I’m really pleased to have the lovely Alex Gordon as guest author on my blog today. Former Sports Editor of the Scottish Sunday Mail, Alex is the author of no less than twelve works of non-fiction about football. However, several years ago Alex had an idea for a whodunnit story and, choosing to ignore the advice of some publishers who cautioned against writing fiction, Alex had his first novel, Who Shot Wild Bill, published in 2013.
The first of a quirky mystery series to include a former sports-journalist turned-detective (wonder where he got that idea!), Charlie Brock, as the main protagonist, Who Shot Wild Bill was then followed by the second book in the series, What Spooked Crazy Horse and Alex is currently working on the third in the series.
Here, Alex talks us through his journey from fact to fiction, and what a fascinating journey it is!
So, I’m propping up the bar at The Kelburne on Millport’s Stuart Street, sampling a small libation and chatting to my good friend and owner Eddie Hughes and a few of the regulars. As the former Sports Editor of the Scottish Sunday Mail – in the good old days when the newspaper was read by three million folk back in the early-to-mid-nineties – the topic, not entirely unexpectedly, is about football and how the clientele in this wonderful little howf would make Scotland a world power again.
As the author of several football books – twelve at the last count – there is a question that has cropped up a few times. Now if I had a quid for every time I had been asked why I had never got around to writing a novel, I would be penning this while sipping a refreshing ice-cold pina colada beside the shimmering pool of an ocean-going liner floating nonchalantly and serenely somewhere in the Med off the coast of the South of France.
Okay, maybe a little far-fetched. How about sitting shivering in a leaking rowing boat somewhere in the angry, choppy Firth of Clyde with a few over-zealous seagulls using me as target practice?
Right, fair enough, that might be stretching the imagination too far, as well. Would you settle for me standing in a puddle in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street during one of the country’s innumerable and, apparently, mandatory traditional summer thunderstorms?
To tell the truth, there had been a germ of an idea swirling around my cranium for a whodunnit for several years. I had been brought up on a staple diet of Agatha Christie (mixed in with a mountain of football autobiographies and biographies) and I just can’t get enough of extremely clever mystery writers.
On one of the days in the Kelburne, as we once again put the world to rights, someone just happened to mention there had never been a recorded murder on Millport. That was the kick-start I required, a challenge that had been presented at that precise moment.
The Country and Western Festival was a couple of months away and, almost immediately, a conception of a storyline crystalised in my imagination. What if someone staged a murder during the wild west weekend? There were wannabe Buffalo Bills, Wyatt Earps and Billy The Kids all over the place and many, of course, were equipped with fake firearms strapped to their hips. I had seen these guys strolling around the Millport promenade making the place look like Dodge City. In fact, I hadn’t realised there were so many cowboys in Scotland and I’m not talking about dodgy car salesmen, roofers, plumbers, electricians and candlestick-makers.
I had also been informed by one gleeful shop-owner of a particularly “crazy” weekend when something like twelve thousand visitors had been on the island, according to Cal-Mac records. The idea came to life and all I had to do was fit the pieces together in the jigsaw.
After writing the football books, I knew several publishers and more than one advised me to stick to fact and leave fiction to others. Granted, it is unusual for a writer to get involved in factual tomes and then turn his or her hand to fabrication. I didn’t really see it as an insurmountable problem and the only way to prove it was to sit down and produce a novel.
And so ‘Who Shot Wild Bill?’ was written in 2013 in the same year I had two football books published – ‘Denis Law: King and Country’ and ‘Celtic: The Awakening’.
The opening line in ‘Wild Bill’ appeared from nowhere: “Wild Bill Hickok was smiling. Which was odd considering there was a bullet hole between his eyes.” I was off and running, just another seventy-odd thousand words to get down in print.
Conjuring up the title was easy. There was no big deal to it when you’ve been employed in newspaper production for almost three decades and responsible for God only knows how many headlines in the sports section of that day’s publication. The supporting words on the front cover were a little more tricky. It’s too easy to clutter up a page and attract the eye away from the main visual impact ie the title. I decided to go for a deck of three at the bottom of the page. The first line read: “One Country and Western Festival”; the second: “One dead body” and the third: “Twelve thousand suspects!”
