Former Environmental Health Officer Robert Crouch turned his experience to good use when he created his hero, Kent Fisher…
Your hero, Kent Fisher, is obviously inspired by your time working as an environmental health officer, but what prompted you to start writing the series in the first place?
I’ve always loved crime, especially Inspector Morse, Miss Marple and Columbo. Each time I watched an episode, I wanted to write my own crime series. But I struggled to create a worthy detective until I picked up an omnibus edition of Sue Grafton’s Alphabet Murders, featuring the first three novels.
From the first page of A is for Alibi, I loved private investigator Kinsey Millhone. The first person narrative drew me straight to the heart of the story and action. The irreverent humour and social comment added colour and depth. The characters in the backstory created another dimension and a list of helpers. Kinsey spoke to me in a voice that reflected my outlook on life, my values of fairness and justice, the underdog taking on the big guys without a second thought. She was feisty, never gave up and didn’t take herself too seriously.
But most important of all, the stories were fresh and distinct, different from the usual world weary detectives with failed marriages and a drinking problem. I realised an environmental health officer could be a detective in the right circumstances and created Kent Fisher.
Given your love of detective fiction, do you write to please your readers or to please yourself?
Now there’s a question I’ve never considered before. All I can say is that I write the kind of book I like to read – the classic whodunit, the murder mystery. Others enjoy the same kind of books, so the hope is they will also enjoy mine.
While I listen to what readers and reviewers tell me, I have to be satisfied the stories are accurate, credible and consistent. Ultimately, I have to be happy with the book and enjoy the story before I publish it, which is why I read them cover to cover on my Kindle once all editing is completed. Only if I’m happy will I publish otherwise it’s not fair on my readers.
Have you taken any courses to help with the writing process, or to help tackle the many technical aspects of being an indie author?
I prefer books to courses, which can be expensive. Writing retreats and creative writing classes at a local college offer face to face learning, debate and mixing with others, which is often the best way to learn.
The book that helped me more than any other is Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. It spoke to me in a language I liked and promised to take my fiction to the next level – it did, though you never stop learning or wanting to improve.
Regarding the technical aspects of indie publishing, I defer to the articles and blogs from established ‘gurus’ like Joanna Penn. Groups like One Stop Fiction also offer support alongside plenty of useful tips and guidance. But there’s no substitute for having a go and learning by doing. Kindle Direct looks daunting, but it can take a cover image and a Word document and produces a high quality book.
Have you ever used actual events/experiences from your work to create the plots for your books?
My novels are filled with experiences from my 39 years in environmental health, covering many of the different areas of my work, from health and safety at work, food safety and hygiene, infectious disease, pollution, pest control, caravan site licensing and more. The whole local government backdrop to Kent’s work is based on experiences and events.
The novels are also filled with character tics, expressions and attitudes I’ve encountered over the years. Chefs are often amalgams of the many I’ve met over the years. The attitudes of food business owners are representative rather than specific to any one person.
However, the experiences and events tend to colour the backstory. My characters, settings and plots are all fictitious. I use my work knowledge and experience to offer a different take on the traditional murder mystery. I’ve disguised a murder as a work accident. I’ve used a care home as the setting for a murder. I’ve used the closure of a food business to draw Kent into a cold case investigation.
In terms of the development of your characters, do you think your latest book (No More Lies) is any different from the others?
I’d like to think each book is different as the characters and their stories develop, but No More Lies builds on something I began in No Remorse, the third novel. In the first two stories, Kent keeps his feelings to himself on the whole. You know he’s afraid of commitment. He rolls with the dice, making the best of whatever situation he finds himself in. It’s his way of coping. But you don’t know why he behaves like this.
In No Remorse and No More Lies I reveal more of what’s inside Kent, what drives him, where it all began. I used relationships, including his on/off love for Gemma, to reveal more of his character and motivations because I think readers want to see inside his head a little more.
In No More Lies, I take this a step further by introducing a forthright female police detective, who challenges much of what Kent believes and holds dear. This forces him to reveal personal details he’s previously kept to himself.
