Nikki and Richard Attree explain how, and why, they wrote ‘SOMEBODY’S DOODLE’ together…

Writing a novel is usually a solitary pursuit, but we discovered that two minds can sometimes be better than one. However, co-writing a book with your partner can certainly test your relationship.

Some of our readers have expressed incredulity that a husband and wife could write a book together without it ending in the divorce courts. So we thought we should spill the beans about how we collaborated.

Brainstorming …

We had the original idea about thirty years ago, while walking on Hampstead Heath. In those days, we were living in a small apartment and we didn’t have a dog, but we used to love watching them playing on the Heath.

Richard: “Hampstead is an affluent part of North London. The Heath is where the well-heeled residents, and a few celebrities, exercise their dogs. We came up with a plot to dognap one of them for a ransom. The idea was a plot for a TV drama, not for us to actually steal a dog, I hasten to add!”

After some brainstorming, we had the main elements of the story. The victim would be a successful, but selfish person, who gets a dog for the wrong reasons. The dognappers are a pair of mismatched petty criminals. One is a hardened villain, and the other a down-on-his-luck, misguided young man who discovers he’s actually a dog lover. The canine hostage bonds with the nice dognapper and prefers him to his real owner. A private detective tracks down the pooch, and his owner finally comes to see the error of their ways.

Nikki: “I should add that we thought of this story well before the popular film: ‘Ace Ventura: Pet Detective’ was released.”

Richard wrote a treatment for a TV drama and sent it to a few people, but nothing came of it, and the idea was filed away for the next thirty years.

Our first collaboration: ‘Life according to Gizmo’ …

In 2007 Richard retired from the media music business and we moved to Tenerife. By then we had a dog—a Yorkshire terrier called Basil.

The late, great Basil

When he died in 2010, we adopted a Labradoodle from a local refuge and we called him Gizmo.

Gizmo is the spokesmutt for Nikki’s campaign to adopt a rescue dog.

Nikki began helping the island’s animal charities with their fund raising and educational campaigns, with Gizmo as the spokesmutt, and this lead to us writing a column for an English language paper. It was written from a dog’s perspective (‘Life according to Gizmo’) and we were the ghost writers. It was our first attempt at writing together and it went well (it didn’t end in divorce, anyway.)

Nobody’s Poodle …

We decided to build on the material from Gizmo’s column and fictionalise his story in a short novel, ‘Nobody’s Poodle,’ which we self-published in May 2013. Writing a book together involved a steep learning curve, but the experience was overwhelmingly positive (and again our marriage survived the inevitable heated discussions.)

Thoughts turned to a sequel …

We each had ideas, some of which may end up in future books, but we agreed that it should be a completely different type of story. We decided not to write another ‘first dog,’ ex-pat/travel memoir, but to try writing what you might call a “real novel”—if you were feeling a bit pretentious, that is.

So, what should this novel be about …?

After more brainstorming, we remembered the dognapping/pet detective idea. Set in North London rather than Tenerife, and as much about the human characters as the canine, it fulfilled the brief to be different.

There was the problem of how to get Gizmo into the story (his many loyal fans would lynch us if he wasn’t.) We solved it by making the dognappers’ victim a snobby film producer (Elizabeth) who buys the rights to Nobody’s Poodle and wants to bring Gizmo to the UK to costar in the film, along with her own dog.

If her dog was an identical Doodle, then there might be the opportunity for some mistaken identity shenanigans, along with a chance for some romance between the canine stars.

Star Crossed Lovers …

Speaking of romance, Nikki had the idea of making the pet detective female (Annie) and have her fall for the goodhearted villain (Jack) who she’s pursuing. They become the second pair of star crossed lovers—fatally attracted, but doomed by being on either side of a criminal chasm, rather than by belonging to warring families. In our story, there’s a happy ending for the lovers—“unlike that downer of a Shakespeare story,” as Miranda (Elizabeth’s teenage daughter) puts it.

