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Crime authors spill their guts about writing...

This week: Mary Jane Riley

Tell us about yourself.

I live in East Anglia with my television reporter husband and Golden Retriever Bella. We moved here about thirty years ago intending to stay for two years, but the place gets hold of you and now I don’t want to live anywhere else – especially anywhere there are streetlights. I was a radio presenter with the BBC and Independent radio for many years, presenting news, magazine and sports programmes – I am nothing if not versatile! In recent years I worked on the BBC News website and covered many crime stories – great for providing kernels of ideas. I have three children – they all live away from home but do keep coming back… My first book, The Bad Things, was published by Killer Reads/Harper Collins in August 2015, and my second After She Fell, in April this year.

Mary Jane Riley is interviewed by Barbara Copperthwaite

How do you pick character names? Do any have special meaning to you?

That’s an interesting one! The names of main characters seem to come out of the ether and suit their personalities – I’m not sure how it happens, it just does - and it’s so important to get the right one, after all, you have to live with them for the best part of a year. Minor characters are more difficult and in both my books I have shamelessly stolen the names of friends and colleagues – they don’t seem to mind. Once, in the first book I wrote (that hasn’t seen the light of day) I couldn’t think of a name for a pretty important character. He was eventually called Belkin – the name on the side of my wireless router.

Where do you most like to do your writing?

Walking the dog. She’s a great listener. Then I write notes in longhand at the kitchen table before going to my desk upstairs and planting my backside very firmly on the chair.

Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you tackle it?

I often feel I have writer’s block because I’m not actually writing anything. Then I get worried. But usually once I sit down and start to type (or talk to the dog) it begins to spill out…. Scenes, characters, plot have been composting in my brain without me knowing. 

There are times when the reason I can’t start to write is because I haven’t figured out how to start the story, or where to go next. Once I’ve done that, I’m okay, even if it changes later, which it usually does. Sometimes if it’s not working, I have to go back to the place where it stopped working and try something different, if you see what I mean.

How has your writing style developed over time? And your approach to writing?

Because I am a journalist I am used to writing in short, clear sentences, which has stood me in good stead for writing crime – there is no room for waffle in this genre. I don’t like to waste words or be too complicated and try never to use three words when one will do. When I wrote my first crime novel, I was working early shifts at the BBC, so I used to come home at about 2pm, have a kip and then do an hour or so’s writing – I couldn’t and still can’t concentrate for more than two hours at a time. Now I am writing full time, I find I have to be more disciplined and treat it as a job. A thoroughly enjoyable job, but one nonetheless. I’m not sure I’m succeeding!

What's the best writing tip you've ever been given? How has it influenced you?

‘Don’t get it right, get it writ’ (sic) – from a lovely writing friend. Such good advice – sit down and write something, anything, because you can always change it, make it better – you can’t fix a blank page. I think the idea that what you put down on a page has to be perfect first time stops many people from writing, from plunging in and giving it a go. Just get something down, you can always change it.

What/who are you’re writing influences? Has this changed as your career has developed?

Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, PD James, Daphne Du Maurier – these authors will always be with me. But I can be a bit of an author tart! I read a book by, say, Mark Billingham, and wish I could write like him. Then I read one by Robert Galbraith, and wish I could write like her. Then Christobel Kent, and wish – well, you can see where this is going, can’t you?

How much do your own life experiences appear in your writing?

Obviously covering a lot of crime stories for the BBC helped me see the best and the worst of people. I find the East Anglian land and skies and great inspiration and a sense of place is very important to me. And then, of course, all life experiences are important – experiencing pain, joy, birth, death, humour, sadness and more all feed into my writing – as it should. We all have experience of these emotions and I think that is the very essence of the exhortation to write what you know.

AFTER SHE FELL is out in paperback from TODAY! 

It is also available as an ebook.

What’s the best and worst thing about being an author?

The best thing? Having a reader say they really enjoyed my book. The worst thing? Paranoia. Will anyone read it? Will they like it? Will it bomb?

Which book or character are you most proud of creating, and why?

It’s taken a while to sink in, but I’m proud of both of my books because I wrote them and they got published.

What’s the secret of your success?

I’ll tell you when I get there!

To find out more about MARY JANE RILEY...




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