Wednesday, 30 March 2011


Today we're going to talk about writing a crime series. Well, I'm not, because I don't know anything about it, but I'm going to ask my expert friend, Aline Templeton, hugely acclaimed author of the Marjory Fleming series of crime novels set in rural Galloway, that beautiful and peaceful  - hooray! - South-West corner of Scotland.

Cradle to Grave, Aline's latest, is published in paperback today, so I asked her to come and talk about the intricacies of creating one of the Holy Grails of publishing: the successful series character. Easily persuaded by the promise of a modest glass of wine, she agreed.

NM: You'd written several stand-alone novels before you started the Marjory Fleming books.
What was the thinking behind deciding to create a series character? Was it your publisher, your agent or you who had the initial idea to create a series?
AT: I'd enjoyed writing stand-alones, and rather fought shy of doing a series, which would tie me down in terms of setting and character. With my stand-alones, the plot had tended to dictate the setting: for instance, Shades of Death, set in limestone caves, had to be in either Somerset or Derbyshire, and I knew Derbyshire better.  So in some ways that's easier, and plots can be more straightforward too, in that you don't have to do what I always think of as the Fair Isle knitting bit – interweaving the main action with the continuing story of the series characters' lives.
So I think I'd have to say it was the character  that came into my mind and settled who produced the initial idea!  I could see her clearly: she was tall, fit-looking and strong-minded and  she wasn't the standard dysfunctional loner with lovers, an attitude problem, and an intimate relationship with the bottle. She was like the policewomen I had known when I was a JP: a working mother, married, with the problems of elderly parents and teenage kids on top of  the crazy demands of the job. I knew at once that she wasn't a one-book character, so I had to take the plunge .My agent and my editor were both enthusiastic, so the DI Marjory Fleming series began.
NM: If you were advising an unpublished author, would you advise starting with stand alones, or is it fine to launch straight into a series?  
There's no doubt that readers – and so publishers - like series.  It lets them feel they know the characters and there's a sort of 'soap opera' hook to draw them in.  If you're starting out, there's no reason at all why you shouldn't start with a series, if you feel will have enough compatible ideas to keep it fresh.  But lots of writers have produced a stand-alone which has such a strong central character that it becomes obvious there's more to say and some of these have turned into very successful series.
NM: When I interviewed Ian Rankin, he said it took a couple of Rebus novels before he felt he knew the character. How strongly did you feel you knew M during the first one? She's a family woman and very much has "stuff" going on in her life - was all this planned? Also, I notice that in each of the books, she has a particular "issue" to deal with - is this a specific technique you recommend for a series character?
AT: I felt I knew a lot about Marjory's character from the start; I lived with her for a long time before the detail of the series fell into place.  What I felt I didn't know in the first books was about her past.  It was  rather like making a friend, but only later discovering what had happened to them before you knew them – and being quite surprised!  She was quite a new DI in the first book, and I do feel that the scars of experience  have changed her, that she's learned a lot – sadder and wiser, perhaps -  and I feel that happened organically rather than being planned.  But quite often in a book I will lay down a plot line which I pick up in a later one, particularly in The Darkness and the Deep and Lying Dead.  
I had certainly planned that her family would be a very important thread, and yes, some of what has happened to them I planned from the start.  But again, as characters develop, their personalities dictate events.
The 'issue' themes came about, really, by accident.  The first book, Cold in the Earth, had a background of the Foot and Mouth epidemic, and when I decided to set my second book in a fishing village where the fishing has gone (close to my heart, since I come from one like that) I began to think in general about the problems of rural life.  Our urban society tends to have an overly romantic view of country living as propagated in the glossy mags – gingham curtains blowing in the breeze, a row of preserves on the shelf, rosy-cheeked children frolicking under the blossom in the orchard - and it appealed to me that I could highlight problems like savage unemployment and deprivation, local families being priced out of villages, and small shops having their existence threatened by a supermarket.  The 'issue' has been a background rather than the lynchpin of the plot, but I do feel it gives an additional dimension to the book.  Of course you can achieve that in all sorts of other ways, but in a series I think you need a very solid, believable background if readers are going to want to come back to find out more. Ideally, it should be like returning to somewhere they visit regularly; when readers open a new book, they should be saying, 'Right! Now, what's everyone been doing since I went away?'
