(Day 1 is here)
Coffee and a Chat with Agent Jenny Brown
It is so cheering to see how many people will turn out at 10am on a Saturday morning to learn more about our publishing industry. To a very busy house, Jenny Brown talked about book buyers, what’s in vogue and what she looks for when considering script submissions.
Jenny discussed the current thirst for narrative non-fiction that is smart and textured – grainy as she described it. She shocked most of us when she said that a ‘heavy’ book-buyer would have been defined as someone who bought around 12 books a year but that figure has now come down to 6! So agents and publishers are understandably on the look oy for more value from their new acquisitions.
Jenny looks for distinctiveness. She knows, for example, that it’s going to be hard to interest a publisher in another Glasgow based detective (or an Edinburgh one for that matter).
She advises potential writers to target the agents they want to represent them carefully. Jenny likes to see a synopsis plus around 50 pages or the first three chapters. She also suggested that using a literary consultancy to help polish your first work might be helpful, or to consult the network members section of Publishing Scotland to find an editor to look at your ms before it goes to an agent to increase the chances of success, as second chances are rare.
One hint that surprised me. Jenny told us about pitching an author to a publisher. That publisher immediately turned to Instagram to see what kind of a profile the author had on there. Not Twitter or Facebook, but Instagram. Interesting huh!
A fascinating session with lots of audience interaction.
Northern Noir – Claire MacLeary and Lucy Foley with Jacky Collins
My first panel session of the day was with two writers who have had great success setting their books in the North. Claire MacLeary followed the advice given above by Jenny Brown to the letter. Her detective duo are set in Aberdeen, and are very distinct from Stuart MacBride’s Logan Macrae. Her duo is Maggie, a straight-laced Aberdonian housewife and Big Wilma, a larger than life character who knows a little about the seedier side of life. Clair’s third novel in the series, Runaway, comes out next month.
Lucy Foley has written historical novels and worked as a fiction editor. Her book, The Hunting Party is set in a remote hunting lodge in the Scottish Highlands, where a group of friends have come to celebrate New Year. Chaired by the lovely Dr Noir, Jacky Collins, Claire confirmed that she had selected Aberdeen because it is under-represented in Scottish Crime fiction and also because it has everything – a bustling city, an agricultural hinterland and a turbulent history. Claire knows Aberdeen well; she used to live there and her children were born in Aberdeen, and she makes frequent trips back to check her geography and descriptions are accurate.
Lucy Foley isn’t giving away the precise location of her Hunting Lodge, but she has been there more than once. It was on one of those visits that she realised how utterly clueless a group of fairly affluent London 30 somethings would be if stranded in a remote snowed in lodge. She wrote her book in Teheran in 40% heat, but you’d never know t, it has such a wintry setting.
So why Crime novels? Well Claire read English and has written everything from training manuals to ad copy. She started with short stories and then decided to make the leap into the country’s most popular genre. Lucy was really keen to read a modern take on a Golden Age mystery, so rather than wait for that, she wrote it.
Both women read from their books for us and it was clear that both really understood their locations – those became another character in the book. Claire has made a conscious decision to take Maggie and Wilma out and about and, she told us, she recently spent a morning in BetFred learning how it all worked.
Lucy was tight-lipped about her location; saying only that it’s a place she has visited a few times and that it has a very small train station. She loved the idea of taking characters you love to hate and sticking them together with no wifi or mobile signals. A group of people stuck together in an homage to the golden age, or as Lucy says, a bit like a family Christmas!
Claire’s protagonists are ‘ordinary’ women. That is they are not qualified, their business has been born out of their resourcefulness and adaptability. They are not stellar, but multi-taskers.
Lucy’s next book will be set at a wedding off the West coast of Ireland – a great opportunity for people to behave badly. Claire will be looking at people trafficking.
I can’t wait!
FINDING YOUR CHARACTERS AND THEIR MILIEU – Vaseem Khan, Douglas Skelton and Yrsa Sigurdardottir with Jim Naughtie
My next session went from the streets of Mumbai to Reykjavik and NYC. The authors discussed the characters at the centre of their books but also very much subscribed to the view that location is also a character. Quoting Stephen King, Douglas Skelton said that he agreed with King’s view that ‘plot is character, character is plot’. He tends to write ensemble pieces with a cast of characters who, in his latest novel The Janus Run, include an ex hit man, a mafia boss and a Federal Marshall. It is the interplay between characters that he really enjoys writing.
