The Feedback Loop: Belinda Bauer in Conversation with Val McDermid

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Val McDermid: It’s great to have the chance to talk to you about your writing, Belinda. Although we run into each other from time to time, the one thing writers never really talk about is craft. We gossip, we compare notes on what we’ve read, we talk about our tours and events, but we don’t talk much about writing. So this is that rare opportunity to open up about our relationship to our work.

I remember how much I enjoyed the proof of Blacklands, your debut novel. I was very excited by it — my first reaction was to invite you to appear on my New Blood panel at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate, our big British celebration of the genre. I felt you really hit the ground running, winning the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger with Blacklands. It took me a lot longer to get going — I didn’t win the Gold Dagger till my tenth book. And there’s a reason for that. Blacklands had the feel of a mature work, the product of someone who had already learned the essentials of the craft and had the confidence to put them into practice. My early fiction still feels like apprentice work to me. That’s not to say it doesn’t have good qualities. It’s just not as assured as Blacklands. I suspect you made your learning curve mistakes in private; I made them in public! So how did you achieve that apparent confidence?

Belinda Bauer: Well, thanks for those kind words, Val. It sounds as if my career might be the inverse of yours! Blacklands was my first attempt at prose after seven years of writing film screenplays, and it just fell out of me and onto the page. I wrote it like a screenplay, though: I would get to the end of each chapter and think: What do I want to see next? As if I were making a movie, editing it as I went. I had never written prose before but I’d seen a lot of films, and so that confidence must have come from that instinctive grasp of pace and narrative. Plus, I had no contract, no idea what I was doing, and nothing to lose. Confidence and ignorance are great bedfellows!

You say your early work now feels like that of an apprentice to you. Can you put your finger on what you’ve left behind (for the better) in your writing? And is there anything you miss about it?

VM: I’m amazed you adapted so quickly. Screenwriting always feels like such a foreign language to me, a language where words play such a small part in the finished product. I’m impressed you made the switch so readily.

When I was starting out, I was working full-time in a pretty demanding job — I was northern bureau chief of a national Sunday newspaper. I ring-fenced Monday afternoons as my writing time, from two p.m. till seven p.m. I would prepare for those five hours during the rest of the week by working out what I would write next — rehearsing dialogue, figuring out the direction of the plot, and of course, thinking about revisions I needed to make to what I’d done the week before. I felt there were all sort of gaps in my toolbox as a writer and I was frustrated because I didn’t really know how to fill those gaps other than by practicing, and I didn’t have enough time to practice properly.

The area where I felt my greatest weakness lay was in my plotting: the mechanics of getting my story to work on the page. Eventually, I decided I would try to learn from the masters, so I went back to a handful of writers whose storytelling skills I admired — Agatha Christie, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ruth Rendell, Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, and Jane Austen — and I literally took their books apart, scene by scene, working out how they managed to control the release of information and how they balanced the narrative between different perspectives. Slowly, I started to understand the basics of how to make those stories work.

The other thing that grew with experience was trusting my understanding of how other people’s minds work and transferring that to my characters. I couldn’t have written Tony Hill and Carol Jordan when I was starting out, but now they’re second nature to me.

How do you go about constructing your characters?

Bauer, BelindaBB: Ha! Well, it wasn’t all plain sailing on the switch from screenwriting, Val — the first chapter of Blacklands was a whole three-quarters of a page long! I had to learn to write more expansively. But once I realized I was allowed to do so, I really loved that freedom, because screenwriting is such a restrictive form.

Knowing — and being in awe of — your work rate, I am not surprised to hear that you approached your writing with such a methodical analysis. I would probably benefit from doing the same, because I find the release of information by far the hardest part of any crime novel. Everything else feels natural to me, but trying to hang onto that critical, pivotal moment and drop it in just at the right time is absolutely hair-tearingly agonizing. The one great thing that comes from it though is that it can dictate a far more interesting structure than I had in mind to start with, so every cloud . . .

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When I start out I have to decide which character could best tell my story. Even though I will happily use multiple points of view in my books, there is always one overarching viewpoint. Once I have settled on that character, I shape them so that they will be able to tell the story I want them to. I absolutely adore creating characters and spending time with them. I love that ability to reflect the truth about all people — that everybody’s got something going on, everybody’s got something really fascinating about them — even if they don’t know it themselves. And the best part is when characters take on a life of their own, as if you’ve wound them up and set them free and then you only have limited control over where they go. In Rubbernecker, the policeman, Emrys Williams, was like that. I needed a policeman quite late in the day, and started writing him without any real idea of what he was going to be like, and discovered all this stuff about him that made me feel so affectionate toward him.

