Welcome to the second edition of The Third Degree. This month, Salisbury, England’s Tarn Richardson – author of The Darkest Hand fantasy horror trilogy – has agreed to be in the hot seat to undertake a grueling interrogation about his published work and writing techniques.
The chair is ready, the spotlight is turned on, so let the grilling commence. Enjoy!
Hello Tarn, thanks for agreeing to be subjected to The Third Degree. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hi Dave! Thanks for having me on your blog!
Right, deep breath! I am the author of the fantasy horror trilogy, The Darkest Hand, published by Duckworth Overlook in the UK and Overlook in the US and Canada. I live in a village just outside Salisbury, Wiltshire, (yep, that Salisbury, the most unlikely place for a real-life worldwide spy-story), with my wife, Caroline Richardson, the portrait artist and our two sons. After years of trying to ‘find my voice’ (in other words, writing fairly rubbish stuff) I finally wrote something half decent and in 2014 was offered a three-book deal. The Damned, the first in the trilogy, came out in 2015. The Fallen and The Risen followed in 2016 and 2017.
Do you write fulltime or do you have a day job?
Like most authors, I juggle writing with the boring day job. I run a small web agency from home during the day, while writing every morning, evening and weekend. However, working from home means that I can easily integrate the day job with writing, should inspiration or looming deadlines ever come knocking!
I think that even if I didn’t come to rely on an income from my day job, I don’t think I would ever stop doing some form of ‘normal work’ outside of writing. Human contact is so important to keep the anchor of reality and ideas flowing through your writing. If I was simply entrenched in my writing cell with no one to see or interact with, I’d lose that honestly in my books, the personal touch, not to mention lose my mind!
When did you first start writing and what led to your love of the craft of writing?
Oh, I can tell you exactly when my love of writing came about. I was eight and our teacher, Mrs. Jones, read my class The Hobbit. I remember the moment like it was yesterday. I’d never known, let alone heard, anything like it. The language, the scenes, the characters, they all seemed to talk to me. I knew exactly what Tolkien was trying to say as if I too inhabited his world. It was as if a light had gone on in my head. I knew after that what it was I wanted to do with my life. Write stories.
I actually learned the art of writing by writing Dungeons and Dragons adventures for my school and college mates! It was such a fantastic platform to practice coming up with storylines which excited my audience, as well as learning and developing pace, characters, settings, and delivery.
After school, I went to art college and spent almost all my time writing when I should have been drawing pretty pictures! I’d progressed on to writing novels by then, awful novels, ghastly Tolkien rip-offs, but I loved writing them, loved sitting there for hours, days sometimes, churning out these terrible fantasy stories, learning the discipline, gaining the stamina. And, over time, the stories got better, tighter and eventually started to lead somewhere.
Let’s talk a little about your writing process. Do you outline? Are you a plotter or a ‘pantser’?
Oh, definitely a pantser. I feel it gives my writing ‘an edge,’ not knowing where I’m going to go with the story, the words arriving in a more reactive and brittle fashion. Does that make sense? It also makes writing much more fun, more like an adventure I’m going on and experiencing, rather than simply a manuscript I am having to complete. Throughout I’m kept on my toes, not knowing where an evening’s writing might take me, but always with the final destination off in the distance, the single light I’m charting a course towards.
First drafts – handwritten, dictated, or is it a direct path from brain to keyboard?
Almost always straight to the keyboard. There’s much more of a connection with my brain and keyboard, partly because I can type fairly quickly so I can keep up with my train of thought and partly because my handwriting is so appalling that I struggle to read stuff I’ve written down afterward! However, if I’m ever really up against it on a project I will write on the run, in my little notepad when on a train or in a pub. But it tends to be more note form and I expand it out when back at my keyboard.
Do you have any favorite apps or software you use when writing? Do you use Word or Scrivener? Any tools you feel are must-haves for writers?
I use StoryMill on my Macbook but really anything that you can type into will work. I dabbled with dictation on The Risen, the last book in the trilogy, partly because I was so behind schedule and was desperate to try any technique to get the words and ideas down.
For the second book in The Darkest Hand trilogy [The Fallen], I ended up writing the book in Word for Mac, because of a nightmare situation where StoryMill crashed and mangled my only copy of the first 40,000 words together in a knot of intangible partial lines. It happened on the first night of a most miserable weekend I spent away in Weymouth where I had gone to write the next 40,000 words (and break the back) of Book Two in perfect isolation and ended up losing part of my sanity in that ghastly caravan I hired. However, StoryMill has since upgraded its software and so I went back – and now keep LOTS of backups, both locally and in the cloud!
What’s your editing process?
