I was about 8 when I first read the word 'wanderlust.' I lived in a small village and had never travelled anywhere very interesting, but I understood what it meant immediately and knew that I had it. Even then I wanted to wander, to see new places and meet new people. And I still have wanderlust. I even love the process of travelling, the passing landscape as I sit in a train, the excitement of landing in a different country by plane, the movement of the ship when I'm on my way to Shetland.
That's just as well, because since coming back from the US in May, I've hardly stopped moving. I was in London for Brit Noir and a meeting with my publisher in the middle of the month and a couple of days later I was back in Northumberland to take the VERA scriptwriters on a whistle-stop tour of the county. I wanted to give them a real sense of the place before series 4 starts filming. Two days later I was on my way to Shetland with another set of scriptwriters and Elaine Collins, the executive producer on both shows, to introduce them to the islands. We had a brilliant time, meeting a bunch of teenagers in the High School, the police inspector, an ornithologist and the skipper and crew of the Fair Isle mail boat.
I was home for a couple of days before I was on the road again. There was a great library event in Walsall before I landed up in Bristol for CrimeFest. I missed CrimeFest last year and it was lovely to be there for 2013. If you've never been it's very friendly, more like a US convention than a traditional book festival. My favourite event was with my Swedish publisher and a Dutch translator, organised by Danny Hahn, head of the Centre for Literary Translation. We discussed the process of translation from English and the problems of having to translate popular books very quickly and it was refreshing to hear a different European perspective on the publishing industry.
After CrimeFest there was another library event - this time in Yate in Gloucestershire - and another pleasant and interesting evening. Then a short hop to Cheltenham for the science festival, to talk in the panel 'Inside the Criminal Mind' and to be interviewed on the fact and fiction of forensics by Quentin Cooper for radio's Material World. I felt a total intruder in a science festival and was pleased to be with my old friend, pathologist James Grieve, especially as we had a sell-out crowd.
And now? Now I'm back in Shetland to meet the winners of a Waterstone's Bookshop competition. Then there's Nordicana in London... And North Uist to research a short story for BBC Radio 4 and Bloody Scotland... And then perhaps a couple of weeks at home.
Malice, Mayhem and a Mystery road trip
At the beginning of May I headed west for Malice Domestic, a US convention for lovers of traditional crime writing. It was a chance to launch SILENT VOICES the first Vera book to be published in America, to enjoy a brief burst of spring sunshine and to catch up with a lot of old friends. I sailed through BWI airport on the way in and that set the tone for my whole stay - it was friendly, hassle-free and beautifully-organised. The convention is held in Bethesda Maryland, an affluent, laid-back town within easy commuting distance of Washington DC. Frances Brody, a UK writer of intriguing post-world war 1 mysteries, was on the same flight as me. She was a Malice virgin so it was a joy to introduce her to the stalwart board volunteers, who plan, programme and take care of the conference every year, and to get to know her better.
On the first night, we showed an episode of VERA on a big screen and the audience ate pop-corn and marvelled at the wonderful Northumberland landscape. Over the convention weekend it was clear that there's a great affection for Brenda Blethyn's portrayal of the character. And David Leon has a growing number of fans too! I met my Minotaur editor and fellow authors, but the most important conversations were with the readers who've supported me since I was first published in the US very many years ago.
Sunday afternoon saw us in Annapolis, guests of mystery writer Marcia Talley, whom I've admired since hearing her speak at St Hilda's Crime and Mystery Conference in Oxford. She'd set up an event for Frances, me and two of her American friends in the local yacht club. We ate Maryland crab cakes, drank wine and looked at the magnificent view over the bay. The room was packed, the questions were intelligent and brilliant Kathy Harig, an indie bookseller, came hotfoot from Malice to set up the book stall. That night we stayed in Marcia's home and early the next morning we were on the road again.
