Doing your research (or not)

This article was originally published on the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook site.

When you write crime and you’re chatting to people about what you do (say at a party), sooner or later the question always gets asked: ‘You must do a lot of research?’ That’s the point where I look sheepish and shuffle away towards the crisps. The truth is, I didn’t do a lot of research for The Fall. There were several reasons for this. One, I didn’t think I was writing a crime novel, so I was focussed more on the characters as people than the jobs they did or the investigation and trial they were caught up in. I wrote the story as I wanted and then checked the facts after. I’d gotten things wrong, and in a few places the plot had to be changed, but nothing catastrophic. Two, I didn’t have many contacts, and as an unpublished writer, had very little idea how to go about getting them. And three, I just didn’t want to.

I don’t mean that to sound lazy – I worked very hard on the book. But I know the dangers of research too. You can get far too interested, reading from footnote to footnote until you’ve forgotten your novel altogether and are enrolled on a Ph.D in forensic psychology (in all seriousness, it’s happened). There’s also a danger that you want to display all the hard work you’ve put in, so the research becomes a leaden hand upon your novel. Something like: ‘Mary reached out her hand to the pick up the bone china cup, which was invented in London in 1748…’

So when it comes to research, there are two questions to answer: how do you do it? And also: do you have to do it?

Some authors love doing research, and take pride in the patina of truth it lends their work. For example, Peter James is famous for throwing himself (sometimes literally) into it, and recently spent a day working as a binman for his next novel. If that’s you, then enjoy it. The internet is the obvious first stop nowadays, and then are many useful blogs run by professionals ( and are two). But Anne Zouroudi, who writes Greek-set mysteries, advises not to rely entirely on the internet: ‘Other sources are far better for developing your writing. Second-hand bookshops are goldmines for in-depth (if sometimes dated) knowledge, and I’ve followed many a new path from ideas sparked by browsing their shelves. Visit libraries and their archives, and talk to people, the older the better. The elderly invariably have interesting stories to tell.’ As for making contact with professionals, it can be very tricky to try and do this through the official channels – they’ll most likely send you to the press office. The best way I’ve found is to ask friends, family, friends of friends and so on. You’ll be surprised who you can find this way.

But what research should you be doing? DE Meredith, whose Victorian-set crime will be published in the UK this summer, says, ‘I often ask myself how would my character have felt about this or that in the 1850s. Readers of historical crime fiction want a vibrant, authentic world they can believe in, which is steeped in the history, but God forbid, not loaded down by it. Nobody wants a lecture about how much you – the author – know about the potato blight or nineteenth-century politics. The work needs to breathe, be full of the sounds and smells and the nuances of the period, or it simply doesn’t ring true. So do the research extensively, get it right, but wear the erudition lightly when you come to tell your story.’

This last point is important. Think what your research is for (adding an authentic feel, contributing to fresh and exciting plot twists, helping flesh out your characters) and what it’s not for (turning your book into a treatise on the UK criminal justice system). And if you really really don’t enjoy research, read lots of crime novels and see how they do it. Some authors are extremely clever, and can even produce a whole police series without mentioning any specific acts, forms, or job titles, or anyone actually being arrested. I’ve said it before, but the same applies here – you don’t have to write your crime novel in any particular way, you just have to write a good book.

Which crime-novel character are you?

Crime novels, eh? I read a lot. I love a lot. True, some people say they can be a bit reliant on cliché. But maybe that’s a large part of why we read them – we know what to expect and we want to sit back and enjoy a thrilling narrative arc with a satisfying conclusion. The best crime writers will play with cliche anyway, and subvert it into something very special.

But what if you suspect you’re actually in a crime novel? Has a lot of sinister stuff been going down? Are you getting weird emails, or has someone been re-arranging your pants drawer? Has your best friend/cat/sister gone missing after leaving a strange cut-off voicemail (good effort from the cat, I think you’ll agree)? Did you just pop out to buy the latest Heat magazine, and you’re suddenly on the run from hitmen, CIA operatives, and crazed serial killers? Well then, you need this handy guide as your survival tool. Find out exactly who you are in a crime novel.

