Saturday, 6 March 2021

Writing Crime Fiction in a time of Plague

Merilyn Davies is a new name on our book-shelves and on our eReaders; with two novels bisected by this Covid-19 business. Her debut was released in the summer of 2019, and for readers awaiting her sophomore work, there has been a delay due to the ubiquitous nature of this plague, but the wait has been worth it, as this March [2021], we finally get to read the disturbing follow-up.

I use the word disturbing, because of the authenticity of the backdrop to IF I FALL

We were told to meet at a rooftop bar.

Four friends, bound by one terrible secret.

No one knew why we were there.

Then we saw a woman, watched as she fell from the edge and plunged to her death.

The police think it's suicide, but I know better.

Someone is sending a message.

Now they're coming for us.

This appears to be taking a sinister turn for Crime Analyst Carla Brown and Detective Sergeant Nell Jackson following their first appearance in 2019’s When I Lost You

I was intrigued at her work because some of us enjoyed works of Russian Literature from writers such as Dostoevsky and Bulgakov, which also appealed to Davies, so for Shots’ readers we present some insight into this interesting writer of disturbing crime thrillers.

Ali Karim: As a new writer, with this COVID business bisecting your debut When I Lost You released 2019 and the sophomore work IF I Fall this March 2021, can you tell us what it’s been like to be a new name on the crime fiction scene, during the pandemic?

Merilyn Davies: I want to say something uplifting here but I’m struggling! There was a much longer gap between the two books than usual and that sort of took the wind out of my excitement at ‘being a published author’. I struggled a lot to focus on writing a new book, to read other people’s books, or to focus on anything other than just surviving this pandemic really. Home-schooling doesn’t help but it’s more than that, it’s like my brain is using all its energy to keep me from getting very depressed about it all and it has no room left to imagine anything else. Or maybe it’s just because imagining a new plot can never match up to the plot structure of this pandemic with all its twists and turns. But it’s still been amazing to see my book in my hands and to hear people say how much they liked it and even a global pandemic can’t ruin that!

Ali: Your biography indicates you worked as a criminal analyst for the Metropolitan Police, but what does that actually mean?

Merilyn: The role of a crime analyst is very varied. Some work with officers going out on a shift, providing local intelligence information – who is wanted, what vehicle needs a stop, the types of crimes being committed – and others, like me, work on murders or murder re-investigations. My role was to analyse the information given to me, so, for example, I may be given a number of witness statements and have to go through them to see where they match and where there are discrepancies. I would then plot these so they were easily viewable by officers or a court. My favourite analysis was telephone analysis. You get reams and reams of calls – both made from a phone and made to it – and you work through identifying potential accomplices or plotting the activity of the subject. You can tell an awful lot about a person from their telephone bill, from the takeout food they like to the friends they meet and the car they drive.

Ali: And the background I assume helps inform your writing, as well as give the reader an insight and high level of authenticity to your crime writing?

Merilyn: Analysts use software which slows them to show visually how people link to each other, what they did, the weapons they used, the cars they drove, the address they live at and I tend to do a manual version of this for my books. So, I draw all my characters and put lines between them, with a note for why they are linked, and it gets larger and larger as the book goes on! I think very analytically about everything, always thinking what would happen if I wrote X, what would that mean for Y, but I am a more ‘seats of my pants’ writer than a bog plotter. I tend to plot three chapters at a time – how is this moving the story forward being central to this as well as where do I want to be at the end of them – and go from there. I always know my beginning and ending though but how I get from one to the other is a bit of a muddle! 

Ali: What spurred you to write crime fiction, and was When I Lost You your first attempt at a novel?

Merilyn: When I Lost You was a total rewrite of the first book I ever submitted to an agent (and got rejected!). It was also the second one I sent to my agent after my first one didn’t get any interest from publishers. I think I had written five books by the time I got an agent and If I Fall is a rewrite of the second. Is that confusing?! I’m confused. I write crime because it fascinates me as to why people commit criminal acts – what motivates them, what options did they have and what choices did they make and why – and also because I love reading crime books. It also really helped that I knew how the police work so could write it authentically and without having to do too much research. The fact my husband is a police officer aids that process because I can just yell ‘how long does it take for a body to decompose?’ and have the answer right away!

Ali: Can you tell our readers a little about the new work, IF I FALL?