Marcia drove and Frances, Elaine Viets and I cheered her on. I'd heard of Elaine of course but I'd never read her and I'll be changing that now. She's an ex-investigative journalist and she has her own radio show. She had us entertained for the five hours of the drive and I was almost disappointed when we arrived in time for the librarians' tea held in Oakmont before the main event.
The Festival of Mystery in Oakmont Pennsylvania has been running for many years and has a huge following. Imagine a cross between a village fete and a car boot sale. Forty crime writers sit behind rows of tables where their books are piled. There's a queue round the block before the doors are open. In the hall new authors are introduced over the crackly PA system to the gathered crowd. And we sell. By the dozen. The biggest thrill for me was meeting a couple who'd driven for 10 hours from Tennessee to buy my new book. What an ego-trip! Then it was back to the bookshop for pizza and beer. The next day it was back to the UK, restrained readers and reality.
To tweet or not to tweet
I took a lot of persuading to sign up to twitter. Why would anyone be interested in what I think or do every day? It seemed the worst sort of arrogance to think that I had anything to say that could possibly be of significance. I'd never felt the need to blog (though I suppose this monthly diary is a blog of a sort) and while my daughters set a Facebook page for me I've never really understood its attraction. However, I promised my publicist that I'd try tweeting for six months. More than a year later I'm still there and I'd miss my twitter buddies if I stopped.
Writers are told by their publishers that they should engage in social media. It probably comes up at the first meeting with a new author. Some of us worry that this might be a very cheap alternative to conventional marketing, a sop to convince us that SOMETHING is being done to sell our books. However I think this is largely unfair. Digital marketing is obviously a way of engaging with a new audience. At a writers' conference last weekend one editor said that a high social media presence might even swing a publishing deal for him. But of course if everyone's doing it, the harder it is to stand out from the crowd. And blatant promotion is just tedious.
I like twitter because it often gives me a sense of eavesdropping on an interesting conversation. It's quick and easy and it's inter-active. I can advertise events and share my favourite reads while I'm taking a break from writing to drink a cup of tea. I can rant about my disgust that libraries are being closed and if other people retweet me I can reach a huge number of people and we might even make a difference. I can make virtual friends with people all over the world. Occasionally there's a discussion about our craft that's truly fascinating and that was what happened last week.
It started with Ian Rankin trying to find alternatives for 'he said'. I hate the alternatives. 'Said' is short and unobtrusive. It tells the readers who's speaking but without breaking the narrative flow. I can just about live with 'asked.' At this point Ian dropped out and a few other writers joined in. Why do you need 'asked' Stuart MacBride demanded (So OK I can live with 'demanded' too). Can't people see the question mark? Stuart tries to work without any speech tags at all. The exchange pulled in Natasha Cooper, Steve Moseby and Chris Ewan and each had great points to make. At the end I returned to work much more aware of the importance of keeping pace in dialogue. Readers seemed interested in the conversation too.
At the beginning of May the first VERA novel will be published in the US. Soon I'll be heading to Malice Domestic, a convention for writers and readers of traditional mysteries, in Bethesda Maryland. I hope to meet some people I've chatted to on twitter there.
A letter from Shetland
More than 6 million people watched the BBC drama SHETLAND, broadcast at the beginning of March. For some viewers this was perhaps their first insight into life on the islands. But a two hour detective story can only give a flavour of the landscape and its people - there is a murderer to catch after all - so here's a diary of my last few days here, to give the perspective of a regular visitor.
We arrived into Lerwick on the overnight boat from Aberdeen and a hire car was waiting for us at the terminal. No fuss or form filling - because we've hired before, the keys were left at the ferry desk. Then a drive north to Brae for breakfast with our friends Ingirid and Jim. Porridge and butteries and a stunning view across the voe towards the open sea. Ingirid is a member of the women's rowing team in Whiteness and I went with her to help move the yoals - the traditional boats used for racing here. One of the hulls was damaged during the celebration to show the Olympic torch to Shetlanders and there was a complicated operation to turn it upside down for repair and painting.