You’ve slept with a hot man who then tries to kill you: you’re THE HEROINE. Ladies: if you suspect you’re in a crime novel, and you’re about to shag a hot too-good-to-be-true man, first check thoroughly in his attic and any suspicious locked outhouses. Before you drop your pants, make sure he’s not planning to drop you into the next world. Murder is an STD, you know. If he is in fact planning to kill you, slap on some handcuffs in an erotic feint and call the police, even if he/you are the police. Better luck coming back next time as a character in an erotic novel. In an erotic novel, if he tries to kill you, it’s TOTES SEXY and not at all a sign of an anti-feminist backlash. Hey look, I said ‘lash’.

You can only think in italics: You’re THE KILLER. Killers in crime novels are usually fiendishly clever. They also seem to have plenty of time to devise devilish plots to taunt the police/main character, or cut up newspapers to send evil messages, or hang about outside your house waiting to scare you. Do killers not have day jobs? Or Sky Atlantic? I blame the welfare state.

You can only think in ellipses…Or can you…? : You’re…EVERYONE IN A CRIME NOVEL. A little-known fact is that the ellipsis was created in 1943, when four hundred extra titles by Agatha Christie had to be liquidated as she’d used up the entire world’s supply of plot. Since then every new crime writer has to agree to adopt some of the orphaned full stops and give them a home in their novel, in the form of the ellipsis. Some writers are clearly a lot more generous than others with their house-room.

You eat lots but you never put on weight, possibly because you’re driven to run very far and very fast: you’re THE HEROINE. Inner demons are the best personal trainer, doncha know. Extra points if you detail every meal you eat.

You listen to Elbow. On vinyl: You’re THE SENSITIVE YET TROUBLED MALE COP. [Rant break: Characters in crime novels invariably like to spin some choonz while sifting through the entrails of a murder victim. That’s fair enough, we all need to kick back. But do we always need to hear their musical choices, as if the character is an uninitiated attendee at a rock festival, swathed in their newly-purchased band T-shirt? If I want to know what everyone listens to I’ll just log in to Spotify, thanks. And for some reason it’s always bloody Elbow. I mean, I like Elbow as much as the next 30ish Guardian reader (especially that one that goes do-do-do-do DOO! Do-do-do-do DO-DO! You know that one?), but enough is enough. And please stop name-dropping Guy Garvey. That guy (ha ha) has been in more crime novels than Hercule Poirot. No one ever says, ‘on the stereo, Bernie Nolan was singing about being in the mood for dancing,’ do they? Oh, and owning vinyl does not in itself qualify you for a job as a UN Goodwill Ambassador. It’s like saying ‘I’m so cool, I cut the lawn with a scythe! I still use an abacus to add up! I OWN AND OPERATE A SODASTREAM!’ I’m old enough to remember tapes, and guess what, they were crap. Though it’s sad you can’t rewind an MP3 with a pencil. End of rant.]

You are really beautiful, trusting, and nice: you’re THE VICTIM. Maybe Samantha Brick was right, and beauty is its own downfall. In a crime novel, if you’re smokin’ hot, it’s only a matter of time before someone tries to kill you. You’ve been warned. It’s probably your own fault for being so pretty anyway.

You’re a functioning alcoholic with an estranged child/wife/mother/dog:  you’re THE BRILLIANT YET LONER MALE COP

You’re beautiful but uptight, you wear your hair in a bun and keep trying to give up smoking: you’re THE FEMALE SIDEKICK OF THE BRILLIANT YET LONER MALE COP

You’re beautiful but understanding, and you put up with burnt dinners, broken dates, and the slow-burning loss of your dream of a semi in Kingston with 2.4 kids and a people-carrier: you’re THE LOVE INTEREST OF THE BRILLIANT YET LONER MALE COP. You may also be THE FEMALE SIDEKICK. In another twist you may also be DEAD.

You’re beautiful, but the fact that you know five languages and sleep with a USB stick under your pillow clearly means you can’t be trusted: you’re THE FEMME FATALE IN A THRILLER (or possibly a writer. Either way to be viewed with suspicion).

You’re a woman in a crime novel who isn’t beautiful: you’re….um, let me get back to you on that.

