Leigh Russell’s debut novel Cut Short was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award.
She followed it up with books such as Road Closed, Dead End, and Cold Sacrifice – the first book in the Ian Peterson series. Fatal Act is Leigh’s latest Geraldine Steel story and I wanted find out what went into the process of making her such a consistent writer.
1. Hi Leigh, I understand that you completed the draft of Cut Short in around six weeks, how long did it take to edit?
It’s true the first draft for Cut Short took only six weeks to write. The editing process took a lot longer! I learned subsequently that debut novels often undergo quite a lengthy editing process, but it was excruciating at the time. I began to think the book would never be published. Of course it was, after about eighteen months’ research, cutting and rewriting. It was worth it in the end, because Cut Short went on to be shortlisted for a Crime Writers Association Dagger Award for Best First Crime Novel.
2. You’ve been very busy with the sixth Geraldine Steel book Fatal Act, tell us a bit more about that.
In Fatal Act I try to intrigue my readers by presenting a series of crime scenes from which the killer achieves seemingly impossible escapes. While Geraldine pursues the murder investigation, she is also struggling against a growing attraction to a married colleague. The story is set in London, the sixth in the Geraldine Steel series and it isn’t necessary to read the series in order, as each book is a stand alone murder investigation. However, Geraldine Steel is the detective throughout, and her story develops in the background. Fatal Act has just become available to download on kindle. It will be out in print in 2014.
3. When writing something new, do you rigidly plan your stories every step of the way?
No. My planning couldn’t be called rigid. I’m not that disciplined! When you write a book you are taking your readers on a journey. I always know where the journey starts and ends, but the route from one to the other evolves as the book develops. Something I had in mind at the start might not work, or I might have a brainwave along the way that changes everything. So although I know the shape of the book in advance, the details develop along the way.
4. There are some authors that write their last chapter in the early stages. What do you do?
To begin with, I used to tackle the most exciting chapters first and then go back and fill in the gaps. Nowadays I try to write the whole novel consecutively. That way I’m less likely to get in a muddle. Each chapter builds on what went before, and leads on to what follows. So I find it works best to write chapters in the order readers will encounter them. Writing the chapters in sequence also helps me to keep an overview of the plot in my mind.
5. How do you maintain a consistent pace in a story so that the narrative doesn’t speed through too fast, or become too pedestrian?
Pace is key to success in any writing, and it is a matter of deliberate craft rather than inspiration. I keep a careful eye on the shape of my narrative and try not to write more than two chapters without an exciting incident. At the same time I try to avoid having too many dramatic episodes, one after another, without a break. It’s a balancing act between realism and drama to ensure readers find the narrative both convincing and tense. I try to make my writing credible, because I think that makes the stories more frightening, while at the same time filling my books with more murders than you would come across so close together in real life.
6. Of all the books you’ve written, which one has had the most changes throughout the editing process?
Cut Short, without question. When I wrote the first draft of my debut, it never occurred to me that anyone else would ever read it, let alone publish it. So I wrote out the story entirely for myself, without any regard for a reader struggling to make sense of the disjointed narrative. I had a great time, writing all the exciting scenes and not worrying about continuity. My poor editor must have wondered what she had let herself in for, as I did. By that stage I had signed a three book deal with my publisher so the book had to be fit for publication. It was hard work, but I loved every minute of the process which taught me how to turn an idea into a book. Thankfully the edits on my books are much lighter now and can be dealt with in a couple of days rather than the year I spent reworking Cut Short.
7. How far do you plan ahead with your books because you’re contracted for a few years yet aren’t you?
The first Ian Peterson novel, Cold Sacrifice, came out this year. With Fatal Act, the sixth Geraldine Steel, just out, I am contracted to write another five books – two with Ian Peterson, and three with Geraldine Steel. The next Ian Peterson is already written, due with the editor early next year. This sees him working on his first investigation in York where the series is set. I am now working on the seventh Geraldine Steel novel which will be available to download in December 2014 and out in print in 2015. That manuscript needs to be delivered to the editor next Summer. So you can see it’s a lengthy process to produce a book. As for planning ahead, I have so many ideas for future books, it’s really a question of selecting which plot I feel inspired to write each time I start a new book. That’s just as well, as I’m planning to write twenty books in the Geraldine Steel series, and fifteen for Ian Peterson.
8. The second Ian Peterson book will be published in 2014. Is it tricky to separate his life from that of Geraldine Steel’s or is it relatively easy?
Separating the books is easy as the two detectives are working on different murder investigations, in different areas of the country, with different colleagues. What is very difficult is remembering what one detective is doing while I’m writing about the other, because Geraldine and Ian meet up in every book. For example, Ian can’t tell Geraldine he moved to York in the winter if the reader knows he moved in the summer in another book. To get that overall structure right requires a level of organisation which I find a struggle, but it’s important because readers will notice inconsistencies.