I delved into my own childhood for the formative experiences Kent recounts. I was a bit wary and self-conscious about putting them out there, but I’m glad I did as readers can understand Kent better now. It also helped me put some things into sharper perspective.
How did you find the designer for your book covers and how much input do you have in the overall ‘look’ of your books?
The designer is Jane, a graphic artist I knew from running. While she’d produced brochures and leaflets, covers for murder mystery novels was a new challenge she enjoyed taking on. We bounced ideas around until we came up with a theme. The background is one of my photos of the South Downs. I wanted this background to be a permanent feature, giving every novel the same look and feel. (It also keeps costs down.) We then add detail, individual to each story, to the bottom right corner. I usually supply the ideas, but Jane brings them to life. The fonts, layout and toning are all her work. My only stipulation was the West Highland white terrier on the spine.
Do you have many unpublished novels/stories?
Some, but they’re stepping stones to where I am now. There’s an original Kent Fisher novel, which is another murder disguised as a workplace accident. It could provide the basis for another mystery one day, I guess, but so far I’m not tempted.
I have a number of short stories, some humorous, some suspense, but I haven’t read them for decades, so who knows what ideas may be lurking within them. I don’t tend to go back, as I was a different person and writer then.
How many hours a day do you write, and do you stick to a set schedule?
I treat writing as a job and work weekdays only. Occasionally, I lapse into the weekend. But I’m thinking about my novels and characters and plots all the time, whether I’m shaving, showering or running. I suspect all authors do this.
I write in the mornings, occasionally in the afternoon, depending on pressure and deadlines. So, I can spend anywhere between 4-8 hours each day at the computer. One day, I’d like to write 7 hours a day to produce books a little faster, but then there’s the business side, marketing and promotion, social media. I need to factor in time for that too.
What is the best investment you ever made in your writing?
The best investment I made was starting and writing a blog. Fisher’s Fables cost me nothing to set up on WordPress, but it repaid me in so many ways. It helped me reconnect with everything that’s good about writing. It was fun, meaning I looked forward to each new blog. Writing short pieces was less daunting than writing a novel, but still challenging, and it ate up ideas and material. It also gave me discipline, a standard to reach, and a small, but faithful audience who appreciated and enjoyed my words.
Best of all, it allowed me to rediscover and develop my author voice, which restored my self-confidence and belief. It wasn’t long before I transferred this voice into my novels and rewrote No Accident, which was immediately accepted by a publisher.
What is the best piece of advice you could give to a new indie author?
With millions of books available on Amazon and most genres suffering from saturation, it’s difficult to stand out and be noticed. I’ve read and listened to podcasts that tell you to be professional, invest in good covers, write exciting blurbs and choose the best keywords to be picked out by search engines.
I don’t fall out with any of that. It amounts to professionalism, which you need to compete with the content put out by traditional publishers. But ultimately, none of this will matter if your work doesn’t stand out in some way from the crowd. That’s where your author voice comes in. It’s as distinctive as you are. No one else will tell the story the way you do. It will allow your work to be distinct in a crowded market. You can follow the rules of the genre and still be individual and offer something fresh.
Look at the all the successful authors in your preferred field and they will all have a distinct way of telling their stories. Celebrate your uniqueness and find the readers who enjoy your style – just as you enjoy some authors more than others. Blogging is a great way to discover and hone your voice and attract readers who will enjoy what you write.
Can we expect more of the same from the pen of Robert Crouch, or might there be a bit of genre-hopping in the future?
I love writing the Kent Fisher mysteries, particularly the backstory, which is about the people in his life. Coming up with original ideas remains a challenge, and a delight when they lead to another complex whodunit that readers enjoy. If and when I can find the time, I’d love to update a humorous novel I wrote when I was 21. It was called They Laughed at Noah and was my homage to Tom Sharpe, but proved difficult to sell to a publisher. Now that I self-publish, that’s not an issue. I’d also like to finish When a Health Inspector Calls, a collection of humorous tales from my career in environmental health before I joined the dark side and became a manager, which is covered in the Fisher’s Fables blog.