You’re a dodgy man who lives alone in a caravan. You have facial twitches and you get arrested in chapter three: you’re THE RED HERRING. It’s never the most obvious killer. We know this. We’ve read crime novels before, and also it can’t be them, unless the rest of the book is devoted to chronicling the writer’s vinyl collection. Ideally it also shouldn’t be the second-most obvious killer. Second-most obvious is the new most-obvious.

You’re sexy but selfish and you have a job as an artist/singer/actress: you’re THE HEROINE’S BEST FRIEND. You’re incredibly annoying but she keeps you around for some reason, perhaps to use as a human shield when the crazed killer comes to call. Because someone will definitely try to kill you at some point. You’ll probably be too busy snorting coke or shagging your toy-boy to notice. PS, give the heroine back that dress you borrowed, you selfish cow.

You’re loyal but will do anything for a bowl of milk: you’re THE MAIN CHARACTER’S CAT. Someone may try to kill you at some point. Beware of poisoned Whiskas.

You’re dead/missing/abusive – you’re THE MAIN CHARACTER’S PARENT

You’re dead/missing/disturbed by childhood trauma: you’re THE MAIN CHARACTER’S SIBLING

You’re the hot barrister/windsurfing instructor/tree surgeon with whom the heroine has just steamy sex: You’re THE KILLER. Or maybe THE OTHER RED HERRING.

You’re an ordinary Joe/Joanne who went out to buy a Pot Noodle and inadvertently got caught up in an international conspiracy involving aliens/coded works of art/a secret government facility: you’re THE HERO OR HEROINE OF A THRILLER. I hope you’ve been going to the gym, because you’re gonna be doing some serious running, dude.  It’s OK though, because during the course of the thriller you will discover hitherto-unsuspected talents such as lock-picking, kick-boxing, and punching the bad guys in the crotch.

You’re sardonic and grumpy and nothing annoys you more than being asked to estimate the time of death: you’re THE PATHOLOGIST

You’re untrustworthy, camera-hungry, and have an expensive haircut: you’re THE CHIEF INSPECTOR

You smoke fifty a day but your raddled face hides a heart of gold: you’re THE WORKING-CLASS COLOUR. Your name is probably Sandra. You’re also probably THE VICTIM.

You wear green wellies and own half of Wiltshire. You view murder as a damned inconvenience that will probably bring more people across your land than the Rambler’s Act. You’re THE UPPER-CLASS TYRANT. You may also be THE KILLER.

You read the Guardian, shop at Waitrose, and have a child called Chloe or Sam. You’re THE MIDDLE CLASS GUILT FIGURE. Quite likely to also be THE VICTIM.

Your entrails are being washed in a bucket while someone makes sarcastic quips over your eviscerated corpse: you’re THE VICTIM. Tough breaks, kid.

**update** You have a wet nose and can sniff out a mystery at fifty paces: you’re THE DOG WHO INEVITABLY FINDS THE MURDERED CORPSE. Dine out on your story at feeding bowls all across your patch, poochy, cos you’ve made it now.

Any others? As for me, I reckon I’m definitely the main character in a psychological thriller, who no one believes because of my obviously batty air of detachment from reality. That and the ink stains on my cardigan.

Keeping the Pages Turning

This post originally appeared here

As discussed last time, a crime novel can appear under many different guises. But to truly fit in the genre, it must have one element: tension. Your readers will never forgive you if the pace drags and they’re not compelled to carry on late into the night. Ian Fleming’s famous definition of a thriller was ‘one simply has to turn the page’, and this hits on the most essential quality of crime. It doesn’t really matter what you write about, but if it’s not gripping, it’s not good enough.

Sustained interest is usually created by two elements: 1. A need to find out what’s happening, and 2: caring about the people it’s happening to. The crime writer has many tricks up their sleeve to create the first – cliff-hangers, short scenes, shifts in viewpoint, the reader knowing something the character doesn’t and vice-versa. There’s the slow reveal – information drip-fed throughout the story, tantalising details, hints of dark secrets. This works well with a book where the crime has happened in the past and the storyline flashes between then and the present. There’s the locked-room puzzle –  I thought the variation of this (where a crime had to have been committed by one of a small group on a remote island) was the best aspect of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and the element that perked up my interest after all those pages about finance skulduggery. Sophie Hannah is also especially good at setting up puzzles that have you wondering how on earth this bizarre situation could be possible. You just have to read on to find out what’s happening, like peering through a key hole at an image which is gradually revealed. Then there’s the race against time, or the ‘scene of extended peril’ as they say in films, where the reader has to know what will become of your characters, who, being a nice crime writer, you’ve plunged into mortal danger. These techniques are why crime writers have to be in control of their plot and pacing.

