Deep beneath the ocean, James Law had a flash of inspiration.
In the wardroom of the nuclear submarine, he took out his phone and a notepad and started tapping and scribbling.
Gradually, from within the claustrophobic confines of the boat and from those jottings, the germ of an idea formed.
Two nights ago, in the shadow of HMS Alliance at the submarine museum in Gosport, more than 150 of his friends, many of them current and former submariners, witnessed the dream from the deep become reality.
It was the launch party for Tenacity, James’s first novel – a tense, murder mystery set in the world he knows best. On board a nuclear submarine.
The years spent beneath the waves seeking inspiration have paid dividends for the 39-year-old from Horndean.
He has been signed by leading publisher Headline for a three-book deal in the UK and in the United States there’s a two-novel contract.
It has drawn praise from best-selling American crime author Patricia Cornwell and TV and film companies have begun exploring the possibilities of a movie.
‘It’s all been a bit of a whirlwind,’ says James, sipping coffee at the submarine museum, ‘but I’m loving it.
‘I’m in a place I never thought I’d reach.’
He’s been writing since he was a teenager, growing up in Portsmouth – poetry, short stories and novels. But like the majority of those dreaming to pen a bestseller, nobody took much notice.
‘I spoke to an agent after I sent off my last novel and he said ‘‘you are one of the top one per cent of writers I’ve read this year, but I only take the top half a per cent . Your writing’s there, but the ideas are not good enough’’.
‘Then he asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was a submariner and he said ‘‘why on earth aren’t you writing about submarines?’’’
At that point James returned to sea and went back to an idea he had once had for a short story competition.
James explains: ‘It was one where they give you a title and you go away and write the story to fit it.
‘It drove me towards creating a female lead character and I gave her a man’s name – a woman in a man’s world.’
And so was created his heroine Lieutenant Dan (Danielle) Lewis, an investigator with the Royal Navy’s Special Investigation Branch.
In Tenacity a chief petty officer hangs himself on a nuclear submarine days after his wife’s brutal murder.
Lewis, and her male sidekick are brought in to solve the crime and she has to interrogate the tight-knit, all-male ship’s company of HMS Tenacity to find out if there’s a link.
James left the navy in 2013 after 20 years, the final decade spent in the Submarine Service. He left as a senior engineer and nuclear reactor plant supervisor.
But even though he has been out of the service, one of the main planks of the novel is bang up to date.
He says: ‘Dan ends up having to go to sea in the submarine – the only woman on board.’
Far-fetched? No longer. For last year three women became the first female submariners in the 110-year history of the Submarine Service. A ban on them, based on health fears, was lifted in 2011.
James, who lives at Horndean with wife Elaine and two children, worked his way through the ranks before winning his commission. ‘I joined the navy in 1993 and worked until 2000 as an aircraft technician at Yeovilton and Culdrose. Then I took up my commission.
‘I was in the ranks for eight years and, in my opinion, that experience gives officers a much more rounded view of life. On my last ship, HMS Torbay, we had half a dozen guys from the ranks who are now in the wardroom. You have much more credibility among the ranks if you’ve come up from within them.
‘I always think that if you tell someone to clean out the heads [toilets], they know that you’ve had to do it yourself in the past.’
He honed his writing skills at the University of Portsmouth towards the end of his naval career, completing an MA in creative writing in his spare time. But the ambition to become a writer had been burning inside since he was a teenager.
‘When I was a kid I was always writing. A little while ago I found a book of poetry in the attic I wrote as a kid. It was all cringeworthy stuff and I was crying with laughter when I re-read it – you know, the stuff you write when you’re going through all those emotional teenage changes.
‘But it was only about eight years ago that I decided I wanted to write novels instead of short stories. so I thought I ought to start behaving like I thought a novelist should, so started writing a book a year so I could hit deadlines.
‘I’ve got five novels in my drawer and some of them are simply appalling. There’s a fantasy novel, a horror one and even,’ he lowers his voice in embarrassment, ‘an erotic fiction piece which will never, ever see the light of day.’
Then he hit on the crme genre. ‘It was like finding my home. I knew immediately it was right for me. I was enjoying myself.
‘I would go into my study early on a Sunday morning and emerge thousands of words later at 3pm and have no idea what the time was.’
James adds: ‘I’m an obsessive.
‘There are two schools of writing: there are the pantsters – people who write by the seat of their pants – and the plotters. I’m very much a plotter.
‘I won’t start a book until I’ve got 30-40,000 words of plot and the characters’ backgrounds.’
His book deal means that Dan Lewis will feature in the other two novels to come in the next couple of years.
‘They won’t be set in submarines. You can only do that once otherwise you’d end up with something like an underwater HMS Midsomer. You can’t keep killing off submariners because we haven’t got that many of them. But they will both be set against the backdrop of the Royal Navy wherever we serve in the world. So the scope’s pretty wide .’