Long time subscribers to my blog know that it is very unusual for me to post two weeks in a row, let alone one day after another. But I want to share this exciting news. My interviewee of yesterday, crime writer Philippa East, has invited me onto a virtual panel ‘The Psychological Secrets of Writing’.
Fellow panellists are writers Bev Thomas and Julia Stone, with Philippa hosting. We all have a background in psychology and/or therapy. We will be chatting about the links between psychology and writing, how our day jobs inform our creative work, and how a little expertise in psychology can help with character, plot and engaging with readers. We will also be delighted to answer live questions from the audience.
Today I am delighted to welcome crime writer Philippa East to my blog.
Philippa grew up in Scotland and originally studied Psychology and Philosophy at the University of Oxford. After graduating, she moved to London to train as a Clinical Psychologist and worked in NHS mental health services for over ten years. Philippa now lives in the Lincolnshire countryside with her spouse and cat, and alongside her writing she continues to work as a psychologist and therapist. Her debut novel Little White Lies was long-listed for the Guardian’s “Not-The-Booker” prize and shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger. She has since published two further psychological suspense novels, Safe and Sound and I’ll Never Tell, and is currently working on her fourth. See more at: Amazon/Philippa East
What are you currently working on? I am currently working on my fourth psychological suspense novel, currently titled The Hoax… It features a remote Scottish boarding school, a group of troubled teens, the untimely death of a therapist, and two ex-spouses thrown together to investigate. I’m coming towards the end of the first draft right now, which means the hard work of “making it good” starts soon!
What has inspired the novel you have most recently published? My most recent novel, I’ll Never Tell, had lots of iterations before it fell into its ultimate shape! I think ultimately, it was a combination of two idea kernels. The first was of a couple arriving in a foreign country and having to confront their own marital crises in the process of searching for their missing daughter. I also was fascinated by the question of how a family might function with a child “star” at its centre. And then I thought: what if the child star was the one who had gone missing?
How much do you think fiction intertwines with real life? As a crime/thriller writer, I definitely draw a lot of my story ideas from true crime TV shows and podcasts. I think I write to try and understand people and what makes them “tick”, so although I write fiction, I am definitely always trying to make sense of real life, and the people we encounter in it. Sadly, my novel Safe and Sound was inspired by the real-life story of Joyce Vincent, a charismatic, sociable woman in her thirties whose death went unnoticed for nearly three years. Since I wrote and published Safe and Sound, tragically there have been further similar stories in the news.
You are a working clinical psychologist, how does this help or hinder your writing? I think mostly, it helps it. As therapists, we hear many, many narratives about people’s lives and struggles, and I think this has given me insight into some of the universal themes of the human condition: love, acceptance, belonging, self-esteem and truth. I think it also helps me understand how people generally “tick” – what affects us and how, what motivates or frightens us, and how we relate to other people.
For me, writing is a way to try and understand the world, other people, and myself. I think this drive originally led me into the field of psychology – and now story-telling has become my means to ask and explore those questions. Therapy is so much about empathising with other people – putting yourself in their shoes, with compassion. This is the way I try to relate to my characters too.
How would you describe your writing process? Um… messy! (Despite being a very organised person generally in life.) I generally will spend a number of months exploring an idea and working it into a rough outline, before I start writing. These days, I steer clear of formal outlines (which tend to lead me down the wrong track) and I just make loose notes in a notebook to steer me along the right story track. I will then do a VERY messy first draft of about 80k words, writing about 2,000 words a day. I don’t edit as I go, and I write in a VERY undisciplined way. I will then usually spend another 2-3 months working through a number of further drafts to sort everything out before showing it to my editor. After which, I’m likely to go through at least another three drafts.
