Today I am delighted to be part of the Blog Tour for The Devil’s Feast by MJ Carter.
Below MJ Carter talks about how she came to write thrillers and it just proves no matter what you never have to stick to one genre!
It was some time in 2010 that I actually thought I was ready to start writing fiction. My second book had come out, a massive tome about the First World War, which took me over six years and nearly finished me off. I wasn’t ready to submerge myself again, I wanted to write something which didn’t involve me fact-checking every half-sentence.
I’d been toying with the idea of a detective, a lone working-class, self-educated sceptic for years. I knew exactly where I wanted to put him: in the 1840s, the first years of Queen Victoria’s reign, a fascinating, tumultuous decade of massive change, from horses to railways, from letters to telegraph and lot more besides. I had a whole series of stories for him in my head.
The idea for my first book came to me when I was reading about colonial India and the Thugs, the bandit gangs who befriended, then strangled, unwitting travellers on the roads of India. I read about the British officer who succeeded in crushing them, and the fact that there’s still a fierce debate among historians about whether the Thugs ever really existed, or were a convenient British fabrication. Ah! I had the plot of my first thriller: The Strangler Vine.
So I had a set-up. Then came the writing. I felt reasonably confident about being able to construct a backdrop to my story: one of the things I like about good detective fiction is that it often gives you a world: Rebus’s Edinburgh; Shardlake’s Tudor Court. As a writer of non-fiction I already tried to conjure places and times as vividly as possible. I even felt I had a handle on character: biography is all about trying to tease out the nuances and subtext of a personality and get it on the page.
The killer was the plotting and how actually to write it. I had a start and an end of sorts and vast great holes all the way through. I went to my husband, who is a novelist, for help. He gave me two excellent pieces of advice. One was to write as compete a plan as possible: easier said that done. I didn’t do as well as I’d have liked—I didn’t really know what I was doing and it cost me a lot in time and perspiration. I think having now written three novels, that I’m the sort of person for whom the plot turns and develops as I write, and I’ll probably never manage to entirely plot out a book in advance. (I’m in good company, Lee Child says he never knows what’s going to happen in his books.) The second piece of advice was to write a first person narrative — if you’re starting out writing fiction it’s more straightforward to create one point of view and one coherent voice, and it’s easier to work out what the character does and doesn’t know, and therefore what the reader can know.
My narrator, William Avery, actually emerged therefore from structural necessity. I needed a clueless newcomer, who knew as little about what he was seeing as me. But amazingly (to me at least), he very quickly became vivid flesh and blood to me: naive, stupidly brave, good-natured, full of the prejudices of the day.
The next obstacles were actually how to write it and make it interesting. In the early drafts I felt a bit like those early sailors frightened of going out of sight of land. I clung to my history, stuffing great wedges of reassuring dull fact into my prose. I had to keep going back and cutting out a bit more fact my comfort zone, and putting in a bit more plot. Other things I found extraordinarily difficult: getting my characters from one bit of the story to another. Occasionally I’d go and see my husband, ‘They’re here,’ I’d say plaintively, ‘how do I get them to there?
The other thing I noticed was that everyone seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time standing up and sitting down, and walking in and out of rooms. They were always turning around. This does not come up a lot in non-fiction. Apparently it’s a common novice fiction-writer’s mistake — feeling you have describe everything that happens including the boring bits, in the interests of continuity. Actually you don’t. That’s the great thing about fiction: you’re really in charge.
Therein lies the great pleasure I discovered in novels. It was a bit terrifying, but also wonderfully liberating — after years of having to check every half-sentence — simply to be able to make stuff up.