Vaseem wanted to write about what India and Mumbai in particular, are really like. Baby Ganesh, Inspector Chopra’s baby elephant, is a symbol of India, a lens through which the social environment of India can be examined. Vaseem sees a close connection between those who find life hard and the mystical – and it is social inequality that really motivates his writing. His characters, he feels, need to be damaged or broken in some way or they become boring. His Inspector Chopra character sets a standard in a country where the police force is known for its incompetence and corruption. He is a serious man.
Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s characters in her Children’s House series are Huldar, a detective and Freya, a child psychologist. She wanted a male/female balance in her novels. Huldar grew up in a house with 5 women; he’s quite clear he doesn’t really want to live with another and so his attitude to women is not all it might be. Yrsa talked about the need to eke out the backstory of her characters so that they can develop throughout the series. For her, once the characters are fully formed and exposed, there is nothing more to write and she will stop the series. She loves to write stand-alone novels, because it gives her huge flexibility in which characters she can kill off.
Yrsa spends a long time thinking out the plot lines of her books before she starts writing and usually finds her voice around Chapter 10. Vaseem plots meticulously and Douglas not at all – his is the Brexit method of crime writing!
Vaseem works in the Jill Dando Institute of Forensic Science and also advises on The Good Karma Hospital, so his expertise comes from many directions. Douglas was a journalist who has written about many real crimes and so has to get the detail right or it niggles away at him.
A fascinating discussion that left me wanting to read more of these authors’ books.
Logan McRae and Me – Susan Calman and Stuart MacBride.
My final Session of Day 2 was the headline event of the day, Susan Calman in conversation with Aberdeen’s favourite crime writing son, Stuart MacBride. I’m not even going to attempt to cover everything they talked about, but it included cats – Stuart’s are Grendel, a maine coon, Onion, Beetroot and Gherkin. And as everyone knows, Susan Calman is a huge cat lover. So they have a lot to talk about. Susan was thrilled (or maybe not) to see that Stuart had named the undertaker firm in The Blood Road, Cormack and Calman. (Susan’s wife is Lee Cormack).
Amidst a discussion about Logan McRae and The Blood Road, we learned that Stuart deliberately wrote Cold Granite (the first Logan McRae book) as if it were the 4th in the series so that McRae arrived as a fully formed character, because Stuart wanted readers to feel as if they were in the middle of a series.
They also discussed favourite TV Detectives – Susan’s is Jane Tennyson; Stuart’s Cracker. Susan, it is fair to say, is just a wee bit in love with the character of D.I. Steele, whom she thinks is Stuart’s best character. How did Stuart write her so convincingly, she asked? Now I’m not going to go into the whole story about Stuart and the Triumph Doreen bra, I’m pretty sure it only works when he tells it, but he did say that he thought it would be interesting if he wrote her as a person – rather than a lesbian character. Susan loves that she is foul-mouthed and full on and sees her as the reason that things happen, and Stuart pointed out that until he wrote Now We Are Dead D.I.Steele had only ever been seen through Logan’s eyes.
We were treated to a fantastic discussion – or perhaps it was a casting audition – on who might play D.I. Steele on TV. Susan sees her as tall and skinny, but Stuart held out hope that she could be shorter…..so could they perhaps film in summer when Susan’s not on tour?
There was a great deal of entertaining banter, good humour and insight in this discussion and as it drew to a close, there was just the glint of a potential new character in Stuart’s eye. There may be a place for Susan in this series yet!
Day 3 Sunday 24 February
Gothic Game Changers Alex Reeve and E.S.Thomson with Lee Randall
On Sunday I listened to Elaine ES Thomson and Alex Reeve. Elaine has not only made her protagonist, Jem, a woman living as a man, but she has complicated that life by making her attracted to women. Jem’s disguise as Will Quatermain, is aided by her port wine birthmark over her eyes. The idea, Elaine told us, came from the fact that she used to suffer from very severe eczema and she saw people looking the mask and not the person she was behind it.
She tries to balance authenticity and imagination to make her books interesting as well as accurate. Jem is based on James Miranda Barry, a surgeon who served in the British Army. Although Barry’s entire adult life was lived as a man, he was born Margaret Ann Buckley and his gender was only discovered after his death.
Alex Reeve takes us into the world of a transgender person in 1880. Leo Stanhope isn’t all he seems to be. Leo was born Charlotte Pritchard but feels like a man trapped in a woman’s body, and so has run away from home and set up a new identity in London.
