Hi everyone, I’m delighted to welcome crime writer Margaret Murphy to the blog. She was kind enough to answer a couple of questions for me, relating to her writing process.
Over to you, Margaret…
1) As a child, did you have a favourite author? Was there a turning point with any particular book that made you go ‘Wow!’
My reading was eclectic and constantly evolving. The first adult fiction I remember reading was Jane Eyre at the age of nine or ten, but I’m fairly sure it was a Readers’ Digest abridged version—I was an avid reader from a young age, but not that precocious! It had a profound effect on me: in the young Jane I saw someone of my own age articulating the feelings and thoughts and confusion I constantly experienced trying to make sense of the world. I was impressed by her innate morality, and her ability to remain true to herself, even when it was an unpopular – and even dangerous – thing to do.
There’s definitely a ‘wow’ moment in Jane Eyre, yup, there most certainly is! Turn to the chapter about the wedding.
2) Did you enjoy English at school?
Yes, and no. I enjoyed reading, and taking parts in plays when we read round the class, and school plays at end of term, but I hated being given set writing exercises, and one English report said I ‘lacked imagination’. The problem was, even then, I wanted to write about what interested me – and that didn’t encompass ‘what I did in the school holidays’. Our big family treat in the summer was a day trip to Ainsdale beach in my dad’s cab, or squelching across a wet field in north Wales, so the essay would amount to a short, dull, ‘not much’. But I did adventure in foreign lands, navigating the hazards of New York’s streets or driving the California coastline, righting (writing?) wrongs along the way – in other words, living life as many baby authors do: in the mind, though imagination and the power of ‘what if’.
3) Do you find that your day job helps you in your writing? If so, how?
I’ve had many day jobs over the years, from shop assistant, through Park Ranger and onto various roles in teaching, from biology to running a dyslexia unit, lecturing in creative writing, and finally working as an RLF Writing Fellow with universities across the north west. All have helped in the way that every experience, if reflected on, helps a writer. And of course, you meet so many interesting characters… I did have to unlearn some bad habits from my science training, though. In science, it’s a Good Thing to be objective and emotionally distanced from the topic – in fictional writing, it’s often a very Bad Thing. I write full time, now, but I’m still watching and listening, absorbing quirks and gestures, personality traits and psychologies which may someday find their way into the characters that populate my books.
4) What was your route to publication? How did you find your current agent?
My route was Difficult – capital intended. It took me five years and, oh, I can’t remember now – possibly three books? – to find a publisher. I found my current agent the same way I found the previous two – by doing my research. So I found out who represented my favourite authors, which agents specialised in crime fiction, and – crucially – which agents were willing to accept unsolicited MS submissions. Back in the 1990s, that knowledge was gleaned from two publications: The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, and The Writer’s Handbook. Today, you can google your way through that stuff in the click of a mouse – so there’s no excuse to be ill-informed.
5) Do you have any plan formed when you come up with ideas? How does your idea generation work?
I don’t think of it as ‘generation’ – that feels too contrived and mechanistic. When an idea comes to me, it’s oftenfrom left field, and frequently as a startling image: the body of a woman falling from a wheelie bin into the maw of a lorry; a body, posed on a table tomb in a Victorian cemetery, tattooed from neck to foot; a barrister chained in the dark in a cold cellar. When I have the idea, I start by asking questions: who is the victim? Who investigates? What do they need to look for? Who do they need to interview? What are they hiding? Could forensics help (or hinder) the investigation? Then comes in-depth research and a couple of months of outlining before I begin writing the chapters.
6) How many times, roughly, would you say, that you polish a draft before you send it off to your agent?
No idea. I’ll polish the scene I wrote the night before, using that as a springboard into the day’s work, and if something is niggling, or doesn’t feel right, or I feelstuck, I might go back several chapters and redraft, finding a way forward by that route. Then I read each completed chapter aloud to my husband and edit and polish before moving on. When the novel is finished, I’llto a complete read-through, checking for structural and plot glitches as well as narrative flow, rewriting (often several times) before ever letting my agent see it. The point is your agent needs to see the very best book you can write. Not something which has promise, or couldbe good with a bit of work – it’s your job to do that work before you show it to anyone in the industry.
