Crime authors spill their guts about writing...
This week: Liz Mistry
Tell us about yourself.
I was born in a small Scottish village called West Calder and studied English and History at Stirling University before moving to Bradford nearly 30 years ago to do a PGCE. I met my husband, Nilesh at Bradford college and we decided to settle in Bradford. I have three children Ravi, Kasi and Jimi, of whom I am immensely proud.
I taught in inner city Bradford for many years and absolutely love the richness of Bradford’s diversity.
For many years I have suffered from depression, which has often debilitated me for long periods. When I decided to do the MA in Creative Writing at Leeds Trinity University, I wasn’t 100% sure my mental health would allow me to complete it. Fortunately, thanks to an amazing counsellor from Bradford Primary Care Mental Health team and the support of the tutors and fellow students at LTU, I was able to do so.
How do you pick character names? Do any have special meaning to you?
I am notoriously bad at choosing character names. In the first draft of my current novel Unquiet Souls, I found I’d inadvertently named three minor characters, Billy; one was a criminal, one a baby and the other a builder. I must go into default mode with names and, so as not to stop my flow, I give minor characters the first name that comes to mind – in the first draft it doesn’t matter as you can go back and change them easily enough later. I also have a habit of, (subconsciously, I think), using the names of people around me without realising I’m doing it. That’s fine if you’re not killing them off or making them really nasty. I usually realise I’ve done it before too long and then ask them if its ok. In terms of my main characters I spend a bit longer choosing their names. DI Gus (Angus) McGuire was always going to have a Scottish name and, as his dad is the pathologist in the series, I wanted them to share a similar first name too – Gus’ dad is called Fergus.
Gus’ sidekick DS Alice Cooper, got her name gradually. First, I came up with Alice who drove a Mini Cooper and then her backstory lumbered her with eccentric, out of touch, scientist parents who wouldn’t realise the significance of naming her Alice Cooper.
How do you go about plotting your books?
In terms of plotting I’m a firm believer in letting ideas gestate (or fester if you prefer) for a period of time. Often I ruminate on an idea whilst I’m trying to get to sleep or whilst I’m driving or walking and usually that allows me to see the way forward for difficult scenes.
I have an extremely short concentration span and my memory is poor (all side-effects of my depression) so I tend to write in short bursts and, with my first draft, I like to just get it all down as it comes to me otherwise I’ll forget it. There’s always time to ‘tidy’ it up later. When I go back to do my second draft I keep a notebook and each chapter gets allocated a page with a brief summary of the action and characters involved so I can double check for sequence errors. Of course at this stage I often swap chapters around.
Research: do you find it fascinating or laborious? How do you conduct your research?
I tend to do my research as and when I need it. So, if a particular scene requires some research I tend to write as much as I can and then research adding in or adapting the scene as necessary. Depending on the subject matter I usually find it fascinating. Mind you, having said that I am easily distracted and can go off on real tangents whilst researching. I’m one of those writers who needs to be careful not to regurgitate too much research into my books- I keep a very watchful eye out for that!
How easy/hard was it to get your first break?
I’d been writing for a number of years but, struggling with bouts of depression made it hard to complete my first novel. I started Unquiet Souls years ago and had all the ideas for the sequels in mind, but somehow couldn’t get the book finished. At interview for the MA Creative Writing course, my tutor (YA fiction writer, Martyn Bedford) suggested I get the first draft completed before starting the course and then use the course to ‘fine-tune’ it. I did this and by January this year I was ready to start submitting to agents.
After umpteen rejections, some with very positive feedback, I posted in a Facebook club I belong to saying something like ‘If they think it’s so good why won’t they just take it on?’ and, luckily for me, the lovely Betsy Reavley saw my post and suggested I send three Chapters to Bloodhound Books. I did so and, within a few days, Bloodhound Books got back to me asking for the full manuscript which they liked. They then offered me a two book deal which I am absolutely delighted about. What has amazed me is the efficiency of Bloodhound Books; within weeks I went from handing in three chapters to having an amazing book cover and a release date for Unquiet Souls.
What's the best writing tip you've ever been given? How has it influenced you?
I think the tip from my tutor, Martyn Bedford, has to be the best I’ve ever had - just keep writing, get it all down and then you can edit to your hearts content.
What/who are you’re writing influences? Has this changed as your career has developed?
I have to say, maybe it’s the Scot in me, but I’m a huge fan of Tartan Noir and, in particular Stuart MacBride and Caro Ramsay. Reviewing for The Crime Warp Blog has given me a taste for a wide spectrum of crime fiction books. I love the books that blur the genres - like paranormal police procedurals (James Oswald), futuristic crime (JD Robb) or romance (Mary Burton) … and I like a good serial killer book (James Carol’s Jefferson Winter books are great).
If you could be a character in any book, including one of your own, who would you be?
I think if I were an actress, I’d love to play the part of Stuart MacBride’s, DCI Roberta Steel. She would be a dream to portray - unfortunately I’m not an actress and I wouldn’t want to inhabit her skin on a permanent basis as she’s far too full on for me. Maybe Agatha Christie’s Tuppence character- brave, pretty, young – that’ll do me.
Do you ever surprise yourself with what you’ve written?
I write some very dark scenes and it never ceases to amaze me that I can so easily get into the character of my bad guys. The Matchmaker, the villain in Unquiet Souls, is a vile, scary creature made all the more so because he is your everyday professional – he could be anyone we cross paths with on a day to day basis… and that for me is what makes crime fiction so compelling.
What’s the best and worst thing about being an author?
Writing gives you an excuse to delve into the darkest parts of your mind and then purge it all by writing it on paper. It allows me the space to be on my own and yet to feel that I’m in a crowded room. The worst thing is the decaff coffee I have to drink because full caffeinated coffee gives me palpitations … as we all know no writer can survive without frequent coffee breaks.
Describe your current work in progress in five words.
Uncoiled Lies: Betrayal, Love, Grit
UNQUIET SOULS is out on 30 July.