Daniel Blake on Soul Murder: The Inside Story


Pittsburgh is not a famous city, at least by the standards of the north-eastern United States. I can think of half a dozen bigger places I could have set Soul Murder: New York, Boston, Chicago, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia.

Which is, of course, why I chose Pittsburgh.

For many people, if Pittsburgh is anything, it’s Flashdance, or the Steelers, or Sienna Miller calling it ‘Shitsburgh.’ This last is unfair. Pittsburgh is surprisingly, unexpectedly beautiful. Downtown is sandwiched between the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, tapering to the point where the two meet and join the Ohio. It’s called the Golden Triangle, and at sunset the glowing skyscrapers do indeed seem golden.

Pittsburgh holds high the best of American values; hard work, unpretentiousness, renewal. In the heyday of the steel industry, it was virtually uninhabitable: palls of smoke so thick that streetlights burned all day; desk jockeys who left their offices for an hour’s lunch and returned to find their white shirts stained black; rivers so choked with chemicals that they burned for days on end. One writer called Pittsburgh ‘hell with the lid taken off’, and didn’t find much dissent.

But by the early 1980s the steel industry had shut down, and now hillsides above the mill sites have grown lush and green again. Pittsburgh is a riot of hills, and valleys, slopes, hollows, streams, gulches too. It spills out cockeyed across the landscape’s folds, taking its cues from the terrain. It’s therefore a city of neighbourhoods, little worlds of their own separated by earth or water and rejoined by bridges. Pittsburgh has more bridges than Venice, something of which the tourist board is inordinately proud; that, and the fact that the ‘Burgh is repeatedly voted among America’s Most Liveable Cities.

The Pittsburghers I met certainly seem happy to live there. The Steelers, winners of more Super Bowls than any other team, are less a sports outfit than an urban religion, and at times it seemed as though every other person on the street was wearing a Steelers coat, even though the season had ended a couple of weeks before.

One of the biggest Steelers nuts I met was the cabbie who took me to the airport. We chatted about great players and teams gone by, and then the talk turned to politics – the Democratic primaries were in full swing, with Hillary and Barack neck and neck for the presidential nomination, I asked the cabbie what he thought of Hillary.

‘I ain’t too keen,’ he said.

‘Nor’s my mother-in-law,’ I replied. ‘She can’t stand her.’

‘Your mother-in-law’s one smart lady.’ Pause. ‘Ain’t too many guys that can say that about their mother-in-law.’

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One of the first questions writers seem to be asked is ‘how long does a book take to write?’

In the case of Soul Murder, the answer is one month, one year, two years or three years, depending on how you count.

One month was how long it took me to write the first draft, from the moment I typed the first word to the moment I typed the last. I’d write my daily word count on the whiteboard in my office, and it varied from just over 1,000 words on a bad day to 10,000 on the best.

But the draft was just that – a draft. Soul Murder went through two more drafts before publication, each one substantially different from the one before. Plots were made more complex and twisty; characters were variously introduced, discarded, resurrected or killed; entire strands of the story were cut or expanded. This process took another 11 months (not constantly – I was working on other projects at the time). That makes a year.

However, I didn’t write the first draft entirely from scratch, of course. I’d planned, plotted and researched for a year (again, not constantly) before I sat down and wrote the first proper word. Some authors like to wing it and see where the story takes them; they’ve little idea of what’s going to happen before it does. I’m far too anal to do that. I like to know what’s going to happen and when, so if I do have a good idea en route, I can always rejoin the main story arc if I get lost. A narrative sat-nav, if you like. With all this preparation in place, it was two years from start to finish.

But that’s still not the full story. Because even before the first day of planning proper, I’d had a year of thinking about it – working out the main character, coming up with basic plot ideas not just for Soul Murder but for Patrese’s next outings, discussing them with my agent, setting them out for HarperCollins, negotiating contracts, and so on. The first proper pitch document I have is dated October 2006; the version that went to the printers is from October 2009.

That works out at an average of about 100 words a day; at which rate, it would have taken me four days to write this blog post!

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