Claire McGowan is the prolific writer of crime fiction including the Paula MacGuire series and the recently release What You Did. Ahead of her workshop during this year’s Noirwich Crime Writing Festival she guested on the National Centre for Writing’s podcast to discuss techniques for crafting characters for crime fiction.
Hosted by Simon Jones and Steph McKenna.
Music by Bennet Maples.
Things are hotting up (literally!) this week as the excitement begins to build for the 2019 Noirwich Crime Writing Festival. Make sure you subscribe to the NCW Podcast, which will feature some great crime-flavoured content in the coming months.
First up, Henry Sutton, co-director of Noirwich, meets with Beth Sowersby to discuss this year’s amazing festival line-up and to dive into the themes being explored.
Hosted by Simon Jones.
This week we have an interview with author Winnie M Li, writer of the novel Dark Chapter which was described by the Guardian as “a defiant retelling of personal trauma.” Winnie also wrote an article for us about activism and literature – keep scrolling to read it!
Please note that this episode discusses assault, which some listeners may find distressing.
Asking the questions this week is Elspeth Latimer, a UEA postgraduate researcher in crime fiction who worked on the Noirwich Crime Writing Festival with us, courtesy of a CHASE (Consortium of the Humanities and Arts South-East England) placement.
Hosted by Simon Jones, writer and Digital Marketing Manager at the National Centre for Writing.
Winnie M Li discusses whether novels can be a creative and effective way of exploring and drawing attention to important issues – and is fiction better at doing this than non-fiction?
When you live through a trauma, and that trauma changes your life — And when you realise that trauma is actually part of a much larger societal problem, then as a writer, it becomes vital to write about it. Or at least that’s how it was for me.
My debut novel Dark Chapter is a fictional retelling of something that happened to me ten years ago: I was followed by a stranger in a park outside of Belfast, and I was violently assaulted and raped. At the time, it was very much a matter of survival for me — not just during the attack itself, but in the months and years that followed. I felt isolated, cast adrift, often hopeless I would ever recover.
Along the way, I learned that sexual violence is actually something many people suffer: approximately one in five women become victims. And as I gradually became an activist around this issue, I realised how much readers need a novel that truly testifies to the survivor’s experience — the horror and the injustice of it all — while also showing a path towards recovery. I wanted to show how ill-equipped the criminal justice system can be for victims. And If I could tell this story in the form of a compelling crime novel, then I could not only engage readers through the twists and turns of a plot, but also place them in the shoes of both the victim and the perpetrator of a crime. Through my characters, I could do justice to the experience of injustice.
Writing as a means of demonstrating injustice has long been an impetus for many a novelist. From Charles Dickens’ exposé of debtors’ prisons and the urban poor in Victorian London, to Harper Lee’s child-framed view of racism in the American South, novels have always been an important way of exploring societal inequalities. Would we call this writing a form of activism? I suppose it’s up to the individual writer which word they want to use. But I’d say yes, these types of novels very much have activism at their root.
However, we often picture activism as being very in-your-face: protestors brandishing signs, shouting collective chants, chaining themselves to gates. Novels are more subtle. Instead of yelling angrily at you, novels win you over by investing you emotionally into the life of a character who might be suffering through injustice. They dramatise the human experience behind a larger problem, render that experience lived-in and relatable for readers.
This is why fiction, with its immersion into the mind of a character, can have an edge over non-fiction, which carries a duty to presenting actual, proven fact. Fiction also has a plot which can keep readers riveted. And it’s more likely to appeal to the general public. Not many people would want to pick up a treatise about squalor in Victorian debtors’ prisons. But peopled with Dickens’ colourful characters and an intriguing plot, that unjust, dangerous world can come alive in a novel. So by writing fiction around a form of injustice, we can reach a wider audience, and raise a greater awareness about what needs to change.
I’m really looking forward to discussing this in greater depth with two fantastic crime writers Eva Dolan and Mari Hannah at Noirwich this year. Through our novels, we all touch on ways in which society could be better at handling issues like violence, mental health, inequality, gender. Come along on September 15th to ‘Writing Wrongs’ and join in the conversation — after all, change can’t happen without a dialogue first.
