Crime authors spill their guts about writing...
This week: Margaret Kirk
Tell us about yourself...
Hmm. Okay - I’m a Highland Scot, living and working in Inverness again after many years in exile (Bournemouth, mainly). I studied languages at uni, lived in Germany for a while and now write Highland Noir crime with a darkly gothic edge.
How do you pick character names? Do any have special meaning to you?
Well, my main characters tend to arrive with their names and most of their backstory already attached – Lukas Mahler and Anna Murray definitely arrived pretty much fully-formed.
And because my novels are set in the Highlands, it’s no surprise that a lot of the surnames will be linked to the area. But sometimes I’ll be a little cheeky and give a nod to people I’ve come across in real life!
How do you go about plotting your book?
Chapter plans. Which I sort of stick to, but amend as the book progresses. And I always write a synopsis at the beginning – it helps give me a sort of ‘road map’ for where I want to go, and how I hope to get there. It doesn’t always work, but at least I have something to aim at. And I find it easier than trying to put a synopsis together when the book’s finished, because then the temptation is always to add too much detail.
How long does your first draft take you?
Too long! Because I edit as I go, it takes an average of 9 – 10 months. The slight advantage is that by the time I send it to my editor, it’s not in terrible shape. But I suspect she’d be happier to get her hands on it much earlier!
Where do you most like to do your writing?
I have a lovely writing shed in the garden, but with two inquisitive ragdoll cats, I often end up sitting on my favourite armchair with at least one cat. I will use the shed more often in the warmer weather, but at the moment … brr!
Research: do you find it fascinating or laborious? How do you conduct your research?
Oh, I love it. But there’s such a temptation to fall down the rabbit-hole and fritter away hours on something which will probably be compressed into two sentences in a novel. Which is one reason why I don’t write historical crime, although I’m a massive history nerd – I’d get so into the historical detail, my novels would never be finished!
Because I don’t have a police background, I rely on very good friends for a lot of the procedural stuff. I pester the life out of them, but I do want to be as accurate as I can, and I hope a lot of that comes through in my books.
How easy/hard was it to get your first break?
I started writing short stories when we moved back to Scotland, and surprised myself by winning a few prizes. But I always felt as though they were really mini-novels, so I tried to write something full-length. By chance, I saw an article about the Good Housekeeping First Novel competition, entered at the last minute – and to my amazement, ended up winning a publication deal with what would become Shadow Man, my first DI Lukas Mahler novel!
What book do you wish you had written?
I’m not sure there is one – I think we can only write the books we have in us, really. Though I do sometimes look back at my first book and think, ‘hmm, I might do that differently now …’ But I like to think I’m improving with each novel!
How much do your own life experiences appear in your writing?
Another interesting question, thank you! My main character, Lukas Mahler, was born in the Highlands but has spent some time working in London before family circumstances mean he has to return to Inverness – this very definitely parallels my own situation.
After coming home to Inverness, I worked in a mental health recovery unit. So when I started writing about Lukas’s mother’s mental ill-health, I really wanted to portray her as someone who lives with her issues but doesn’t let them define her. I’ve since become an Ambassador for my former workplace, and I feel very privileged to be chosen to do this.
Do you find that your success has added or alleviated the pressure for the next book?
That is such a good question – and I’d say it’s definitely added to the pressure. Our first books pretty much takes as long as they take, don’t they? But after that, particularly with trad publishing, we’re tied into deadlines and delivery dates. For someone who writes as slowly as I do, it’s a little daunting!
And if we’re lucky enough to have readers who enjoy our books, they’re also quite keen on getting their hands on their favourite writer’s latest offering as soon as possible – and I freely admit to being as guilty of this as anyone. Devastated I’ll have to wait a whole year for the next Elly Griffiths!