Crime authors spill their guts about writing...

This week: Sarah Hilary

Tell us about yourself.

Criminal type and rehabilitated bookseller, responsible for the Marnie Rome series that started with Someone Else’s Skin (Crime Novel of the Year 2015) and continued to No Other Darkness (shortlisted for a Barry Award), Tastes Like Fear, and in 2017, Quieter Than Killing. Currently residing in Bath but with itchy feet (and fingers).

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

Names are so tricky and slippery. I can’t leave a blank and go back when I’ve thought of a name, even for minor characters or walk-ons. Everyone has to feel real from the outset, and that needs names. Marnie is in part as tribute to Winston Graham’s novel (filmed by Hitchcock). Noah’s surname is also a favourite first name of mine (Jake). Quieter Than Killing introduces a new bad boy who’s named after the actor who played my favourite vampire in Being Human (Aidan).

How do you go about plotting your book? 

I don’t plot. I’ve tried to, and it bores me. So what I do is write a very fast first draft and that gives me the backbone, and allows the characters to lead the action and make the plot happen. I then flesh out and tighten up in subsequent drafts.

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

I don’t believe in writer’s block. It’s just the name we give to what happens when we lose confidence in our core idea. I get bored and belligerent, and mentally exhausted — all of which makes writing difficult — but I don’t get blocked. I do get bad ideas, like all writers, but the only way to test them is by writing until I realise they’re not enough to sustain a story. Then I start over.

How has your writing style developed over time? And the way that you approach writing?

My confidence going into a new book has vastly improved. I know I can this, and I know I’m getting better all the time. You learn such a lot every time you write 100,000 words, start to finish. You learn not to make the same mistakes; you start to hear your editor’s voice in your head and swerve to avoid collisions.

What is the best writing tip you have ever been given? How has it influenced you?

Become obsessed. Make it more than just a hobby; make it your life. Surround yourself with great books (and some bad ones, because you can learn a lot from those). Get up early — or stay up late — to write.

What book do you wish you had written? 

Any of the Tom Ripley books. Then I could write a prequel, which I would dearly love to do.

Do you ever surprise yourself with what you’ve written?

All the time. It’s one of the bonuses of not plotting, and writing as much as possible from my unconscious mind. It’s surprising the stuff that’s lurking there.

What scene in your latest book did you most enjoy writing? And why?

The scene where Stephen nearly succeeds in breaking Marnie. This is the young man who six years ago murdered her parents. She’s been trying to find out why ever since. In Quieter Than Killing he breaks his silence, and it’s devastating.

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

Noah Jake, since he resonates with so many people. He’s so comfortable and happy in his own skin. I wanted to write a great detective who happens to be gay and half-Jamaican but for whom those things aren’t the whole point of his character or story.

In his eyes, you’re dead.

Describe your current work in progress in five words.