The second task is harder. How do you create characters people care about? It’s no good inventing the worst tortures in the world if the reader’s response is to yawn and check what’s happening on The Apprentice. If your heroine’s crouched under the bed with the crazed killer rifling through her pants drawer, we won’t care unless we care about her. We might even be rooting for the killer, just so we don’t have to hear any more from your irritating character. By contrast, if we really care about the people in your story we’ll be on the edge of our seats to see if they find their lost keys or get the sandwich they want for lunch (think of all those really trivial statuses from your friends on Facebook).

Characters should be believable – if we can imagine this happening to someone we know, we’ll care. They should also be human – it’s tempting to try to create a lead with a variety of personality tics, especially if you’re writing a police procedural. The detective is such an over-written figure that to make them stand out it would be easy to add an eyepatch, a pet iguana, and a love of drinking Pina Coladas. But that’s all they are – tics. We need to believe they’re a real person, with real and believable human responses to situations. It’s fine for your character to be damaged or unusual in some way – indeed it’s almost mandatory in some types of crime novel – but they need to still feel real. They also need to go through human emotions – loss, anger, triumph, and perhaps most importantly, love. If a character has something to love, they have something to lose, and that’s when we start to care. Using these techniques, it’s possible to make us care about even the most terrible villain. And how much more interesting is the novel if we’re made to care about a person who’s done something unforgiveable.

It’s quite simple when you break it down. Your character should go on a journey throughout the book – they need to find something out, or solve a puzzle, or get themselves or a loved one out of danger, or even just return to the life they had before the story started. As the writer you need to make us care about them, and follow them breathlessly on their progress.

What I read this week (10-16 June)

Catch Your Death, by Mark Edwards/Louise Voss

Catch Your Death

I’ve read a few self-published crime novels recently, and been struck by how indistinguishable they are from many which get mainstream-published. It gives me to wonder how much dumb luck plays in who gets in and who’s out on the street with their lonely kebab, like some strange club with a mercurial bouncer. This book was formerly a self-pubbed success, since bought up and (I assume) edited, but I can’t see that it will have changed radically. These two can really write. I’ve also never read anything (knowingly) that was dual-authored, but the joins are entirely seamless. It works.

What’s right with it?

The pace is one of the strongest things about this book –it unspools effortlessly, slotting in backstory with no time for your interest to flag. That’s a hard thing to do, and very impressive. We’re quickly introduced to Kate, on the run with her young son from a loathsome ex-husband, and just as rapidly we’re plunged with her into the past, when she sees what appears to be her dead former boyfriend on the street. It’s (naturally) his identical twin, who turns out to be knee-tremblingly sexy (a side-move into erotica could beckon, as those scenes were very well done). Someone is after Kate, and it’s all linked to what happened years ago when she spent time in a viral research unit, and a devastating fire killed her boyfriend and destroyed her memory. She’s soon in a race against time across England, as the stakes get higher and higher – her son is in danger (he’s also well drawn, and not irritating like so many child characters in novels), and someone has plans to release a terrible threat on the world. As a heroine Kate is believable, likeable, and intelligent, and the novel’s skilled pacing makes it an enjoyable read.

What’s wrong with it?

Some of the supporting characters were perhaps not as believable or fleshed-out as they could have been, but the pace carries us past this.

What did I learn?

The skilled control of pace can really make a novel. And there are some gems to be found via self-publishing.

Do I know the author(s)? I know Mark and Louise online and (to a lesser extent) in real life (whatever that is)

Did I buy the book?  Yes

The Black Monastery, by Stav Sherez

The Black MonasteryTop crime writer Kitty is successful and beautiful (I hate her, and want to be her), but nursing a secret sadness. Wannabe writer Jason harbours an obsession with her, which draws him in her wake to the Greek island where she’s gone to escape. Nikos, the local police inspector, is coping with a string of brutal murders which seem linked to something very nasty that happened in 1974. Meanwhile on the island, the tourists drink and party in the harshly pure sunshine.

