How to be a best-selling crime writer

‘I like to think about the back of my head as a compost heap – you chuck everything in there and what survives is the really interesting stuff’ says award-winning author Val McDermid

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The Independent Culture

Val McDermid is one of the biggest names in crime writing. The award-winning author has published 27 novels, short stories, non-fiction and a children’s book and has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. She tells Elisa Bray about how patience is the most important quality for longevity as an author, that there’s no formula for writing books, how writers get bogged down in accuracy and how playing computer games helps her to write.

How did the idea for Out of Bounds come about?

The first inkling of the idea came about three or four years ago; I was at a forensic science conference in London. I was working on my non-fiction book about forensic science at the time and I’d gone to this conference in London and one of the sessions I went to was led by two police officers from Greater Manchester Police. They had developed the familial DNA connections and that allowed cold cases to be examined in a different way – the idea being that you get someone who’s committed another offence and when their DNA is put into the database you get a familial connection with an old crime. So what you can tell from that is that the original crime was committed by a close male relative of the person you’ve got in custody now or whose DNA you have now and that then makes it possible to reopen those old cases in a different light. I started thinking that’s really interesting and potentially there’s some good stories to be had there.

Do you go to many conferences, scientists and officers for research purposes?

I do know quite a few forensic scientists and other people in the field generally and mostly I go to them to flesh out an idea I’ve already got, but sometimes, through the course of talking to them, other things emerge that suggest a different direction or different story altogether. For most books there’ll be a point when I have to pick up the phone or have a meeting with someone when there’s something I don’t know enough about.

Where does the inspiration come from in general?

It comes from all over. It can be something I overhear on the bus, an anecdote somebody tells me or something I hear on the radio that just makes me think, ‘oh that’s interesting, I didn’t know that. What if this happened instead?’ I think it’s a function of being endlessly nosey.

Where do you store those ideas?

In the back of my head. I do take a notebook around with me, but that’s generally for detail if I’m interested in something. For example, some years ago I wrote a book called The Last Temptation which is set on the waterways of Europe, so I spent two weeks wandering round central Europe looking at rivers and canals, talking to people who work on boats, going on boats, and making notes about things. The technical stuff you have to make notes about because that’s the stuff you have to get right, but the story ideas and the rest of it... I tend to figure that if it’s not interesting enough for me to remember, why would it be interesting enough for someone to read about it? I like to think about the back of my head as a compost heap – you chuck everything in there and what survives is the really interesting stuff.

Do you have a timeframe or strategy for writing a book?

I sit down in January and write a book; that’s how the year goes. Physically it takes me about three months to write a book, but a book will have been in my head in preparation for a lot longer than that – years, sometimes. So the initial idea is usually quite a small thing and I fiddle about with it in my head and along the way I pick up bits and pieces that seem to sit with it or I’ll go and talk to somebody about an aspect of the idea and I’ll flesh it out, and gradually over time a story emerges. That becomes the basis for me then thinking about whose story it is and the structure of it. From January I’m ready to sit down and write.

Tell me about your first book deal.

I wrote my first crime novel back in the mid-1980s. The central character, the protagonist, was a lesbian journalist and I knew right away that there was no point in sending it to mainstream publishers because there’s no way that book would have been published by mainstream publishing house back then. So I sent it to The Women’s Press, which is an independent feminist publishing house, and a couple of months went by and they wrote back to me and said we’d like to publish your book. And that was that. It was very exciting. I was un-agented at the time, which was why that first deal was a truly terrible deal, but I acquired an agent and we’ve been together for the last 29 books.

What is your work ethic like?

I’m not an early starter. I don’t like mornings. I don’t think I’ve ever written a decent sentence before 11 in the morning. I’m usually at my desk at about 9.30 and answer emails, look at Twitter, start thinking about the day’s work, have a look at what I did the day before and do some revising on that. And then I get started. I tend to write in 20-minute bursts, that seems to be the length of my concentration, so I’ll write for 20 minutes, then go and make a cup of coffee or go to the post office, or make a phone call or play a computer game, and then go back to it. And essentially I write until it’s not working any more. So generally I finish at about 7 in the evening but if it’s going really well I’ll go back after dinner and work until 1 or 2 in the morning.

