Monday, 10 March 2014

Agatha Christie had it easy

Jonathan Creek recently returned to British TV screens and, being fans, we watched the first episode. It contained one of the worst motives for a character’s actions that I have ever encountered in a work of fiction (if you’ve not watched it but plan to do so, look away now). A terminally ill wife planted fake evidence she had been having an affair, so that when she died her much-loved husband would be less sad at losing her. It was preposterous, not a motive but a mechanism designed with the sole purpose of explaining away a mystery.

Had the rest of the programme been excellent – which it wasn’t – I would still have groaned in disappointment. Readers and audiences allow themselves to go along with fiction, suspending their disbelief at the depiction of all kinds of unlikely events. For example, I’m currently catching up with – and loving – Game of Thrones on Sky Atlantic and am captivated by a girl who can withstand fire and is raising several dragons. But this only works if writers give their characters credible motives for the way they behave.

Modern society is (thankfully!) far more forgiving than when Agatha Christie started writing. Back then, things like illegitimacy, divorce and bankruptcy were considered unacceptable and shameful. Homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967. Fictional characters could credibly be depicted going to desperate measures, including murder, to avoid the scandal of their private lives being made public.

Bad day at the office, dear?
These days, however, we are not so bound by convention. If a couple no longer get along, there’s little need for one of them to kill the other. Although still painful, divorce is now rightly regarded as no one’s business bar that of the people involved. And, according to the press, by 2016 the number of children born ‘out of wedlock’ (how quaint that sounds) will be greater than those born in it.
A more tolerant society is a good thing. Except for crime writers like me, who face the challenge of providing their miscreants with plausible motives. This is probably one of the reasons for the rise in popularity of psychopathic serial killers in crime fiction. They are motivated by their own internal logic, which readers still find compelling despite not sharing it.

Luckily, for all writers, while society may change, human nature never does. We’re always going to want what we can’t have and act in ways it would be wiser not to. Universal motives like love, hate, greed and jealousy will endure. A writer's skill lies in persuading an audience to buy into a character and their story so that their actions – and the motivation behind them – are believable. Whereas anyone can create a puzzle then manufacture a witless motive to explain it.

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Monday, 3 March 2014

My writing process

My Writing Process is a series of blog posts in which authors ‘tag’ each other to answer some questions about their work. Thanks to my good friend Bea Davenport, who writes both adult crime/suspense and children's fiction, for inviting me to take part.

What am I working on?
I’m in the very early stages of writing the sequel to my first novel, No Stranger to Death. It’s six months on and my main character, Doctor Zoe Moreland, is still living with the repercussions from events triggered by her discovery of a body in a Guy Fawkes bonfire. The second book opens with Zoe being called out by the police to identify a young Asian man who has apparently been thrown into the River Tweed from the historic chain bridge linking Scotland and England.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Although my books are crime fiction, at their core they’re about relationships, though not simply romantic ones. Friendships are important in real life, especially to women, and I try to reflect that. I loathe the expression ‘amateur sleuth’ but after working in a GP surgery I decided to make my main character a doctor rather than a police officer. GPs deal with people in extremis and hear their innermost secrets. They are also well-placed to interact with the police and other authorities. Perhaps most interestingly, they are bound by confidentiality, which can lead to moral dilemmas and conflict.

Why do I write what I do?
Wearing my other hat, as a professional copywriter I’ve written on subjects I started off knowing nothing about, like care homes for the elderly and school federations. However, when it comes to fiction I can’t imagine writing in genres I don’t read, such as romance. Judging one’s own work is hard enough; I wouldn’t know if it was any good if I had no idea what readers’ expectations are. And having readers enjoy what I write is my primary aim.

How does my writing process work?
I’m a slow and reluctant pantser who starts off with a corpse and wings it from there. I dread being asked that perennial question, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ because I simply don’t know. I’ve even coined a term to describe the process: imagication.

Thanks for reading about My Writing Process. I’m now passing the baton on to Vivienne Tuffnell, who will blog about her own process next week. Our writing could not be more different, but we’ve got to know each other on Twitter, where her bio describes her as writer, poet, explorer and mystic. Vivienne has written stories her whole life, even before she could actually read, as she explains.

“My father mistakenly allowed me to use his typewriter from an early age and I was hooked. I'm not sure the typewriter survived very long having me bash out strings of letters in the belief that what I had in my head would magically transform into words others can read. I've got better at that.”

Vivienne writes novels, short stories and poetry, and her wonderfully named blog is Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking.

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