Val McDermid – Oxford Alumni Weekend 2009

I’ve just returned from the most fantastic weekend in Oxford where I attended talks, readings and discussion panels with writers as part of the university’s Alumni Weekend. The next three posts will focus on highlights from the event. First up, here’s what Val McDermid had to say on crime fiction:

“The crime novel relies on the suspension of disbelief. One of the ways we do this is with a vivid sense of place. If the reader recognises streets and buildings they are more likely to believe other stuff that the author says.”

“I am a great believer that if you have three facts in your possession you can plot for half an hour on any subject.”

“When I started writing, I didn’t know a lot about police procedure. I didn’t realise at that point how much was just makey-uppy.”

Ideas generally start as something small. They’re tangents; something where I think ‘I didn’t know that. That’s really interesting!’”

“With the first couple of books it’s about developing a writing process that works for you. I used to work out the story, write it out on filing cards – I had different coloured filing cards for different plot strands – and jiggle them around till it made narrative sense. That worked really well for me for about 15 books, then it stopped working. Now I write the first 60 pages, put the book to one side to let it percolate, then I take six to eight weeks to finish the first draft.”

“I think writers have always taken revenge on people that have annoyed us over the years. You draw on your whole database of human experience when you draw your characters. Readers never recognise themselves in the unpleasant characters!”

Val McDermid’s most recent novel, Fever of the Bone, is available to buy from Amazon.


Polishing, Plots and Pianos

I’m polishing up the first draft of my novel at the moment. It’s a slow process but I think I’m on track for my 30th September deadline. Once I get some feedback I will start work on the second draft. That will probably involve a lot of rewriting. For one thing, I’ll need to make the four narratives consistent with one another. At the moment I have one in first person, present tense; two in first person, past tense and one in third person, past tense.  I just can’t decide which way to go with that. Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down is an excellent example of a novel with four first person narrators but I also enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories which has several third person narrators. The only thing I’m sure of is that I can’t mix narrative styles. Or can I? Does anyone know of a novel that is narrated in both the first and third person?

Another thing I have to figure out is how to tie the narratives together. I would like the four stories to be intertwined from the beginning but at the moment they are connected only by one big event near the end of the novel. I’ll need to spend some time working out how to involve the four main characters in each other’s lives more.

A final area of concern for me is how to order the four narratives? Iain Pears’ brilliant An Instance of The Fingerpost has four narratives told consecutively, in completion. In Case Histories, the narratives were alternated all the way through.  I may have to try both styles to see what works best for my plot.

Oh, that’s right. The plot. Let’s not talk about that just now. Instead why don’t you read this short section of my novel that I was working on today and I’ll go back to obsessing over point of view.


The music room is in darkness, the heavy curtains are closed. I could open them, but instead I turn on the light. The room maintains a sufficiently gloomy ambiance to suit my mood.

There are music stands piled up in a corner and boxes full of tambourines and maracas. I catch my breath when I see the piano. It is magnificent. How had they got it up here? They must have had to raise it through the window. It is like an animal with a smooth mahogany pelt. I run my hand over it. I expected it to be dusty for some reason, but it isn’t. It smells of wood polish. I sit down at the bench and try a few of the keys. It’s in tune.

When I begin to play, I feel as though I am a kite swooping on the wind and the music is the string that runs through my centre. It tugs at me, setting me free into the sky and anchoring me to the earth at the same time.

I stop playing abruptly when I see someone standing in the doorway. It is Russ.

“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” he says. My fingers are still poised above the piano keys.

“Do you want to play?” I ask.

“No, I brought my own instrument.” He holds up a black violin case.

“I’ll leave you to it,” I say, standing up and closing the piano lid. I’m not sure if he recognises me, but as I start to move past him, he reaches out an arm to block the door.

“Stay a minute…Louise, isn’t it?”

I nod.

“How are things going?”

“Very well, everything’s fine,” I say, then wonder why I am lying to him. I suppose I want to believe it myself.

“That’s good,” Russ says. And then, I can’t really describe what happens next. A moment ago I was a kite, somersaulting in the air, but now the wind has dropped and I am cartwheeling towards the ground, the energy I had inside me spiralling outwards. Maybe Russ feels it, coursing out of me in raw, hard waves, because he fixes his eyes on my face and I hear myself say, “It’s hard. The tutorial work, I mean. I thought I would enjoy it more.”

“It’s often a big leap from school to university. It will get easier soon.”

“It’s not just that.” I feel compelled to say more, although Russ has not questioned me further. “It’s the people too. They’re nice but I’m not sure I fit in. I’m …different.”

I wonder if I have said too much. My words hang between us, just the two of us in the dark and silent room. The world outside is completely blotted out by the heavy velvet curtains.

Adios Andalucia

Remember when I said that I was going to finish the first draft of my novel by the end of this year? Well, that hasn’t happened yet and with less than two weeks to go, it looks like I am going to be dragging an unfinished novel into 2009 with me. The two short stories I wanted to finish will get done though and I’ve, ahem, started on a third.

It kind of developed out of the descriptions I’ve been making of the landscape here. I had the feeling that I could turn my notes into a short story with a very strong sense of place. Since today is my last day in Andalucia, writing the story has also been a nice way to reflect on my time here. Those three months sure went by fast.

