1. How did you get started writing
I always made up stories, from when I was wee. But if you write them down you get paid instead of getting sent to sit on the naughty step. Seriously? I was so bad and unhappy doing what I trained to do – university lecturer – that this most precarious of trades looked like a good idea in comparison.
2. What drew you to write a crime novel
Hmm. I’m a big fan of stories. People can get quite antsy about stories – sneering at the idea of plotting and neat endings and talking about an exploration of theme and lyrical prose. (I’m going to sound like a Philistine, but when you read on a book jacket that it’s a “lyrical exploration” do you ever think “Oh aye – nothing happens”?) A crime novel has a story where there’s a serious disturbance of the calm and a lot at stake. Also I think you get to know characters when they’re in extremis – in real life and in fiction.
3. Which writers past or present have influenced your style of writing
I’ve never consciously tried to emulate the style of another writer – it’s usually the reverse. I need to make sure and not read Stephen King or PG Wodehouse while I’m writing a first draft (love them both, by the way) because their styles are so infectious. I daresay Hemingway would be the same but I find him easier to avoid.
4. When you first started writing did you find it hard to get publisher interest
I started in 2001, which was basically the mid-Jurassic period given how much publishing has changed since then. Honestly, I think it was easier then than it is now. Richard, Judy and Oprah were on fire, book groups were popping up everywhere, there was no recession, publishers were feeling buoyant and bullish. I still got forty rejections for my first novel, mind you, but I think it’s tougher now.
5. When you first had the idea for doing the Dandy Gilver novels, What was your inspiration
The forty rejections for my first novel! I was sitting on the beach (in Scotland, in a kagoul; don’t imagine glamour) wondering if I’d made a big mistake resigning from the university. My husband said “What do you love? Never mind, good ideas or smart moves. What do you love?” And I said “Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Michael Innes, Ngaio Marsh. But they’re all dead.” Then the lightbulb came on. I wrote After The Armistice Ball and got an agent a few months later.
6. There are many interesting characters in your novels, do you have a particular favourite one.
Thank you! I’m fond of all the recurring characters in the Dandy Gilver series by now – herself, her sidekick, her stodgy husband, her gormless teenage sons – but I have a particular soft spot for Miss Grant, her lady’s maid. Grant comes from a theatrical background and the only thing that stops her trying to make Dandy’s hair and make-up more dramatic is if she’s allowed to help with cases. She’s just been undercover at a séance, which was a lot of fun to write.
With the standalones it’s bittersweet because I get just as fond and I know I’ll never be hanging out with these people again. On the other hand, I’m free to kill them.
7. You have written both standalone novels and a series, which do you prefer to write
For me, because the series is historical and the standalones are contemporary, it evens out. There’s a head start with the series because I know some of the characters and settings already, but with the contemporary stories I’m not always on the look-out for anachronisms, or trying to find out if this or that make of car had a rear-view mirror or whatever.
8. You have set your novels in different places, do you have a favourite you like to use
Oh, this is one of my regrets. When I was deciding where Dandy Gilver should live I almost put her in Galloway, where I lived. But getting to and from Galloway is bad enough now; in the 1920s it must have been murder. So, to save every book from being three quarters driving along bad roads in a Morris Cowley getting to cases, I put her house in Perthshire, in the middle. But I would have been very happy writing about Galloway. Two of my standalones – The Day She Died and the latest one (untitled) – are set there. The art department of my US publisher, Midnight Ink, managed to find an absolutely typical Galloway cottage for the jacket too. Look:
9. What kind of research have you have to undertake for your Novels
It never really feels like research, to be honest. It feels a lot like the sort of nerdling about you do on Google when you’re bored – except that it’s not always on Google; sometimes it’s actual physical tramping around and that feels like a day out. I tend to have quite precise questions because of the order I do the writing and research. I write the book first, making up everything I don’t know, and writing down everything I’ve made up. Then, while the first draft is settling, I check out everything I’ve written down to see if I need to change any of it. I used to be a bit embarrassed about this method then I found out that Stephen King – one of my heroes – does it that way too.
