Saturday, 22 February 2014

Someone Else’s Skin: The secrets inside a new crime series

Today's guest blog post is by Bath based author Sarah Hilary whose debut novel Someone Else's Skin is published this month. Her novel has received rave reviews from established crime writers such as Mark Billingham, Erin Kelly, Cath Staincliffe, Caro Ramsay, Sharon Bolton, Alex Marwood and Julia Crouch as well as crime critic Barry Forshaw. Here she talks about the secrets within a new crime series.

As soon as I started writing crime, I knew I wanted to write a series. I do love standalones (many of my favourite books are one-off psychological thrillers), but there’s something addictive about a series. I can’t imagine ever tiring of the Ripley books, for instance. Each one peels another layer from Tom’s character, or adds a layer. You can get hooked on a series; maybe it’s the obsessive in me that loves them so much.

Much of the thrill in writing Someone Else’s Skin came from knowing it would be the first in a series; I’d be spending a lot of time with these characters. I wanted readers hooked, enough to read a second book, and hopefully a third and fourth. My characters, as well as being people that readers could warm to, needed layers and mystery. As a storyteller, I had to perform a balancing act between intrigue and empathy. But I love a challenge.

Can we get close to a character who is keeping secrets? Doesn’t closeness require trust, full disclosure? Well, perhaps. That’s where the balancing act comes in. My heroine Marnie Rome is keeping secrets from everyone, including herself. She’s even keeping secrets from me; it’s one of the reasons I find her fascinating to write. In fact, the whole series is predicated on secrets. From the waffle I was calling a synopsis, the editorial wizards at Headline came up with this strapline: “Some secrets keep us safe, others will destroy us.

Marnie made her first appearance in the book I wrote before Someone Else’s Skin. She wasn’t the main character (it was someone else’s story), instead she was the steady anchor – a Detective Inspector but one without any mystery. Great as a bit-player, in other words, but not much cop for a long-running series. When I started Someone Else’s Skin, I began to obsess about the secrets that Marnie was keeping. In the second book (which I’ve just finished), we learn a lot more about her, but it’s still just the tip of the iceberg. She does a mean line in double-bluffing, too.

This, for me, is the secret of a good crime series: the gradual discovery of the central character(s) through an ever-varied set of challenges. Of course, plenty of long-running crime series do splendidly without a notable character arc for their heroes. Sherlock Holmes, whom I’ve loved since I was ten, changed very little over the course of his adventures, but each time there was a flash of something new in his character..? Those were the moments I cherished (when Watson takes a bullet in The Adventure of the Three Garridebs – brilliant). Fred Vargas writes one of my favourite contemporary crime series, about Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, who’s harder to pin down than a cloud on a breezy day, and I love the depth and breadth of the character arc in the Dexter series.

For the Marnie Rome series, I aim to pick my crimes with care, so that the solving of them will bring out the best (and sometimes the worst) in Marnie. The second book in the series is about lost children. We’re going to learn about the kind of person Marnie was when she was sixteen, and the ways in which she’s changed (and the ways in which she hasn’t). We’re told as writers to put our heroes up trees and throw stones at them. Well, in the next book, Marnie might wish she was up a tree being pelted with stones, in preference to the fixes I’ve landed her in. Maybe in time she’ll give up all her secrets, but I can’t help wishing she won’t. I’m having far too much fun hunting them down.


Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks for having me!

Anonymous said...

Sounds wonderful; I look forward to reading the first in this new series. :D