I roughed up an image of the front cover – and again I could literally draw on my newspaper experience to achieve this – and the designer followed it to the letter. I have to say I enjoyed writing the fiction for a whole variety of reasons. For a start, the characters were all inside my head.
Writing a football book entails quite a fair bit of research. Trust me, there are so many annoying anoraks out there who will spot even the tiniest error. “That wasn’t a corner-kick, it was a free-kick. It was the fifty-ninth minute not the fifty-eighth.” Get a proper job, you lot!
Then there is the time-consuming interviews where sometimes the subject tells you at the last moment that he has to cancel and “is it okay to do it next week?” You say: “Yes, no problem, whenever suits”, while grinding your teeth to powder and sticking needles furiously into an effigy.
So, it was great to come downstairs every morning around five o’clock in the confident knowledge all my subjects were lined up and good to go; my hero Charlie Brock, a sportswriter-turned-sleuth (I wonder upon whom I based that guy) and the many characters of the island. I didn’t have to chase them down, pick up an exorbitant drinks tab that would guarantee my accountant sucking out his fillings nor did I have to hang around for an hour or so while my interviewee had been sidetracked elsewhere.
I had fun selecting the characters and, as you might expect, several of them were parodies of genuine worthies of Cumbrae. Sherlock Holmes qualities are not required to work out ‘Hughie Edwards’, owner of Hugh’s Bar, is, in fact, the aforementioned Eddie Hughes, mine host at The Kelburne.
And so it went on, inventing characters and their mannerisms, down to how they looked, how they talked, how they dressed and even their favourite tipple. It was a chasm away from what I had been used to. If you’re writing about Denis Law, for instance, you would expect most football fans, certainly the ones of my generation, to have a mental image of him immediately. Not so in fiction, obviously.
I had to describe Charlie Brock, the reluctant sportswriter-turned-sleuth, and that was fairly easy, I just made him a better-looking version of the author! I hasten to add that is not an ego trip. I am acquainted with a few fiction writers and all of them will tell you (privately, of course) they are the main characters in their novels.
Actually, when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? When you’re in the middle of a chapter and you are describing some individual, you don’t have to work out if he’s the one with the glasses or she’s the one with the red hair. Charlie Brock is all over the book and if I haven’t a clue what he looks like then I better stop frequenting the Kelburne Bar!
But there was a lot of entertainment in putting real-life individuals into the book. Who was Tip-Toe Thompson? Bungalow Bob? Boring Brian? Mustang Mags? Jimmy B de Mille? And, my personal favourite, Vodka Joe? It became a bit of a guessing game on the island for awhile.
The quirky mystery was originally published by Crime Lab and Ringwood this year took over the publishing rights. Thankfully, their managing director, the indefatigable Sandy Jamieson, bought into the character of Charlie Brock. He thought he was Scotland’s answer to America’s Kinky Friedman, an author whose work I was introduced to after publication of my first novel. I have to say I was vaguely disturbed to discover someone else on this planet shared the same fairly warped sense of humour as myself. Not sure how a bloke from Texas and an individual from Glasgow quite dovetail in their pursuit of mirth, but, amazingly, that’s exactly the case.
My second novel, which came out last month, is entitled ‘What Spooked Crazy Horse?’ and that, too, is set on Millport. The ‘Crazy Horse’ in question is a famous footballer who flees from one of the world’s most famous football clubs and turns up on the island where he is discovered, quite by chance, by the intrepid Brock. Why did Crazy Horse give up the riches, the fame and so on? Brock investigates and once again the plotline takes more than a few twists and turns.
The third in the series is being worked on at this very moment. It’s entitled ‘Who Stole Sitting Bull?’ and the first twenty or so chapters are set again on the Isle of Cumbrae. The ‘Sitting Bull’ character is a Scottish boxer who keeps getting knocked over, hence the nickname. Somewhere along the line – and this can only happen in fiction – he gets a shot at a world title and goes to Crete to acclimatise and prepare for the fight at Madison Square Garden in New York. He is mistakenly kidnapped on the Greek island and that’s when the fun and games begin.
I just hope the readers derive as much pleasure from my novels as I have in putting them together. What’s that they say in the tabloids? Never let the facts get in the way of a good story?
I’ll drink to that!