Merilyn: This is a hard one because I can’t say what it’s actually about because it will give the plot away! A lovely blogger recently said “without giving too much away the subject in this novel deserves to be widely recognised and confronted” which is very much how I feel. The book starts with three people turning up to a university reunion at a rooftop bar in Oxford. They don’t know who invited them or why they are the only guests but when a homeless woman falls from the building, they realise whoever invited them knows their long-buried secret. Carla Brown, the crime analyst, and DS Nell Jackson, have to work out what links the dead woman and the three friends and what it is in their past that they are trying to hide.

Ali: And your writing process, are you a plotter or do you chase an idea seeing where the muse leads?

Merilyn: As I said earlier, I know the beginning and end but the middle just sort of happens! But I don’t think I go where the muse leads either. I’m very practical about writing; if you don’t sit down every day and write as if it is a job, you won’t ever finish a book (a theory I have proved during this pandemic!). I am also very ruthless; if it isn’t working, I take it out, regardless of the number of words or how much work I would need to do to the rest of the book. Writing a book is a lot like building a house, so when you decide to knock a wall down you have to make sure you put a support in, so the ceiling doesn’t fall down! The editing process is very much like this – if you are lucky you will get an editorial note that just means you have to do a bit redecorating, but if you’re not you’ll get feedback that means you have to knock down walls, build extensions, or, sometimes, just demolish the whole house!    

Ali: And tell us about your work at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival?

Merilyn: Myself and a group of other writers in West Oxfordshire decided to start a literary festival, with Clare Mackintosh at the helm. For the first two years I programmed the children’s element of the festival weekend but I also developed a school programme which saw authors going into all schools in the area over a two-day period. This came as a bit of a shock to Clare, who had assumed she had asked me to just cover the small number of schools in Chipping Norton itself, and who was slightly shell shocked when I came back with a programme covering twelve school across a very rural area. It was a logistical nightmare and the first year aged us all but it’s the part of the festival I am most proud of. For another three years I programmed the adult part of the festival which meant I got to beg publicists for their authors to such an extent I’m sure some took out restraining orders against me. It was extremely hard work, not least for the festival itself – authors are not easy to get from one place to the other and caused much shouting into the radio of ‘broken arrow, author down’ when we lost them – but I would go back and do it all again in a second.

Ali: And keeping on the literary theme, who are writers that you enjoyed in-so-far as enticing yourself to have go penning a novel?

Merilyn: I think reading Crime and Punishment was when I knew I wanted to be a writer. I was at University and going through a Russian phase and it was that book as well as The Master and Margarita which really made me want to create a world as real as Dostoevsky and Bulgakov had. When I became a mum, I started reading crime fiction. Partly because I missed being a crime analyst but also because I found I could be immersed immediately in the story and pulled along without even realising it, which was vital in the early months with a baby. Tana French is my absolute hero, and I loved Mark Billingham, Stuart MacBride and any police procedural I could find. Later, I discovered Psychological suspense and devoured everything Sophie Hannah wrote along with SJ Watson and Elizabeth Haynes. I think it was then that I decided I wanted to give writing a real go. To make twisty-turny books that dragged people in, making them desperate to get to the end but knowing that when they did, they would not want to leave the characters behind.

Ali: And what have been up to while under lockdown? And any clues as to what we are likely to see from your pen?

Merilyn:  I’ve been watching a lot of Netflix to the extent most of my time now is spent scrolling through films I’ve seen in a desperate attempt to find one I haven’t. I’ve also eaten far too much and developed a terrible internet shopping addiction. But I have started my third book, working title, ‘Ivy’s Lie’ which is less procedural and more suspense. It’s about a troubled young woman – Ivy – who is released from a mental health ward and is placed overnight in a hotel. When she arrives, she finds a note saying ‘I know what you did, you’re next’ but who knew she was going to be there, how do they know her secret, and how much danger is she in? It spans the past and present – winding her past living at Blenheim Palace in West Oxfordshire, through her present, where the two intertwine to reveal what Ivy’s lie was, and the devastating outcome that lie created.

Ali: Thank you for your time, and we look forward to book #3

Merilyn: Thank you so much for having me!

So, with both her novels now available [and can be ordered together, online], as they provide an excellent distraction, a dark escape from this ubiquitous plague and associated lockdown protocol.

They can be ordered direct from her publishers PenguinRandomHouse HERE

More information on the work of Merilyn Davies is available from her Twitter feed > @nellbelleandme as well as this interesting article which can be accessed HERE  

Shots Magazine would like to thank Lydia Spooner for her help in organising this article.

Images © 2019-2021 PenguinRandomHouse

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