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Monday 28 October 2013

Doctor Who: The Science Behind the Scenes

Lancashire Science Festival Presents Doctor Who: The Science Behind the Scenes on Saturday 16 November 2013, 09:30am - 16:00pm in the Darwin Building, University of Central Lancashire, Marsh Lane, Preston, PR1 2HE.

£5 for full day entry (access to all sessions), free entry to the festival activities (excluding sessions) and free parking (see details on their website)

"To celebrate 50 years of Doctor Who, the Lancashire Science Festival proudly presents Doctor Who: The Science Behind the Scenes. Have you ever wondered whether the Doctor's time travelling antics were really possible? And if so, how? Please note that this event is aimed at ages 12 and above."

And here's the bit that I''m involved in:


Doctor Who Screenwriter Stephen Gallagher will be attending the festival and giving a Q&A (paid tickets only) and Autograph Signing Session at 1pm!

Wednesday 16 October 2013

The Other Side of the Fence

In case you haven't picked it up via Twitter or any of the other social media, I have an offspring in the business - her name's Ellen Gallagher and she's to be found in the Film and TV department of London's Blake Friedmann Agency. And if you're a screenwriter with questions that call for an agency perspective then she's started a series of blog posts to tackle them here.

While you'd think it an obvious choice of career for a writer's kid, it was anything but. It's not like a merchant bank, I didn't have a word and get her in. It was basic office skills picked up while working for a machine parts supplier that led the way into film company PA work. Which in turn led to opportunities to take on some of the workload of the development department. A stint with Scott Free, a year with Hammer, some fringe festival and feature work, and now this.

You'll get a different angle from anything I can offer you. Advice from a writer often takes the form of "Here's how I'd do it," which is rarely what you most need to hear. Feedback from an industry-trained reader will tell you when you're missing your targets, or when you're making rookie mistakes that scupper the impression you're trying for. Except that agencies aren't set up to give feedback. So if this is the kind of thing you need to know, get your questions in while you can:
You need several scripts in your 'arsenal', as an agent will want to feel that you're interested in a career, not just 'selling a script' as a one-off. The number of submissions I see that begin with 'I need your help to sell my script...' or 'I'm looking for an agent to represent my script...' - that's a red flag to agents. Since we're going to be building a professional relationship with YOU, not your script, we want to feel that you take your writing career seriously and want to do more in the future than just one project - we want to feel that you've got a career in mind rather than 15 minutes of fame. 
I like to think that growing up in a writing household may have provided some usable insight but as far as advantages go, that's been it.

Friday 11 October 2013

Crime Fiction Files: Researching the Detectives

If you don't ask, you don't get.

And sometimes, even when you do ask...

When I was starting out, planning a novel that would be called Chimera, I approached the Cumbrian Police to ask for some help in researching how they'd respond to a major incident in their area. Their response was polite, brief, and negative.

But just a couple of years later, gathering detail in the US for the novel that I'd abandon and then revive as Valley of Lights, I had a very different experience. Within hours of contacting the Phoenix PD I was out in a car with Tom Kosen, one of their sergeants. When his shift ended, I transferred to another. I watched the police at work, I listened to their jargon, I got shown all the trouble spots and the favourite places. From our conversations I made notes on their shift patterns, their career arcs, their education, their attitudes. I scribbled down the language and the speech rhythms of the people they dealt with.

Nobody put on an act for me; citizen ride-alongs were available to all, and this was routine for them.  I started to build an insight into the state's complex layers of law enforcement... where police responsibility began and ended and where the Department of Public Safety took over, how the local law worked outside the city, where the FBI came in.

And what I did with the police I also did with the DPS, otherwise known as the Highway Patrol, and then again with the local FBI office. It was a boy's dream. I got a call from the motel at about three in the morning to ask what had happened to me; I'd been riding for about eighteen straight hours and had lost all track of the time. I filled one notebook after another.

You don't feel glamorous when you're tagging along. You're a geek who knows nothing while they're totally at ease on their territory. What I felt from with them was a kind of amused tolerance, entirely friendly.

I've found individual British police officers to be just as co-operative on an individual basis… it's the institutions that can  be radically different. In the States you contact the Public Affairs office or whatever, and the reception you get is both cordial and willing. They pass you down the chain to whomever you need to see, and tell you to get back to them if there's anything else you need. In Charlotte, North Carolina, the local film commission made a couple of calls and within hours I was paired with one of their detectives. That was for The Spirit Box, a favourite among my novels. Find it if you can.

I got exactly the same response from the police in both Dusseldorf and Hamburg when I was researching Nightmare, with Angel. "Come in, you're welcome, what do you want to see?"

But in the UK, it's like the safe answer from the higher-ups has always been 'No'. Unless you're the BBC or some major company, and then they'll deal with you because it's harder not to. They know that the project's likely to get made with or without them, and it's better for them to have some input.

But that's when you're backed by a big organisation. If you're a lone writer researching police affairs over here you have to use contacts and seek out individual officers. My experience has been that they're usually happy to speak privately.

The way one of them put it to me was, "If I talk to you on the record, I'll have to clear it with my boss. He'll have to clear it with his boss and his boss will probably say no. So I'll tell you anything you need as long as you don't attribute it to me."

I've had some great contacts in my time. The officer who advised me on Down River was a senior detective in the Serious Crime Support Unit. For Rain it was the youth liaison officer in Soho's Vine Street station. My advisor on The Painted Bride was an ex-Detective Superintendent who'd been advising on a BBC show, and so I hired him for a set period at the same hourly rate. We met in pubs and I paid him in cash in a brown envelope. Fantastic.

They all leave me in the end. They retire and go off to live in Spain. I imagine them socialising and swapping stories with all the villains they used to nick.