CHRIS EWAN talks about Safe House

Written by Chris Ewan

Like most writers, I think, rhythm is important to me. I like to write every day when I can. It’s vital when I’m working on the first draft of a new book to keep the momentum going. And in later drafts, it’s only by working every day that I begin to get a sense of the deeper strands that are lurking inside a manuscript, or within a character, waiting to be teased out.

But just as important as this overall working rhythm is the cadence of my writing on a sentence-by-sentence level. I say rhythm ¬≠or cadence and while that'swhat it is to my mind, I guess what I’m talking about here is perhaps better understood as voice or style. It took me a long time to find a way of writing that felt natural to me. A lot of manuscripts got junked while I was busy figuring it out. But at the end of the process, the voice I developed happened to first-person. It happened to be casual and conversational, even confessional at times. And, wouldn’t you know, it also happened to be humorous. (I hesitate to say funny. Humorous seems like a way more forgiving modifier).

I ended up publishing four books in my Good Thief’s Guide to… series of mystery novels writing in this style (and there’ll be a fifth title, set in Berlin, along in 2013). Luckily for me, the voice I developed seemed well matched to the world of a globetrotting burglar. After all, I was writing about a gentleman thief and it would have been tough to get readers to empathise with Charlie Howard and his more reprehensible habits, let alone sympathise with him, if he wasn’t a fun guy to hang out with.

But here’s the thing. I never planned to write only one kind of book. I always hoped to publish different kinds of stories. And it seems to me quite natural that different stories should require different voices. Maybe not dramatically different. Maybe not a radical change of approach. But the tone might alter. The shading, too. And any change was bound to affect the rhythm of my writing. Especially if I was going to tackle something darker.

Safe House is unquestionably that. The novel grew out of two things. The first was an image I couldn’t shake – a vision of a motorbike crash on a lonely road involving a man and a woman, from which only the man is found, with the very existence of the woman being denied by the police. The other was a rumour I’ve heard ever since I first moved to the Isle of Man, the setting for Safe House, some nine years ago. There’s talk among the locals of the island being used as a safe haven for people involved in UK witness protection schemes. The rumours may be true. I can see the logic for it. The Isle of Man is an isolated place – hell, it’s an unheard of place for many people. But the legitimacy of the rumours didn’t really concern me. All that mattered was the notion of somebody being hidden, for some unknown reason, in an isolated cottage in the middle of a dense forest in the Isle of Man.

So I had the genesis of a book. Two ideas that refused to go away. The only thing left to do was to write the story. And to do that I needed a new voice. A new rhythm. And I had to lose the humour.

Well… maybe not lose it completely. There’s still some dry stuff in there. Rob Hale, a Manx plumber and amateur motorbike racer, narrates the majority of the story. He’s an ordinary guy who finds himself caught up in an extraordinary conspiracy. And he talks like an ordinary guy might talk. In the first person. In a conversational tone. And he makes the odd wry remark, even the occasional aside about how peculiar his life has become. I’m sure I wouldn’t like him nearly so much if he didn’t. But I’ve toned down the playfulness that you might find with Charlie Howard. Rob’s not in this book to crack funnies. And he’s not in the habit of getting clever with word play or smug retorts.

Then there are the passages told from the perspective of other key characters. I chose to write them in third-person because I felt the additional distancing device would be a neat way of signifying the external forces working against Rob. And naturally, that required a different rhythm. Another new voice. A fresh opportunity to learn and try to improve as a writer.

Did I miss delivering some of the gags you might find in a Good Thief’s Guide? Actually, no. The truth is they didn’t fit the story I was telling and so they had no business being in Safe House. But I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t see the spaces opening up for them in the paragraphs I was typing. Writing is like anything else. You train yourself to do something a certain way, and you have to retrain yourself to do it differently. But you don’t forget your old techniques. I couldn’t forget the way I write the Good Thief novels if I tried. So I could see the gags coming way ahead of the cursor that was shuttling across my screen. I could see the rhythm of my sentences building towards them. And then I had to pause and take a breath and head in a different direction. Try a new cadence. And honestly, I really like the way it turned out.

Chris Ewan’s latest novel, Safe House, published 2nd August 2012 by Faber & Faber in the UK (and will be released by St Martin’s Press in the United States in December 2012). Find out more at or follow Chris on twitter @chrisewan

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