I try not to edit anything until the first draft is done. Get a first manuscript down, 90,000 words from start to finish and then take a step back and reevaluate. But, of course, human nature is to go back and fiddle, which is what I occasionally find myself doing. That scratch you have to itch.
Once the first draft is done, and I’m either sick to death of the manuscript or largely happy for a first-base attempt, it goes in a drawer for three months, and I have a nice rest and reintroduce myself back into my family or move onto another writing project. When ready, I’ll take the manuscript out, and have another read with the hindsight the break has given me. I love the editing phase, probably because I’m then working with a structure. I know where I’m going and every session achieves results.
When and where do you usually write and for how long? What is a typical writing day for Tarn Richardson?
When I am entrenched on a project I will write every morning between 6.30am and 9am, evenings between 8pm and 10pm (or often beyond if things are going well) and weekends too. Sometimes I will also write during the working week if the manuscript demands it or work allows.
I usually write in my home ‘writing cell’ but I can write anywhere and can switch on to writing fairly easily. Cars, trains, corners of rooms, anywhere will work, as long as I can keep my back to a wall and occasionally lift my eyes to watch the world go by. Coffee shops and pubs are the best places to write when out and about. I love the ambiance of them, the quiet bustle a fitting soundtrack to my tapping keyboard.
How would you describe your writing style and what genre would you say fits it best? Horror? Dark fiction? Historical fiction? Supernatural? Suspense?
It’s a jumble of many things, which makes my writing both broad in appeal but also hard to pin down! The Darkest Hand is a fantasy horror thriller, with historical fiction and mystery woven into events. But it’s also a love story. So, take your pick!
I love lush descriptions and short sharp slaps of violence, all underpinned with, what I hope is, an honest and sincere appreciation of the human spirit and endeavor under adversity. My writing’s been described as a merger of Stephen King and J.R.R. Tolkien. I’ll take that!
Describe “The Darkest Hand” trilogy to someone new to your books.
In 1834, the Catholic Inquisition came to end. In The Darkest Hand trilogy, the Inquisition never did in fact end, but instead went underground, carrying out its work pursuing heretics and monstrous things in secret within the hidden shadows of the world.
The greatest, but perhaps the most unhinged, of all Inquisitors is Poldek Tacit, who happens to find himself, at the start of WW1, in the French City of Arras, investigating the murder of the Cardinal there. Joining forces with Sister Isabella, who has, unknown to Tacit, been sent by the Vatican to investigate him and his suitability to remain an Inquisitor, they uncover a dark conspiracy which, over the course of the three books entwines itself not just within Arras, the Inquisition or the Vatican, but across all nations and eventually the wider world war.
What was the inspiration for the trilogy? Was it planned or was it something that evolved? How close to the original course did it stay when completed or did it change as it progressed?
I wanted to write something BIG, something that examined the time of the Great War, how it came to be, how it played out, complete with all the murder and carnage it created, and how it eventually ground to its terrible bloody end.
It’s a large body of work, which starts in France, but expands to Italy in the second book, The Fallen, and eventually to the entire world in the final book, The Risen.
I actually wrote the opening and closing parts of the books at the very start. And I knew I wanted to set Book Two on the Italian front and the third book in Russia. As it turned out, Book Three grew and grew and eventually demanded to be set on a global stage!
The trilogy begins with a prequel entitled “The Hunted.” Tell us a little about that. Why did you write it?
This was my editor’s idea. He thought it would be a bit of fun to have a short free prequel to whet people’s appetites before they started on the main trilogy. We thought of it as being one of those short films at the start of a James Bond movie, a short sharp jab ahead of the main event. It doesn’t possess a huge amount of taxing reading, but it introduces Tacit’s unyielding style to the reader and gives them, hopefully, a thrilling short rumble through the streets of Sarajevo. It’s also set on the eve of WW1 so does a nice job framing the start of the war and the trilogy.
Let’s talk about your characters. Poldek Tacit is a flawed badass, but who or what was the inspiration for Tacit and the other characters?
I’m afraid to admit that Tacit’s beginnings were fairly innocuous! I was sitting on a train to London and noticed that almost all the commuters had this washed out, grey look about them, as if they really didn’t want to be on that train, didn’t want to be going to the city to do their daily jobs. And then, on the way back, these same commuters were all in the bars in Waterloo getting drunk before heading home, drinking away the memories of the day. And that’s when the idea for Tacit hit me, a pissed off, fed up, world-weary figure who hates his job but has a moral sense of duty to keep doing it, so he blunts his emotions with alcohol and keeps offering his services to his employers.
