"Highly Commended" for the Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger (awarded for unpublished novels by unpublished authors) is a huge vote of confidence for an aspiring novelist. When former screenwriter Belinda Bauer received this accolade last year for her debut Blacklands (Transworld, January), she was thrilled. "To be honest I just wanted to get [the book] read" she confesses when we meet. "I'd finished it and I knew from my screenwriting years that it's so hard to get anything read by anyone unless it's in a competition where it's guaranteed to be read by somebody."
Intriguingly, given the CWA Dagger seal of approval, it was never Bauer's intention to write a crime novel: "I was stunned really that people felt it was a crime novel as such because to me a crime novel is Val McDermid or Sue Grafton or Michael Connelly, where there is a crime. And in my book the crime had taken place many years before, and it was the aftermath of a crime that I was dealing with. To me it was much more of a family drama... the fact [the story] had to do with a crime in the past and became a crime in the future, was incidental."
Blacklands tells the story of 12-year-old Stephen Lamb who lives with his single mum, his nan and the aching, ever-present loss of his missing uncle who disappeared aged just 11, believed to have been murdered and buried on Exmoor. Convinced, with a child's logic, that he alone has the power to heal his fractured family by finding his uncle's body Stephen digs obsessively, and one day makes a fateful decision... Bauer originally trained as a journalist in Cardiff and worked as a reporter for a news agency there for seven years. She had no thought of writing beyond the day job until, after seeing a run of bad films at the cinema, thought she could do better. It took her three weeks, writing her script every night after work and on "literally the day I finished it" she saw the Carl Foreman Award for Screenwriting advertised in a magazine, entered, and won. In 1993 the prize was a scholarship to California State University (CSU) to study film and screenwriting. She says "The most invaluable thing, apart from the improvement in my writing, was just being in a town where you knew people were making a living [from screenwriting] and when you said you wanted to be a screenwriter nobody laughed in your face. In LA you got the feeling that anything could happen at any time."
Although one of her feature film scripts from the CSU course was later to be made into the film "Happy Now", when she arrived back in Cardiff she was depressed at the thought she had failed to capitalise on what she thought of as "a once in a lifetime opportunity". Abandoning screenwriting, she worked as a secretary, and then as a sub-editor for the Western Mail newspaper. It wasn't until the script for "Happy Now" was sold and made into a film starring Ioan Gruffudd—never released— that she returned to screenwriting full-time in 1999, agented by PFD: "The beauty of screenwriting is that nobody can do anything without a script so, whether you are going to make the film or not at the end of the day, the writer gets paid, and has to be paid at every stage and for every rewrite." But nothing was getting made which she describes as "really soul-destroying". When the plug was pulled on a major feature film the day after Bauer delivered the final script it was the last straw: "For years my mother had been saying to me 'Write books because then it's yours' so I thought 'I'm going to take all the ideas I've had for films over the years and write books'."
It took her just four months to complete Blacklands, and the superb pacing of the novel reflects Bauer's journalism and film background but she says that the biggest challenge was abandoning the habits of her former career: "as a screenwriter you have to be succinct and cut out any extraneous words or descriptions so when I started writing prose for the first time it was really difficult to make it last. I'd write Chapter One [and it would take up] three-quarters of the page!"