What’s right with it?

I also read this in two big enthralled gulps. The atmosphere and mood are so beautifully evoked that you can feel the sunshine and taste the coffee. I liked the sense of a hundred other stories leading off from the main action, every one of which we could have delved into further – we never quite learn why Jason and Kitty are both so damaged, and for me this works very well. The murders are shocking and gory enough to please the most hardened crime reader, and I also enjoyed the elements of cults, priests, ritual murders, and secrets from the past. I’m a sucker for an ambiguous ending, too.

What’s wrong with it?

At the start I was slightly confused by the time periods – two sets of recent murders, and also the events of 1974. I’d have loved to know so much more about the characters, followed them for longer, and even seen bits of Kitty’s (and then Jason’s) books. Every aspect begged to be explored further – cults? Yes please. Centipedes that appear from nowhere? Oh go on then. Evil priests? More please! Perhaps these extra elements were cut to make it more of crime novel, which (maybe) it doesn’t quite want to be.

What did I learn?

There’s no reason you can’t write a gripping crime novel that is also sad, ambiguous, and full of characters you wish you knew more.

Do I know the author? Yes, pretty well.

Did I buy the book? Yes. For £1.71, which is the most insane bargain EVER. Get it now before someone wises up.

The Light Between Oceans
The Light Between Oceans
A non-crime book for me, for a change. Tom, a survivor of WW1, keeps the lighthouse on a remote Australian island along with his wife, Isobel. One day after they have buried their third stillborn child, a boat washes up containing the dead body of a man, and a healthy baby girl. Tom is persuaded by his grieving wife to go against instinct and protocol and bring the child up as theirs. However, their isolated happiness comes at the expense of the baby’s mother, who is not only alive, but, it turns out, someone Tom and Isobel actually know.

What’s right with it?

The elements for a heart-breaking book are set up with the remorseless cut of knives. When the baby’s real mother is introduced to us, we know that, just as in the judgement of Solomon, the child can only go with one, and hearts will be broken either way. We entirely understand why Tom and Isobel kept the child, and feel the pain of Hannah, who gets back a toddler who doesn’t know her at all. This is one of the few books to have made me not only well up but actually sob proper, embarrassing tears at the end. Not so much for the emotional dilemma, but more for the quiet and enduring love of Tom for his wife, and how indestructible is their bond, despite everything. I liked the ending too – there being no way to please both, a truly happy one was always out of the question. And the title is beautiful.

What’s wrong with it?

I found it slightly hard to get into – maybe I read so much crime I’m spoiled for slower-moving books. I didn’t feel the historical setting added much, and the shadow of the war didn’t have as much resonance for me as it could have done. I found myself wondering how this would work as a story set in modern times, the themes being so universal. I also felt the final dilemma could have been given a few extra heart-rending twists. Though given how much I cried, maybe the reader had been put through enough by that point. I think for me it might have worked better to introduce the real mother before we find out she’s still alive, so that we could know her earlier and feel her pain. But that’s debatable.

What did I learn?

That there’s nothing as tear-jerking as a genuinely unsolvable moral dilemma, and an author with the courage to let this play out can wring sobs from the hardest of hearts.

Do I know the author? No, not at all.

Did I pay for the book? No, it was sent to me. It’s a beautifully produced hardback too, by the way.

The Seven Deadly Freelance Sins

As a (lapsed) Catholic, I’m obviously quite interested in sin. As a year-in freelancer, I’m also interested in how to make this style of employment work for me. Um…that’s the only link I can come up with for this post.

As I’ve said before, I’ve found freelancing to be harder than I had expected. There is a definite art, and I haven’t yet mastered it. I’m working more hours for less money (though I enjoy it much more), and I’m constantly struggling to find the right balance for my day, where I feel I’ve done enough work (I never do) without being hunched over my laptop at 11pm (as I am currently). Maybe as freelancers we need a code to keep us on the straight and narrow. Or better yet, the terror of eternal damnation? Making people fear for their immortal soul is a tried and tested way of getting them to break bad habits, after all. So here’s what I’ve found to be my seven deadly freelancing sins.

