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11 January 2021

Clare Mackintosh: ‘Writing a good crime novel is like performing a magic trick’

Clare Mackintosh, author
by Katie Smart Author Interviews, Writing Tips

Clare Mackintosh is a number one bestselling crime author. We’re very grateful to Clare for providing funding for one talented Black writer to join our online six-month Writing Your Novel course. Through the Clare Mackintosh Scholarship for Black Writers Clare will also provide a bespoke mentoring package for the winning student.

We caught up with Clare about all things crime fiction. Read on for a peek into her writing routine and to discover her top tips for aspiring authors…

Your debut novel I Let You Go garnered massive success and won multiple awards. Since then you’ve gone on to write four more bestselling crime novels. Before writing fiction you worked as a police officer – how does this real life experience help inform your fiction?

People often assume that my previous career as a police officer must be useful to me as a crime writer, because I can plunder hundreds of real-life cases to use in my novels. The reality is that true crime is often incredibly dull, and the majority of criminals far from masterminds. Being a police officer, though, was a great training ground for writing novels. When you’re taking a statement from a victim of crime, you’re walking in their shoes. You’re finding the right words and teasing out a coherent tale from a witness who starts their account at the end. You’re filtering out the unreliable narrators, searching for the story hidden in the fingerprints, the CCTV, the DNA samples. Finally, you’re presenting the whole story, in a comprehensive and compelling way, to a court. What’s that, if it’s not storytelling? 

Do you have any top tips for writing crime novels?

Read a lot. We’re spoilt for choice with crime novels, so read as many as you can. When you find a brilliant one, read it again and again. Work out why you love it, why you were surprised by the twist. Look back and spot the ‘breadcrumb trail’ that leads to the big reveal, and ask yourself why you didn’t recognise it the first time around. Writing a good crime novel is like performing a magic trick. It’s utterly impossible until you’re shown how, and then it’s the simplest thing in the world.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know anyone who made a living from creative professions, and when we’re children we rely heavily on the people around us to show us what’s possible. Looking back, I find it extraordinary – and a little sad – that none of my teachers ever suggested I look at a career in the Arts, despite my school reports evidencing talent in creative subjects. I hope things have changed.

What does a typical day of writing look like for you?

There really isn’t one –  especially not since the pandemic hit, and all our lives were turned upside down. I used to save my writing for when I was travelling, and can write really fast on trains and planes, in hotel rooms and busy cafes where I don’t speak the language (and so can’t get distracted by eavesdropped conversations). My office at home was where I did admin, tax returns, PR interviews … Now that I’m at home all the time, I struggle to reclaim that creative space I need – for first drafts in particular. What I have to remember is that it is a luxury to have space, and quiet, and exotic locations. I wrote I Let You Go in snatched half hours, or in long, late evenings when my husband was working nights, and our three small children had finally gone to sleep. It’s easy to fool ourselves that we need the perfect conditions to write, but if that were the case nothing would ever get written.

At the moment, my day starts at 6.30, with a cup of tea on my own before I get my daughter up. We go to the stables and turn out the pony we have on loan at the moment, then I drop her at school, hoping the other two have also made it there. Sometimes I go to the lake for a very cold swim (currently 8 degrees Celsius) before going home for breakfast. I always aim to be at my desk by 9.30, but never am. I should write then, but inevitably I decide to ‘clear the decks’, spending the morning doing emails, before eating a sandwich at my desk then panicking about the dying day. I write feverishly for a couple of hours, and swear to do better the next day. Sometimes I go horse riding, then come back to my desk and work into the evening. My new year’s resolution is always the same: get the writing done first. I only wish I could stick to it. 

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Of my own? It was Murray, from Let Me Lie, but I’ve just started writing a crime novel set in a remote Welsh village, and I’m completely in love with Ffion Morgan, my heroine. Of someone else’s? So many. I loved Sarah Pinborough’s Dead to Her, mostly because the characters are so brilliantly wicked.

Which book do you always recommend to others?

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. It’s flawless.

What one piece of advice would you like to pass on to aspiring authors?

If it inspires you to read the success stories of your peers, then continue to read them. But if it makes you feel inadequate, or it in any way dims your own flame, then switch off your phone. Tap a ‘like’ through half closed eyes, and pick up a book instead. Or better still, write. Some weeks I love seeing which books are in the top ten, and cheerleading my author friends from the sidelines. Some weeks – generally the weeks when every. word. is. a struggle. to. write – I throw The Bookseller in the recycling bin without reading it.

On a more practical note, if you’re not a full-time writer, it can be hard to pick up the thread of your story after a few days away from the work-in-progress. When I was in the police, and writing on occasional days off (a terrible rom-com that will fortunately – for you –  never grace a bookshop), I realised that if I stopped writing in the middle of a scene – sometimes in the middle of a conversation – it made it much easier to start writing again when I came back to it. It’s a simple but brilliantly effective tip to avoid Blank Page Fear, and I still do it today.

Thank you for providing The Clare Mackintosh Scholarship for Black Writers. What made you decide to do this, and why do you feel it’s important to support emerging talent?

I believe that published authors like me have an obligation to do what we can to help make the publishing/book industry a space where under-represented writers no longer face the barriers to entry that many of them come up against today. That ‘help’ might, for example, take the form of championing debut authors and recommending their books for ‘best of …’ lists, or offering mentoring and coaching.

With this scholarship, I want to remove the financial barrier that might prevent a talented Black writer enrolling on a creative writing course, and I want to support that writer once the course is over. I want to introduce them to other writers, and empower them to start shaping their own career and building their own platform, even before they’ve found a publisher. 

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