Leo becomes involved in a criminal case, knowing that he must keep his feelings secret. A lesbian or transgender woman publicly outed could result in being confined to an asylum. When the woman who Leo loves, a prostitute named Maria, turns up on the slab, he needs to know what happened and find her killer.
Elaine said that she found this historical period to be such a fertile period in medicine. Her PhD is in the entry of women into the medical profession and she found everything she needed to make a fascinating crime novel. Birth, death, jealousy, god complexes – all life is there. Taking this period enables her to look at the role of women in medicine and in wider society and to comment.
Alex Reeve wanted did not want to write about a man who saves the day and he found from his research that issues such as gender dysphoria were present in Victorian society but not represented in literature. He wrestled a little with his conscience, worrying about cultural appropriation, but after consultation with some of the transgender community felt it was right to proceed. In 1880 the age of consent was 13. The docks were full of genuinely colourful people, steeped in the dyes they unloaded from the docks. The streets were rank and stinky and the impact of poverty was present for all to see.
Both authors talked about their research and how it is all there – nothing they have added is as bad as anything that can be found in the archives.
Tomorrow’s Stars Today – Claire Askew, Harriet Tyce and Ruth Mancini with Fiona Stalker
This was my last panel session of the Festival and it was a cracker.
Claire Askew’s book, All The Hidden Truths is set in Edinburgh, after a mass shooting at Three Rivers College So we know who and when, but we don’t know why.
For three women the lack of answers is unbearable. This story is told from the perspective of three people on every side of the tragedy – the mother of the shooter, the mother of the first victim and the police officer in charge of the case. These different perspectives look at the tragedy from every angle and force us to think in ways we perhaps don’t always. Claire has always had the memory of Dunblane with her as she wrote her book, it has stuck with her. She wanted to look at the impact of social media and how this kind of news breaks and how people think they are getting to the truth in the early stages of an event of this horrible kind.
In Ruth Mancini’s In The Blood, a young mother is accused of attempting to poison her own child. Ellie is secretive and challenging – she’s had a troubled life – but does that mean she’s capable of murder? Criminal defence lawyer Sarah Kellerman is tasked with proving Ellie’s innocence. But Sarah’s desperate pursuit of the truth will draw her – and her five-year-old son – into danger. Ruth herself identifies, possibly a little too much as she says, with her lawyer, Sarah Kellerman. Both have severely disabled, autistic children and Ruth herself is a solicitor advocate.
Harriet Tyce is also a barrister now full time writer. Her debut novel, Blood Orange is a fantastic thriller/domestic noir about a woman with secrets to hide.
Asked why they wrote crime specifically, Ruth said she thought it was because crime can offer a resolution when real life doesn’t. Harriet really enjoyed writing her novel because it gave her the chance to play out her version of a revenge tragedy. For Claire, who was writing about the balance between a mother’s love and responsibility, it helped underscore the fact that while we may never know why someone would commit an act like mass shooting, it can point the way forward in how we carry on from it.
The authors discussed their writing journey, getting an agent and getting published and how their ambitions change at each step of the process. Claire has previously published poetry and as she said, when you publish a poetry book, you know most of the people who own it. Her last poetry book had a run of 800 copies, so a crime novel is a whole different story.
It was fascinating to hear three successful women discuss their writing journeys and the fantastic books they have produced. I can’t wait to read the ones that are new to me.
So, gentle readers, apart from Noir at the Bar (what happens at Noir, stays at Noir,that was my Granite Noir Fest. It was, as ever, variously enjoyable, belly laugh provoking and hilarious, – with especial thanks to compere Russell D McLean and his glamorous sidekick Stuart ‘Debbie’ MacBride. Stuart’s Skeleton Bob story was a complete hoot, you really must hear it.
I have eaten the Granite Noir ice cream, drunk the Granite Noir beer and the Granite North gin and had an amazingly good and most importantly, quite intimate festival. It’s worth knowing that for every panel I went to, there was another I didn’t make, so the choice is amazing. My mobility isn’t great, so I didn’t make too many of the sessions outside of the Lemon Tree, but there were films, exhibitions, theatrical performances, music and talks. And all over the space of three days.
The authors were current, well paired and really interesting and I for one will be back. Certainly that session with Abir Mukherjee is likely to remain a festival highlight for me all year if not decade.
My thanks to the organisers, programmers, festival staff and bar staff who all went out of their way to be both helpful and smiling. No wonder then that ticket sales were up by 50% on the 2018 event, and an exhibition of 19th century mugshots also captured imaginations, with more than 1,500 people flocking to view the display.
Roll on next year!