endurance and resilience:
‘Come what may, all bad fortune is to be conquered by endurance’ – Virgil (70-19 BCE)
If you want to be a professional writer you need to make time to write and write as often as you can. That may mean ditching some other activities you enjoy. I don’t play video games, I don’t play sports and I don’t watch a massive amount of TV. Instead, I read and I write; I’ve sacrificed one set of pleasures for another because there aren’t enough hours in the day for them all. Writing is more important to me. You may have to make the same sorts of decisions.
And you need to grow a thick skin. If you can’t do that, you’ll have a very tough time. You’re going to face rejections. But if you believe in your work, you endure. You’re going to get reviews. Some won’t be complimentary. Don’t be afraid to take criticism but also accept that you can’t please all of the people all of the time and move on. Look at ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ – you either love it or hate it. The writers and performers have had to learn to ignore the haters and get on with pleasing the lovers. Endurance is everything.
14) What is the best piece of advice you've received?
I’ve met Neil Gaiman a few times and, although his books aren’t really my kind of books, he is one of the nicest and wisest people to chat with about writing. I like this advice particularly:
‘‘If you’re only going to write when you’re inspired, you may be a fairly decent poet, but you will never be a novelist — because you’re going to have to make your word count today, and those words aren’t going to wait for you, whether you’re inspired or not. So you have to write when you’re not “inspired.” … And the weird thing is that six months later, or a year later, you’re going to look back and you’re not going to remember which scenes you wrote when you were inspired and which scenes you wrote because they had to be written.’
It’s so true. Nail that first draft. Don’t agonise over every word. Don’t lose your momentum. This isn’t the age of quill pens and Indian ink. There’s always another day to fix things. Meanwhile you’ll be another 2,000 words closer to a completed first draft.
15) Where else can we connect with you?
I’m on Twitter as @stevyncolgan and my Facebook pages are easy to find
I have a blog at http://colganwrites.blogspot.co.uk and all of my books are available from whatever bookshops and/or websites you buy books from.
‘A Murder to Die For’ was crowdfunded and has now reached 100% of its funding. It’s now going into production for publication next spring. But if you want to pledge on it (and get one of the special limited editions that won’t be in the shops), you can do so here at the Unbound website: https://unbound.com/books/a-murder-to-die-for
You’ll also get your name listed in the back as one of the brilliant patrons who helped to make the book happen.
I can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org