What helps you to write/what gets in the way? Since becoming a professional author (wow, that’s weird to say!), I’ve learnt to keep a clear separation between my creative processes as a writer, and the business of publishing, promotion, etc. Too much focus on sales, reviews, the market, etc can really create a lot of instability and self-doubt which is fatal to creativity! On a more practical level, I treat writing as a job (which, um, it now is!), meaning I prioritise it and carve out time for it every week. Having author friends to chat to and share ideas with is also essential. As you’ll see from the dedication and acknowledgements for I’ll Never Tell, my fellow authors have been an invaluable source of support along the way.
What kind of research do you do & how do you go about it? Mainly using Google! With the sorts of books I write, there isn’t usually too much research required, and most things I need to know I can find on the Internet. Occasionally, I will put a shout-out on Twitter for someone who knows about something more niche that I need help with. I generally focus on telling my story first, in the way that works for me, and do my fact-checking later, otherwise I think I would get too restricted by the facts and feel unable to keep the plot going. I have to give a shout-out here to my friend Stuart Gibbon, a retired Police Detective who has helped me hugely to get any police-procedural parts right in my books.
Do you have any crafting tips, eg to do with writing dialogue, for scene setting, plot or pacing?
There are five key craft elements that I would say all writers should aim to grasp, practise and master. These are: # show vs tell # point of view (POV) # psychic distance # the “five commandments of story telling” (the art of structure) # story genre (NB: this is different to marketing / publishing genres!)
You write crime novels which are stand alones. Have you ever thought about writing a series? What do you think are the pros/cons of writing stand alones rather than a series? I tend to think of my books as standing “one step to the side of a crime”, rather than traditional crime novels. As a result, I’ve tended to write stand-alone books that often focus on interpersonal relationships and the emotional fall-out of extreme events as much as solving a mystery. For me, story-telling is about a character’s journey though challenge, conflict, “death” and “rebirth” (the classic “Hero’s Journey”). For me, the story naturally concludes once the protagonist has completed this cycle of growth. I can imagine that in some ways it is “easier” to write a series, in that you generally have your setting, characters, etc. ready and waiting for you at the start of each book. However, I think I’d feel too “hemmed in”, since I do like the flexibility of being able to explore brand-new characters, themes and set-ups each time – even if it means starting from scratch with each book!
Could you say something of your publishing journey and your experience? I began writing ‘seriously’ about 12 years ago, with a terrible novel that I never finished or showed anyone, but which made me fall in love with writing. I then wrote short stories for many years, which was a great way to practise my craft and learn what it takes to get published. In 2015, I left my full-time NHS job to work part time as a private psychologist, and began another novel. After slogging through 12 drafts (yes, 12), an agent at the York Festival of Writing showed some interest. She read the full MS and then suggested I re-write the whole thing. The thing is, she was totally right. So I re-wrote it – cue another 12+ drafts! – and (thankfully!) the agent took me. This ultimately became Little White Lies, which subsequently sold at auction to HQ/HarperCollins. Somehow, I have since completed two further novels, and have a fourth in the pipeline!
The question you wished I’d asked you. Oo, I’m not sure! I’ll take this opportunity to say do come and say hi to me on Twitter (@philippa_east), which is where I’m regularly hanging out. I love chatting to readers, writers and all book-ish people, so I’ll be happy to hear from you. Obviously you can keep updated on my book news there, and I also post about upcoming author events I am doing (online and in person), in case you’d ever like to join in on that. You’ll also get to know my cat Mimi who regularly appears in my posts!
Attending events – especially those where a certain amount of networking and putting myself out there is required – is not without its anxieties. Then Covid added its own peculiar menace to being around people. I have to admit, therefore, it was with some trepidation that I set off for Harrogate and Theakston’s Crime Writing Festival on Saturday.
Luckily this year the sessions were in a large airy marquee and eating and drinking could be done outdoors, which allayed some of the fears. And I was able to meet with a couple of authors who I already knew, so that also helped.
I enjoyed the sessions I attended. ‘Experts Chortling’ brought together some of my favourites: (Baroness) Sue Black and Carla Valentine with psychologist Emma Kavanagh. They were joined by former police detective Graham Bartlett. As well as being a wellspring of interesting information, they were all very funny too.
