A good trick in songwriting is to start with the title first. Come up with a great name for your song and you’re well on your way – a good title can not only sum up the central ideas and themes of the song, but it can also give you a rhythm, suggest a melody or hint at a musical style.
I think Tony Black had the title for Bay of Martyrs before he had the plot – he’d seen the cove on the Great Ocean Road during his days as a journo in Warrnambool, and filed it away as a possible name for a novel. Just like with a song, the title suggested key elements. There’s a coastal setting, and people are being martyred for causes (they just don’t know it). As a title, Bay of Martyrs also has a noir-ish feel, despite it being a lovely place to visit, especially at this time of year.
It also helped set up the plot. If nothing else, it’s a good place for a body to wash up, at least in a crime novel (in real life there’s no such thing as a good place for a body to wash up, is there?). There’s your first chapter, but as all writers know, a first chapter is just that, and there are about 40 or so more you’ve got to figure out after numero uno.
The other thing Tony and I liked about the title was it gave us a good template for a crime series – we’ll name each one after a place in south-west Victoria in Australia. That’s where I live, and where Tony and I worked together at a newspaper back in the early 2000s. Tony always figured the region was ripe for a crime novel or three, so when we set to work in late 2015 to co-write a book, the pieces were already there in the back of his mind.
The question everyone asks me is how do you write a novel with someone on the other side of the world? The short answer is Google Docs. It allowed Tony (in Scotland) and I (in Australia) to be accessing and editing the same document at the same time. As I was writing the first draft, Tony was following a few chapters back, tweaking my words to create the second draft. The cool (or maybe creepy) thing was I could watch him editing my work. I don’t know if he knew I was watching, but sometimes after I finished a three-hour late-night stint of writing, I would see him log on and I would follow his cursor around for a while. Almost everything he changed made sense, so it was a great learning experience to metaphorically lean over his shoulder and see him at work.
A few people have asked me if any of Bay of Martyrs is taken from my real experiences as a journalist. I have seen a dead body on a beach down here before, but it was very different to the opening chapter. The second chapter, in which our hero Clay Moloney has a run in with a cop that doesn’t like him, well, I’ve definitely had that happen to me. The plot for Bay of Martyrs needed a bad cop obfuscating things, but I was loathe to make all the cops bad because I have some good friends on the force. So for every bad Frank Anderson there is a good Eddie Boulton.
The idea of good and bad really intrigued me while writing Bay of Martyrs. Our hero takes drugs, fraternises with drug dealers, and is somewhat sympathetic to one of the killers. I wanted to make sure there were some grey areas. Not everyone who takes drugs or sells drugs is bad, and sometimes people kill with good intentions. These are facts, but it also helped us (hopefully) steer away from caricatures.
I have to confess I haven’t read a lot of crime or noir – aside from Tony Black’s work, the only crime/noir I’ve read is by Raymond Chandler or Carl Hiaasen – but this was probably a strength. Tony handled that side of things, ensuring the plot was full of the requisite level of corruption and killings, with a few prostitutes and drug dealers thrown in for good measure, and decorating the prose with the right amount of noirish flourish. I tried not to think of it as a specific genre piece, but rather looked at it as though it was a movie, and took care of what I saw as the cinematic elements. I made sure there were enough action set pieces, in particular that our hero got beaten up enough times to keep it interesting, and made sure the dialogue hummed along.
If anyone asks me which bits I wrote and which bits Tony wrote, the short answer is that I wrote the bits in between the quotation marks and Tony wrote the rest. Or, rather, that’s the pithy half-true response that sounds good in interviews.
Bio: Australian journalist, film reviewer, musician, songwriter, and international author Matt Neal was born and raised in south-west Victoria. He’s been writing for The Warrnambool Standard for 15 years, is a prize-winning songwriter and a film reviewer for Australia’s ABC Radio. His first book Bay Of Martyrs – a crime thriller set in south-west Victoria – has been co-written with Scottish “tartan noir” novelist Tony Black. A sequel is due out in 2018.