NM: I'm always telling writers to think of readers. By this, I don't mean I pander to them, but I'm always asking myself "Does the reader want or need to read that sentence?" But Ian Rankin and Joanne Harris both said on this blog that they are not really thinking of their readers. Stephen King is on my side and talks about writing his second draft very much with the reader in mind. Where do you stand on this? 
AT: What I love about crime writing is that I write with the readers at my shoulder, all the time. We're in this together - but I'm not writing to please; I'm doing my level best to wrongfoot them, and it's a constant challenge.  I play fair with clues to the puzzle, in that they will be there, but I'm going to do my level best to make sure readers don't spot them – ah, the joy of red herrings!  I've been known to write and rewrite a scene half-a-dozen times until I'm sure that the reader at my shoulder will miss it.  My editor said that reaching the denouement of Lying Dead, she had exclaimed aloud, 'But it can't be!' then looked back and saw the clues – that's what I'm aiming for. [NM: Perfect!]
 I do agree with you about cutting out extraneous material, though I don't really think about the reader at that point, more about tension and pace and good style – quite technical stuff.  I can't bear flabby prose and setting to with a scalpel is another particular pleasure.  If I need to add in something later, it's a bad sign if I can just slot it in: it should be so taut that I have to do unpicking and reweaving before I can do it.
NM: There will be aspiring crime writers reading this. What do you believe publishers are looking for in a debut crime novel? Leaving aside things like the ability to write a great sentence, what do you see as the essential ingredients of a must-be-published debut crime novel?
AT: I'd have to say to aspiring writers that the trouble is, there isn't a recipe, alas.  You could have fantastic ingredients like a brilliantly worked-out plot, original characters, a fantastic setting, the most amazing first sentence  - but if you don't have that odd, intangible ability to make the reader want to turn the next page (ideally as fast as they can) there's no point.
Let's assume you do.  (Of course you do!).  After that, I think I'd say it's originality, freshness.  I can't begin to guess how many crime novels have been written, yet authors are still coming up with the idea that makes the publisher say, 'That's intriguing!'  Once they've nibbled at the bait, they have to be reeled in with compelling characters and a driving plot with pace and tension.  And the main thing?  They have to want to know what's going to happen.  [NM: Yes!] The best compliment I can get is when someone says to me, 'I was up reading your book till three in the morning.'
NM: Which of your books is your favourite? If someone hasn't read an Aline Templeton, which one would you like them to start with?
AT: That's the 'Which of you children do you like best?' question! [NM: hehehehehe] If you haven't read any in the series, Cold in the Earth introduces DI Fleming – 'Big Marge', to her detectives. The books are all self-contained novels so don't need to be read in sequence, though for the best effect The Darkness and the Deep and Lying Dead, should be read in that order. But if I'm forced to chose, I think the new one, Cradle to Grave, is my best yet. Like Marjory, I think I've learned as I went along and it has more psychological depth and drama  than any previous one. The ambiguous main character, Beth – a nanny accused, and controversially acquitted, of murdering her charge – was immensely satisfying to create – and I enjoyed learning a bit more about Marjory's dubious past!
And now for my "How Was It For You?" slot:
Was your route to publication paved with rejections? How long did it take and roughly how many rejections?
Oh yes!  I knew from the moment I could hold a pencil that I was an author, but for some reason publishers were very slow to understand this and had to have it explained to them over and over again for years before the penny dropped.  I couldn't begin to tell you how many, except that I've often said I should have kept them all to paper the downstairs loo instead of tearing them up and jumping on them.  Never give up, guys!
Do you have a memorable rejection letter?
Not as such, but I did learn to ignore completely the first sentence when they told me how fantastic it was and how much they loved it, and go straight to the paragraph that began, 'But ...'
What stopped you being published earlier?
My agent!  No, that's not quite fair.   I could have ignored the advice she gave me, but I didn't.