Greed – I don’t know many freelancers who are greedy for money. If anything, we have the opposite problem- not thinking about it enough. This is because we tend to be doing the job for love, and the money at first can seem like a bonus. Among the writers I know, talking about money is almost taboo. The first rule of advance club – we don’t talk about the advance. Maybe this is because we do genuinely love it so much we’d do it for nothing –we can’t stop ourselves – or because we don’t want to seem avaricious. There’s also not wanting to be pushy or ungrateful, so we’re not keen to ask for more money, or to be paid for things like writing articles or doing events. Because, in most cases, we’re grateful for any chance to talk about work. But I wonder if all this reticence means some of us are ending up seriously out of pocket. Can a touch of greed be good?

Pride – this is one that can go either way. When you’re starting out with whatever it is you’d like to do for a living, you have no objective feedback on how good you are. Maybe your mum said you were a genius, but she has to, doesn’t she? Then someone tells you, in the cold light of day with the cold harsh ink drying on the cheque, that you are, in fact, talented. At least enough to get paid for what you’re doing. It’s after that the trouble starts. I currently have absolutely no idea if I have any talent at all. I’ll go in one day from thinking, ‘yes, this is brilliant stuff’, to thinking ‘God, it’s awful, I’ll have to get a job in B&Q’ (and I know nothing about cladding). Pride is often seen as a sin, but as Mr Darcy says, ‘Pride, where there is real superiority, pride can never be a weakness.’ Not that we should necessarily agree with the standoffish Mr D, but maybe if we see it as taking pride in our work, doing a good job, it’s not a negative.

Gluttony – Again, this goes both ways. Some days when freelancing it’s ‘eat all the biscuits in the world and consider having lunch at 11am’. Some days it’s ‘oh, it’s 3.30pm and I forgot to have lunch, and the dog’s licked my breakfast. Again.’  Generally, I find it quite difficult to make sure I take care of myself– exercise, sleep, drinking enough water, that sort of thing. Often, the world seems to shrink to the size of my laptop screen (it’s quite a big one, but still). But if the good side of gluttony is making time for our own needs – those lunch breaks and holidays you get built in when you have a contracted job – it’s no bad thing either.

Sloth – Some days: can’t seem to stop working, forget to have breaks, can’t sleep for thinking about work, have to answer just one more email. Other days: get up too late, spend several hours reading spurious blogs (you can read this one if you’re lacking in distraction), get into various Twitter chats about cults, hairstyles, and sandwiches (and that was just today).  Maybe we could all do with emulating the three-toed sloth from time to time, and just hang around. Also, they glow in the dark, which is pretty cool.

Lust – Doesn’t tend to be much of an issue in its usual form- we don’t have any colleagues to flirt with in the stationery cupboard. Or a stationery cupboard, for that matter. But what about the lust, or passion, for what you used to love? Does it drain away when you try to make a living from it? Does it become a source of stress, or even unhappiness? It’s only now that I feel able to go into bookshops again without fear. At the moment I know with 90% certainty my book won’t be in there, and I’ll have to make my peace with it, but for a while there one of my favourite spaces had become somewhat fraught. The flipside is too much lust for what you do. We all have to have this in order to make a living from it in the first place, the obsession that lets you spend hours and hours learning your craft. So do you let it consume you, take over all your thoughts? Passion fuels all the great art in the world, but only when it’s funnelled and directed. Otherwise it can run amok and before you know it the dinner’s burnt, your friends only keep up with you on Twitter, and the dog is moving out with a handkie on a stick over its shoulder.

Rage-Many people in publishing are extremely nice. Polite, delicate, sensitive. I imagine it’s the same for other freelancers. You need to cultivate an impression of helpful, easy-going professionalism. But is it possible to be too nice? What about when invoices are months outstanding, or our emails go unanswered, or we’re getting screwed over – then perhaps it’s time to let loose a little righteous anger. But the opposite is also true. Working on your own, with no colleagues to rant to in the pub after work, it’s easy for a simmering discontent to reach boiling point. Then we can lose perspective, become exercised by trivia, and forget how things work in the real world. Assertiveness, not anger, is a very difficult line to draw, and I think we often err on the side of over-niceness.

