On telling stories
I don't talk much in my diary about the process of writing. Someone once described it as being like riding the wall of death on a motor bike: fine until you think about it. And we're all natural story-tellers. Anyone who can tell a joke or recount an anecdote or keep a child amused does more or less what I do. I just have to do it for longer. This week though, I've been chatting to readers at the Ripon Book Festival and the Berwick Book Group about the writing process, and because I had a wonderful, uninterrupted week of writing at St Hilda's I'd already been thinking about it. Just hope I don't fall off that bike!
I begin with a scene or a character. Usually it's a scene, like the opening of a film, just as the credits are running. In SILENT VOICES it's Vera in a swimming pool, struggling to lose weight on the advice of her doctor. When the dreaded aqua aerobics class begins she escapes to the steam room, and there, of course, she finds a body. At that point I don't know anything else about the story. I don't even know to whom the body belongs. The victim only gets an identity as I describe her. And from that point I write as if I were a reader. I want to know what happens next. There's usually a theme to the book, or a running motif. Because I don't plan in advance, I need something to hold the story together and to give it some cohesion. In SILENT VOICES there's water. We start in a swimming pool and the climax builds as the rain comes and the landscape is drowning under floods.
Readers are interested in research, and some new writers are frightened off the genre because they think they need to know everything about DNA and the criminal justice system and that will mean months of hard work before they start on the story. Not true of course. I follow the great John Mortimer's advice - write the book first and do the research after. It seems counter-intuitive, but this really is the best way. Once you've written the story you realise where the gaps in your knowledge lie. If you do the research first, you come across all sorts of interesting facts, which might be fascinating but which will slow down the plot and throw the structure out of balance. But it's SO tempting to include them. I once asked a friend who worked for the police about checking forensic details. 'Watch THE BILL,' he said. 'They usually get it right.' So I did and I was very disappointed when ITV pulled the show.
So what's the most important skill for a crime-writer? Concentration, I think. It's the ability to create a fictitious world and hold it in your head, so when you describe the characters and the place it's like writing from memory and not from imagination. I spent a week at St Hilda's College in the run-up to the Crime and Mystery Conference. My indulgent time, when I can focus on the writing. I was three quarters the way through my new Shetland novel. Sitting in my room, with its view of an Oxford garden, in my head I was in Shetland. At one point I stopped for coffee and glanced out of the window expecting to see grey water and small white croft houses. I had completely forgotten where I was.
When I write my next diary piece I'll be in Shetland for real, filling in the gaps of my research. Before that there's a tour of independent booksellers in East Anglia and events in Exter and Appledore. I hope to see some of you there!