I had written quite a bit for newspapers and magazines and I was approached by an agent before my first book was finished.  It went to Collins who were keen on it, but wanted a lot of work on the first half, which in those days meant rewriting by hand, then retyping, with a carbon sheet  and  industrial quantities of Tip-Ex.  I was a bit reluctant, being well into my second book by then, and my agent's advice – the single worst piece of advice I've ever had – was to go on and finish that book and see about the other one after that.  In the interim, publishing had another of its periodic fits of recession, Collins sacked a third of its work force and weren't much interested in untried authors.  That set me back, and I was in my late thirties when I got my first book published - after I'd sacked my agent!
What do you wish you'd known earlier?
It took me a while to appreciate that you are enormously lucky if a professional takes the trouble to criticise your work.  It's always tempting to bristle, to say they don't know what they're talking about, but the chances are they do.  Even if I decide I can't accept it for the sake of  the story's integrity, I try to take it on board – not that it's easy.  It's a bit like that joke, 'How many authors does it take to change a light bulb?'  'Does it have to change?  I've worked so hard on it already…'
THANK YOU, ALINE! So much in there, so much. Thank you for being so generous with your time. Very inspirational, informative and entertaining.

I do heartily recommend Aline's books, whether you're an aspiring crime writer or a reader who likes a cracking, engaging, gripping read. 


DOT said...

Excellent interview. I don't often read them word for word but skip through; however this is so informative I shall evernote it for future reference.

I shall also look out for Aline's books, not having read her before.

Lesley Cookman said...

I am thrilled that Cradle to the Grave is out as I've loved the other Big Marge books. And I agree with everything Aline has said about writing a series. Mine are far lighter (fluffy, it has to be said) than hers, but I usually tackle an issue, either in the background or as the direct reason for the crime.

I also agree about the series characters becoming the reader's friends. Very important to make sure they're all in there somewhere, or my publishers get complaints.

Hurrah for Aline. And Nicola, of course.

catdownunder said...

Oh thankyou! My father and I have both really enjoyed the little snippets of information about the problems in rural areas. So many of them are almost identical to problems in rural areas of Australia. You have rather more people closer together but we can recognise the problems instantly - especially those of working in that sort of capacity in a small community.
My father (who does not normally read this) has read it on this occasion and asked me to say thankyou. He is looking forward to reading the book as well.

sheilamcperry said...

Thanks Nicola and Aline - this was extremely interesting. I've thoroughly enjoyed the series so far and am always looking out for the next one! The characters and setting interact with each other so well, and they are always believable. It took me a while to realise I should try writing a crime series because I enjoy reading them so much, but I've now drafted 3 novels with the same characters and it's not a trilogy so I suppose it must be a series!

Barb said...

This is so timely, it's left me speechless. I write historical crime, and after some lovely responses at the York Festival, two agents also pointed out to me that my lead character was right for a series. This was the perfect interview to read. Thank you Aline, and thank you Nicola.

Karen said...

I'm definitely inspired to read one of Aline's novels now! They're very popular in the library where I work :o)

Dan Holloway said...

Interesting what you say about standalones often serving to develop into great series. I guess in a way it's the same thing as making a great TV pilot.

I love how you put your hoodwinking - but not really hoodwinking - of readers. One of the things I love about writing crime as opposed to the literary drivellings I usually churn out is that readers are so attentive, so willing to put work in to try and outwit you. WAY more attentive than people who read literary fiction and then spout about the evenescence of your metaphors to impress their friends, and you want to shout shut up, you didn't even bother spotting my metaphors. I'm very new to writing crime but it's such a two-way process - keeps you on your toes as a writer, but you get the reward back from readers

Sarah said...

Thank you to Nicola and Aline, I enjoyed this immensely. I haven't read any of this series but am looking forward to picking one up. I love a good crime book and feel cheated if I guess 'whodunnit' before the end.

I agree about getting to know the characters and having them grow with the series. Also, it's okay if someone isn't in the latest book but at least add a line telling me where they went!

JaneF said...

Very interesting and helpful - thank you! I'm another big fan of Aline's books. Looking forward to my next 'visit' to Big Marge's world!

Lauri said...

Lots of great advice and I had a real laugh at the changing of the light bulb, going to steal that!

Julie Nilson said...

I LOVE books that manage to surprise you with an ending that still makes perfect sense! I think I'm going to have to add Aline to my TBR list.