Robin Driscoll is a screenwriter turned novelist, best known for his role as the primary writer for Mr Bean. Several years ago, he took up a new writing challenge and is now a mystery thriller novelist. Robin’s first book, Rough Music, is based on a script that he was commissioned to write. His second and third novels, The Unborn and Still Warm, form the beginnings of a series named the Josie King Mysteries.
I wanted to ask Robin about his writing experience and about his shift from screenwriting to fiction. At 10 am on Tuesday morning I picked up the phone and rang through to Robin. We talked a little and set the scene before I began asking questions.
Why did you decide to write a novel?
I’ve been writing comedy for over thirty years and after Mr Bean, which was a fantastic experience and which on and off took about 25 years, I decided that this new generation comedy on TV wasn’t something I wanted to do. Not that I don’t find present day comedians funny, I do, but they are better placed to write that type of material. I fancied a change and I thought I’d write a book because it was close to what I’d always done before. People expected me to write comedy and were surprised when I decided to write mystery thrillers. That was simply because I decided to write what I like to read.
Do you have a favourite mystery thriller writer?
Yes, Robert Goddard the English writer. My favourite crime writer, an American crime writer, is Michael Connolly.
Do you have a particular writing method?
As a script writer you have to learn to write incredibly economically. A script page with action and directions must run at the average of a minute long. With comedy especially, you have to be economical with the way you write dialogue. The rhythms and the economy that I learnt through writing comedy have crossed over a little into my writing. I’m still new at writing novels and I’m still learning, but I was at least able to bring those two things to the table.
Did your work on Mr Bean help to inform your novel writing?
The novels I like to read and try to write are fast moving mysteries. I had to learn a huge amount about writing books. I discovered that it was a totally different craft even though I already knew how to write structure, how to develop characters and how to tell stories. I discovered through someone telling me that I couldn’t write, a very good friend of mine who read some chapters of my book, that there were a lot more tools I had to get. I spent a year going to courses, reading about writing and doing what I should have done at the beginning, which was learn a new craft.
I noticed in the novels I like to read that description can be scant and yet cleverly done. The shortest sentence can put you in a place, give you a smell. If you think of Dickensian times, of people reading books by candlelight, those people didn’t have the internet, didn’t have films. There was nothing to inform them about the rest of the world other than the way they lived, unless they were wealthy enough to travel. Therefore, long descriptive passages in books were welcomed. Because we are now so well informed, we don’t have to put in so much. You can put someone in Egypt with three of four words. They know what it looks like; they can feel the heat. It’s almost like writing a radio play; the background sounds are informing you.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
I don’t know where I get my inspiration from. As to how I find subjects, I come up with an idea of ‘what if?’ My first book, Rough Music, came out of a film script that I’d been commissioned for. That was a stand-alone book. The second book is the first of my Josie King mystery series. I didn’t know it was going to be a series until I fell in love with the character. I’m now writing my third Josie King! Now I have a character that I know, I can say ‘what if this happened to Josie King?’ The stories then become quicker in my head. When you’re writing a sketch, you have to come up with ideas quickly. You’re lucky if you’ve got running gags, where the same characters are showing up every week. When you’ve got a sketch show where that doesn’t happen, every idea has got to be fresh. You get used to quickly coming up with ‘what ifs.’
Do you think you’ll write more books in the Josie King series?
I don’t know; I hope so, but I think I’ll write another one-off novel before I go back to the series. I think I’ll give Josie a short holiday in my head. I’m thinking of writing a comedy idea that I have for my next book. It’s going to be about a little pub on the South Bank in London, used by Special Branch, MI5, MI6 and the Met. They all use the pub but the local brewery are going to demolish it to build offices. Basically, the brewery has picked on the wrong pub to try and close down!
Did you find it challenging shifting from comedy to mystery thriller writing?
No, because as I say, it’s the kind of material I like to read and it’s the kind of material I like to watch. I found that part easy, but comedy has still crept into my books. I just can’t keep it at bay and so I do have a few comic sequences and I use a couple of characters for comic relief. I think it’s much easier to write straight stories than it is to write comedy. I’m still very much learning myself and I’m always sure I’ve got a better book in me. After my books have been printed, I always look back over parts and think ‘I really want to rewrite that,’ or ‘I can do better than that.’ But I won’t get anything written if I don’t let them go.
What would you say has been your greatest writing challenge?
Writing the first book, Rough Music, even though the story had already been structured because it was first written in script form. Of course, with a book, you’re not just guessing. You’re there with it and so it’s harder. It took me five years to write the first book and I learnt a lot through doing that. Writing the first Josie King book took me four months and then Still Warm took me three months. I’m only about a third of the way through the third Josie King and this one is going to take me ages!
Do you base your characters on real people or are they entirely fictional?
Certain aspects of characters come from the people I meet. I do use the names of friends and people I know from the local pub and give them unlikely jobs just for fun.
Do you have a favourite out of your own books?
If I wanted someone else to try one of my books, I’d say read the first one. If you like that enough then I know I’ve got you for the series.
What would be your top tip for a young writer, or in fact any writer?
Learn how to do it, no matter how talented you are. It’s much easier to learn how to do something before you start. It’s easier to do it the first time round than it is to fix once its broken.
With many thanks to Robin Driscoll