Originally Tacit was a Russian Major, but once I realized that we were missing a rather large piece of the story puzzle (the Inquisition), I changed him to an inquisitor, had him getting embroiled in a huge Catholic conspiracy hunting werewolves, and then we were off!
If any of the books became movies, who would you like to see play Tacit?
Tacit’s changed a lot in my mind over the writing of the books. Originally, I saw it as being Hugh Jackman, then Karl Urban, and then Michael Fassbender. But none of them really fitted, because Tacit is so physically big and has such an imposing presence. It was a lost cause! And then I saw Tom Hardy in Taboo and realized I was watching a sort of Tacit on the TV screen! Gruff and grim and immense and troubled. And I thought, that’s him. That’s the actor right there. We can sort out his height with camera trickery later!
With the stories being set in World War One and the Vatican, how much research was needed and what kind – visits, interviews, reading? Has history always been a subject of interest to you?
I visited both France and Belgium back in 2012, making notes of the places featured in The Damned, the first in the series. When back home, I spent a lot of time at the National Archives at Kew reading the war diaries of the individual units sent to the trenches, their movements, their defensive and offensive maneuvers. And then a lot of reading on the subject of the Great War, how it began, why it began, what battles occurred at the start of it and then on the different fronts, the different units, the fighting methods, trench warfare and raiding. And then all the Vatican and Catholic stuff, the folklore around werewolves, the different Catholic orders, hierarchies, and rituals! A lot to find out and to study and learn!
History was never really of interest when I was at school, probably because of the way it was taught, but as I got older I got increasingly interested in the subject. Now I read about history for pleasure, not as a chore.
What did you enjoy most about writing your first novel, The Damned, and what did you find most difficult?
Oh, that’s a good question. I think the thing I most enjoyed was finally, after all the misfires and half attempts at writing a novel for 20 years, realizing I was writing something that I really enjoyed and believed in. It’s a wonderful feeling, when you write without the binds of agent or publisher demands and deadlines, just writing for the joy of writing, being in the story and being the story.
That changed when I had a deadline for books two and three but, conversely, you’ve been given a book deal so moaning is not an option! You’ve waited your whole life to be where you are so it would be bad form to complain too much!
I suppose the most difficult thing was waiting to hear back from my agent (when he was yet to sign me) once I had reworked the manuscript based on his initial rejection comments and sent it back to him. That was nerve-wracking, knowing he would be re-reading the whole reworked thing (he hated the original manuscript but saw promise in my writing and the idea) and just hoping I had done enough to convince him to take me on and represent the book.
Now that the trilogy is complete, what’s next? Do you have any other novels currently in progress?
I do. I don’t think you ever stop writing or at least thinking about writing as a writer. You always have things cooking away, it might be just a few pages of scribbled ideas or a whole manuscript, but you always have something that you think and hope might just be a little bit better than the last thing you wrote.
Currently, my agent is reading my fourth book, Ripped, which is a dark crime novel about a modern-day Jack the Ripper killer. I actually wrote it between writing The Damned and The Fallen, but I’ve only just been able to return to it and smarten it up. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s certainly the most complete novel I’ve written, containing everything I’ve ever wanted to say in a book.
I’ve also written a rather unpleasant murder mystery set in an English village, scarily similar to the one I currently live in! The first draft of that is in a drawer and I’m hoping to take it out and look at it again this summer.
Do you have a favorite line or passage from your work, and would you share it?
I think it’s the bit in The Damned where Sister Isabella asks Tacit if he’s lost his faith, lost his way in life. It was the crux of story’s ethos, about why we keep doing these terrible things to each other and why we never seem to change.
“Of course, it’s not just us who are to blame. The protestants and the jews and the muslims and the hindus and the shintos and the sikhs, they all give as good as they get. An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. An endless spiral downwards.” Tacit paused and drew breath, shaking his head. He tapped his foot on the floorboards. “An endless spiral down there.”
“So, you don’t think we’re winning then, Tacit?” asked Isabella, “winning the fight against our foes? Is that what you’re saying?”
“Winning? No. But that’s the point, Sister. We never will. It’s war without end. And that’s why I’ll keep squeezing the life out of our opponents, correcting our superiors’ mistakes, washing the blood from my hands and breaking the unworthy, because it’s the only life I know. There is no other direction to go other than onwards, spiralling ever down, down, down.”
“And what about you, Tacit?”
“What about me?”
“Have you lost your way?
He shook his head. “No, you and your Vatican lackeys don’t need to worry about me. Because there’s only one way we’re going so it’s impossible to get lost.”
Are there any reviews, positive or negative that have stayed with you?
