Today I’m thrilled to have award winning crime writer, Mari Hannah on the first draft hot seat.
When an assault on duty ended her career as a probation officer, Mari Hannah turned to scriptwriting. She created a number of projects, most notably the pilot episode of a crime series for the BBC, a piece of work she later adapted into her crime debut – The Murder Wall – which went on to win the Polari First Book Prize. Her second book – Settled Blood – won the Northern Writers’ Award.
The Times described her series character DCI Kate Daniels as a Northerner set to join the roster of top literary detectives.
When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?
When an idea first occurs, it consumes me. This is particularly annoying if I’m in the process of writing another book. Like it or not, that often happens. There’s always part of me that believes the new idea is rubbish. Even so, I can’t stop thinking about it. If it remains with me, I know I’m on to a winner. When the uncertainty is out of the way, I begin by imagining the main characters in my head. Nothing is written down at this stage.
Do you have a set routine approaching it?
I plan everything out before taking to the computer and couldn’t do it any other way. It’s a method that worked for me in screenwriting – it’s worked for me in novel writing too.
Pen and paper or straight to the keyboard?
It depends on how I feel. Sometimes, it’s straight to the keyboard to write a lengthy synopsis which will takes me around a week. Other times I use a card system where I write out the main story beats as scenes or, in the case of a book, chapters. This is particularly useful as I can move them around at will, something I can’t do with a synopsis. I’ve written several of my ideas as screenplays first. There are obvious benefits to this. It forces me to think visually. I get a lot of the dialogue down and brief descriptions of the action. It also concentrates the mind. At the conclusion of each scene, I imagine those drums at the end of an episode of Eastenders. I’m thinking: what hook can I create to keep the reader engaged for what comes after? It has to be strong enough to keep them turning the pages.
How important is research to you?
In terms of police procedure, very. I’m not anal about it but I owe it to my readers to be as authentic as possible. Fortunately, I come from a criminal justice background and have a working knowledge of the police, the judiciary, courts, prison system etc. My partner is an ex-murder detective who advises me on all matters relating to criminal investigation. Outside of policing, I’ve found many professionals willing to talk me through a range of subjects. Kate Daniels #2 and #3, for example, required a knowledge of flying I simply did not have. I’m lucky to have friends who are pilots.
How do you go about researching?
I tend to research locations first. I take loads of photographs and decide upon time of year, that kind of thing. I’ve learned as I’ve gone along not to overdo the research. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it overcomplicates matters. The trick is to do a little and more if necessary in subsequent drafts. Much of it will hit the bin in the editing process and that is wasted effort. Anyway, too much research slows the pace. It should almost be invisible.
How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye?
I store a lot on my smartphone. I use the Voice Memos application to interview others or talk to myself – I get a lot of funny looks! It’s quick and easy. I take pictures on my phone too and store them in the cloud until I need them.
Tell us how that first draft takes shape?
After the planning stage, I write every day if I can possibly manage it. I loosely follow a three-act structure: set up, development, and resolution. When I reach the end of the set up, I read over my work before attempting what is often referred to as the ‘muddle in the middle’ and then reread again before I write the resolution and pump up the action in a race to the finale. I know it sounds like a faff but it gives me confidence to know that it all gels (in my head at least) and that I haven’t dropped the ball on the way through.
Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft?
Before I even write the title, I Google the sunrise/sunset times for the period I’m working in. It keeps me from writing stuff that is happening after dark when witnesses can’t possibly see! I also begin a timeline document on a second computer that keeps me right in terms of days of the week. You can’t interview a bank manager on a Sunday. My last book took place in the autumn when the clocks went back. If you are writing in real time, it’s important to know these things. If you make a mistake, readers will pull you up on it.
Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?
Once I’m in the zone, I just go for it. I turn off notifications. Leave my phone in another room. I abandon Twitter mates – perhaps stopping by briefly at night to say hi. People are very forgiving. They understand what a drain on your time social media can be. Oh, and I ignore my partner apparently! I never listen to a word she says, rarely coming up for air. I’m expecting divorce papers any day now.
It’s a box room with two desks, two chairs and a murder wall – a white board like in a real incident room – and woe betide anyone who might touch it! I have many reference books on the shelf above my head: law, policing (especially homicide cases), psychology and sociology books from when I was training to become a probation officer. I use them often. I write in silence, using music only to create the right atmosphere. For example: if I’m feeling particularly upbeat and need to write a really sad scene.
Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?
I edit as I go, rereading and cutting the previous day’s work before I move on. No ‘dirty’ draft for me. I can’t write on unless I know that what is behind me makes perfect sense.
I see many writers counting words in a day. Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?
Word counter? No. I try to write a chapter a day, whatever length it might be and no matter how long it takes. Sometimes I manage that. Sometimes not. When I began writing, I could agonise over a sentence for hours. These days I’m more relaxed. If I don’t want to write, I do something else. I write for pleasure. It should never be a chore.
So, that first draft is down. Roughly how long did it take? And what shape is it in?
As I said above, I edit as I go. By the time I’ve reached the end, the draft is in good shape, pretty much ready to show my agent. I read it through, polishing – my partner calls it fiddling – until it is the very best I can make it and then I send it off and bite my nails. My agent gives me notes, I rewrite if necessary, and then it goes to my publisher. I reckon it takes about a month to plan, three months to write, a couple of weeks to edit once my agent has seen it – then we’re good to go. Except that I’m usually in various stages with other books. You can bet your life that as you hit the final straight, a copy edit or proofread for an earlier book will arrive, so I’m afraid that drags it out, sometimes for months.
In what format do you like to read it through, ereader, paper or the computer screen?
I used to use paper until I found a wonderful app called iAnnotate created by a company called Branchfire. It is such an amazing piece of kit, allowing me to annotate (but not change) a manuscript. It’s really useful for when I’m on the move. I have it on two iPads so that when I’m reading and making notes, so is my partner. Did I mention that she is my first editor and chief collaborator, an unlimited source of murderous thoughts and anecdotes?
What happens now that first draft is done?
I crack open a bottle. 🙂
Thanks for digging into the depths of the first draft. It’s been a pleasure having you.
Monument to Murder
Meanwhile, newly widowed prison psychologist Emily McCann finds herself drawn into the fantasy of convicted sex offender, Walter Fearon. As his mind games become more and more intense, is it possible that Daniels’ case has something to do with his murderous past? With his release imminent, what exactly does he have in mind for Emily?
As Daniels encounters dead end after dead end and the body count rises, it soon becomes apparent that someone is hiding more than one deadly secret…
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.