One thing that really amazes me about your writing is how you can write series characters with such aplomb. Carol Jordan and Tony Hill must be like old friends to you. Do they still do things that surprise you?

valmcdermidcropVM: You’ve put your finger on one of the key differences between writing series and writing stand-alones. Character is at the heart of all good fiction. What persuades people to suspend their disbelief and come on the journey with us is their engagement with the characters. It’s a bit like a seduction — “I know there are lots of things you could be doing with your time but trust me, you’d rather be with me . . . ”

With a series, that nexus of central characters have a past. They have endured an assortment of experiences — mostly traumatic! — and they’ve developed as a result. But their core characteristics still shape their possibilities. So as I start a new series novel, there are some things I know are not going to happen. Tony Hill isn’t going to get into a fistfight in a bar with someone. Carol Jordan isn’t going to engage in a philosophical discussion about the existence of God. Paula isn’t suddenly going to become a slave to the rulebook. I know how these characters react and behave, so that conditions the way the story moves forward. I have to resolve plot problems in terms of their history and their capabilities.

But with a stand-alone, I start with a protean cast of characters. I can let the story run riot in my head, I can push it in different directions and take risks with outcomes until I’m happy that what I have is an interesting narrative. And then I have to work out whose story it is. Who are these people and, more interestingly, what has made them behave the way they do? What in their history has turned them into someone who confronts rather than cringes? What’s the back-story that makes them devious and deceitful rather than delightfully straightforward? What has shaped their dreams and fears?

But after that initial stage, both kinds of book progress in the same sort of way. It’s a biofeedback loop where plot feeds character feeds plot, and so on. I shy away from describing it as the characters having a life of their own, because I think they can only do what my imagination and experience allow them to do, but what happens, I think, is that as they develop, our subconscious throws up elements from our understanding of the world that offer possibilities for the actions and emotions and responses of the characters.

Tony and Carol are exactly like old friends. When I come back to them after a break, it’s like a catch-up. OK, guys, what have you been up to? What happened after that last fresh hell I put you through? And there are still new areas to explore. For example, I always knew Tony had a really awful mother. But I hadn’t worked out quite how much of a monster she was till I needed her to emerge from the shadows in Beneath the Bleeding . . .

Do you ever find yourself mourning a character you have to let go?

And where does a book start for you?

BB: Wow! I was about to ask you that same question about letting go of a character, so please answer it too! Have you ever killed one you regret?

I don’t regret killing off any of my characters, even ones I have loved, because I know their deaths served the higher purpose of being right for the book. I would never do it to be sensationalistic or to resolve a plot. I always do it with a sense of sadness. And in the case of one particular person I really wanted to use his point of view in another book, so I wrote it as a prequel (The Shut Eye). That served the dual purpose of resurrecting an interesting character and allowing me to explore a little bit of how he was shaped as a person. It was really enjoyable, and now that he has been resurrected he has a good few years left in him!

Also, Yay! on the biofeedback loop, a phrase I am stealing forthwith! In my best moments as a writer, the plot and the character feed off and grow with each other in a perfect symbiosis. When it feels that one simply could not exist without the other, then I know I’ve done a good job.

A book can start with a whole world that interests me or a throwaway remark. Either way there’s got to be a hook that gets lodged in my psyche and just won’t let go, and there has to be a character engaging enough to draw the reader in. I think that having been a journalist gives you an instinctive understanding of what’s interesting to people and what’s not. In Rubbernecker I had wanted to write something for years about the vulnerability of being in hospital — in a strange place, surrounded by strangers, feeling sick and powerless and, worst of all, in your pajamas! But The Shut Eye was written entirely because I heard the phrase on a documentary about psychics, and I loved it so much I knew that I had to write a book with that title. Basically, I hope that if it interests me, that it will interest other people, and that if they are in doubt then they will trust me enough to let me make something interesting for them!

What’s that like for you?

And which of your novels do you think about most often, and why?

VM: There have been a couple of characters I was really torn about killing off. Obviously, I can’t say who, because it would be a massive spoiler! But like you, I understood they just had to go in order for the story to have its power. I don’t think my regret was based in some emotional connection to them, however — it was more that they were characters who had real potential for more stories but I had to let that go and give those future stories to someone else! But equally, I don’t feel any sense of glee when I kill someone off; there’s always a sense of loss, whatever its basis. I think if I didn’t feel the loss, the reader wouldn’t.

Like you, for me the seeds of a book are unpredictable and varied. Sometimes they spring from anecdotes my friends tell me — The Skeleton Road, for example, is rooted in two entirely separate sets of vignettes told to me by two friends with very different backgrounds and experiences of the Balkan conflicts of the ’90s; The Distant Echo grew from an anecdote told by a friend whose son, along with a couple of friends, had an experience similar to the one that opens the book, only in their case, the person who had been attacked was conscious and survived the attack. But sometimes it’s something observed that makes me wonder, What would that be like? In the case of Splinter the Silence, it was seeing women being trolled and bullied online by vicious anonymous cowards. I never make notes in the early stages of thinking about a book — which can take years, by the way, to reach the point where it’s possible to write — because I figure if it’s not interesting enough for me to remember it, why would anyone care enough to read it?

The book I think most about is A Darker Domain. It’s the book that’s set most closely in place and spirit to where I grew up and it speaks to me in a way that no other one does. Sense of place is very important to me; I think it’s the third element of great fiction. Character, story, and sense of place. If any one of those fails, so does the book. You conjure up place very powerfully in your work — is that a deliberate choice?

