“Be careful!” warned the Captain. “Make sure you step outside that anchor chain before you throw it overboard or you’re likely to go with it!”
I stared down at the heavy anchor chain piled into a neat circle before me on the deck of the yacht on which I was enjoying a working holiday in the Med and made certain that both my feet were well outside of it. After shoving the anchor overboard, I then watched as a few hundred feet of chain rattled after it, disappearing down into the oil-dark water as I allowed myself to consider the captain’s warning and imagine for a moment how many lone sailors might have met such a terrible drowning after a single moment’s inattention…
Fast-forward… and after a twenty year career writing popular television series like Eastenders, I found myself plotting my first crime novel, The Whitstable Pearl Mystery, set in my adopted home town on the north Kent coast. Whitstable is famous for its oysters and the summer festival that celebrates them and I wanted my heroine, Pearl Nolan, to embody the spirit of our town by being a local – a ‘native’ – as the Whitstable oyster is also called.
I knew that as a young woman, Pearl had embarked on a career with the police, keen to use her skills as a “people person” to become, ultimately, a high ranking detective. But Life and a teenage pregnancy were to get in the way of Pearl’s dreams and instead she had spent twenty years bringing up her son, Charlie, while managing a successful seafood restaurant – The Whitstable Pearl.
Now, with Charlie at University, and suffering from empty nest syndrome, she had seized upon some free time to revisit old dreams and start up her own detective agency, not bargaining for the fact that her first client would be a man keen to recover an old loan from a local fisherman – someone who just happened to be Pearl’s friend and the supplier of her oysters.
Pearl rejected the case, hoping for a more exciting challenge and she was about to receive one as the introduction in my story of the oyster fisherman, Vinnie Rowe, awakened a distant memory from my own adventures sailing in the Med….
From my experience of film and television screenwriting, I have learned that a narrative truly begins with what is known as the “inciting incident” – the precise moment when our hero or heroine is forced to embark on a journey that forms the basis of any gripping story. My own “inciting incident” for Pearl came when I imagined her rowing out one night on the eve of the Oyster Festival to warn Vinnie Rowe that his creditor was in town, only to find his boat, The Native, as mysteriously deserted as the Marie Celeste. Vinnie is nowhere to be found but as Pearl brings up the boat’s anchor she discovers Vinnie’s body tethered to it, the heavy anchor chain wrapped around his ankle. Was his death the result of an accident, suicide or murder? That is the start of Pearl’s journey.
The Whitstable Pearl Mystery was published in March 2015 and a second book in the series followed swiftly last October. The plot of Murder-on-Sea takes place during the countdown to Christmas and features several murders and no fewer than thirteen suspects – though not all are left standing at the final denouement. Mistletoe and mulled wine have fatal overtones and I found inspiration for one of the murders from the famous painting by Millais of the Shakespeare heroine, Ophelia, floating in a lake, her hands upturned as she holds a garland of flowers.
My new book, May Day Murder (published on April 7th) is a departure from the previous two in that it’s a springtime mystery featuring a single murder – and one other crime – no spoilers! But one thing I can divulge is how the sight of children dancing at Whitstable’s May Day celebrations some years ago gave me an idea for how the body of a famous actress comes to be found tied to a maypole in May Day Murder.
Every experience in a writer’s life is dredged up for inspiration for our plots – just like the drowned body of fisherman, Vinnie Rowe, in that very first Whitstable Pearl Mystery.