I tend not to read reviews of three stars or below. They do you no good to read and, if you ever do, will just needle away at you. That said, I know it’s a strange thing to say but I do think it’s important to get bad reviews as well as good for your work. Bad reviews along with good show you’ve written something that tests readers, doesn’t sit on the fence, isn’t vanilla. That’s what writers should be doing with their work, writing work that tests the readers. Makes them think. Mind you, if you only get bad reviews you’ve got a problem!
But there’s been plenty of good reviews which have stayed with me, reviews from book bloggers, (Yvonne Bastian said the trilogy was ‘second only to Lord of the Rings’), from literary critics, (the Daily Mail said the books would be ‘loved by fans of Dan Brown’ but that they were ‘clearly more sophisticated’), and fellow authors, Tim Lebbon and David Moody have both said some lovely things.
However, of all of them, I think the one I remember most was back when The Damned first came out in the US and Canada. Out of the blue, I had an email from a reader who had just finished the book. He said that he read a lot but that he’d so enjoyed The Damned, saying all these lovely things and finishing by saying, “You sir are the real deal!” Goodness me. That was incredible. Just so touching and unexpected. I was so moved.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received regarding writing?
Don’t write to get published. Write simply for the joy of writing. Write because you want to write your story. Write because you want to see where the story will take you. And if you are lucky enough to get published at the end of the journey writing your novel, well that’s just the icing on an already delicious cake.
Any advice for someone new to writing or someone who is struggling with their writing?
For new writers, congratulations! You are about to start an incredible journey which millions of people talk about doing but only a fraction actually begins and even fewer finish. So, pat yourself on the back and stand a little taller amongst your peers. You are a voice in the world now and, maybe, with a bit of luck and a lot of hard work and persistence, you might be a big voice.
As for those struggling with their writing, remember why you write, the reason why you first picked up a pencil and started. You did it, first and foremost, because you love writing. If you ever feel that you’ve fallen out of love with writing, take a step back. Take a break from your manuscript. Go for a walk or run and if that doesn’t work, start working on something else.
And if that still doesn’t work, and you’d rather be out with your mates rather than chained to your desk, go out with your mates and come back when you’re ready. Writing is not a penance. Writing is an art form, and sometimes the sun shines on you and what you’re creating, and sometimes you’re cast into darkness and simply cannot see.
What aspects of writing to do you find the most difficult?
Definitely balancing personal life and writing. If I could, I’d write all the time and find myself very lonely as a result! I need to remind myself sometimes that I have family commitments I need to attend to, not just my manuscripts. I’m driven, incredibly so, obsessed some might say when I start a project. I work myself half to death as if the very physicality of writing helps shape and drive the book. But it comes at a cost, and not just to me. I’m very lucky I have an understanding and tolerant family when I’m working on a project.
Who are your favorite authors? What was the last book you read?
Crikey, there’s a lot of authors I love. Off the top of my head, Alan Moore, Tolkien, Daphne Du Maurier, Frank Miller, Anthony Horowitz, James Crumley. I have diverse taste, not by any means rooted solely in the horror genre. I’ll read “almost” everything and anything. I was told once you should [read more] in order to improve as a writer, to know you’re better than some and also where you should aim for.
I’ve had a good year so far for books I’ve read. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn was absolutely brilliant. I devoured that book utterly. I’ve also recently finished The Chalk Man by CJ Tudor which was enjoyable too. I must mention The Road by Cormac McCarthy simply because that was the most recent book which moved me to tears.
Finally, what’s the one question you wish you would get asked but never do? And what would be the answer?
“You failed English Lit. at school. You scraped a pass for English Language. Why do you think you’ve been able to achieve success in the world of publishing?”
Because writing, honest real writing, is not about convention and following rules. It’s about writing from the heart, with passion and drive and belief and wishing to say something to the world that connects with people, moves and inspires. You don’t need grades or training to do that. You need the aspiration and application and vision. And actually, that’s true for most things in life.
Thanks for your time, Tarn. I appreciate you answering my questions. I’m, looking forward to reading Ripped when it’s published.
Tarn Richardson is the author of The Darkest Hand trilogy, published by Duckworth Overlook in Europe and Australia and Overlook Press in the US and Canada. Consisting of The Hunted (free prequel novella), The Damned (2015), The Fallen (2016) and The Risen (2017), The Darkest Hand trilogy unleashes the flawed but brilliant Inquisitor Poldek Tacit upon a Europe engulfed by the First World War. The Damned was one of the Book Depository’s ‘Books of 2015.’ Having grown up in Somerset, he now lives in Salisbury, Wiltshire, with his wife, the portraiture artist Caroline Richardson.