Your explanation of the roots of The Shut Eye made me wonder about research. How much (or how little!) do you do?

BB: I agree — I hear anecdotes or remarks and something is sparked in me. But sometimes it’s the small thing off to the side that interests me, rather than the main story being told . . . The first screenplay I ever wrote was because of something I’d mis-heard! When I realized my mistake, I thought: You know, I like my version better!

Sense of place is very important to me. So far all my books have been set around places I knew pretty well or which had made such an impression on me that they were vivid enough to worth with. My first three books were set on Exmoor, and I had only ever spent a single weekend on the moor! But even though I visited it plenty after that to confirm my own memory, I don’t think I gleaned much more from it than was already lodged in my head. In The Shut Eye my description were minimal because I wanted to reflect a particular theme of the story. I wanted the most vivid imagery to come from the mind’s eye.

I’m not sure what most writers would call a lot of research, so I don’t know how mine matches up! For instance I know that Emma Kavanagh does spreadsheets for each character and even knows the Zoopla value of their homes! Sometimes I don’t even know my character’s name before I put finger to keyboard, but then one tiny detail will come to me and I’m off. For instance I’ve just finished writing a character whose name is Tyson, and I wrote that his father had named him after his dog, so for a while there were two Tysons in the house until one got hit by a truck (the dog, btw!). None of that had been in my head as I started the sentence, but it made the whole character come to life for me.

I do what feels like a lot of research, then use very little of it — probably ten percent. I am wary of boring my readers just for the sake of showing off how much I managed to find out. However, I think the devil’s in the details, and doing the research and talking to people involved in a relevant field always yields those tiny things that make the writing feel authentic and the character sound as if they know what they’re talking about. And the interesting thing is that when those details make it into the book, they’re always the things that the readers love best — little phrases or working practices that they didn’t expect. For instance, I was surprised when visiting a dissection room for Rubbernecker that the implements used to dissect cadavers looked more like an old cutlery drawer at a house auction than surgical implements. Of course, it makes sense, because your subjects are past hurting or helping, but it was a small thing that really informs the whole atmosphere. Sometimes research really saves you from making stupid mistakes. I thought I was only being thorough when I did a lot of research on concrete for one book, but it made me realize that concrete is really dangerous stuff! If I hadn’t known that, I would have looked like a fool. I’ll also research constantly throughout the book. I with think I know enough about something and realize I really don’t and take a few days to find someone to help me. Apart from creating characters, it’s the thing I love best about being a writer: that opportunity to learn about the lives of others and to find gems in their work than enhance mine.

How about you? Your books are far more wide-ranging than mine, which are mostly set in small communities and families, so I imagine your research is similarly broad . . .

On a personal note, yesterday I delivered my seventh crime novel, and this morning I had to start deep-cleaning the house, which has been waiting for months for some TLC! What’s the first thing you do when you’ve finished a book? Is always practical or do you get self-indulgent?

VM: I have to say that your research methods sound pretty much identical to mine, even down to the way you feel about place. Some places just have “Write me!” stamped through them like a stick of seaside rock. And like you, I don’t write detailed character analyses before I start. Though by the time I’m writing the characters, they’ve become very fleshed out in my head. I don’t even keep a series bible of the Tony and Carol books. I think I remember stuff correctly, and then my glorious copy editor, Anne O’Brien, who has been working on the series since the beginning, points out something I’ve got wrong . . .

But names are so important for characters. First you have to figure out where they come from, which can sometimes influence a name. If they’re Scottish, they might have a surname beginning with Mac, and if they’re male and Scottish, they might well have a first name that sounds like a surname — Ross, Grant, Craig, Stewart, Fraser, etc. Then you have to think about their age. Nobody over forty is going to be called Kylie. Nobody under ninety is going to be called Ada. And then you have to come up with something that feels right as a pairing. Or deliberately wrong. I once named a minor character after an architectural feature of Durham Cathedral — Norman Undercroft. He’s a small-town lawyer . . .

Like you I find research falls into two tranches. There’s the stuff you know you need to know before you can get started, and then there’s the stuff that you only realize you need to know as you get to the point in the text. I also prefer to talk to practitioners to get what I call the sociology of the knowledge — those telling little details that give our work a whiff of authenticity. And yes, about ninety percent gets left out. Authenticity over accuracy every time!

When I finish a book, in theory I tidy the office. But the last few times I’ve finished a book, I’ve fallen straight into the next project, So now my office space looks permanently like the aftermath of a burglary. However, I do still more or less know where everything is. My other ritual is to go on holiday. I set myself up so that my drop-dead deadline is check-in time at the airport or the holiday cottage, It’s a great incentive.

BB: Thanks for letting me know that if I burgle you, it won’t be detected for ages and ages . . .

I love character names. They really have to feel right, but not as though you’ve taken too much trouble with them. I hate it when I read books where the author is obviously in love with their main character and has called them something commensurately ridiculous!

Enjoy your tour and thanks for the chat. I have to go now, too — you’ve reminded me that after cleaning the house I also have to tidy my office. The glamour never ends!