Write what you know, that’s what they say. For me, a first-time novelist once described in a school English report as “an undisciplined thinker with a tendency to surprise with sentences and phrases of arresting inappropriateness”, it was highly unlikely I’d ever move off first base (… and I’d give anything to know what sentences of ‘arresting inappropriateness’ I was writing in my early teens).
Years on from those unhappy school days I find myself having a crack at writing crime fiction. Or rather ‘cosy-crime’, definitely more appropriate in my case. My novels (yes there are a couple more in the pipeline) won’t make you wince with fear but hopefully the mystery and the characters will keep you reading. My protagonist, Susie Mahl, is an artist in her thirties who paints in oils and draws pet portraits to commission. Now spot the difference: I, Ali Carter, am an artist in my thirties, I paint in oils and draws pet portraits to commission. It’s not that I have a massive ego and couldn’t wait to put myself in the forefront of my books – rather it’s all to do with the realisation that an artist and an amateur sleuth really do have crossover skills. Building a character who doubles as both has enabled me to breathe life into Susie Mahl by writing about what I know.
Being an artist involves immense concentration, hours of work, painstaking patience and determination to continue in the belief that you will get there in the end. Time lies outside of one’s control; the picture will be finished when it’s finished and the process always involves trial and error. Susie Mahl is an artist and the lessons she’s learnt have translated nicely to being an amateur sleuth: identifying a murderer takes time, patience, observation and tenacity. And applying an artist’s keen eye for detail to detective work means Susie enjoys a very individual interpretation of conventional circumstances – if there’s a whiff of foul play around she’s well equipped to sniff it out early on.
Art and sleuthing go through similar stages. There comes a point in every painting when you just can’t believe you’ll ever achieve a finished picture ... and the same goes for solving a mystery. It has its ups and downs. Just when you think you’re on to something, steaming off in a certain direction, it turns out to be a red herring. However, a detective must pursue all leads in order to get closer to the truth, just like the artist who must persist at getting down on paper or canvas what it is they’re trying to reveal.
No matter what you paint or draw – an onion, a dog, a shoe horn or a flower – you have to see them not for what they are but how light bounces off them. Accurately capturing this light through the medium of paint or graphite will in turn produce an image of the object you’ve been studying. In a similar way, detective work is about observing the bare bones of situations, drawing conclusions and piecing these bits together to make a whole.
I have had a lot of fun in my novel, A Brush With Death, developing Susie’s character. I live vicariously through her. She gets her paintings into galleries I dream of, the Tate Modern being one. She has a penchant for expensive underwear, something I’d definitely have if I had the cash. And she enjoys flirting with handsome men in the hopes she will bag them in the end. A tiny wee bit of me likes to dream that if I write these things down, and develop Susie’s character as my alter ego, they might just come true for me in the end!
Those of us who do it know only too well that writing is hard work. From time to time, when I’m struggling to get into that fifth gear where the story flows and words tumble effortlessly into my keyboard, I turn to the experts and read advice they’ve offered up. Stephen King’s On Writing instructs: “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”
As my little cottage has no internal doors other than one on the bathroom, I’m faced with a conundrum. One can think on the loo but no way is my laptop coming in there too. I sing in the shower of course, who doesn’t, and lounge in the bath developing my plot, but I’ve had to come up with my own strategy for hard graft. It’s important to me to make my bed as soon as I rise, get properly dressed before going downstairs, ensure the house was cleaned the night before and all washing up done in advance. This way I start each day with no possible excuses for procrastination. The earlier I get going the more productive I am. I sit at my desk, metaphorically glue my feet to the floor and discipline myself not to leave. Sometimes it takes hours to get in the zone, sometimes less, but I know if I’m patient and apply myself it will come.
If I am really struggling I take myself off to a busy place, a train station, a café, Oxford Circus. Suddenly ideas flow, people step on to the stage and I’ve bagged a wealth of character traits that will help the writing when I’m back at my desk.
My favourite part of the process is handing in a draft, blocking anything to do with Susie Mahl from my mind and throwing myself back into painting, with the relief that I’ve flown from first base. Here’s hoping that in sharing these strategies there might be a nugget to help you too.
Ali Carter’s debut novel A BRUSH WITH DEATH is published by Point Blank, paperback £8.99.