No, this isn’t what you think, although I must confess to occasionally having a glass of elderberry wine close by when I’m having a tough time with a chapter, which happens quite a lot! 

Instead, I’m talking about the influence of other books and writers.

First of all I don’t think it can be avoided, even when every effort is made to do so. For example I’m influenced in ‘my’ style of chapter headings. I like a date stamp and location, which feels a little weird if much of the novel is set in the same place. I’m not keen on chapter titles as such, probably because I’m not very good at them and always think that any I come up with are either meaningless or possible spoilers.

My date stamp / location thing I get from the later novels of James Ellroy, a writer I admire enormously. In his case it makes more sense as the books can move from Hollywood to Las Vegas to New York and so on. Mine are more static, yet still I can’t shake the habit. I only wish I’d been more influenced by, say, John le Carre´ who does an eminently sensible ‘Chapter I’ and so on, which at first and even second glance would be better for me. But somehow I’m stuck on dates and places.

Another thing I find irresistible is to occasionally switch tenses, with a particular penchant for the present tense. In the first draft of Project Overkill I went way over the top with this and can remember the many ‘phone calls from my editor that began “I am vexed by the number of times…” and so on. Many writers do this and I must have read quite a few of them because I liked it big-time, especially in action sequences. When I redrafted Overkill I axed huge chunks of Present in favour of its more sensible relative Past tense, and have not fallen into that particular trap since. I learnt a lot during that episode, which presumably is an example of undue influence providing a good lesson. [Alternatively it probably means never be excessively influenced by anyone else’s style.]

Despite the final sentence above I never use parenthesis in a book because I think it’s lazy. Many other writers happily and successfully use brackets but I will sit for minutes on end redrafting to avoid them. In The Shrewsbury Murders – still in production and which by now you’ll all want to avoid like the plague – I had a lengthy section I was happy with before realising I’d omitted one vital bit of information that I could happily include in brackets. I didn’t of course; instead I rewrote the whole chapter to integrate the snippet into the chronological narrative.

I discussed this with my editor: he rolled his eyes heavenwards and said ‘Why?’ I told him I just don’t do brackets and he sadly gazed into the middle distance. I’m not sure where this aversion originated, but suspect it was novels by Ian Fleming and Raymond Chandler, both of whom wrote clean narratives that told their story without add-ons or supplementary bits of information in brackets.

Speaking of Fleming he had a brilliant pen for short sentence description. My favourite is when he describes a dead body as looking like an empty envelope. Rereading a piece of Murders recently I found I have described one as looking like a vacant room. Not an intentional copy – I don’t do that – but clearly paying homage, and for better or worse I’ve left it in.

I also like those words and lines that you associate immediately with one character.  In Harlot’s Ghost by Norman Mailer you just know one of the agents is unpleasant because he is always telling people to ‘explicate’. So a character you like says something to this guy and the next line of dialogue is “Explicate!”, and you immediately visualise him. I’d love to have a try at that but haven’t got round to it. A famous one of course is “Shaken not stirred.” I don’t think anyone could get away with that but whenever I’ve been tempted to do something similar I get this mental flash involving Ms. J S-C. It is time for her annual thimbleful of wine and she approaches the quivering bartender with an icy stare and growls “Decanted, not from the bottle.” This has happened a few times so it’s her fault I’ve made no progress.

Some influences of course work in a different direction, i.e. you know you’ll avoid them all your writing life. Chief among them is those unfortunate individuals who are found in a pool of their own blood. This is so often repeated over the years through all kinds of media that for a while I used to think it was commonplace for folk to die in a pool of someone else’s. I would imagine hospital and police station situations where one gobsmacked official said to another: “Guess what? Today I had a case when someone died in a pool of their own blood! How often have you seen that?

Close behind are the poor souls who choke on their own vomit, as distinct from someone else’s. This time: “I’ve seen everything now! Someone swallowing their own vomit before some other sod could throw up all over them!”

Yes, I guarantee I’ll never use those.

Another device that fascinates me is multiple endings, where they are told from different standpoints with an epitaph to boot. I’ve no idea why, maybe it’s because having lived with the book so long I’m reluctant to finally let it go. Anyway, until some kind reader of this blog advises me otherwise I’ll claim that as my own.

So I guess I’ve come to the conclusion that given writers all read other writers we all get influences and play with some of them until eventually we find something that is actually us.

[I was of course tempted to write that paragraph with a date stamp, from three different perspectives, and add an epitaph. But instead I’ll just sign off until next time.]