Elizabeth Haynes’s suspense-filled debut novel, Into the Darkest Corner, was penned as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in 2008. Just three years on, it sits on Amazon’s 10 Best UK Books of 2011 (alongside George RR Martin’s Dance with Dragons and Steve Jobs’s biography) and her second book, Revenge of the Tide, has just hit the shelves. In this, the first of a two-part blog, we ask her about writing about and working with crime, and where she got the inspiration for her first published novel.
Elizabeth lives in Kent, in the South East of England, but has family ties in Australia – her grandparents came to Pearcedale, Victoria, in the early 1950s and lived in a tent there while they built their home themselves. “My grandmother was a keen and talented writer who might have had a completely different life if she’d not had six kids and a husband to look after. She wrote a long story about their experiences called ‘Now We Are Pioneers’, which was published in Australian Woman and Home magazine – so maybe I get my enthusiasm for writing from her.”
When she’s not writing about crime, she works with it; Elizabeth is a police intelligence analyst. “Analysts do a variety of specialist jobs for the police, but at the core of all of them is examining crime data to look for patterns which can then be used to direct police resources to where they will be most effective. Analysts who work for neighbourhood police might look at burglary data in terms of method, time of day, proximity to transport, types of housing targeted etc to try and then predict where the offenders might strike next. Some analysts specialise in major crime, things like murders, kidnappings and rape, providing timelines to show the key events, and phone analysis to look for evidence. We also look at criminal gangs and analyse the relationships between the members – it’s quite a varied set of jobs and never gets boring.”
“It’s the ideal job for a writer, really, because one of the fundamental skills of the analyst is the ability to ask ‘what if?’ to every situation, to look beyond the obvious and to make predictions. It requires discipline and creativity too.”
It sounds interesting, if a little terrifying at times. So, does she get many ideas for stories from her job? “I don’t get many plot ideas from the job because unfortunately real life crime tends to be either very dull or meaningless, with little or no motive, or else it is violent and gruesome and sadistic – and then it becomes morally difficult to fictionalise something that is happening to real people.”
Her first novel, Into the Darkest Corner, which deals with domestic abuse, obsession and OCD, draws on her work generally as opposed to being inspired by one particular story. “When I wrote it, I had been reading a lot of domestic abuse crime reports and although nothing I read directly inspired the story, what I did get from it was the sense that this happens to ordinary people from every social background – and that the reasons why people stay in abusive relationships can be extremely complex. I found it very difficult to write the most harrowing scenes but having built up to it through the course of the book I felt it would be an injustice to turn away at that point. Domestic abuse does happen every day to real people, and if I’m to write about it for what is essentially reading entertainment, I wanted to make sure that people come away with some degree of understanding about how bad it can be.”
“What I do get from the job, however, is an idea of how an investigation might work, where the limitations are and what the procedure would be. The police community has been incredibly supportive of me and I’m very lucky to have a huge network of people who are specialists in one field or another – and always willing to offer expert help for research!”
Access to experts is always a help when researching fiction, but how do co-workers and friends react when they find out that Elizabeth writes crime and suspense thrillers? “Everyone I’ve spoken to about being a writer has been without exception very positive, interested and encouraging. What’s interesting is how people who know me well, friends and family, have reacted after reading my books. Whilst this has also been hugely supportive, I think people are surprised by the violence, the swearing and the sex. I think I come across as quite mild-mannered and they wonder where it all comes from!”
You can visit Elizabeth’s website here. Due to her generosity in taking the time to answer all our questions on suspense writing, this will be a two part blog. In tomorrow’s blog, we ask her hard-won advice for other writers starting out.