Sunday, April 22, 2018

Writing out of Corners: the perils of a prequel

Zoë Sharp

Last year I decided I was going to write a prequel to the Charlie Fox series. Partly this was because I wanted to be able to give something to my loyal readers who waited so patiently for me to write the latest book in the series, FOX HUNTER. Personal circumstances meant this took me far longer than I expected it to.

Also, I wanted to tell the untold story of what happened to the character way before the events of the first novel, KILLER INSTINCT. At the point that book is set, Charlie has been out of the army four years. She admits she’s drifting, career-wise, and is making a living teaching women’s self-defence classes around the local area and working in a gym.

You don't expect me to show you
everything at once, do you?

I chose that initial jumping-in point for her very carefully. I knew she had a traumatic incident in her past. She was the victim of rape by four of her comrades back when she was in the army before being vilified by authority and savaged by the press. What happened in that first book would reawaken unwelcome memories as well as forcing her to overcome any lingering doubts about her own abilities. It would throw her in at the deep end and she would have to dig deep in order to swim and survive.

Her past and the effect it’s had on her has been a continuing thread throughout the twelve books so far. We are all a product, to some extent, of our experiences. Charlie’s experiences to date have been harsher than most of us have to face in a lifetime, and I’ve kept on shoving her up trees and throwing rocks at her ever since.

And all the way through, I’ve given snippets of her backstory in the form of flashbacks and conversations, and in the awkward relationship she has with her parents. In the later books, her work in close protection even brings her back into contact with some of the men who attacked her. No coincidences there – often the only work open to former Special Forces soldiers is as a bodyguard or mercenary.

OK, here's a bit more.

Various people have asked, over the years, when I was going to write the book about what happened to her before she was thrown out of the military, but I was reluctant to do so. For one thing, I think I’ve covered that story enough in dribs and drabs in the other books. (I try not to repeat the same flashback scene twice, but to give a slightly new slant on her past each time.)

And for another, I didn’t want to write something where I knew it was going to have such a downbeat ending. Charlie is made a victim, both by the men who attack her and by the system that is supposed to protect her and provide her with justice. It would be just too unrelenting. Indeed, one of the very reasons I chose the start point I did for KILLER INSTINCT was because it’s the point at which she turns the corner, finds herself again, and begins her fight back.

So I looked for other aspects of her life which I thought might be intriguing for the reader, and add something to the character’s story. I realised that, although I had gone into detail about how she had been dismissed from her training course, I had never said what she did to get her shot at Special Forces in the first place.

After all, at the time women were not allowed in forward combat roles in the military – they will be able to apply starting from next year – and are still not eligible for SAS or SBS Selection. To get the opportunity to apply, in any capacity, would have taken some exceptional behaviour. So, what had she done?

A bit more still ...

The prequel would take place when Charlie was still in the regular army. Younger, more naïve, not nearly so cynical, and – most importantly – not yet having acquired her hard-won ability to kill without hesitation.

Because timelines are a little more elastic in fiction than in reality, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that, while she was still in, the British Army could be on operations in Afghanistan. I have never mentioned a specialty for Charlie during her military service, which was a shame as making her a medic would have given a great excuse for her to be in the thick of it when perhaps she shouldn’t officially be there. Instead, I made her a signaller.

That got me out of the first corner I’d painted myself into.

The next one wasn’t quite so easy. I stated that the first person she killed, up close and personal, was during the events of KILLER INSTINCT. So, in proving to the Powers That Be that she has what it takes to go in for Selection, I wasn’t able to have her actually shoot anyone dead. This despite the fact that she is noted as the best shot in her unit – during target practice on the ranges, at any rate.

Getting around that one took a lot of head scratching, but I finally managed it, with a bit of input from a couple of ex-military mates and a lot of watching dubious YouTube videos. And if you want to find out how, you’ll have to read the book!

And finally, the whole cover.
Sparkly, isn't it?
I’m planning to bring the prequel, called TRIAL UNDER FIRE, out next month, possibly in time for the CrimeFest event in Bristol (May 17th – 20th), although initially at least it will only be available to subscribers to my email list. Definitely time to say thank you to all those readers who’ve stuck with me over the years.

This week’s Word of the Week is kakistocracy, meaning government by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous or incompetent citizens. From the Greek kakistos meaning worst and although it may seem custom-made for our times, it actually first came into use in the early 19th century.

Zoë’s upcoming events:

Thursday, May 10th @ 2:00pm
Author talk at Ellesmere Port Library
Civic Way
Ellesmere Port
Cheshire CH65 0BG

Thursday, May 10th @ 7:00pm
Author talk at Upton Library
Wealstone Lane
Cheshire CH2 1HB

Saturday, May 19th @ 9:00 – 9:50am
Marriott College Green
‘W Is For Woman – Something To Prove?’
Sharan Newman (Moderator)
Jane Casey
Niki Mackay
Christine Poulson
Zoë Sharp

Saturday, May 19th @ 2:00 – 2:50pm
Marriott College Green
‘Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: Classic Thrillers’
Jake Kerridge (Moderator)
CJ Carver
Lee Child
Mike Ripley
Zoë Sharp

Sunday, May 20th @ 9:30 – 10:20 am
Marriott College Green
‘The Indie Alternative’
Zoë Sharp (Moderator)
Ian Andrew
Karen Millie-James
Alison Morton
Debbie Young 


  1. You’re such a masterful storyteller! I can’t wait to see “Trial Under Fire” in real life...which should be about the same time as I see you in Bristol!

    As for your word of the week, what can I say beyond there seems no escape from the frying pan.

  2. Thanks, Jeff. Should have early copies of the new standalone in Bristol, also! Looking forward to seeing you both there.

    Re Word of the Week. Yup, the grass is always browner on both sides of the fence ...

  3. Being a pantser, not a plotter, I find myself painted into a corner with a fair amount of frequency. I find those cornerings (not that there is such a word) extremely useful--for they force me to be at my most creative. This makes me quadruply happy about the forthcoming Trial Under Fire. I can't wait to see how you solved these problems. And to meet the young Charlie!!!

    Your words of the week are pretty much always news to me. Not this week's, however. I started using it regularly during the Nixon years. Since then, we've had several denizens of the White House who have made it an increasingly useful part of my vocabulary. Kaka indeed!