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Interview with Nicholas Rhea

Nicholas Rhea, Yorkshireman

Drawing on his early career as a police officer and a deep-seated love of his Yorkshire home, Peter Walker has written around 130 books under six pseudonyms in the last 40 years, but shows no sign of running out of steam.

"I think I've had about 112 published but even now some get turned down for various reasons," he said. "Some of them might be alright with a bit of rewriting but I don't have the time."

A full-time writer since 1982, after 30 years in the police force, Peter is best known for the Constable books, published by Robert Hale, which inspired the successful ITV series Heartbeat although other serials to maintain ensure he keeps up an impressive tally of six novels a year.

"I've got ideas queueing up actually," he said. "I find it easy enough to just sit down with a blank page and get on with it. I work office hours, because this is my business. My wife works as my PA, looking after all the phone calls and accounts, and so on, which leaves me free to write.

"I like to keep things rolling. I'm lucky because my books are published mostly straight away, in large print and audiobooks, so the readers are kept supplied with all sorts, happily.

"It's not all writing, though, sometimes I'm checking proofs, or there's the Heartbeat scripts to read. Heartbeat could be a full-time commitment if I let it but there are books to get on with. The actual writing takes me about twelve hours a week, Monday to Wednesday, when I'll probably do 15,000 words, then on Thursdays I do columns for two local newspapers. I can switch from fact to fiction with no trouble.

"It's a good life. Anybody can do it, if they really want. There's nothing more to it than just to keep writing.

"Peter's first novel, published in 1967, was Carnaby and the Hijackers, which led to ten further novels about New Scotland Yard Det Sgt Carnaby investigating cases on the North York Moors until he was 'retired' in 1984. "The reason I stopped wasn't that I wanted to, but Robert Hale stopped publishing crime novels. Otherwise Carnaby might still have been going," said Peter. "But I thought that one character fits a publisher so it was a chance to do something else.

"Those early crime books were what I would call 'undemanding thrillers' - which was just the kind of thing readers wanted, high-up police detectives in fast moving crime thrillers. But in my experience, the life of a policeman moved at a slower pace. Most policemen didn't deal with crime and there was a lot of humour around, so I decided to try to write something more like that and gave it a rural setting."

Constable Along the Trail

Under the name Nicholas Rhea, Peter has written 30 Constable stories since 1979, set in the fictional Yorkshire village of Aidensfield, most recently Constable Along the Trail. Yorkshire Television first expressed an interest in adapting the series as early as 1982. "There were four books out at that time and Yorkshire Television bought the option on those four books to do a series about a village policeman. The option lasted three years, during which, of course, nobody else could produce anything, then they decided they didn't want to go any further.

"I think it was that James Herriot was still so fresh in people's minds and they didn't want to go up against it. Then, in 1988, they renewed their interest, when of course there were more books. Things started to happen this time. I kept asking whether they were going to produce a series but they just said they were thinking about it. Then it finally made it to the screen in 1992."

Although Heartbeat long since exhausted Peter's storylines, his nucleus of characters still provides the focus of the show and its recent offshoot, The Royal. "They've kept me informed all the way through," he said. "I read all the scripts and go through the storylines as their police consultant."

In addition to the Constable and Carnaby books, Peter's other police serials feature Montague Pluke, an eccentric detective inspector obsessed with horse troughs, and Detective Superintendent Mark Pemberton, who features in eight crime novels with a harder edge. He's also found time for non-serial novels such as Teenage Cop and Robber in a Mole Trap, non-fiction titles such as Folk Stories from the Yorkshire Dales and Murders and Mysteries from the North York Moors, along with a number of Emmerdale tie-ins, including the Emmerdale Official Companion.

He moved away from the force for his most recent serial character, 1950s butcher-turned-insurance salesman Matthew Taylor, who covers the remote farms and hamlets of fictional Delversdale in the novels Some Assured and Rest Assured. "They're based on the life of a rural insurance salesman in the 1950s. It's the same locality, in the North York Moors, using a young man, which in fact I've based on my father. I've pinched his stories and fictionalised them.

"My stories are invariably set in Yorkshire because I know it so well," he added. "I can't stress too much the importance of writing about what you know. Particularly when I started to write the Constable books, I put a fair bit of myself into those and used some experiences I remembered, with a mixture of police stories about things that happened to other people. It's not all autobiographical but the details are there in the background."

Peter's top tip for writers hoping to emulate his success is to check the little details of their manuscripts. "It's quite shocking to see how careless writers can be. I don't like to call anybody 'amateur' writers, but I've found they don't really take enough care. I used to judge competitions, and with so many, simple things like the spelling or grammar would be wrong. It only takes a minute to check.

"If you were out shopping, you wouldn't buy something if it was inferior. A script has to be as good as you can possibly make it."

Nicholas Rhea (Peter N. Walker) was interviewed by Jonathan Telfer.

This article originally appeared in the June 2005 issue of Writing Magazine. For more information, visit the website.

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