They say crime doesn't pay, but in the case of Judith Cranswick it does, because she makes a living as a crime writer. She gave an insight into how she manages it at this week's John Aubrey Group Meeting.
Like most authors she reads a lot - particularly psychological and crime fiction - and from those she drew out her first key piece of advice for any aspiring writer, write about what you know. Unlike John Grisham and law, or Dick Francis and horse racing, her starting points were Swindon and further education! From there came her first two published books, both psychological thrillers.
Her agent then advised her to start a series as this is usually a better way to gain an income. It's difficult to write a psychological series, so her mind turned to the world of crime, the most popular genre on the bookshelves. Still sticking with what she knew, her love of travel led to her 'blood' series and the creation of Fiona Mason, a coach tour guide.
The first book in the series, Blood on the Bulb Fields followed the itinerary of an actual coach tour she took with her husband. The bulb fields in question are the famous ones at Keukenhof in Holland, where she spent some time pondering the question 'Now where do I put the body?'. The story's development went on to involve Amsterdam's centre for diamonds, the smuggling of 'dirty' diamonds, and how this is used to fund terrorism.
Judith's mysterious MI6 anti-terrorism minor character, Peter Montgomery-Jones, then took over like some characters do and demanded not only a bigger part in the tale, but also to come back in later novels. Judith then had to think of a suitable plot device to allow this character to reappear in a plausible fashion.
Another problem she encountered was in her story set in Morocco. The murder didn't happen until quite a way into the story, in chapter 12. Her solution? To add another one in an earlier chapter.
Judith talked about two main ways someone writes a novel - as a Plotter - everything is planned in great detail from the outset, or as a Pantster - the writer sets off without a clue where the story will go, literally writing by the seat of one's pants. She puts herself more in the Pantster category, having once tried the Plotter method and then found she got bored with the story before she'd even finished the first chapter.
For Judith the road to publication consists of: Write first draft; rewrite(s), checking for plot, pace/tension, and characters; Editor 1; Editor 2; Copyeditor; Proof reader; and Beta readers. Beta readers will include at least one expert for fact checking in addition to any expert consultations made during her research. She gave the example of her initial choice of Belfast hospital for Blood Across the Divide which was too busy for the key scene she'd devised for there. In addition she was told it was impossible for her character to see what happens at the foot of the slope from the folly at Mount Stewart. This is because the slope there is convex rather than concave. Both were relatively easy to correct and to the readers of the finished novel, these details matter!
She wrote two (unpublished) novels when she had children; and has now published 10 since she retired. She aims to write one novel a year and the next is set in Japan and involves a Geisha girl. She finds her time is generally split into one third research, one third writing the first draft, and one third on rewrites.
Finally Judith gave us a warning at the start of her talk: never get on the wrong side of a crime writer. Once a newly married archaeologist asked if his wife could accompany the dig at the remains of the city of Ur. 'Certainly not!', said the wife of the lead archaeologist, 'There is room for just one woman on this dig and that's me'. The refused wife turned out to be Agatha Christie, and her experiences on that dig formed the basis of her novel, Death in Mesopotamia. Neither the lead archaeologist, nor his wife come out well in the plot!
Anyone interested in reading one of Judith's stories may like to try her second book in the Fiona Mason series, Blood in the Wine. You can download this for free by subscribing to her newsletter on her website. Judith assured us the story can be read successfully without the need to read Blood on the Bulb Fields first.