A Letter to Myself
In the month that Dead Water, my latest Shetland book, appears in paperback and Bello has brought back my very first novel, A Bird in the Hand, in e-book and as print on demand, here I write a letter to the woman who was me, a newly published author, in 1986.
Congratulations on the publication of your first crime novel. Enjoy every minute of it, but don't let this minor success go to your head. It was a lot easier to get published in 1986 than it is now and you should be very grateful that you have the space and time to learn your craft while you're being paid. Debut authors in 2013 don't have that luxury.
Don't resent the fact that your writing is squeezed into snatched moments of time. The other things that youre doing - looking after two small kids, working as a probation officer, surviving on a tiny tidal island with no mains water or power and only your husband for adult company - will provide material for future novels. Writers are parasites. Best to learn that early on. As you get older you'll participate less and observe more. Now you have the energy to engage with the world around you so get out there and live a bit. The experiences will remain with you and will feed into the later books.
Focus on what you're good at. A BIRD IN THE HAND is a flawed first novel, but youve created some interesting characters and it contains the elements that will work well with you later - a strong sense of place and a traditional mystery with a contemporary twist. DEAD WATER covers the same territory. It explores obsession and fractured families, and both Shetland and North Norfolk have a dramatic landscape, and wild, open spaces.
Read more widely within the genre. You came to crime fiction through the Golden Age authors like Sayers and Allingham, but there are wonderful European writers to learn from. Sjowell and Wahloo wrote their first Martin Beck novel in 1965 and Nicholas Freeling, an English writer who set his books in France and Holland, had developed a more imaginative use of the form in LOVE IN AMSTERDAM long before you started writing. If you'd discovered these authors earlier, you might not have created such a traditional central character - an elderly amateur sleuth with a good education and a double-barrelled name!
In 2013 you'll still have affection for birdwatcher George Palmer-Jones and the natural world will still feature in the Shetland and the Vera Stanhope novels. But your reading passion will be translated crime - you'll delight in the voyeuristic glimpses into another culture's preoccupations and the opportunity for vicarious travel. And it'll be the novels of Karin Fossum and Fred Vargas which will influence your work more than those of your old Golden Age heroines.
You became a writer because you love to tell stories. Over the years you won't lose that joy or the curiosity about people and their motivation. You'll have far more than your share of luck and you'll make firm friends who are writers, publishers and film-makers. You were wise in your choice of agent and you'll be cherished and cared for throughout your career. You are a very fortunate woman.