By the time I got to the book shop Sue Black’s books had sold out. I am not surprised. She manages to make the business of death and the dead fascinating and entertaining without ever losing respect for those who have died. Plus, if you are a newbie crime writer, along with Unnatural Causes by Dr Richard Shepherd, Black’s books, interviews and documentaries are gold dust.
During the panel, Emma Kavanagh said crime writers were too often drawn to featuring characters traumatised by their pasts. What is more remarkable in reality, Kavanagh suggests, are the number of people who fall apart after trauma, and then show resilience, recovery and growth. It got me wondering where this might fit into a crime story.
The other afternoon session I went to was a discussion of the ‘future of the police procedural’. The panel was: AA Dhand; Jane Casey; Parker Bilal and Adam Lebor. All were clear on the duty of the crime writer to tackle difficult issues in a responsible way. Casey suggested crime authors are the ‘Rapid reaction squad of the literary world’ developing stories around current debates quicker than other writers.
Lebor said (as I have done in the past) that there are far too many young women who end up dead in the crime fiction genre. His series is set in Hungary and has a detective from the gypsy community (apparently ‘gypsy’ is the term used by the peoples themselves in this country). It has plenty of scope for exploring the lives of refugees, as well as the prejudices against the Roma.
They all characterised their protagonists as ‘lone wolfs’, especially AA Dhand’s Harry Virdee who the author likened to a gothic comic book hero (not my taste at all and I realised why I had never taken to his books). With my Donna Morris mysteries, I have gone in the other direction. Donna is definitely not a maverick and she needs the team, just as they need her (though she struggles to properly comprehend this). The relationships between the police officers are something which has been praised by some readers. I hoping the future of the police procedural includes space for a team player.
After paying £4.35 for a cup of tea (yes!!) and spending more than I would care to mention on books, I wended my way home. A shout out to Northern and Transpennine Express whose staff were friendly and whose trains were on time, comfortable, clean and not too busy.
Have any of you some good memories of literary festivals you would like to share?
Saturday 2nd July, 2022, 2pm-3pm, I will be doing a signing at Mrs Lofthouse’s Emporium, Queen Street, Scarborough. Come along for a chat, I would love to see you.
Saturday September 17th, 2022, crime festival Bloody Scotland 10:30am-11:30am, I will be appearing on a panel entitled ‘Secrets and Lies’ https://bloodyscotland.com/ to book tickets.
Thursday 20th October, 2022 part of the Big Read, York 7pm-9pm, I will be interviewed & giving a reading at York Explore https://exploreyork.org.uk/
Does the reader have to like the protagonist?
I have recently been given some feedback on the first of my Donna Morris novels, A Wake of Crows: the reader enjoyed the novel but didn’t like the main character. Unfortunately, this was passed onto me second hand, so I couldn’t probe further, but it got me thinking – should I be creating a likeable protagonist?
In fact, this question has followed me around for some time. I self-published three crime novels 2013 to 2015 with a main character called Hannah. More than one person told me she was unlikeable. She was going through a hard time and we were inside her head which got pretty dark at times. Yet her experience mirrored mine in many ways. After a friend waxed lyrical about just how unpleasant Hannah was, I did wonder whether they knew me at all or whether I was just very good at dissembling.
In crafting Donna, I made a conscious effort to create her more agreeable. She is not as ‘abrasive’ as Hannah was, Donna is kinder, she is not as intense.
Of course, not every reader is going to like every character. However, I did start considering whether this idea of being likeable or not stems from my protagonist being female? Are male detectives in crime novels expected to be amenable? How about Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Colin Dexter’s Morse and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock. Or even Christie’s Poirot? Though in each case there is a more charming side-kick who is, perhaps, the one readers actually relate to.
There has been a long tradition in crime writing of the detective being flawed in some way. I think Donna is less flawed and generally more genial than some, but maybe she (like many women) just has to be ‘nice’?
