I’ve been writing standalone Death in Paradise novels based on the first detective DI Richard Poole for some years now, and I’m often asked how writing the books differs from writing the scripts for the TV show.
The first and most obvious difference is that the TV series really is a gang show. Right from the start, from the original idea right through to the finished script, any writer on Death in Paradise is helped by the input of a team of writers, plus a script editor, a story producer and all the other Execs involved (of which there are many). It means we writers are constantly supported. That entirely natural crippling fear and doubt that we feel in trying to get a story to land is shared among the whole group.
It helps enormously that this vital team are fans of the murder mystery genre. Often, a team member will come up with a startling twist or a fresh take on an old idea. It means I get to steal their ideas and pass them off as my own. It’s a brilliant way to work.
But the magic doesn’t end there. Add to that a team of creatives out on location who are there to sprinkle their own dash of stardust. Location managers find the perfect setting (and there are plenty of those on Guadeloupe where we film the TV show); costume and art departments build the scenes and dress the actors; and directors and directors of photography frame the perfect shot and find motivation for the characters. The actors breathe new life into lines, add funny business and jokes that you didn’t know were there…and then even back in the production suite in the UK, editors and animators create wonderful imaginings bringing the page to life. It’s a huge long inexhaustible list of talented folk interpreting one simple script, turning the text from the page into primetime TV.
Novel-writing is different. You’re on your own. Not just for a few days or a couple of weeks. For months at a time. It can be a very, very lonely process, ploughing on week after week gripped by the fear that you’ll never make it to the end, or that there’s a massive plot hole in the story that you’ve failed to unearth thus far – a fear that constantly clutches at my heart. Hour upon hour is spent staring at a computer screen, having conversations with myself about what should happen next. There’s no one to consult. No one to say if it’s awful. No one to warn me if I’m heading down the wrong path. It can feel terrifying.
So why write the books at all?
Well, it’s simple. For all the loneliness and fear you suffer as you write a novel, it’s a much ‘purer’ form of writing, as it’s just you and a flashing cursor on the screen. The solitude of the situation is always daunting, but it’s also often massively thrilling. You just have to write a sentence, and you can conjure anything into existence.
What’s more, novels don’t have budgetary restrictions like the TV show has, or sudden tropical downpours, or hurricanes that shut down production. And they absolutely don’t ever suffer the surprise of one of your lead actors breaking a leg half-way through the shoot, as happened to poor Sara Martins during Series 1 of the TV show.
As DS Camille Bordey, Sara was the fabulous second lead of the show. In episode 4, she performed a stunt for the cameras and broke her leg. It meant writing her out of Episode 5 entirely – which we were due to start filming a few days later – and re-writing all subsequent episodes so that she didn’t have to walk during scenes. If you look at series 1 of the TV show, you’ll notice in episodes 6, 7 and 8 she’s either standing still and wearing long trousers to hide the cast on her leg, or heroically lowering herself into or out of a chair (which was all she was able to do with the huge cast on her leg). She does a magnificent job, and for all of the other shots you can see of Camille walking, what you can see is body double, with the camera positioned as far away as possible.
In fact, in my books, the stories are often ideas I’ve pitched to the TV show and been told are ‘too expensive’ or ‘can’t work under the circumstances.’ In books One and Two of my series of Death in Paradise novels, the stories are based on ideas I’d first pitched as TV episodes but we couldn’t take any further. I knew they were great tricks, classic murders, but they just weren’t right for telly. A Meditation on Murder required a Japanese-style paper tea house we couldn’t work out how to build; The Killing of Polly Carter required a high cliff, at the bottom of which we would find our murdered supermodel – and there’s no such cliff anywhere on Guadeloupe. (Or rather, there is such a cliff, but it’s on the other side of the island – a good hour-and-a-half’s drive from where we normally shoot the show, so wasn’t practicable to shoot).
It’s also worth noting that we tend to have only a limited number of locations in each episode of the TV show for time and budgetary reasons. In a novel however, you can go anywhere you like on the island for free. And it’s a fabulous island to explore. I’ve made this a feature of Book 4 – Murder in the Caribbean, published in December 2018 – where I’ve purposely come up with a story that takes us on a tour of the whole island of Saint Marie.
To end, perhaps the greatest joy that writing the books gives me over writing for the TV show is the chance to access my characters’ internal thoughts. On TV it is the actor’s job to show the audience what our hero might be thinking. Ben Miller did a brilliant job on the telly, but I love having a go myself. I have to say it’s really liberating to be able to access DI Richard Poole’s misanthropic internal monologue and commit it to paper.
So, which of these two forms do I prefer? That’s really hard to say. To be honest, I find that when I’ve finished one, I can’t wait to do other, and vice versa. And frankly, I still pinch myself that I get to do it at all.
Murder in the Caribbean is published by HQ