Envy – It’s rarely talked about, but nowadays social media makes it all too easy to see how everyone else is doing. While it would be nice to be the kind of zen-like person who’s totally at peace with their own progress and that of others, in reality it’s very difficult (and who wants to drink that much green tea anyway?) From painful experience, this is a deadly sin with no real flipside. If you’re already working as hard as you can, envy won’t help you do better, it will just make you unhappy. I’m not sure what the solution is (I hate yoga too). Develop tunnel vision where you only look to what’s ahead? Move into a shack with no internet that’s miles from any bookshops? Chant a mantra of ‘Their-success-does-not-diminish-me’ as you read the review pages? I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

Bless me father, for I have sinned. But let those without sin cast the first freelancing stone…

How To Survive A Literary Festival

This article was originally published in Red Herrings, the magazine of the CWA 

The festival season is nearly upon us – no, not Glastonbury or the Isle of Wight. I’m talking about Crimefest and Harrogate (and new addition this year, Bloody Scotland). Who wants to stay in a mud-covered tent when you can sip gin and tonic from an elegant sofa (then later, pass out under it)? Last year, when attending festivals as an unpublished author, I’d never been to any before and I didn’t know what to expect. Something sedate, I thought. Cucumber sandwiches, the rustle of pages, polite literary discussion. Instead I then got a crash-course in how to survive over four days of booze, books, and backchat. The state of my liver after both suggests it didn’t quite work. So, as I’m attending this year for the first time as a published author, I thought I would ask some seasoned festival-goers how to get by.

First, I wanted some top tips for doing panels. Everyone was quite relaxed about this. ‘Panels are about entertainment,’ says David Hewson. ‘Have fun and they will.’ Historical writer Emma Darwin says, ‘My job is turning up, on time, prepared, sober, preferably with a smile and a pen. Whether anyone comes is in the Gods’ lap – there are a million different factors, so don’t feel it’s your responsibility.’

SJ Bolton has some other tips: ‘Coordinate clothes with other panel members, and if you see people nodding off, mention sex.’ You should also arrive early – even earlier than you might think you need, to allow for problems, and if possible try to read as many of your fellow panellists as you can. And be prepared to answer questions like ‘who’s your favourite crime writer’, or even non-crime writer. It’ll look bad if you go totally blank and the only writer you can think of is Jordan, for example.

The Society of Authors has some great factsheets on doing events, including invoicing and a guide to charges. You can access some free at and if you’re a member you can also get more in-depth ones (CWA members can currently get 15 months for the price of 12 when joining the SOA).

What if you’re not on a panel, but you want to attend anyway? You can still make yourself and your book known. Take flyers, postcards, or even bookmarks with your book cover on. You could also get business cards printed up. You can also often get your book into the festival bookshop if you call ahead and find out who is providing it – usually it’s a local Waterstones. Just chatting to people can lead to lots of useful contacts too. If they don’t recognise you, there’s always a chance you are that super-famous American writer, you know, the one who wrote that thing on TV. Or a young but very powerful editor at a top publishing house. So they’ll probably be nice to you even if you’re actually not famous at all. If you can wangle a name badge, wear it – it means people are more likely to approach you and say hello.

What to wear at these events? Something smart at least for one night. Flat shoes for all that standing around. For some reason everyone seems to want to linger outside even when it’s chilly. Bring something warm too – if you’re outside at 4 am, it’s going to be cold. If you’re not in the main hotel, consider staying within walking, or stumbling, distance. Those streets can seem very long and dark in the early hours. If you book early enough you can sometimes get very good rates at the conference hotel itself. Crucially, you will also then be able to buy booze after hours and you’ll be everyone’s new best bud.

Sustenance is important, but with a busy schedule of panels and events, it can be hard to fit in. Try to get a room with a fridge, and stock up on snacks. It’s surprisingly easy to miss meals or just forget to eat. Try to remember you do actually have to pay your bar bill at some point. Do not get really drunk on the first day of the conference, and, ‘Never be the last one in the bar’, advises agent Phil Patterson. And on the subject of entertainment, Paul Johnston cautions, ‘Never volunteer for anything – especially if it involves any kind of comedy or acting. Also, never enter a crime quiz unless the people on your team are smartarses.’

And finally, the most important survival rule of all:

What happens at the festival stays at the festival. Casting up of any kind is very bad form. All attendees, please take note. I’ll see you there.