Today I’m thrilled to welcome crime writer, Eva Dolan to the blog. Eva is an Essex-based copywriter and intermittently successful poker player.
Her debut crime novel, Long Way Home, is out with Harvill Secker.
When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?
It’s different for every book. Sometimes the crime comes first, sometimes a character pops up and I decide to follow them and find out what trouble they’re in, with Long Way Home the starting point was an issue; namely the exploitation of migrant workers and how far this could go before it became a serious crime.
Do you have a set routine approaching it?
However the original idea presents itself I always start off a new book the same way, making lots of notes, character sketches and location ideas, longhand with my old fountain pen in a fresh Moleskine. Unfortunately my handwriting is truly atrocious and when I go back to the notes I can’t read more than 20% of what’s there, so it’s more of a superstition than a useful part of the process.
Pen and paper or straight to the keyboard?
Once things get serious and I’m sure I want to go ahead with an idea I switch from pen and paper to the keyboard, mainly because I don’t want to risk losing something important to illegibility! I like having that yawning white space waiting to be filled up and feel like I think clearer on the screen where it’s easier to get a complete overview and chop and change bits. I redo all my notes and begin to outline. It isn’t unusual for the original ‘ideas’ file for a book to end up around the 100 page mark.
How important is research to you?
It’s hugely important. Crime readers especially are sharp-eyed, well informed and very unforgiving of factual mistakes, and I’ve always aimed to present a highly realistic world in my books – even the ones which nobody else has ever seen – so getting the details right is crucial.
How do you go about researching?
With Long Way Home the only way to get the facts was to talk to people. Before starting it my knowledge of gangmasters and slum landlords was pretty limited, I didn’t really know what the physical realities of a migrant workers life in the UK was or just what hurdles they faced. Maybe I could have pieced something together from media reports but it would have felt hollow and I wanted this book to be an honest and revealing expose as well as a crime novel.
Luckily, through friends and family, I found people who were willing to talk about their experience of coming to England in search of work. Mostly they were success stories but only because these people had persevered through the early days of their migration, living in bad conditions, being routinely ripped off, lonely and exhausted and frequently despised. It was comforting to know that they’d come through all of that and were settled, some with their own businesses now, most with young families, but it infuriated me that they were exploited in the first place.
How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye?
I tend to think totally in words and try to keep my research material quite streamlined. So everything goes into the Word doc. I’d love to be the kind of author who has a ‘murder wall’ complete with photos and post its and sketches all linked by lines of red string but it just isn’t how I work. Maybe I’ll try that out with my next book though.
Tell us how that first draft takes shape?
Assuming I’ve done the prep work properly I just dive straight in, working on my laptop, trying very hard not to lose momentum until I’m finished.
Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft?
I’m hugely superstitious so I have a few pairs of pyjamas which are for working not sleeping and a woolly cardigan two sizes too big I always wear – my office is cold even in summer. I always start a writing session with a rollie and a coffee – which has to be in my special writing mug. When the last one broke I spent months trying to replace it, bought four which just didn’t feel right, and finally found a pretty blue and white geometric print one in John Lewis. I’m very careful with it now!
Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?
On a good day nothing will put me off but when the words aren’t flowing I’m constantly getting up and moseying around the house, taking the dog out, raiding the fridge, getting distracted by pretty much anything. Luckily the good days just about outweigh the other ones.
What does your work space look like?
I’ve recently moved offices – my last one was so dank I couldn’t bring myself to work there – this one is much nicer, with a view over the garden and sofas for lolling, a couple of bookshelves stuffed with inspiration and my vinyl for when the MS needs a soundtrack. But I can’t see any of that from my desk because I’ve pushed it against a blank wall to minimise distraction. On any given day it might have my notebook on it, a cup of coffee and an ashtray with way too many butts in, but that’s about it. I want to be looking at the page and nothing else.
Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?
I edit as I go along, in the naive hope that by the time the MS gets to my editor it won’t need too much work. Hah!
Every writing session starts with a reread of the previous day’s words and I tighten up and tweak them as much as possible.
The only thing I don’t edit at this stage is the capital letters. For some reason I’ve never been able to bring myself to put them in as I go along – even though every time I finish a book I sulk about having to sort them out and swear to actually use the ‘shift’ key next time.
I see many writers counting words in a day. Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?
Ideally I like to do 1000 words a day. Any less and I feel like the day’s wasted but if they haven’t started flowing after a couple of hours I tend to walk away from the desk and do something else.
The first draft of Long Way Home took around six months and because I edit as I go along it was ready to send over to my agent at that point. Naturally it was nowhere near as perfect and polished as I hoped and it came back with lots of small changes which needed making.
In what format do you like to read it through, ereader, paper or the computer screen?
Because my printer was still packed up after a house move I did the read through on screen and actually found it worked better than working from a printout because you can fix any problems right away. That said I think your eye tends to pick up the typos and little punctuation mistakes better on paper.
What happens now that first draft is done?
Waiting. Lots of waiting. Feedback from agent. (And with my latest book editor too.) I don’t even look at it until I hear back from them. I think you need to create some distance, take a break from the fake world you’ve been living inside for months. So I catch up on my reading and all the boxsets I’ve been Sky +ing, get out and about and catch up with all the people I’ve been neglecting slightly in favour of my characters, play a lot of online poker, four to six tables at once, which is my version of meditation.
I try not to think about the next book but inevitably ideas start coming up, that writing part of the brain doesn’t like to be idle for long.
Thanks for digging. g into the depths of the first draft. It’s been a pleasure having you.
Long Way Home.
DI Zigic and DS Ferreira are called in from the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit to investigate the murder. Their victim is quickly identified as a migrant worker and a man several people might have had good reason to see dead. A convicted arsonist and member of a far-right movement has just been released from prison, while witnesses claim to have seen the dead man fighting with one of the town’s most prominent slum landlords.
Zigic and Ferreira know all too well the problems that come with dealing with a community that has more reason than most not to trust the police, but when another migrant worker is attacked, tensions rapidly begin to rise as they search for their killer.
As usual, if you want to take part in the First Draft series, just let me know! You can find a list of the previous Q&A’s Here.