Into the Darkest Corner of the Crime Writer’s mind (part 2 of 2)

Yesterday we published part 1 of our interview with Elizabeth Haynes, whose debut novel Into the Darkest Corner deals with domestic abuse, obsession and OCD, and she discussed writing crime and suspense fiction. Today we have her hard-won advice for other writers starting out.

She completed the first draft of Into the Darkest Corner, her first published book, as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) 2008. Did she set out to write a publishable book from the start? “No, definitely not! When I first heard about NaNoWriMo in October 2005 I was very excited by the challenge. I’ve always written but never anything full-length, what this did was to give me permission to write and not stop, not to worry about the quality or fuss over the plot.”

“NaNoWriMo has to be fun, otherwise it’s not really worth doing. If you set out to write something for publication I don’t think it would be nearly so much fun to participate. Even now, with a publishing deal for future books, I have to write in November as though it’s just going to be for me to read, otherwise I think it would be overwhelmingly scary.”

“I’d won three years of NaNoWriMo before I did actually manage to finish a story, though, the others were all still mid-plot by December, and even after five months of trying to edit it myself it took my cousin to say to me ‘why don’t you send it off?’ It hadn’t been something I’d considered as a possibility until then.”

Writing may have a reputation for being a one-person job, but Elizabeth find that other people’s views and opinions are vital to help her get the best from her plot. “It always helps me to discuss it as it evolves an awful lot through the writing and editing process. Talking about it sparks new ideas and helps me see what the underlying themes are, and which bits work – or don’t. I think this is because I always write at speed, without anything other than a germ of an idea to start me off.”

“Writing is a very solitary business but it’s only when you share your work with other people that you can start to make it better. I would advise joining a local writing group – or starting one – and listen to feedback when you can. Try writing in different genres to stretch your literary muscles. And write-ins (where you meet other writers and, basically, write) can really help to get your creative juice going. Being answerable to other people helps you maintain focus!”

Elizabeth loves to write and meet writers, but it’s not just enthusiasm that makes a great book; she recommends getting the experts in for a dispassionate read and further development. Even if that’s nowhere near as much fun as the writing itself!  “I think my biggest hurdle is always the editing process. I can write a good-ish story, develop some cracking characters and finish it with no real concept of where it’s all gone wrong. I’m lucky to have a brilliant editor who seems to have an almost magical insight into how to make things better.”

It’s not just editors she asked for an opinion; her second novel, Revenge of The Tide, is about a woman is an office worker by day and pole dancer in an upmarket club by night. While Elizabeth has the background in office work, pole-dancing wasn’t in her repertoire. “I did actually go along to pole fitness classes. This was so far out of my comfort zone it was ridiculous – I’m 40, a mother of one and definitely not built for fitness classes of any sort – but the instructors and the other girls in the class were brilliant and welcoming. I did the warm ups with them (which just about killed me) and then watched them do the rest of the class, sitting on the floor of the studio with my notebook, drawing stick figure representations of the moves.”

“Having watched pole dancing on television (and inspired by a pole dancer who was on Britain’s Got Talent) you would think I had all the information I needed – but I’m so glad I did the class as I learned a lot of things you wouldn’t necessarily realise – such as the friction burns you get on the inside of your thighs, and the fact that the poles in clubs are thicker than the ones used for pole fitness. If I experience things like this, I can write about them. I did also have a long phone conversation with a former dancer, who let me in on the secrets of what it was like in the world of gentlemen’s clubs.”

It wasn’t her first time trying to get into the head of a character with different views; In The Darkest Corner’s main character, Catherine, suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) brought on by trauma. Elizabeth not only had to understand OCD but write about it in a way that made a reader understand it too.

“I’ve had very positive feedback on it, which I’m relieved about because I have no direct experience of OCD, other than that I’m on that continuum – as I think we all are – which starts with little habits and supersitions, like counting your steps or avoiding ‘unlucky’ numbers. I had a lot of help from a dear friend who is a consultant psychologist. She recommended me some books, which included not only treatment protocols but case studies of people who have OCD. I think obsession is something we can all relate to because everyone experiences milder versions at some point; compulsion is something else, the fact of having no option but to behave in a certain way, even as an intelligent, outwardly ‘normal’ adult. That was very difficult to write and I’m still not sure it comes across.”

“I think sometimes characters come to me quite easily, other times they take a bit of coaxing before I know them well enough to tell their story. I have two characters in my latest book who are either socially inept or socially phobic, and it’s been difficult to draw them out enough to get a clear sense of who they are. But knowing their world, knowing what it’s like for them to live, definitely makes things easier.”

Her characters aren’t always 100% fictional. “I always use at least one real person’s name in each book (with their permission!). With Into the Darkest Corner, it was Naomi, my friend and fellow police analyst. My third book contains a character named after a friend on Twitter, who insisted on being used thus! Revenge of the Tide has a character called Robby Nicks who is actually my next door neighbour!”

Her readers – and her neighbours – will be relieved to hear that while she occasionally draws on real-life for ideas, that’s not the case with her portrayal of Robby. “He isn’t a baddie in real life!”

Into the Darkest Corner of the Crime Writer’s mind (part 1 of 2)

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.