The reason for our visit north was the hame-fairin' of Steven Robertson and his new wife Charlotte. Steven is the actor who played Sandy Wilson in SHETLAND and he's a native of Vidlin. It's the custom in the islands that if a wedding takes place in the south, the couple come home for a party. The bride wears the wedding dress and the guests are all in their finery, there's a bar, a band and dancing. This was a great night, with traditional food - soup, bannocks and mutton and salt beef, followed by homebakes - and a fearsome eightsome reel.
Sunday was still and sunny. Ingirid and I walked from Brae to Muckle Roe, an island attached to Shetland mainland by a short bridge. Communities raise funds by providing afternoon tea in their local halls. Sunday tea in Muckle Roe was great on cakes (OK, so there might be a food motif running through this post...) and coincided with the bulb show; there was a smell of baking and coffee and hyacinths. We got back to Brae to find that Jim had slow roasted some Mousa lamb for supper.
This morning we drove into Lerwick, the main town in the islands. I met up with some friends in Mareel, the new arts' centre that stands right on the water. Good coffee and more cake. Some big conference was going on and I bumped into MSP Tavish Scott. He told me that the Jarl's Squad from Up Helly Aa (you might have seen them in SHETLAND - they're the Vikings who set fire to the galley) are planning to go to New York for the tartan parade there. If you're in 6th Avenue during the parade look out for them. They WON'T be wearing tartan or playing bagpipes. But they'll probably look very well-fed.
Libraries in Newcastle. And star-gazing in London
I make no apology for returning to the subject of library closure. It seemed that many people shared my anger and anxiety about Newcastle City Council's decision to close ten branch libraries. With playwright Lee Hall I was invited to speak at a protest meeting. Hundreds of people turned out to show their support. The following week a small group of artists came together to talk about where we might take the action. We decided that a celebration of libraries as centres of culture, adventure and entertainment would be a great way to highlight what the closures would mean to their communities. And as February 9th was National Libraries Day that seemed a good date to choose. The trouble was that we only had three weeks to plan and organise events in ten venues across the city. And for most of that time I'd be away from home.
We started by approaching the five writers asked by New Writing North to report back on threatened branches. David Almond was already committed to an event elsewhere but the others all agreed to host the morning. So I had to find another six hosts... The best move I made was to ask my friend Valerie Laws to help out. She agreed not only to host High Heaton, but to co-ordinate the list of all the artists in my absence. In effect she agreed to do all the work... The success of the day was very much down to her.
The morning of National Library Day was hugely moving. We had a total of 80 artists, performers and writers in the ten libraries. Val McDermid read her children's story in Cruddas Park, three of the cast of Emmerdale read a specially prepared piece in Fenham. There were musicians, a puppeteer and a magician, poets and storytellers and a community choir. And throughout the city people turned out to support us and enjoy the events.
That was Saturday. On Monday night I was in quite a different environment, the BBC drama showcase in London. Wherever I looked there were stars of television: actors and actresses, producers and directors. It seemed a long way from a council estate in the west end of Newcastle where I'd been hosting my NLD celebration. But I worry that without libraries we'll have a less vibrant arts scene. The creative industries depend on people of all backgrounds who are literate and excited by words and images. Libraries breed actors and playwrights and books provide inspiration for musicians.
But a happy new year for me
After my rather depressing post last time about the closure of libraries in Newcastle, this is a rather more up-beat welcome to the new year from me. It was great to get the first draft of my new VERA novel to my lovely agent just before Christmas. The first reponse from her, and from Moses my agent in the US, was positive, and I'm looking forward to working on the edits. DEAD WATER, the new Shetland book, will be published at the end of the month, and I can't wait to to launch it in Mareel the brilliant arts' centre in Lerwick just after the fire festival of Up Helly Aa.
February sees a tour of Scottish Waterstones (DEAD WATER will be their book of the month north of the border) and I'm specially excited about the event in Glasgow where I'll be joining up with Chris Stout, Fair Islander and fiddle-player extraordinary. He'll join me in Newcastle for the Lit and Phil launch too. Later in February I'll be south for events in London, Wokingham and Chorleywood and there are plans for a tour of indie bookshops too. Check out my events page. Confirmed dates are already there and we'll add details as soon as we have them.
