Here’s the thing. How do you move into a crowded marketplace and not step on the toes of those who’ve gone before you? How do you avoid being influenced by those great writers and their characters? I mean, let’s face it, we’re all readers first. You can’t write a novel unless you enjoy reading novels, and if you enjoy reading novels you’re bound to have favourites. Favourites colour our worldview. It’s what makes men choose blondes over brunettes. Elmer Bernstein over Jerry Goldsmith. James Bond over Jack Reacher. The trick is to create a character that’s your own and not be beholden to any of the above.
As a kid growing up I loved reading something like, James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami airport and thought about life and death. I loved any passage that mentioned Bond by name and couldn’t wait to read the next 007 adventure. Because of that I enjoy writing scenes that begin with Jim Grant doing something. Just using the name invokes Bond to me, even though Grant isn’t a secret agent. So, am I copying Ian Fleming? Damn right, but hopefully with my own voice and inflections.
Another problem I had creating rogue cop Jim Grant was twofold. Or two names. Harry Bosch and Jack Reacher. You can’t write about a strong hard man without getting condemned as being Reacher-lite. You can’t create a cop who hates bureaucracy and flouts the rules without being accused of doing a Bosch. Reacher is a rootless drifter. Bosch works the LA crime beat. Neither Lee Child nor Michael Connolly created those archetypes but they’ve made them their own. Westerns are full of lone gunmen coming to town and taking on the bad guys before riding off into the sunset. Cop movies almost never starred a detective who did what he was told and made sure his paperwork was in on time. But in the world of crime fiction, those two authors make it very hard to come up with something new.
There is a third influence. Elmore Leonard was renowned for writing colourful characters and whip smart dialogue. With Raylan Givens he also created his own rogue cop (okay, Deputy US Marshall) with a nice line in cool put downs and shoot from the hip assertiveness. I liked Raylan’s dry sense of humour, something that is reminiscent of good old Yorkshire gallows humour. A cop’s release valve to cope with the shit they deal with on a daily basis.
So how do you avoid copycat syndrome?
The answer? Embrace it. Be inspired by the writers you love then create something you’d like to read. Don’t be a slave to their strengths but rather infuse your fiction with the little things that make it different. Instead of being a rootless ex-cop drifter Grant works for the BPD and lives in Boston. Instead of working a single city he moves him around America on assignment or private business. Instead of being American, he’s a Yorkshireman transferred to the United States. How different do you want him to be? I’m certainly not going to have him wear women’s clothing or play the flute. There’s only so much I’m prepared to do to avoid being called a copycat. Sticks and stones springs to mind.
Ex Army, retired cop and former Scenes Of Crime Officer. Colin Campbell is the author of British crime novels, Blue Knight White Cross, and Northern Ex, and the US thriller Jamaica Plain.
Campbell spent 3 years in the British Army and served 30 years in the West Yorkshire Police. He began writing while he was still a police officer, initially concentrating on horror fiction, which he loved. He soon realized however that his knowledge of police life gave him the perfect tools to enter the crime genre.
Campbell’s early crime novels were set in England, focusing on uniform police working the front line and the low level crime that blights everyday life. His Resurrection Man thrillers bring a rogue Yorkshire cop to America where culture clash and violence ensue. Jamaica Plain is the first in a series of novels featuring Jim Grant.