Cash for characters scheme was key to completion of Wivenhoe writer’s thriller

Some of the 'Cash for Characters' Florida Key cast at the Wivenhoe launch party.

Some of the 'Cash for Characters' Florida Key cast at the Wivenhoe launch party. - Credit: Archant

Novelist Neil Watson’s latest, Florida Key, is full of familiar characters, especially to a group of his friends and acquaintances who have paid to appear in the Wivenhoe and US-set thriller.

Neil Watson with the actual Florida key that lead to the whole adventure.

Neil Watson with the actual Florida key that lead to the whole adventure. - Credit: Archant

Wivenhoe writer Neil Watson’s two novels, Muddy Water and Florida Key, have the following play on the usual “all persons fictitious” disclaimer: “Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely deliberate.”

The reason is the 59-year-old has populated his books with characters based on real people who have paid to be included in the book in a type of crowdfunding Neil brands “cash for characters”.

The idea began by chance in 2015 when he was putting together Muddy Water, a tale of family, revenge and unexpected love on the banks of the River Colne, in Wivenhoe.

“I remember one lady asking me to put her in the book,” says Neil. “I said: ‘It’ll cost you’ and she fired back: “How much?” I had never thought about so just said: “I don’t know. £100?” Soon five more signed up and it kept going. In the end I’d raised £1,500.”

Neil donated all the money to charities West Mersea RNLI, Colchester MIND, Colchester Samaritans and the Royal British Legion.

Even more signed up for Florida Key, which had its launch at The Wivenhoe Bookshop last month. This time the money went to Neil, to cover him for the time he had to spend away from his day job as a painter and decorator to get the book written.

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There is more drawing on reality in the books. The central character in Muddy Water, Leslie Markland, lives on a house boat in Wivenhoe. Neil bought a houseboat – now no longer his but still visible in the harbour outside the town’s Rose and Crown pub – on which he used to have regular wine-fortified book writing talks with friend and publisher of Hornet Books David Roberts, who has released both of Neil’s novels, and once turned into the world’s smallest pirate radio station.

Florida Key is inspired by a purchase which got Neil’s mind racing. “I went to a flea market and came across a cabinet of old keys,” he says. “One of them had writing on it. I got it examined and was told it was from the Joliet Correctional Center, in Illinois, which was featured in cult hit film The Blues Brothers.

“My imagination went into overdrive. Maybe this was the key to one of the cells. I began to wonder what went on in that cell.”

Ian began to hatch a plot that also incorporated another snatch of real life. In 1983, Neil cycled across America, west to east, from LA to New York. The trip included a memorable meeting.

Neil says: “At one point I was in Kansas cycling on what seemed an endless straight highway. It must have gone on for 500 miles. Then I saw another cyclist coming the other way. We both stopped and exchanged addresses. It was a Japanese guy and meeting him like that, in the middle of nowhere, has always stayed with me.”

Florida Key draws these plot strands together into a murder mystery straddling the US and Wivenhoe – “surely a first,” says Neil. When Oliver Markland buys an old prison key from a Florida flea market his casual purchase sets off a train of events surrounding a brutal, decades-old murder which has been pinned on a young Japanese cyclist. In trying to clear the cyclist’s name, Oliver is drawn into unravelling a mystery that threatens his own life.

The “cash for characters” enabled Neil to whole himself away for a while in southern France’s Montolieu, which with its 15 bookshops is known as the Village of Books and where he and his wife, Jane, have a holiday home.

The town, near Caucassanne, will host the French launch of Florida Key on June 24, on the terrace of a local wine shop. “About 20 people are flying over,” says Neil. “I don’t think it is the book that is the attraction.”

He documents the daily battle of the writing process, as well as caring for the house boat, in his blog which should be a vital resource for all budding authors with its examination of the discipline involved as well as the glow of achievement of completing your work.

“I’ve always like the idea of writing,” says Neil, whose past jobs include setting up his own magazine, called Coat Hanger, aimed at sales reps. “I’ve always found it easy to come up with ideas and stories, but getting it completed is something else. There are so many emotions and you are always fighting your demons.”

The blog also first drew to light the financial rewards that can follow some judicious name-dropping. Writing about his efforts to refurbish the houseboat brought him “loads” of paint from Dulux, power tools from B&Q and even a second-hand engine from Suzuki. He is like the Kendall Jenner of Wivenhoe!

The ingenious money-raising scheme for Florida Key requires Neil to immortalise Wivenhoe friends and associates in print. Does that bring its own pressures, bearing in mind he is likely to run into them most days?

“Some people didn’t care how I used them in the book,” says Neil, “but others specified they wanted to be a goodie or a baddie. One friend stipulated that he had to be an assassin.”

Some characters that Neil has dreamt up for his friends have been surprisingly apt. “I cast one lady as a forensic surgeon. I wasn’t sure she would like it, but she said she had actually always dreamed of being one.”

Neil has weaved these characters around his plot that has all the ingredients of a Hollywood thriller. A possibility that thrills Neil.

“That would be the icing on the cake. I would love that,” he says.

No doubt so would the cast of real-life characters that populate the book. A £100 investment is not bad to be see your name up on screen.

Florida Key, by Neil Watson, and published by Hornet Books, is available from The Wivenhoe Bookshop, Waterstones and Amazon.

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