In dialogue with crime writer Maureen Carter
Maureen Carter’s books are the kind that you start after you’ve made a large mug of tea in preparation for a relaxing read. But once you realise your lovely hot drink is now untouched and stone cold and your fingers are getting cramp from gripping the pages, then you know there will be no taking time off to put on fresh brew.
So what makes a book, with often remarkably ordinary characters, so engaging?
What set you off crime writing? How did you make the transition from journalism to crime writing?
As a journalist I worked alongside detectives, policemen, fire officers and so on. I covered maybe just a handful of stories that really stuck with me. Mostly you do a story, then the next day you’ve moved on because you’re doing another one. But there were a number that really stuck with me.
So I thought that if I didn’t have to stick to the facts all the time and only report exactly what people said, I could explore not only the stories, but also the issues related to them, in a completely different way.
My writing is quite journalistic, but what was completely new for me was writing dialogue, because in journalism that is all reported speech. I found writing dialogue very liberating and a huge joy. You can move the story along at a 100 miles an hour in two lines of dialogue. The art is to try and capture different voices for each character. But that is not easy.
You rarely see in my world ‘Bev said’ or ‘Byford said’ or ‘Sarah said’, because you will know who is speaking from the way the page is laid out, the words they use and the sort of delivery you are hearing in your head. I don’t like ‘saids’ and I don’t use adverbs and vary rarely use adjectives. One of my editors, a long time ago, would ring me up and say ‘Maureen. Please could we have some adverbs and adjectives?’ Not many, just a ‘few’.
Again that’s journalism. You don’t have the space or air time for any extra words at all. If you want a story that zips along, you have to cut out all the excess verbiage.
You describe yourself as the type of writer who cannot move on from a paragraph unless it’s right and you read your work back to yourself aloud. That must come from your journalistic background.
Yes. Because looking at your writing is not enough. You have to hear it. I do really believe that every sentence should have a rhythm to it. It’s only when you’re reading aloud you can really hear it. Whether you really know if you don’t need an ‘and’, or a ‘the’, or a comma in a particular places. So it takes me quite a long time to write a sequence (which is what I call a chapter). It all has to work and flow, because it will have a knock on effect to the next sequence I write. I will pick the exact words up or words that are very similar from one sequence to the next, because it gives you a little springboard that makes it flow better for the reader.
The concept of flow for a reader is an interesting one, because if you read a research paper, or writing that’s really challenging, the lack of flow is the problem. If I’m reading a novel that’s not working for me it may be for that reason. The reader benefits from signposts or a way to lead from one idea to another.
I think so. What I’m trying to avoid saying is that I don’t have a huge amount of time for literary fiction. It can show off too much and be pretentious with style over substance. That stops it speaking to the reader’s soul. It’s interesting how many literary fiction authors turn to genre fiction, particularly crime. Literary fiction may earn kudos, and lovely reviews in the broadsheets and so on, but it doesn’t really sell in huge numbers.
I know what you mean because when you do get a really good literary writer who can tell an engaging story, then reading their writing is a joy and effortless.
In an ideal literary and fictional world, everything flows together and is woven together ingeniously and creatively in a lively fashion. You have wonderful characters and an intriguing plot and a real sense of place.
For me the ideal book is one that tells a really good story and keeps the reader page turning. But it’s not one where the author spoon feeds the reader. It very important to give the reader credence. Hopefully they’re really smart and they’re really enjoying your writing. I want them to work things out for themselves, not necessarily whodunit, but why that character did that at that particular point. Why did she use that form of words, rather than something else? That’s what I’m looking for when I’m reading a book. I can’t be doing with someone telling me how to make a cup of tea or tie their shoelaces. I know these things. What I don’t know is what that particular character got up to last night and what they’re trying to hide. You can convey this sort of information without telling.
Although I don’t want to give the impression it should only be ‘show’ not ‘tell’. Sometimes you do have to be specific because it’s very important not to cheat the reader too much in a whodunit, or in crime fiction. You’ve got to give them enough information that they can draw conclusions and work out solutions, without absolutely laying it on with a trowel.
It’s interesting talking about that model, because your crime writing is very much small scale. It’s not on the level of international conspiracies, but very much about ordinary people getting caught up in events. So how do you create interest in something that isn’t set in the exotic environment of the south of France or the Far East?