Matt Wesolowski is the author of Six Stories and was at Noirwich 2018 on the Books, Box Sets, Big Screens panel alongside Jane Lythell and Nicola Upson. Here he discusses the term ‘hybrid writer’ and how he incorporates new forms into his storytelling.
I often get described as a hybrid writer. That’s an apt description; stylistically I’m like any writer. I’m a semblance of bits, a crucible of influences. I’m more jumble sale in a village hall than high end fusion cookery but there you have it. I’m not really a crime writer. Not a proper horror writer either. I’m a hybrid.
When I was young I read everything and anything I liked the look of. I remember feeling bemused by a girl in school who asked me (rather witheringly) why I always read ‘girls’ books’. We were in year eight. I never understood what she meant; I still don’t. Mind you, she was the same girl who wished me a ‘terrible future’ in my end of year book. I get the feeling she’s probably not a fan.
Limiting yourself to books that are only of a certain label or genre makes little sense. I often hear people say they like to read ‘trash’ on holiday. I don’t know what that means either. Why would you go and read a book that isn’t good? That didn’t do something to you emotionally? I don’t get it.
It’s the same with the ways of storytelling. I’ve always loved the idea of different formats within the same book. That’s when hybrids start to form; odd shapes shambling out of our brains and into the world. I studied Linguistics at university and have always been fascinated by how our language evolves; how patois and dialect find their way into our lexicon, become standard, forcing older words into archaisms. I feel that fiction does the same thing. I love it when an author slips in some form from the modern era. It feels almost taboo; a strange hybrid brought to life. I remember seeing Lauren Beukes use Reddit threads in Broken Monsters, Paul Tremblay using blogs in A Head Full of Ghosts – the thrill it gave me, how relevant it was. How perfect. I loved it.
Technology gives us new ways to tell stories. As a species, we have always told stories. Podcasts are a new way we tell stories and that’s why I wanted to use this form, to make this hybrid of audio and literature. Writing a book in the form of a podcast wasn’t difficult, it felt new, it felt exciting, it felt taboo. I didn’t even know if it would work. My own hybrid creature unleashed from the lab.
I’m sure there are some who hate literature being tainted by new formats, who see fiction as a sacred cow, an untouchable art form that should not be sullied by the frivolity of modernity. I feel like the emergence of new ways of storytelling will always play a huge part in what I write. So long as a story is being told effectively, so long as it’s relevant, for me it’s valid.
But there will always be people who will shun a hybrid, will drive the monster from their village. I imagine they’re the same types that tell boys they can’t read ‘girls’ books’ and read ‘trash’ on holiday.
Or maybe I’m a weird creature with a terrible future…
On episode 18 of the National Centre for Writing’s podcast, crime writer Nicola Upson discusses the history of crime fiction and writing a historical detective series without it being old fashioned.
Hosted by Simon Jones, writer and Digital Marketing Manager at the National Centre for Writing, and recorded at Noirwich 2018.
BBC One’s Death in Paradise is one of the top three most popular programmes on British Television, enjoyed on screen as well as in a series of novels: we asked its creator, Robert Thorogood – how does writing the novels compare to writing the screenplays?
Although the genre, style and tone of the books and TV shows are broadly the same, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the process of writing for both of them is wildly different.
The first and most obvious difference is that the TV series really is a gang show: from original idea through to finished script, each writer on the TV show is helped by the input of the other writers, a script editor, story producer and other execs on the show. It means the writers are constantly supported, and the entirely natural crippling fear, doubt and panic any writer feels trying to get a story to ‘land’ is shared among the whole group.
Whereas when you write a novel, you’re on your own. And not just for a few days or weeks. For months. This can be hugely liberating (up to a point), as you can make and implement decisions in the story as quickly as you can think of them, but I have to confess that I really miss that feeling of ‘we’re all in this together’ that a TV show gives you.
Having said that, it’s surprising how much more freedom there is when you’re writing a novel rather than a TV show.