10. Are the characters in your books based on any real life
Yes. I let my late godmother Doreen McPherson win a bonny baby competition at the age of six weeks at the 1923 Ferry Fair in The Burry Man’s Day. Also, I put my favourite English teacher, Stuart Campbell, in a book once. That turned out well: he came to the launch, I found out he was writing a book and ended up giving him some publishing advice. He’s got two books out now RLS in Love and Boswell on a Busspass, so I can’t have misled him too badly.
11. Since you have started writing have any well known authors given you any advice
One thing about the crimewriting community – we really are a warm and supportive bunch. Maybe we get all our aggression out on the page, but there’s no one-upmanship or other snark when we all get together. So there’s been lots of advice from elder statesmen and women. Simon Brett, who must be one of the nicest men in the mystery world, gave me a sort of email master class on how to slip back-story into the opening of a series novel without boring everyone.
12. Do you see any of your character’s personality in yourself and vice versa
I don’t. I truly don’t. But my friends and family find that hilarious. They see more of Dandy Gilver in me than I can account for. She’s a posh, English, dark-haired dog-lover born in the 1860s. I’m an incredibly unposh, Scottish, “blonde” cat-lover born in the 1960s. Also, when an old pal read As She Left It, she emailed me to say “And don’t bother denying that Opal Jones is you, cos it was basically like you were there in my kitchen talking to me.”
13. If you can, would you give us a sneaky peak into any future novels you have planned
I can’t talk about what I haven’t written, but I’ve got three novels written that aren’t published yet and I can talk a bit about them. Dandy Gilver and The Reek of Red Herrings sees Dandy and Alec in Gardenstown and Crovie on the Banffshire coast, hanging out with the fishing community during the wedding season. I loved getting stuck into all the blackening and tick-filling traditions. It’s turned out quite macabre but I’m okay with that. The next standalone doesn’t have a title yet – I’m calling it She Book 3 – but it’s a fish out of water story, set in a fictitious town in East Lothian, with a lot of pies. The third one . . . you know what? I don’t think I can discuss it yet. The first draft is done and as soon as I’m finished with Dandy Gilver again, I’ll start in on the research.
14. Out of all the novels you have written do you gave a favourite one that stands out to you
Yes. Dandy Gilver and The Proper Treatment of Bloodstains stands out for lots of reasons. I started the series in 1922 and I always knew that No.5 was going to be set during the general strike of 1926. Then in the course of researching the first four I gathered a load of household lore that I couldn’t use (For instance, did you know that male servants’ staircases were wooden so that their heavy footfall didn’t disturb the family, but female servants’ stairs were slate covered so that everyone would hear male servants sneaking up them?). So when I decided to put Dandy below stairs, undercover as a maid during the general strike, I got class war and household tips combined.
Also, that was the first book to win a prize. How shallow does that sound?! But I’m telling you, picking up an award in The Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland felt pretty great. And it’s not likely ever to happen again.
15. As a well known crime writer do you have words of advice you can share
Try and stop me! Can I have three? 1. If what you’re doing is working for you, don’t listen to anyone telling you it’s wrong. 2. It only comes out of you once – I really believe this. The fresh, pure story comes out one time – the rest is editing – and I think it’s best if it comes out as words on the page that get you closer to having written the thing for real. I don’t think outlines, character sketches, mind maps, synopses, chapter plans, conversations, presentations or workshops are the best way to use that precious one-time-only potential. (But see No. 1 – if they work for you, ignore me!) 3. Don’t write what you know. Write what you want and find out what you need to know.
Dandy Gilver Novels
1. After the Armistice Ball (2005)
2. The Burry Man’s Day (2006)
3. Bury Her Deep (2007)
4. The Winter Ground (2008)
5. The Proper Treatment of Bloodstains (2009)
6. Unsuitable Day for a Murder (2010)
7. Bothersome Number of Corpses (2012)
8. Deadly Measure of Brimstone (2013)
9. The Reek of Red Herrings (2014)
As She Left It (2013)
The Day She Died (2014)
Existence and Truth in Discourse (2002)
Amazon Author Page