Crime authors spill their guts about writing...
This week: Maureen Carter
Tell us about yourself.
I was born in Stafford and after a career in the media I turned to writing fiction rather than reporting fact. I’m now the author of two crime series set in my adopted city, Birmingham.
Having worked on newspapers, radio and for BBC TV, I’m still a news junkie and this is reflected in my books which often explore the media’s impact on high-profile police investigations.
My first novel Working Girls was published in 2001. I’m currently writing my fourteenth which is called Dead Time, and is due out in the autumn.
When I’m not writing, I’ll either be reading or catching up with friends. I love coffee, crosswords, a cat called Whisky and the occasional carafe of rosé.
How do you pick character names?
With great difficulty. It can take an age and I frequently use search and replace to change names halfway through writing a book. I think choosing the right names for every character is crucial. They help me – and hopefully the reader – conjure mental pictures of people. They also go some way to signposting a person’s age, class and where they come from. Of course they can also be used occasionally to point the reader in the wrong direction.
Where do you most like to do your writing?
I sometimes wish I could nip off to my favourite coffee bar with a laptop and while away the hours delicately sipping cappuccino and crafting fine prose. It just doesn’t work for me. I need silence and solitude. I like to write on a desktop in my office where everything I need is within reach and where I spend time in my make believe world talking to people who only exist in my head. Maybe it’s an antidote to all the years I spent working in frantically busy and noisy newsrooms.
How easy/hard was it to get your first break?
Immensely difficult. It took eight years before I was offered a contract during which time, as well as freelance journalism and short stories, I wrote four full-length novels. The books attracted a raft of rave rejections and little else. When I embarked on Working Girls I told myself this would be my final stab at publication, that if it didn’t happen I wouldn’t have
failed – I just wouldn’t have succeeded. Besides, there were only so many walls left that I could bang my head against.
Anyway, I submitted the first 10,000 words and a synopsis to a new writers’ competition run by the Crime Writers’ Association. Hallelujah. My entry was short-listed and subsequently read by Peter Lewis who ran what was then Flambard Press. The day he rang and asked to see the completed book was one of the happiest of my professional life – topped the following year when he published Working Girls.
Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you tackle it?
I don’t get writer’s block but I certainly experience what I call Oscar Wilde moments as in: ‘I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out.’ Thing is, I tweak, hone and fine-tune constantly as I write; I find it really difficult to move on to the next sequence – sometimes even the next sentence – until I’m as happy as I can be that the one I’m writing has the right words in the right place. If they’re not – I work at it until they are.
What is the best writing tip you have ever been given? How has it influenced you?
I’m not a fan of writing tips – too many people dish them out and they’re mostly bland or just plain bad advice. Write about what you know? Why? I write what I can find out about. Show don’t tell? Who says? There are times in a narrative when certain points have to be spelled out. We’re story-tellers, aren’t we? Kill your darlings? No. Kill your dullards. Sorry, I’ll get off the soap box now. The best advice I’ve ever been given was by an old-school TV journo. I was dithering about how to cover a particularly big story and he barked out: Just Do It. It worked for me then – and still does.
What/who are you’re writing influences? Has this changed as your career has developed?
The biggest influence is undoubtedly my journalism. In TV news particularly, I had to write tight, accurate, attention-grabbing stories to length and to a deadline. Going over or under an allotted duration would lead to a blank screen or crashing into the next item. It called for decisiveness and discipline and it’s still the way I work. My prose has been described as lean and spare, so much so I once had an editor who used to beg me to put in more adjectives and adverbs. I do use them now but only when they’re strictly needed. I’ve read a lot of books recently that have far too much padding and repetition. Surely every word should earn its place.
How much do your own life experiences appear in your writing?
You can probably guess my answer here. My old job features in my books a great deal. Not in just the way I write but how I decide what stories to tackle. They’re the sort that makes a front page lead or tops a news bulletin.; some stem from stories I covered when I was on the road, or snippets I’ve read in a newspaper or heard on the radio. The journalism in me even dictates some of my characters: reporters feature in all the Bev Morriss books and I created a female TV journalist as one of the main protagonists in the DI Sarah Quinn series. Caroline King, I hasten to add, is not based on me.
Do you ever surprise yourself with what you’ve written?
Not so much at the time but occasionally I have to read through one of my books years later and find lines of dialogue that make me laugh out loud. More surprising – and gratifying - there are two or three scenes that can move me to tears. Worryingly, there are whole chucks of the storyline I have no memory of writing at all.
What’s the best and worst thing about being an author?
The best is having a brilliant switched-on boss who’s really generous with annual leave. Seriously, the freedom is great and it’s a privilege to make up stories for a living, but there is a downside – what I call the ecstasy and the agony. When the writing’s going well – little beats that fabulous feeling of creating something that never existed before, but when the prose refuses to flow only you, the writer, can fix it. There’s no one I can hand a chapter to and ask them to carry on while I have a meltdown. A writer should have a unique voice that no one else in the world can recreate. They might come close, but no cigar.
What’s the secret of your success?
It depends on the definition of success. I’m not a best-seller or big name. Fact is a reviewer once described me as ‘one of crime fiction’s best kept secrets’! But the books are out there – and that’s okay by me. That they are is down to persistence, professionalism and proving to that old journo that I could ‘just do it’.