WRITING FEVER CITY BY TIM BAKER

Tim Baker used to run consular operations in France and North Africa for the Australian embassy, liaising with international authorities on cases involving murder, kidnap, terrorism and disappearances. He now uses those experiences to inform his noir crime thrillers, such as FEVER CITY, which is shortlisted for this year’s CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger. He will be taking part in the Endeavour Press Crime Fiction Festival.

A couple of years ago, I was working on a mystery set in Manhattan in the 1950s that involved the murder of a disgraced NYPD detective turned private eye. A secondary plot concerned the kidnapping of the only child of one of America’s richest and most hated men, and the subsequent cover up of the crime.

But as I moved forward with the manuscript, an unexpected thing happened. The secondary plot began to emerge as the principal one. The kidnapping story seemed to possess a power and intensity all of its own.

Despite my attempts to rein in its influence and focus on what I considered to be the ‘main story’ – that of the murdered PI – the kidnapping component kept growing with such urgency that eventually I felt compelled to focus on it alone, and abandoned the other part of the novel.

As surprised – and excited – as I was about this development, there was still something missing, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was like a word on the tip of your tongue; the more you tried to remember it, the further it drifted from your mind.

I tried various shifts to the story and explored new plot ideas, but nothing seemed to connect with the kidnapping in an organic way. After a year of trying, I put the novel down with regret but also knowing I would return to it when the time was right.

Meanwhile, there were other writing projects that kept me busy. I started travelling for various film assignments, and one of my trips took me to Los Angeles. As someone who had never owned a car in his life, I expected to hate the city, but instead fell in love with it.

Yes, it was sprawling and unanchored, but it was surrounded by natural beauty and was culturally diverse. And there were a multitude of neighbourhoods, each with its own community, ambiance and mood. Above all, there was the torrid, slap-in-the-face heat. It was as if the whole city were running a mighty temperature.

It only took me a couple of days to understand that I needed to change the setting of my kidnapping story from Manhattan to LA. I went back to the work-in-progress, and was impressed with the results. Changing the terrain also accelerated the tempo and deepened the mood to a hot, high-gloss noir.

The change in mood and setting also imposed a change in the timeframe, lifting the story from the ‘50s into the next decade. The 1960s was a pivotal era not just for the city of Los Angeles and America, but for the whole world. So much was at stake. So much was possible. So much was lost.

As I continued writing, I finally felt the inherent authenticity and authority in the story that I had always been searching for. The pace of the story continued to pick up and events and historical figures from the ‘60s began to appear and assert themselves. It was sometimes an eerie sensation, like having your finger to the planche of a Ouija Board as it zooms from one letter to the next. And the letters that were being spelt out were ‘JFK’. As soon as I realized that the kidnapping was linked to a plot to kill President Kennedy, the novel roared to life.

The lessons I learnt were important ones: that you should always follow your instincts, and be flexible with your creative ideas, and responsive to inspiration.

It seems to me it’s not just a good rule for writing, but for living as well . . .

Find out more about Richard by following him on Twitter: @TimBakerWrites

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