For my last short story effort of this year, I’m trying to avoid the two mistakes I always make when writing short fiction: over-writing and over-plotting. I think the over-writing stems from my desire to create beautiful images with words. I go over each sentence several times so that each one is part of an elaborately constructed description.  In the end, all the imagery distracts the reader from the story. The over-plotting is probably something I picked up in school when we learned that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. Unless you have 8 000 to 10 000 words to work with, there will be no space for all this build up. With only 2 000 – 5 000 words, you want to head straight for the climax. A short story should be a moment of clarity, or an epiphany. Once you start talking about plot, you are in already in trouble.

How To Poison Someone?

There is a murder in my novel. I know who the victim is and who the murderer is but I don’t know how it was carried out. I conveniently managed to skip over that part in the first draft. I want it to look like a natural death so maybe poisoning is the answer, but with what? It has to be something that anyone can get their hands on and that is easy to slip into food or drink. I don’t want to use something that has been done before, like the old poisonous mushrooms in the omelet or cyanide in the tea. I’ve been searching on the internet for ideas and find myself concocting more and more unlikely scenarios. Why go to the effort of burning poison ivy in the fireplace in the victim’s office or of tricking the victim into bashing open an unripe ackee when emptying the contents of a load of sleeping pills into a bottle of whisky would be easier?

The reason I want the death to look natural is so that the police don’t get involved. I don’t want to get caught up in doing a lot of research into police procedure. That’s the kind of thing I could do if I had a published novel behind me. Then I would feel justified in pestering someone in the police force into answering my questions or checking my manuscript for errors. With a first novel, and no guarantee of it ever being published or even getting it finished, I wouldn’t have the audacity to waste a professional’s time doing research for a plot.

I have done some superficial research for my novel using the internet but am now a bit worried that the government is monitoring the websites I have been visiting and has flagged me up as a potential criminal. As well as all the searches I have done today for “poisons”, “clues that someone has been poisoned” and “poisonous plants”, I have recently visited sites on how to bleach the numbers off dollars and what kind of paper to use for fake bank notes because the main character in a short story I was writing was a counterfeiter.

I had been planning on putting an embezzlement subplot into my novel but I might give that a miss in case my internet research arouses too much suspicion.

Raising the Stakes

As I grapple with my multi stranded story line that does not seem to tie together, I have found this web page about structure and plot very helpful. I particularly like the advice about raising the stakes of your character’s emotional journey. Basically, this means that your character must overcome a series of obstacles in the course of the story, each seeming even more insurmountable than the one before.

The obstacles that the heroine in my novel is facing are malicious acts of sabotage which become increasingly threatening as the story progresses. At least, that was my plan. Skimming through the first few chapters this morning I realised that my heroine has a pretty easy time of it obstacle wise. I have a dangerously over salted bowl of soup – shock! horror! – and water savagely spilled over a pile of research notes. Yes, these are the kinds of terrors that plague my heroine’s existence. She can no longer trust the canteen food in case some maniac with a salt cellar has tampered with her lunch, nor can she leave her PhD thesis notes unattended in the college library for fear that a lunatic armed with a bottle of water may drench her notebook.

My only defence is that at the time of writing the above mentioned ludicrous scenarios I was under the influence of large amount of caffeine and cracking under the pressure of having to churn out 50 000 words in a month. I promise I will do better in the next draft.

A Not Very Well Thought Out Metaphor

My head is just so full of stuff, yet I haven’t even managed to write 200 words of my novel today. The plot plan I started with has served me well so far but now I’m beginning to see more of a shape in what I’ve been writing. I’ve started to think of my plot as a vine with shoots coming off it. Everything I have written these last 17 days belongs to the shoots. The central stem that holds it all together is missing. I need to do some serious thinking so that I can wrap this thing up by the end of November.

Originally I was planning just to write 50 000 words out of the novel and not necessarily to finish it; however, Chris Baty of NaNoWriMo fame recently sent an e-mail advising us to get the endings down during November. As he pointed out, when the pressure of National Novel Writing Month is over, it will be easier to fill in gaps in the novel than it will be to write the ending from scratch. I think he is probably right, which means I have to work out my ending – fast.

So I need a central stem and some kind of spectacular blooming flower to top it off (or a bunch of grapes, whatever is appropriate for this metaphor). Hmmmm. Back to the drawing board.


PlotI think one of the reasons that my NaNoWriMo-ing has been going so well is that I spent some time in October working out my plot. I was struggling with flow diagrams for a while before I hit on a great way to get an overview of what is happening in my novel. I took a square of paper for each scene and wrote out some notes reminding me which characters were in that scene and what piece of information had to be conveyed to the reader. I then arranged the pieces of paper in ten columns, each column representing a week in novel time.

You can see my plot pieces in the photo. The bits of paper at the bottom detail scenes that I haven’t found a place for yet. I will be able to rearrange the pieces of paper, or add and remove pieces, to reflect changes in the plot as I am writing. I believe there is writing software that allows you to do this sort of plotting electronically but I am enjoying messing around with my bits of paper. The only worry is that a rogue gust of wind might snatch them away so I am keeping the windows in my room firmly closed.