Do you have to like the protagonist to enjoy the read?
‘Kate Evans delivers a gripping crime debut with a truly original policewoman as the central character. Highly Recommended.’ Myles McWeeney, review of A Wake of Crows, Irish Independent, May 7th 2022
The days are getting warmer and brighter. In a week it will be the longest day – midsummer. This always seems to come too early for me. We’ve barely begun to enjoy the season and suddenly we are at the mid point.
I also feel slightly out of kilter when it comes to my novel writing. A Wake of Crows has appeared in paperback and Drowning Not Waving in hardback. The first of DC Donna Morris’s adventures in Scarborough is just garnering some interest – like the review above – and I am already finishing off her third story (yet to be titled). I am on track to deliver this in the Autumn.
I was comforted when I heard Abir Mukherjee on Radio 4’s Bookclub. We were discussing his first novel, while he had already published his fifth, and he quipped that he had almost forgotten the plot of his debut. I am certainly afraid I might muddle up what happened when to whom between the three DC Morris mysteries.
What is also facing me – as the excitement around A Wake of Crows is rising – is a big blank. My contract was for three novels and I have, essentially, completed them. What comes next? I have everything crossed for another contract. But the workings of the publishing world are still something of a mystery to me and this is by no means certain. So maybe this is the end of my ‘being published by a traditional publisher’ trajectory. A brief but magnificent arc, like the traces of a rocket on bonfire night.
In my early twenties, I would attend firework displays put on by a BBC engineer friend of my husband. He boosted his pyrotechnics until it felt like being in the middle of the Big Bang when they went off. How I hope my publishing rocket could be given the propulsion of one of his.
I would never call writing a hard job. Not hard like working in a shop or a care home. But there are times when it gets tougher, and, for me, this is during the editing and rewriting stage. I am lucky to have useful feedback from my editor and her assistant. I like to get this as early as possible, in case there are any big changes to make and I always advise writers to find trusted readers to give a decent critique.
‘Don’t try to edit while you are writing. Your first draft is all about energy and unleashing your power. Respect the process of creation and give it space. It’s like planting a seed. You have to water it and watch it emerge and grow before you can prune it into shape.
‘There isn’t any failed writing. There is only writing that is on the way to being successful – because you’re learning all the time. It follows that that nothing you write is ever wasted, and that to become good, and better than good, you need to write a lot.
‘Suspect the judgment of others. What people coming from a different critical context might describe as slowness or failure you need to reframe as patience and a learning process.
‘Harness the power of intuition to free up your story. Many of us learn to write in an academic style, building a logical argument, picking over every line. This can inhibit a novelist. Aim at perfection – but in your final draft.
‘Rules that are valid in the rest of your life are not always valid for your writing. “Try, try and try again” does not always work for the creative process. Sheer bloody persistence won’t necessarily get you where you want to be.
‘Trust that your work will find its natural form – because it will. Our education system fosters habits of mind that knock out the habit of trust in what we create. You need to rediscover that trust.
‘If you are a great reader then you can become a great writer. If you read many novels, and many different kinds of novel, the principles of novel writing will be encoded deep inside you. That’s what I mean by trust. If you are a reader, then you know subconsciously how to tell a story.
‘Be protective of your work and resist the temptation to show it to anyone before you are satisfied with it yourself. When you do show it, make sure it’s to someone who is qualified to make a judgment. People who love you, or who feel threatened by you, will not provide you with the feedback you need.
‘Seek support from the right people. Try to get a professional opinion from someone who doesn’t know you. But always try to balance their feedback with what you know and trust to be true of your work.
‘Have the courage to try something new. If the world doesn’t seem to want your work, then be adaptable and flexible, but don’t compromise your vision or sell yourself short. Timing counts, and your time may come.’
All good advice as you would expect from such a renowned novelist. I do think searching out the right people to give feedback at the right time is crucial. Too early and it’s like stamping on a shoot just as it is coming above ground and too late the bush is already mature and thriving.