Do computer games provide the mind space you need from writing and which ones do you play?

I play all sorts – console games, games on the PC, I play casual games as well as serious gaming, I’ve been playing Rise of the Tomb Raider, the last Lara Croft game.  It uses a different bit of the brain. When I’m doing things like that I think it frees up the subconscious to figure out the next bit of the book. Same thing with going for a walk – there’s something about using a different bit of your brain, using your body as well – it frees up the thoughts at the back of your head.

Who are your biggest influences in literature?

The writers that I think who, in different ways, might have influenced me are Robert Louis Stevenson, Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendall and Sara Paretsky – all in very different ways.

I read voraciously. I think every writer has to be a reader. If you don’t read, how do you get better at your craft? It’s food and drink to a writer to read. You can learn from other people’s mistakes. The longer I’ve been writing, the more critically I read. At the moment I’m reading His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. I read a lot of crime fiction but a lot of other stuff as well. I’m interested in a story – I want writers who write well and tell me a good story and that’s what drives me as a reader.

What’s the secret to such a long career?

Persistence and patience. I think patience is a quality much underrated as far as being a writer is concerned. I think sometimes you have to be patient with it and try not to rush at things; give it time to grow.

What the longest it’s taken for a book to come together?

In a sense, A Place of Execution took about 20 years because when I first moved to Derbyshire in the late 1970s I fell in love with the landscape and thought, I really have to write about this in a very organic way. It took me the best part of 20 years to come up with the story that would fit with the landscape. Another one, Trick of the Dark, took about 12 years from getting the story in my head to getting the structure that would allow me to tell the story, so you really have to be patient sometimes. At any given time there’s three or four things kicking about in the back of my head. So far there’s always been something ready to roll in January.

How much preparation do you do – do you map out the plot and characters before starting to write?

I walk about and think about things – think about the situation in the book, think about the arc in the story, think about what the key turning points are going to be in the story. It’s quite vague, it’s hard to describe it. There’s a kind of alchemy that goes on when suddenly you’re messing about with bits of the story and something clicks into place and it’s the next step. You just know when you’ve got the next narrative strategy taking place in your head.

People come on creative courses wanting a formula, a secret, a key to unlock everything – and those don’t exist. For every writer it’s a different process. There is no formula. For most writers your first two or three books are about the process of figuring out your process. What works for you: are you somebody who needs to plan things out carefully, are you someone who’s more comfortable flying by the seat of your pants? Are you somebody who needs to have file cards detailing every aspect of your character or are you much more about what feels right? And that’s a process which may well change in the course of your career. Writing isn’t a set of rules.

I’ve always been about what seems to make narrative sense, what feels authentic. People get bogged down in accuracy and it’s actually much more important that the book feels authentic. Authenticity is much more valuable than knowing every detail of how a police investigation would be conducted.

How young were you when you decided to write books?

I was eight or nine when I realised being a writer was a job you got paid money for. I used to read a series of books called The Chalet School and one of the characters in that series of novels grows up to become a writer. At some point she got a cheque from a publisher and I thought, ‘Good heavens! You get paid to write books? That’s what I want to do’. And that was a really quite exciting moment.

What did your family make of your career choice?

Everybody just laughed at me when I was a kid. People like us don’t become a writers. My dad worked in a shipyard and my grandfathers were miners and my mum worked in a shop. It was astonishing enough to them that my generation of the family went to university. They were clever people, but they had no opportunities when they were growing up.

Would you like to see more of your works on the screen?

Only if it’s the right people making the adaptation. I think you have to be very careful with adaptations. People say, ‘Oh anything that gets adapted will help your sales and will help your reputation’ and that’s not so. I know writers whose careers have been fundamentally damaged by having their work badly adapted. I was very lucky with Coastal Productions who made Wire in the Blood and Place of Execution; they did a very good job and they respected the books.

Out of Bounds by Val McDermid is published by Little, Brown in hardback, £18.99

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