What should we call it … ?

It all fell into place when we realised we already had the titles for a trilogy of books, in the little poem that ends Nobody’s Poodle …

I am Nobody’s Poodle
But I’m Somebody’s Doodle,
And I Woof … therefore I Am!

So the title of our second co-authored book would be ‘Somebody’s Doodle’ (‘SD’ for short) and, of course, this would fit well with the identical Doodles shenanigans.

And is it a real novel …?

Well, our main aim was to entertain and amuse. It’s a fast-paced canine cozy mystery, but it does tackle some serious themes. As it races towards the climax, the human protagonists are searching for what’s missing in their lives and begin to glimpse what they can learn from Man’s Best Friend: how to be stoic, live in the moment rather than regretting the past and worrying about the future, the value of friendship and loyalty, and simply to have a bit of fun in life without agonising over everything.

Teamwork …

Richard: “We’re a good team because Nikki writes quickly and spontaneously, and I’m someone who agonises and endlessly polishes the copy.”

So, much of the book was originated by Nikki and then edited by Richard, before being passed back and forth in an ongoing feedback loop.

This process started with the very first page (Nikki remembers visualising the first scene, with Angus being shut in the van) and continued right through to the last line (“we’ll always have Stoke Newington”) which she conceived as a homage to Bogarde’s line to Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (“We’ll always have Paris.”)

As mentioned, writing a novel is usually a solitary pursuit, but we discovered that two minds can sometimes be better than one. For instance, it’s useful to have both a male and female perspective on the characters, how they relate to each other, and how they deal with events.

This type of teamwork is quite normal for film and television drama, of course. A TV soap opera, for instance, will have a whole team of writers collaborating on story lines. We found it similarly supportive and motivational.

We needn’t suffer loneliness or isolation and if one of us is experiencing writer’s block the other is, hopefully, gripped with enthusiasm. We encourage each other to persevere through the hard slog of writing a novel and a team effort is less likely to be abandoned.

Downsides …

Of course, a collaboration can have downsides too. One of our rules is that all decisions have to be 100% agreed by both of us. No compromises. So any disagreements over plot or language have to be discussed and thrashed out until we reach consensus, or else the plot idea/paragraph/character has to be abandoned. This means binning some promising chunks, but it guarantees that our co-authored books are genuine fifty-fifty collaborations.

Writing a plot-driven novel like SD is a bit like solving Rubrik’s Cube, repeatedly, or perhaps like designing and building a Grand Design of a house. A whole lot of interlinked decisions are needed to crack it. We both had lots of intricate plot ideas, which we continually tried out on each other, thrashing them out and discarding several that were too contrived, inconsistent, unbelievable etc.

So the outlining process took quite a while and involved some fairly heated discussions. Just as we’d had the original idea while walking around Hampstead Heath, all those years ago, so we brainstormed the plot endlessly as we hiked around our local spot in Tenerife (Mt Roja, El Médano) with Gizmo.

We slaved over the synopsis until most of the story was worked out and 100% agreed, as per our rule. Once we had agreed what was to happen in each chapter, we divided them up and wrote the characters and scenes that we each felt the most affinity for.

Favourite characters / scenes …

Some of Nikki’s favourite scenes are with Gizmo, Doodle, and the other canine guests at Wags dog hotel … “I loved writing these chapters and the dialogue between the dogs”. Her favourite human character is Annie, the dreadlocked pet detective.

Richard: “Having had to endure TV producers for many years as part of my job, I particularly enjoyed getting my own back in the scenes with Elizabeth.”

To sum up …

In our experience, creative collaboration with one’s partner brings you closer together. It’s like taking the ultimate holiday together, and our marriage is all the stronger for it. It may be a bit of a twee cliché, but nether the less true, to say that our motive for writing books together is certainly not fame or fortune (LOL, fat chance etc) but because we love doing it.

SOMEBODY’S DOODLE is available as a paperback and ebook from your local Amazon store