Another thing I have found fellow writers struggling with is when to stop editing and rewriting. Personally I like what novelist, Anne Tyler, said on BBC R4’s Desert Island Discs, (20th & 25th February 2022): ‘I revise until I think I will throw up if I read it again.’ Yep, that just about covers it.
It was a great boost to my confidence to have a review of A Wake of Crows by Natasha Cooper in the ‘Literary Review’: ‘Well written and without any flashiness, this believable police procedural deals with guilt, vengeance, love, a serial killer with a God complex and redemption. It is quiet, effective and moving.’
And also to be interviewed on BBC Radio York by Bek Homer:
All in time for the paperback edition to be released on the 7th of April.
Meanwhile, I am working on novel three, currently titled The Shark’s Mouth. As I was completing the second half of this particular draft, it felt like, having built up the plot like a Jenga tower of clues, I was having to very carefully take it down piece by piece. If I did this too quickly, the tower would collapse into a pile of incredulity.
For weeks I have felt as if I am living inside my novel and the reality is the fiction. Which, to be honest, is easy, given the madness which has overtaken the world.
In all my novels I want to create a strong sense of place. Here are some thoughts on how I do it.
I am lucky enough to live in the town I write about. Pretty much every day I take a walk to the sea. As I do so I make a conscious effort to notice with all my senses and, if anything reveals itself to me, I will write it down in my journal.
I describe the landscape using very simple language. The kind of language a child might use. And then I go over and over it, interrogating it for more detail.
I love to use imagery which dips into metaphor. Sometimes these will occur to me when I am walking and noticing. Other times, they can start out as a cliché or a well worn phrase which I then cross-examine to find something more interesting. For instance, the white crests on waves are often likened to white horses. But what other four legged animal could they be? And so on.
I always strive towards a balance between stark description and more complex imagery.
What tips do you have for writing descriptive passages?
According to the Chinese zodiac, Donna Morris, the protagonist in my crime series set in Scarborough, is a tiger, so it is her year. The first book in the series, A Wake of Crows, is out in paperback soon, and the second, Drowning Not Waving, is published in hardback in June. A Wake of Crows by Kate Evans | Hachette UK (littlebrown.co.uk)
In a lot of cultures, resolutions are a part of the turning of the year. If the number of swimmers in our pool is anything to go by, most of Scarborough appears to have decided to take more exercise in 2022.
For writers – would be and more experienced – the resolution must be to write. To listen more, to notice more, to read more, but always to write.
In another interview, she suggested writing as if no one will read your words as a way of keeping going. This might be a method for circumventing the internal critic for some, however, for others I guess the question which might pop up is: ‘If there are no readers, then why write?’
For the pure joy. To tell us about ourselves. To explore the world as we and others experience it. To understand more. To distract us. To give us a safe place.
These are some of my answers. Let me know your own.
I do think that once we think of sharing our writing with a reader, then we have to consider them. We have to get feedback. We have to craft. But I also know that I would keep writing even if publication is not a possibility. Just as I would keep breathing – my rather fiery breath – since, in Chinese terms, I am a dragon.
We are at another fulcrum point in the year: after the 21st/22nd of December the days will get (infinitesimally) longer. In many traditions, light is brought into the darkest part of the year and it is a time for reflection. Personally, about the only aspect I do enjoy of the modern frenetic/consumerist Christmas, is the lights which twinkle out even as the day dissolves into evening around mid-afternoon.
2021 has not been an easy year for any of us – and much tougher for some than for me, certainly. However, it is perhaps worth considering some of the things which have kept me going: love, friendship, swimming, yoga, walking, reading and, of course, creativity.
2021 saw the publication of my first novel brought out by a traditional publisher: A Wake of Crows (A Wake of Crows by Kate Evans | Hachette UK (littlebrown.co.uk). Literally a life-long ambition. This is grounds for great joy and satisfaction. And things roll on from this: an audio book (which I still haven’t been brave enough to listen to); a large print; copies in libraries; my appearance at a literature festival; the paperback appearing next April. Sweet.
