It’s just over a year since I arrived in the Top of the South and a lot has happened. Top of the agenda has been knocking our remote Wakamarina farm back into shape (my wife’s doing, to be honest, not mine – although I did help build the chook shed) plus a bit of writing along the way. In addition there was a trip to Europe in May to promote the release of the German, French and Spanish versions of earlier Cato novels. Meanwhile – down to work.
Initially the plan was to continue and finish the 4th book in the Cato Kwong series – my crime fiction police procedural series set in Western Australia and featuring Australian-born Chinese detective Philip ‘Cato’ Kwong. Then, and only then, write something else – something new. But the something else/something new elbowed its way to the front of the queue and Cato had to take a back seat.
My view out over the Wakamarina valley, the history, the present, the people, the nature, the weather – the huge difference between where I am now and where I was before (Fremantle, Australia) all ganged up on me and inspired a new crime novel and possibly the beginning of a new series set in, you guessed it – Top of the South.
I set myself new challenges – the Cato series had been written in the third person past tense. It allowed me to hop between different characters points-of-view, heighten tension as different threads unfolded, and – although I didn’t grasp it at the time – eased the unfolding of all the information you need to tell a story.
I decided that the new novel would be first person present – purely as a challenge to myself and as another way of differentiating from the Cato brand. Still, my character would be, like Cato, a man out of place – although in this case not an outsider by virtue of race but a real outsider from somewhere else – somebody in hiding. And the Wakamarina valley seems like a good place to hide. A plot took form and the words began to unfold on the page – at a great rate. Freed from the Cato brand, inspired by the place, and focusing 100% on writing without having to balance it with the day job I had a first draft in around six months when it normally takes me nine months to a year.
Along the way challenges presented themselves. With everything being through the eyes of one person, my hero, and in the present tense I began to realize how hard it is to drip feed the kind of information necessary to maintain sense and logic in a crime narrative. My character wasn’t God, he couldn’t know and see everything. But this challenge was also a gift in that it allowed suspense to build as the reader knows more than the hero.
Other practical things required research. How do NZ cops go about their business on a daily basis – what are the points of difference with the WA police? Detectives from Blenheim and Nelson helped put me straight. Logistics – at that time in the Wakamarina we had no internet, no mobile, bad radio reception, you name it. What would that mean for a cop’s job? What are the ranks and structures? Do they carry guns? If so, what kind? Other more mundane matters. My character is a city boy transplanted to a remote farm somewhere (funny that) and suddenly has to learn about goats, chickens, fences, and such. The vegetation, the animals, the birds, the geography, all different. The history, the slang, the culture – I learned very quickly that some of the words I took for granted in the Australian vernacular aren’t used here. I found myself reaching further back to my Mother Country and some of the words I grew up with in the north-east of England.
Slowly but surely the first draft was polished into the final draft and this week I finished proof-reading the typeset version. Now I await the cover and the blurb, and prepare myself for the release. How will it be received, particularly here in New Zealand? How will the loyal Cato fans react when they realise my next book is not what they expected? (Don’t worry, I’ve since finished the first draft of Cato 4 and he’s not far behind this next book). All will be revealed when MARLBOROUGH MAN is released in June 2017 by Fremantle Press.