Making It Difficult For Myself

One of the things that’s particularly important to me when I’m writing is that my books are as authentic as I can make them. That has led to me getting into some scrapes now and again, and it’s also meant that I have possibly limited my market a little bit. Let me give you a specific example with regard to The Cleaner.


I used to live in the parts of East London that form the backdrop for the novel and I’m familiar with the young lads who comprise the gangs that Milton falls afoul of. I was intent on making the language as accurate as I could. In order to do that, I read plenty of contemporary fiction and wandered around those streets with my ears open. The end result is dialogue that is as accurate as I can make it.


That has caused me to receive quite a few negative reviews. Some readers (I’ve sold a lot of books which means that, while they are a small percentage, there are still quite a number of them) found it very difficult to understand the dialogue. That’s particularly true when you bear in mind that most of my readers are in America. I think that this is a legitimate complaint. I struggled to read Irvine Welsh’s books for many years because the prospect of trying to translate his Glaswegian dialect was rather daunting. Whilst I’m not suggesting that these books are anywhere near as challenging as his, I’ve received emails from readers who said that they would have appreciated a glossary that explain some of the language used. And it’s not just my American readers. I’ve received comments from British readers who have suggested that the language cannot possibly be accurate. In particular, people have complained that the word “Fed” when referring to the police is an American term, and not one that you would hear on the streets of Hackney. I know that the use of the word is accurate, but anything that takes the reader out of the experience of enjoying the book is, ideally, to be avoided.


If I was writing the book again today I think I would probably reduce the number of instances of accurate dialogue, if only just a little. I was guilty of this with The Black Mile, too. That dialogue is accurate as per the 1940s and the criminal milieu against which it is set. Again, I’ve received comments from readers who found that to be a little bit of a struggle.


When I started writing, I think I was trying a little bit too hard to impress you with the depth of my research. That’s something that has changed over the years, and my intention now is to write fast, compulsive thrillers that you will struggle to put down. In attempting that, I try to avoid anything that would lead to the pace of the reading slowing down. Accordingly, I was careful to use only a sprinkling of authentic dialogue when describing the sheep stations in the Australian outback in Headhunters, and the gangsters who roam the favelas in Rio for the last Milton novel, Redeemer.


The bottom line is that there is a balance to be struck. Authenticity is important, but it must always be subservient to telling a cracking good tale.


I’m interested to hear what you think about this. Did you enjoy that dialogue in The Cleaner or did it put you off?


13 Responses to “Making It Difficult For Myself”

  1. Stephanie Swanzy

    When I first read The Cleaner, I listened to David Thorpe read the book (via Audible), and I think the dialogue helped give the story a realistic feel. I am a person who appreciates authenticity, and I commend you for your extensive research. Not everyone will always understand the words, but hopefully they will try to interpret to the best of their abilities. To me, the dialogue lends to the spirit of a book.

  2. Marie-Louise Cook

    I loved the fact you used what I was sure was authentic dialogue in The Cleaner. It added depth to the story and made the characters seem more believable. I thoroughly enjoyed the new vocabulary. I’m an ex-journalist and editor so as I read (or listen to the audiobook in this case) even when I am immersed in a story I’m also thinking about the writer’s research. The Cleaner sparked some great conversations with my husband (another fan of your work) about how you researched gang culture (?!) and whether you’ve lived in all the countries you’ve written about. We’re still intrigued! BTW, David Thorpe is one of the very best narrators I’ve ever heard. He seems to be able to deliver any accent which makes a huge difference to the enjoyment of an audible book. He is the first narrator I’ve ever heard to do a believable Australian accent. Not only that, he did a range of Australian accents to ensure the characters could be distinguished from one another. Absolutely brilliant!

  3. Nigel Spratt

    I have just finished ‘The Redeemer’ which means I have read 11 John Milton books and I am now starting on Beatrix Rose. I love the detail that you put into your books. I read on a Kindle Fire and sometimes I go on to google whilst reading and perhaps look at a weapon or go on street view to see where I you have taken me. Before I found your books I read all of Jack Reacher series and before that I was a fan of Tom Clancy novels. He and Lee Child also, as I am sure you know, are also big on detail. I wouldn’t have got past book one if you were not doing your best to be accurate and authentic. Keep it up and thank you. I cant wait for the next John Milton especially as I live near Salisbury and know the Maltings well. I am not sure I would have believed it had you written about the goings on there before it happened!
    Incidentally my wife is on book 6 and likes John Milton just as much as me!

    • markdawson1973

      Hi Nigel. Thanks for the kind words. The new book will not be set in Salisbury, although you will recognise the events that have inspired it. It should be ready by the end of next month, and I am really looking forward to getting it to readers. Enjoy Beatrix and Isabella.

  4. absinthe

    Just finished The Cleaner. Quite enjoyed it. I’m American, and the dialogue didn’t put me off whatsoever. In fact, I quite enjoyed hearing the language of another place. Nothing was hard to figure out, and I’m always a tad enchanted by ‘Britishisms.’ For instance, the use of “car park” instead of “parking lot,” “lift” instead of “elevator,” “mobile” instead of “cell.” “Boi-dem” was a bit unusual, but it wasn’t too hard to figure out that it referred to law-enforcement types or police. One thing I did find odd was the constant use of “leant” instead of “leaned,” but it didn’t detract from the immersive reading experience at all. I’ll most likely read some more of the Milton series.

  5. Joel Davidson

    I just finished book 11. Really enjoying John Milton and the series. Don’t change a thing. I read a lot and I haven’t felt at any point that I was reading anything else other than an enjoyable fast paced story.

  6. Phin Hall

    Having teenage boys (not in London but the capital’s influence is even felt here in darkest Hampshire) I found the dialogue in the Cleaner very insightful. When my boys refer to someone as “bare bench” I can now respond in kind. I certainly didn’t feel it drew me out of the story – if anything it made it more real and gritty.

  7. I have just finished Bright Lights, my 15th book and am still engrossed in the series and can’t wait to start Beatrix Rose’s series but am worried that I will miss John Milton 🙂 This book has the most surprising twist of them all and I would love a continuation of the story which leaves you hanging at the end.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>