9. Why do you think Crime Fiction is so addictive?
Added to the profound reasons why fiction per se appeals to us, crime fiction as a specific genre has much to offer the reader. For a start, it deals with the conflict between good and evil. The moral battle lines are clear. Yes, we have seen the corrupt copper, the hero who turns out to be a wrong ‘un, and the villain with scruples. Individual characters may cross boundaries, but there is never any confusion about the nature of good and evil. In an age when religion is losing its relevance for many people, crime fiction offers us the moral compass we all need in our lives. Then there is the drama and suspense the genre offers. An audience member once asked me why crime fiction is almost always about murder. I would never dismiss the trauma of being burgled, but wondering when the next house is going to be robbed in a novel wouldn’t raise the same level of tension in a reader as wondering who is going to be the next murder victim.
10. What are the trickiest parts of the process for you when writing Crime Fiction?
The most difficult part of any book for me is writing the last chapter. This is not necessarily the final chapter of the book. Sometimes I might write the final chapter before finishing an earlier one. But writing the last words I will add to a manuscript, metaphorically laying down my pen, is very hard. After holding this story, and its characters, in my head for so long, it is hard to let go. As long as you are writing, the book is yours. Every book is going to be The One. You know, the book that tops all the bestseller charts and wins awards, the book that is instantly and universally recognised as a classic.
Once the book is written, it no longer belongs to you. It is out there, being read and reviewed, and no one queues overnight for a first edition, and there is no fierce auction for the TV rights. I have been fortunate so far in my writing career. There has been no time to agonise over whether my books will be well reviewed, or liked by readers, because as soon as one book is published, the deadline for my next book is looming and I’m thinking about that.
11. Although you’re known for writing crime would you write a story in another genre and what would it be?
At the moment I’m busy enough writing my two crime series, delivering two books a year, and have no plans to move into another genre. But the future is mysterious and unpredictable. If you had told me six years ago that I would be described in the media as an ‘internationally bestselling author’ of ‘one of the most interesting detectives of all time’, well reviewed in journals, as well as a ‘five star must read’ in Take A Break Fiction Feast, my response would have been, ‘but I’ve never written a book.’ So who knows?
12. As you know, writing a book is only part of the process. You conduct quite a lot of promotion for your work as is the requirement now for modern authors. Were you prepared for that?
I can’t say I was prepared for anything about being an author! I wrote somewhere that I fell into writing like Alice down the rabbit hole, and it really has been a journey into another world for me. That is part of the fun of it. The whole experience seems quite unreal, when there’s time to stop and think about it. You know that feeling of ‘Is this really happening to me?’ Fortunately I enjoy the promotion side of the work. I love spending time at literary festivals, in bookshops and libraries, chatting to readers and, increasingly, to fans of Geraldine Steel, which is very gratifying. It is lovely to meet someone for the first time to discover they have read my books and would like a signed copy of my latest title. That is such a compliment!
13. Do you find creating new storylines easy and do you prefer a complicated plot or a straightforward one?
I haven’t yet struggled to create a new story line. My problem is finding time to write out all my ideas. It sometimes feels as though my head will explode with ideas and characters clamouring to be written. Crime fiction is almost by definition plot driven. Everything has to work out, with all the clues in place. But my own books are fundamentally driven by character. Once a killer’s motivation takes hold of my imagination (metaphorically, of course!) everything else spins out from there. Understand why a character is killing, and the book follows. Why it happens leads to how it happens, and other characters arrive as I write, to play out the story.
I prefer a straightforward story line because it’s less confusing and I am easily confused! I do try to stay one step ahead of my readers, with ‘clever’ plot twists. However, most of my readers are very sophisticated in the genre and can see through my attempts. Even so, I refuse to compromise on plausibility by introducing twists that are impossibly far fetched. I have read many crime novels where the author has done that, and it spoils the book for me by breaking the illusion.
14. No Exit Press has been your publisher for a while, how important has it been to have received such staunch support for your ideas and characters?
No Exit Press has been my publisher from the start. I am grateful that they took a punt on me, investing their time and funding in the writing of a first time author. Our association has proved a success for everyone involved, a happy combination of their expertise and my creativity. It saddens me that we no longer value loyalty in our society. It is an underrated quality. Although my books are now published in several territories, by Harper Collins in the US, Mondadori in Italy, Bastei Lubbe in Germany, and City Editions in France, among others, my UK publisher has not changed. The support No Exit Press has given me has been invaluable, and as long as they want to publish my crime novels, I will continue to write for them.