My second novel in the series, Drowning Not Waving, has been accepted by editorial and is now going through the process of copy editing, proof reading and production. It should be out next June.
The making of Drowning Not Waving has not been exactly smooth. It was a story I wrote when I did a course with Curtis Brown in 2017. It has been re-written several times since. And at the beginning of 2021 I started on the final re-construction: changing the main protagonist to Donna Morris; changing the other point of view character to help with plot issues; and strengthening the environmental theme.
Perhaps it is because of the amount of re-writing and re-configuring which has gone on that I have found getting feedback from editorial and the copy editor more sticky than usual. Still, deep breath, I think I have ended up with a good novel, despite it being a bit of a messy ‘breech birth.’
The most recent has been Radio 4’s ‘Bookclub’ discussion of Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man, (due for transmission on 2nd of January 2022). Who knows if I will make the final edit, but it was great fun being involved. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to tell the presenter, Jim Naughtie, that I was there at his debut on radio. I was the production assistant for the ‘Week in Westminster’, where he first got on air. I doubt he would have remembered me: the typer of the script and the bringer of tea.
This year, I have also once again kept up with my monthly collages. Some technically better than others, but all a pleasure to realise.
As the year ‘turns’ and we move into a new year, I send warmest wishes to my readers. I hope 2022 will be easier for everyone and a creative year for all.
I am not the first person to say that one of the most essential things for becoming/being a writer is to turn up. Of course, there are other factors like: reading; cultivating the creative process; finding support; getting feedback. But in the end, unless we are there with pen in hand or fingertip to keyboard, we won’t be writing. It is not something which can be done in theory.
In general, I would suggest what gets in the way of ‘turning up’ can be separated into two categories:
(1) External pressures. (2) Internal scripts.
I have been lucky not to fall prey to (1) too often. When I did paid work full-time, I wrote in the evening and at the weekend. I have (selfishly, some might say) never felt responsible for feeding/clothing/entertaining another nor for cleaning the house/tidying the garden. I have never had to negotiate a ‘room of my own’ and time and space to write. However, if you want to write, then this negotiation – with self or others – has to take place.
On the other hand, my internal scripts can pull me up short. They are often along the lines of ‘I am not good enough’ and ‘this is a waste of time’. Ten years of therapy has helped and the support of writing friends. Plus writing around these internal scripts, playing with them, having a dialogue with them can also be beneficial. I would be amazed if there was a writer alive who did not have to wrestle with some internal scripts, so acceptance that it is part of the process can also be useful.
Stepping Away As well as turning up, I have found stepping away valuable. My creative process works best with bursts of writing (60 to 90 minutes) followed by some kind of exercise. I walk, swim (pool or sea), do yoga or cycle. And then come back to the writing with renewed vigour and fresh ideas.
I think, perhaps, some writers find themselves blocked because they haven’t worked out when they need to step away. However, it is also important to recognise when the ‘stepping away’ is an avoidance or a distraction rather than a refuelling. The clue will be that you are not getting any writing done at all.
What is it about movement and the creative process? Over centuries, a division has occurred between what has been designated ‘the mind’ and ‘the body’. This wrong step is slowly being re-examined with research around holistic medical approaches, and around thoughts/feelings originating in the body to be interpreted by the mind.
It becomes complex exploring this without falling into the dualistic trap. But basically, we are one organism. When we are writing, it might feel as if the creativity is coming from our head and our body is merely the mechanism by which the words reach paper or screen. However, I (and others) do not believe this to be true.
Our head and body work as one system – complementing and informing each other. The creativity swishes around like blood circulating. If we become too static, sat at a desk or scrunched in a chair, only our hands shifting, then the dissemination gets blocked. It is only in getting up and moving that we can release it again.
Creative Process We all have our own creative rhythms. Be sensitive to them. Notice them. Encourage them. Working out what they might be and working with them will aid us to be the writer we want to be.