7) Do you have any advice for writers looking to send their work to agents?
See Q. 6 Also, do your research, follow the agency submission requirements, write a really good synopsis – and part of that requires advance prep of a different kind. Submit short stories to competitions and mention any shortlistings, commendations etc. in your CV/introductory letter. You have to stand out from a crowd of maybe 2000-4000 submissions they could receive in a year!
8) What was the last book you read, and did you enjoy it?
Then She Was Gone, by Lisa Jewell. A brilliant suspense novel, in the mould of The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, Then She Was Gone is a terrific mystery, centred around a bright, but sheltered teenaged girl who disappears without trace. It made me care deeply about the central character and ask questions all through the narrative – despite the fact that a major plot point is revealed very early in the novel.
If anyone is interested, I review books on my Shelf Indulgence blog on my website – both fiction and non-fiction, new and old.
9) When you leave your desk on a Friday, what’s the first thing you do? On a Friday evening/on the weekend, what do you do to relax?
Like most writers I know, I work every day of the week, so I don’t really experience that Friday night feeling. Weekends for most freelancers, including writers, are just times when you know nobody will get back to you if you email. That can be a good thing, because, knowing that nobody will be asking me for stuff means I can get some serious writing done without interruption! To relax, I garden, do a bit of yoga, walk, read (obv), watch films – and before the lockdown, I enjoyed the theatre.
10) If you had to choose between Rod Stewart and Freddie Mercury, who would it be and why?
Freddie Mercury no hesitation. Don’t get me wrong, Rod Stewart is a hell of an artist – his ‘A Night on the Town’album sold like hotcakes when I worked as a Saturday girl on the record counter at John Menzies, and I knew every word of every track. But no one can touch Queen for scale, depth of understanding of human passion and need, or for wit, and musicality. Mercury’s fabulously entertaining and bravura performances were the cornerstone of their success; his vocal range was epic (four octaves – damnit!), the power and control he had was just breath-taking, and his singing and sheer personality electrified audiences across the world.
Margaret Murphy writes internationally acclaimed psychological thrillers. She is a past Chair of the Crime Writers Association (CWA), founder of Murder Squad, and a former RLF Writing Fellow and Reading Round Lector. She’sbeen a country park ranger, biology teacher, dyslexia specialist and Visiting Professor in creative writing. A Short Story Dagger and CWA Red Herring award winner, she has also been shortlisted for the ‘First Blood’ critics award and CWA Dagger in the Library.
Margaret Murphy’s Darkness Falls is now available (at 99p for a short time!) from Joffe Books on AmazonKindle.
Here’s a taster: ‘Clara Pascal is a successful lawyer, beautiful and a devoted mother. People want to be her. Then Clara is abducted in broad daylight. The only witness is her daughter, Pippa, and all she can describe is a man bundling her mummy into a white van. Now, robbed of everything that gives her life meaning, Clara lies chained to the stone wall of a dark cellar – without food, warmth, or sleep, without even the most basic communication. Why has he taken her?’
Val McDermid wrote: ‘Darkness Falls is a model of what the modern suspense thriller should be — tense, scary, page-turning and stomach-churning… Set aside a day — you won’t be able to put it down once it has you in its grip.’
Thanks for visiting the blog, Margaret. It has been a pleasure to interview you!
‘Set aside a day—you won’t be able to put it down once it has you in its grip.’ —Val McDermid
‘A first-rate chiller.’ —Booklist (starred review)
The Cutting Room
“Disturbing and wickedly entertaining.” —People Magazine
“Addictive sequel to 2018’s Splinter in the Blood.” —Publishers Weekly
“There’s enough of Edgar Allen Poe, Peter James, and Michael Connelly in “The Cutting Room” to make every mystery reader’s heart beat faster.” —Suspense Magazine