Crime authors spill their guts about writing...
This week: David Young
Tell us about yourself.
For most of my working life I was a journalist, starting as a reporter on weekly and daily local and regional newspapers and then for more than 25 years as a news editor for BBC World radio and TV. But by the end I was desperate to escape, and doing the City University London Crime Fiction MA led to Stasi Child, a three-book deal and – with the help of redundancy from the BBC – a full-time writing career. Stasi Child was reasonably successful commercially, and is also the current CWA Endeavour historical crime novel of the year, so it’s been an exciting time. My second novel Stasi Wolf – set a few months later comes out in today, 9 February 2017, and I’ve just signed a new three-book deal.
How do you go about plotting your book?
I am very much a plotter rather than seat-of-pants writer. I tend to start with an overall idea, then develop it into a flow diagram of possible plot development. From there, I’ll work up a plan for around 50-60 chapters. I’ll deviate from that as I write the first draft, but it gives me a road map, and the knowledge that if my chapters are an average of 1,500 words (some will be longer, some shorter) I’ll have a novel-length draft at the end of it.
How long does your first draft take you?
I’ll usually set aside about two months, aiming at between 2,000 to 2,500 words per day. But I recently saw Michael Crichton’s daily word count was 10,000 so a set myself a not very scientific experiment to see if I could match it. I took myself off to my writing retreat (a caravan on the Isle of Wight) for five days to work on the first draft of the third book in the Stasi Child/Karin Müller series. Working from 8am to midnight, I managed four days on the trot of 10,000 words per day, plus another 5,000 on a curtailed final day (I had to catch a ferry home). That was half a novel, broke the back of the draft, and meant I finished the rough first draft in 19 days. I was planning to keep this information from my editor but someone revealed it at a book festival he was attending, so the secret’s out!
Research: do you find it fascinating or laborious? How do you conduct your research?
For me, research is the best part of the writing process. It’s still work, of course, but why shouldn’t we as writers enjoy our work? Research for me ranges from interviewing former East Germans (particularly detectives), to ‘reading’ German memoirs (I have to process them through Google translate first!), and simply soaking up the atmosphere in the eastern part of Germany and trying to imagine what it was like 40 years ago (which isn’t that hard, given so much of it survives).
I’m currently researching Book 4, set mostly near Gardelegen – in the western part of what was East Germany – scene of one of the most horrific massacres of World War 2, which will play into the plot. I’m slightly wary about using a real-life massacre as a springboard for crime fiction, and therefore entertainment. So I may end up fictionalising and relocating it. It’s an ethical conundrum! Visiting the little-known memorial site was an incredibly moving experience.
How easy/hard was it to get your first break?
I guess some people would say I had it easy. I won the City Uni course prize for Stasi Child, which guaranteed me representation with PFD, who sponsored it (although my agent Adam Gauntlett actually picked me up at the shortlisting stage before I’d won). But there was then an awkward period where we had a French deal with Fleuve Noir (who loved it so much they were prepared to publish without any existing UK deal), and a TV option with Euston Films, but a full round of rejections from British publishers. Then I struck lucky again when Bonnier, launching their first UK adult fiction imprint, picked it up as a launch title. So I benefitted from the full weight of a new publisher determined to make its mark.
What is the best writing tip you have ever been given? How has it influenced you?
My guest tutor at City Uni, Philip Sington (author of The Valley of Unknowing and The Einstein Girl) was always urging me to cast against type – to try to avoid stereotypical characters. I often don’t succeed, but it’s a good tip to try to follow.
What/who are you’re writing influences? Has this changed as your career has developed?
A very early influence was Enid Blyton’s ‘Mystery of’ series, and then later in my teenage years thrillers by Alistair MacLean and Helen MacInnes. But at school and university I hated English Literature with a passion. In those days, there was precious little encouragement to actually write anything yourself. On the City MA course, we studied Peter May’s Lewis trilogy as part of the Reading as a Writer module, taken by Roger Morris – and the twin narrative in Stasi Child was heavily influenced by The Lewis Man.
If you could be a character in any book, including one of your own, who would you be?
I rather like Werner Tilsner, Müller’s deputy in the Stasi Child series, although I’m sure some people find him odious and an unreconstructed chauvinist (but then it was the 1970s). He’s a charmer, a chancer, and an operator. I’d like a bit of that, please.
How much do your own life experiences appear in your writing?
My life at various times has been dominated by institutions and organisations – boarding school from age nine (what parent in their right mind sends their child away to board at that sort of age?), and then the BBC, the latter years of which were pretty miserable. I’m sure there are parallels between the way organisations in the west operate, and those of the communist east. I suspect several BBC managers I’ve encountered over the years might have had equally successful careers in the Stasi.
What’s the best and worst thing about being an author?
Best thing – the lack of daily routine, not hating going in to work every day, and not having to deal with tedious office politics. Worst thing – the lack of daily routine, and therefore the temptation to spend all day surfing the internet!
What’s the secret of your success?
Choosing a setting and period for my series that was pretty much virgin territory for English authors, and in that way hopefully creating something distinctive and worthwhile.