Crime authors spill their guts about writing...
This week: Rona Halsall
Tell us about yourself...
I am a bit of a rolling stone – born in Nottingham, grew up near Blackpool, went to college in Leeds and stayed there for ten years until I moved to North Wales where I brought up my family. I now live on the Isle of Man with my husband, two dogs and two guinea pigs. I have three children and two step-children, so there’s always something going on and lots of material for new storylines.
I started writing when I was fifty and decided that I better get a move on if I was going to get that novel written. Just the one, that was my initial goal, but once I got started, I can’t actually stop! So many story ideas, I’ve no idea where they’ve been hiding. I’ve always loved puzzles and writing psychological thrillers is like writing a puzzle and hoping that your reader won’t work out the solution until the ending!
How do you pick character names? Do any have special meaning to you?
Character names just pop into my head when I’m starting a new book and then I have to ask myself whether the name fits the character. I really enjoy this part of the process – matching names to people.
In my last book, I asked one of my readers if I could use her surname, as it was a perfect fit for my character, so that was fun. In my latest book, I have a character named after my mum, which has allowed me to spend a little time with her memory, and that has been rather lovely. Mind you, I’m not sure she’d approve of all the troubles I’ve put my character through!
How long does your first draft take you?
Having started off being a pantser, I’m a plotter these days as I’ve found that it saves a lot of time further along in the process. Once I have the outline broken down into a chapter plan, I can write the story pretty quickly. It usually takes between 30 and 40 days depending on the wordcount, with an average of 2k words a day. Any more than that and I feel the quality of writing takes a dip and I leave myself mentally tired for the next day.
When I’m doing a first draft, I like to write every day so I can keep the story threads in my mind. Otherwise, I do, literally, lose the plot!
Research: do you find it fascinating or laborious? How do you conduct your research?
I do love a bit of research! I’m an inherently curious person and I love learning new things. Also, you never know where the research will take you. Sometimes, it’s created whole new sub plots for me.
I’m quite random with research. My story idea usually comes from research of some sort, so I have a general idea of theme. Once I start thinking about characters, then I’ll be researching all sorts of information to build a realistic backstory. I also like to research places for settings – even though I tend to use places I know, I always have to check little details and Google Earth is fantastic for letting you walk down streets and look at the view from certain places. I also have a number of professionals I can call on to ask questions about police procedure, medical procedures etc.
How has your writing style developed since your first book?
I have learnt so much since I wrote my first book! I am constantly reading about structure and writing technique and trying to improve. My editor has been instrumental in this, making me write outlines before I start my first draft. I’m such an impatient person, I can’t wait to get writing. Now I make myself let the story percolate and work out the backstories and make sure I have the characters and plot tied down – especially the ending – before I start.
After each book, I sit down and have a think about what I want to do differently the next time to make things better, not just in terms of storyline and writing, but also in terms of process. My aim is to maximise enjoyment and minimise pressure!
What is the best writing tip you have ever been given? How has it influenced you?
The best writing tip was to get words on the page and then think about editing in the knowledge that your first draft will be as bad as it gets.
This has made me much better at getting a first draft done. When I first started writing, I would keep going back over what I’d already written and then start to doubt myself and not make any progress. As Stephen King said, the first draft is really you telling yourself the story. Having that attitude has made getting a first draft done much easier and quicker for me.
What/who are your writing influences? Has this changed as your career has developed?
I’ve always loved psychological thrillers and CL Taylor was just starting to make a name for herself when I started, so I have followed in her footsteps.
In terms of writing style, Suzanne Collins really impressed me with The Hunger Games. Her writing is so straightforward, but the emotional impact she makes with her storylines is massive. I have tried to emulate this approach in my writing – making my books all about the story and keeping the writing style reasonable simple, so it doesn’t get in the way. I want readers to forget they’re even reading because the story is so compelling!
What book do you wish you had written?
The Hunger Games or Gone Girl.
If you could be a character in any book, including one of your own, who would you be?
Jack Reacher. He’s awesome! I’m 5 foot 2 and would love to be 6 foot 5. The world must look very different from up there.
How much do your own life experiences appear in your writing?
Lots of little snippets of me and my life experiences appear in my stories. I think that helps to keep the emotions real. I also borrow from family and friends, tending to stick to things I know something about or have observed.