Crime authors spill their guts about writing...
This week: Alison Baillie
Tell us about yourself.
Hi, I’m thrilled to appear on Blood Type, where I’ve learnt a lot of interesting things about other writers.
I still haven’t got used to thinking of myself as a real writer, because I didn’t write Sewing the Shadows Together until I stopped working full-time, although the idea had been in my head for over thirty years.
Before that I was a teacher for many years. I was brought up in England, mainly in Ilkley in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales, but my parents were both from Scotland and I always felt Scottish. I studied English at the University of St Andrews, taught for a year in Finland and then spent the next sixteen years in Edinburgh, teaching English in several secondary schools, getting married and divorced, and giving birth to two wonderful sons.
I moved to Switzerland nearly thirty years ago and have lived here ever since. Now that I’m retired I love my life, having the time to travel, with two adorable little grandchildren, one in Zürich and one in Poland, able to spend my time writing and reading, and going to crime writing festivals.
How do you pick character names? Do any have special meaning to you?
The names of some characters come to me immediately, but for others I have to try out several possibilities until I just know they’re just right. In Sewing the Shadows Together, I had several names for Sarah’s husband before I hit on Rory, but as soon as I found it I knew it was perfect. Because this happens with several names, I have to be very careful to keep my manuscript up to date, and have discovered the disadvantages of search and replace. In my current book I had a Swiss character called Urs, who has now become Christian, but now the draft is littered with things like ‘Of coChristiane.’ It’s amazing how many words have the letters ‘urs’ in them.
Most names don’t have any special meaning, although Sarah’s daughter is called Charlotte, a name I had considered for a daughter if I’d had one.
Where do you like to do most of your writing?
I find it easiest to write near the sea (which is difficult as I live in Switzerland, about as far from the sea as it’s possible to get). My father was from Aberdeen and my mother from Portobello, Edinburgh’s seaside suburb, so I think the sea is in my blood. I always feel inspired when I can walk along a deserted beach and hear the waves and smell the sea air. In fact, Sewing the Shadows Together is also set by the sea, in Portobello, the Outer Hebrides and Plettenberg Bay in South Africa.
Research: do you find it fascinating or laborious? How do you conduct your research?
I love research. I only write about places I know, and I love going to visit them again to capture the atmosphere and to find a few landmarks that make the place special.
I also do a lot of internet research and find that hours can disappear as I follow links and discover things that will never be mentioned in my books. For example, in Sewing the
Shadows Together miscarriage of justice is a very minor theme, but the cases I read about as I researched this have made a huge impression on me.
How easy/hard was it to get your first break?
I first wrote Sewing the Shadows Together for myself, just to see if I could. It was only when I’d finished it that family and friends suggested I should publish it. So I studied the Writers and Artists Yearbook, selected the nine most famous agents who published my favourite authors (oh I was so naive) and when none of them were interested I became totally discouraged. I didn’t really know any other writers and I didn’t realise what a light-weight I was. Now I know that lots of writers keep going for years, through hundreds of rejections before they get their break.
I think I’d have given up completely if it weren’t for one of my son who kept saying, ‘What’s happening with your book?’ every time he saw me and even gave me a professional edit as a Christmas present.
I then decided to self-publish, but because I’m not very technical I said I needed somebody to hold my hand throughout the process. I discovered that Matador did this, so I published through them, and I’m very pleased with the quality of the book and the help they’ve given me.
Then I got my big break. I met the amazing Mike Linane at a book event and he offered to organise a blog tour for me. Several wonderful bloggers wrote lovely reviews, I joined online book clubs, people I’d met at book festivals were a wonderful support and lots of readers said they loved my book. I think I’ve been very lucky, because my book could easily have sunk without a trace, and only been read by family and friends, if it hadn’t been for the wonderful people I’ve met.
What is the best writing tip you have ever been given? How has it influenced you?
The best tip I’ve heard is ‘Read as much as possible’. I’ve always been a great reader and the books I’ve read must have influenced me. I wrote a book I’d like to read myself.
I think ‘Just write,’ is also a good tip, but unfortunately I can’t follow it. I can’t help editing as I go along, going back and rewriting passages as the plot takes its own direction. That’s one reason I’m so slow and am still struggling through my second book.
What/who are your writing influences? Has this changed as your career has developed?
I love Scottish crime fiction. I have always been a huge fan of Ian Rankin’s, but going to crime writing festivals I’ve been introduced to many other wonderful Scottish writers. I also love Scandinavian crime fiction and hope that my books reflect some of their emphasis on character and setting.
How much do your own life experiences appear in your writing? All the places I write about are ones I know and love. In Sewing the Shadows Together, I used my granny’s house for HJ Kidd’s and an old friend’s New Town flat has become Sarah and Rory’s.
In this book, several incidents from my life also inspired scenes. For example, I went to a school reunion and it occurred to me then that this would be an ideal way to bring characters together at the beginning of the book. I went to the Outer Hebrides to scatter the ashes of a dear friend, and this also inspired a scene in the book. HJ Kidd, the inspirational teacher, is based on my English teacher, but only the nice bits, and the scene where he reads the poem ‘Bat’ by DH Lawrence is based on my own thirteen-year-old experience that I still remember vividly.
How much do your own life experiences appear in your writing?
What’s the best and worst thing about being an author?
The best thing is the new life it’s opened up to me, the wonderful people I’ve met and the moving emails I’ve received from readers. The worst is that people are always asking me about my next book (and it isn’t finished yet...)
Which book or character are you most proud of creating, and why?
I’ve only written one book so it has to be that one. I’m proud that I actually wrote it!
Describe your current work in progress in five words.
Olivier tries to escape past...