Ex-cop turned Lancashire crime author Nick Oldham on the ‘marathon’ of writing and ‘the gamut of human life in Blackpool in the ‘80s’
Nick Oldham would wait until the very last minute - the very last minute possible - before walking into the bank each morning. Then a fresh-faced 18-year-old, he’d landed a job straight out of school, but found himself holding off crossing the threshold until the bell in the local clock tower struck nine. Only then would he start work. He hated it.
Nick was a young man inspired by narrative and excitement, a child reared on Rudyard Kipling who became a teenager enraptured by Ian Fleming. People and their stories were what he craved, not a cubicle and a desk. Caught up in a world of numbers, he was a literary man at heart, a literary man starved of words.
And so he did what you’re supposed to do when in need of help: he turned to the police.
“On my lunch breaks, I’d see plenty of officers out and about on the streets, which made me think ‘that’d be an interesting job’,” explains Nick, now 66. “It was never the case that I grew up wanting to be a police officer or anything - my thoughts literally were ‘it’s better than working in a bank’ so, against my mum’s wishes, I joined up in 1975 at 19.
“It was brilliant: the best decision I ever made,” he adds. “Each day was different and you’d see the full spectrum of society in a single shift, from doctors to drunks. It was an amazing job, especially as someone who fancied themselves as a writer because you’d deal with so many different people on a day-to-day basis.”
And Nick certainly fancied himself a writer. Born in 1956 in the village of Belthorn near Blackburn, he developed a love of reading by thumbing through his dad’s book collection, his interest and attention piqued by thrillers. He enjoyed English at school and displayed a natural talent when it came to the written word, going on to study literature at college.
“Each time I read something particularly good, I’d become really interested in the writer,” says Nick. “I spent a lot of time in libraries in Accrington and Oswaldtwistle researching them back in the ‘60s and ‘70s and I read that Ian Fleming would head off to Jamaica for a few months each year while he was writing a Bond book.
“I thought ‘I quite fancy that kind if lifestyle!’” he adds. “It just seemed like a heck of a way to live, so I started to try my hand at writing myself. In the early days, I wrote as if I was writing The Man from U.N.C.L.E. books, which was a popular spy TV show in the ‘60s, but over the years I developed a bit. But foolishly I never went to university, which I wish I had done.”
It was then that Nick started his ill-fated stint at the bank before joining the police. But he never stopped writing: during the ‘70s and ‘80s whilst working full-time, he wrote three novels, all of which were rejected on numerous occasions. “It got to the point in the early ‘90s that I thought ‘do I still want to do this?’” says Nick, “Writing a novel is a marathon.
“But it was ingrained in me,” he adds. “So I reassessed, looked objectively at why I was getting rejected, and realised I was good with plots, but there wasn’t much light and shade - stuff like subplots and character development between the action. So I took the best bits from my three novels and came up with a new overarching plot.
“After a few more rejections, I was lucky enough to get an agent who took the book on and it all just went from there,” Nick explains. The phrase ‘it all just went from there’ is doing some heavy lifting: in the 26 years since his debut novel was published in 1996, Nick has seen 34 more books of his in print, all whilst he enjoyed a 30-year career with the police.
Now well-established as one of Britain’s most prolific crime writers famed for his 30-book series on the exploits of Lancashire-based officer DCI Henry Christie, I ask Nick to what extent his police work informed his writing beyond just adding a natural veneer of expertise and authority to proceedings.
“I never went out of my way to use things I’d seen on the job, but I’d spent a lot of time working in Blackpool, so I used the feel of the town as a setting,” he says, referencing the seaside resort’s seaside setting, its often-seedy underbelly, and its every-changing, tourism-reliant population. “I saw the gamut of human life in Blackpool in the ‘80s and ‘90s.”
Having retired from the police in 2005 to concentrate on writing full-time, Nick now lives on the outskirts of Preston with his wife Belinda with whom he has three children - Philip, Jessica, and James. And he’s showing no signs of slowing - since hanging up the handcuffs, he has released 23 new books, the latest of which - Demolition - came out last month.
Published by Severn House, Demolition is centred on two chilling murder investigations which see Nick’s recurring hero Henry Christie - now retired and trying to focus on running his pub, The Tawny Owl - return to the job to help the authorities uncover dark secrets dating back to the Second World War. Another Henry Christie novel is expected in 2023, too.
“I have a love/hate relationship with writing,” says Nick. “I go from hating not writing when I’m not, to hating writing when I am, if you know what I mean. I’ve just started another book this week and, as much as I absolutely love it, sometimes it can be like pulling teeth. But writing’s what I do - it’s difficult, but very satisfying.
“I write things out in longhand before putting it into a word document and I try to do a couple of pages a day,” explains Nick. Given his prolific nature, does he ever find it hard to come up with new plotlines? “Not to sound dead egotistical, but storylines are easy - I could come up with a pile of them in a week. The hard bit is translating them into 80,000-word novels!
“But I get into a writing mindset - I once listened to an interview with Madonna, of all people, and she said how she sits down everyday and is creative for at least two hours, no matter what happens, which I think is a great idea,” he continues. “So I sit down and I make myself be creative, which leads to brainstorming, a synopsis, and a pitch for a publisher, eventually.
“It can feel a little haphazard at times, but the whole process is like pouring water into a funnel: it comes out a little more streamlined in the end,” Nick says. “But I still get rejected! Even with 30-odd books under my belt, publishers still say no!” He laughs, a warm smile breaking out audibly across his lips: when it comes to writing, he’s a complete devotee.
“Fundamentally, the urge to write is an itch,” Nick says. “And it needs scratching.”