There's lots to look forward to on the broadcast front too. The third series of VERA finishes filming this month and will be broadcast later in the year. The scripts have been wonderful and I can't wait to see it. We're still waiting for a broadcast date for SHETLAND. This is frustrating for us, but like the BBC, we know that it deserves the best possible audience so we're happy to wait for the optimum slot.
2013 will see my first book published in the US for a while. The success of VERA there has persuaded my publisher that an overweight and shabby female detective might be popular after all, and SILENT VOICES will come out in May. I'll be at the Malice Domestic convention in Maryland. If you're there, do come and say hello.
And that's about as far ahead as I can look, now. I know that I'll be spending a lot of time in Shetland researching and writing the second book in the new quartet, and that's always a treat.
A big thanks to the support team who have helped throughout 2012 - Sara Menguc and her associates worldwide, Rebecca Watson my TV agent, Jeremy, Catherine and Julie on the editorial side, Chloe and Sally in publicity and Isolde in marketing. Roger and Jean from Cornwell Internet look after far more than just my website. And finally a huge and grateful mention to Becky, my intern, whose enthusiasm, support and ideas gave me new energy. Publishers, please note that there are fantastic applicants who don't live in London; they just need a little bit of help to get noticed.
A happy new year for libraries?
Recently Newcastle City Council announced that they proposed to close ten libraries. It's possible that there's some political posturing in the decision and I hope that at least some of these branches might be saved. But the fact that this was even considered is truly shocking, especially when it goes along with 100% cut in arts' funding. It's also financially counter-productive. Much of the heavy industry in the north east closed decades ago, but we've been brilliant at making art and music and theatre. And books. And these creative industries bring prestige, visitors and money into the region. As a small personal illustration, ITV Studios film VERA entirely in the north east. The full cast and crew takes up residence for four months every year and the production team is here for much longer than that. They stay in hotels or rent flats, they eat in restaurants, they employ local actors, technical crew, drivers and security people. They give a vital first taste of the industry to new graduates. I love the fact that the team is based in the old Swan Hunter offices on the Tyne at Wallsend and that those buildings are coming to life again. And once the drama is broadcast, people from all over the world see a vibrant city and a beautiful landscape and decide that they'd like to visit our region.
So what does this have to do with libraries? Everything. I would never have become a writer if I hadn't been taken to my local branch library as a child. More importantly, I wouldn't still be published without the guaranteed sales that libraries provided. I'd been languishing in the mid-list for many years, with no paperback publication and no backlist available until I wrote the first Vera novel. So without libraries there'd have been no VERA, no Shetland Quartet, no translation into 22 languages bringing valuable overseas income to the country. I'm fascinated that the first edition of the first Harry Potter novel is so valuable because only 800 copies were published and most of them went straight to libraries. It's not fanciful to suppose that without library sales the book would never have been published. And think how much money the UK has earned from that!
That's the financial argument. But it's impossible to calculate the value to individual library members. I spent last Thursday in Cruddas Park library in Newcastle, one of the branches scheduled for closure, and soon the stories of some of the regular visitors will be told on a New Writing North website. The library is the only access that the community has to any form of art and we should be developing it, nurturing writers and artists and film-makers, widening the scope of the building so it provides a creative hub in the heart of an area otherwise known for its deprivation. My library would host a community choir, a youth theatre and a teenage writers' group. That's my notion of the big society. And we'd have an increased book fund too.
In January I'll be announcing a practical partnership project to support libraries. In the meantime please make it your new year's resolution to visit your local library. If you're not a member, then join. If you're wealthy enough to buy books now, there might be a time when you can't afford them. Then you'll be glad of the range of titles the library can provide, and a warm safe place to browse them, and knowledgeable and friendly staff.
Thanks for your support over 2012 and a very merry Christmas to you all.