I think it’s because readers can identify more with a crime that they may have had some connection with. I believe that small crimes affect many people. I saw this on the road as a journalist and of course the cliché is that ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. So you tend to do a lot of crime stories. This has meant that I’ve interviewed all sorts of people and victims (which included parents of murdered children). I’ve even interviewed the odd criminal without realising it at the time. You can see the impact the crime has on them. I think it’s very important to tell it like it is. So I think this is the reason why people can identify with my stories.
My readers tell me they like my books because they’re realistic. But there’s not a body on every page. You have to have a body. But it would be really stretching credibility if I had half a dozen bodies in one book, as they appear to do in certain parts of the country in some crime novels.
I live in Birmingham, which is a great city, so I could probably get away with a much bigger body count. But keeping it on that small scale means people are able to identify with it more.
Next of Kin is very much about the characters and their actions. There were quite a lot of connections and interactions between them and one thing leads to another.
For me the characters, even in a pacey whodunit, are more important than the plot. Of course you need a plot, but it’s the characters that people remember. The tricky part is getting that balance right. Although you want to develop the characters and their relationships and see them not at work or detecting crime, you have to bear in mind that the story has to develop. It’s getting that balance right.
I don’t write using a formula or blueprint. It’s very much a matter of instinct. I just know (or I hope I know) when it’s time to really get sharp and leave the characters and develop the story a bit more. That comes with experience and intuition.
You have also chosen to work with two different main characters for your crime novels. Why is this?
Very fortunately I was approached by Severn House, my publishers, some years ago and asked if I had any ideas. Many years before I had written a novel. In fact I had written four or five full-length novels before I was published. The very first book I wrote was called Question of Despair, which featured a female officer and a female TV journalist (no prizes for guessing where that one came from). This was my first novel and boy was it a first novel!
So I put it away in a drawer. This is why when I was approached I thought ‘Do you know I think there might be real potential in that book.’
I discussed this with Severn House and suggested I set it somewhere other than Birmingham and bring it out under a different name. They wanted me to keep it in Birmingham and they wanted to keep my name on it. That did give me a problem because I had a really lippy, feisty detective sergeant Bev Morris, as well as another detective in Birmingham.
I had to really struggle at first because I didn’t really like Question of Despair. I didn’t just bring it out of the drawer and dust it down. I had to do a massive amount of work on it. I realised I had to make Sarah Quinn as different as possible to Bev. But she had to be as strong a character in a different way.
Then it came to me when I’d been working on it for some weeks. It was Quinn and the reporter was called King. So I thought the slight wordplay of Quinn and King. Queen and King. Then I thought Snow Queen, Ice Queen. It was one of my nicknames when I was a reporter. They used to call me the ‘Snow Queen’. So I thought ‘That’s it. Sarah is going to be completely cool and placid’. In one of the books I described Bev as having an open face, not so much like an open book, but a primer. You can read her. Every expression is on her face. Whereas you wouldn’t have an idea what was Sarah Quinn was thinking. This is because her face is completely blank and that enabled me to develop the character and put some flesh on the bones.
Do you have any problems moving from one series to another?
I find it quite difficult when I start a new Bev book. I still have Quinn in my head and vice versa. It does take me a little while to get back into the right frame of mind. Bev would come out with things that Sarah wouldn’t even consider. If those two characters met they wouldn’t get on terribly well.
How do you make your characters different through dialogue?
I give the main characters verbal ticks. Bev is the only one who will call her partner ‘mate’. So you know that’s Bev talking and to whom she’s speaking. I think it comes when you’re actually doing the writing.
In my first book, Working Girls, the editor said ‘All the girls sound the same’. I thought ‘Yes, but they are of the same milieu and would use the same vocabulary. Some might use shorter sentences.’
When you work very closely with people you’re going to get that same sort of language. A type of verbal shorthand. It’s banter, it’s quick and it’s very similar. But you can’t give all your characters the same things to say. So I think it comes down to the vocabulary you use in the sentences you give them. Sometimes I’ll give a character a line and think ‘No she wouldn’t say that’, so I had to keep it for a character that would. I find Bev the easiest character to write for, because I hear her incredibly well and I know more or less everything she would say, which is why I have to be careful not to give her lines to other characters. But I do think there will be a similarity between peers in whatever group. You probably talk to one friend of yours in a different way to someone else you don’t know as well, or you know slightly better.
You can also make your readers sit up. So if I suddenly make Bev sound quite posh and minding her ‘Ps’ and ‘Qs’, the reader will know there is a particular reason for that. I do that sometimes when I pick up the phone.
The voice is a tool for me. You can use your dialogue as a tool to achieve certain effects with your writing.