This is mainly because novels don’t have any budget restrictions, problems with hiring locations, actors’ availability, or sudden tropical downpours (or hurricanes) to contend with. In a TV show you’re always limited by what you can actually shoot, whereas with a novel you only have to write a sentence and you can conjure anything into existence.
For example, both of the stories for books one and two in the Death in Paradise series were ideas I’d first pitched as TV episodes, but we’d not been able to make them ‘work’. This was because the murder in A Meditation on Murder required a Japanese style paper tea house we couldn’t afford to build; and The Killing of Polly Carter required a cliff from which to throw a supermodel – and there’s no such cliff anywhere on Guadeloupe (where we film the TV show).
What’s more, we tend to have only limited locations in the TV show, because it’s already so very expensive to make each episode, whereas in a novel it’s possible for the police to go anywhere on the island for free. (This was something it actually took me quite a while to realize, and I’ve tried to make this a feature of Book 4 – Murder in the Caribbean, published in December 2018 – where I’ve purposely come up with a story that takes us on a tour of the whole of the island of Saint Marie).
But perhaps the greatest joy of writing the novels rather than the TV show is that a novelist gets to access his or her characters’ internal thoughts. Rather than rely on an actor as brilliant as Ben Miller to show the audience what my hero might be thinking, it really is liberating finally being able to access his misanthropic internal monologue and actually commit it to paper.
In summary, it’s hard to say which format I prefer writing, and perhaps the only conclusion I can come to is that while TV and books are both so very different, I’m extremely grateful that I get to do both.
Nicci French is the hugely successful writing partnership created by married couple Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. Here they discuss what it’s been like to live and write with the characters in their thrilling Frieda Klein series.
One of the surprises of writing fiction is that when you finish your book, when it’s published and sent out into the world, it’s still not really finished. As people start to read the book, the characters develop and slip out of your control. We had become used to that. Sometimes it’s disconcerting. Readers may not love a character as much as you do. Even more strangely, you create a villain, a violent criminal, and you meet readers who wish you had let him end up with the heroine. But he was a murderer, we protested, uselessly.
It didn’t matter. He was out of our hands now and he belonged to readers as much as he did to us.
Even so, we weren’t prepared for the entirely different experience when we began writing about the psychoanalyst, Frieda Klein, in Blue Monday and then followed her dark course over eight books and almost a decade of our life and of hers. Previously we had finished a book and sent the characters out into the world and we were done with them. Now we sent them out into the world, we talked to readers, we heard what they thought of them. And then they came back out of the world and we followed them in the next book and the next, as they changed and life changed them.
To take one example, in Blue Monday a Ukrainian builder called Josef Morozov literally falls through Frieda’s ceiling into her consulting room while she is conducting a session. Josef was invented to perform a specific role in this one book.
But he just wouldn’t go away. He refused. And readers were asking after him. They wanted to meet him again and we wanted to meet him again.
We came to discover that creating characters in a series of novels is like inviting people to a party. You invited friends, some family members, a couple of people from work, a few neighbours. Some of the people know each other, most of them don’t, but you never know who will get on with who. One of your best friends leaves early while two people you barely know and don’t know each other, get on uproariously and keep the party going until midnight.
Creating the characters for the series was rather like that, except if someone is sulking in the corner at your party, you can’t kill them off. Some characters appeared, did the job they were meant to do and then left. Or if they didn’t leave, they were killed. Others wouldn’t leave. Karlsson was a detective involved in the kidnapping case at the heart of Blue Monday. We weren’t sure how much he would be involved in later novels. But readers kept asking whether he was going to get together with Frieda. We had to keep him. Characters in the background – Chloe, her niece; Sasha, a one-time patient; Reuben, her mentor – gradually moved to the foreground as our solitary heroine gradually accumulated a family around her.
And all that attention still affects us. We’ve finished Frieda’s story but people still ask us about the characters. Where are they now? Where is she? We don’t know what to say. They’ve gone. She has gone. Out there somewhere, but beyond our control.
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