What would you rather do at 10.30 on a Sunday morning? Have a lie-in with the papers? Treat yourself to a bacon butty? Or maybe listen to Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, discuss football, reading habits and murder with the Scottish queen of crime fiction, Val McDermid?
This was our second visit to the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. It was a weekend full of intrigue and inspiration as some of the biggest names in crime fiction entertained readers and plied them with proof copies of their new works. James Patterson, Jo Nesbo, Erin Kelly, Jeffery Deaver, Harlan Coben and Ian Rankin were just some of the big guns invited this year.
The Sunday schedule was a corker. At 9am we had already listened to The Big Issues panel tackling conspiracy theories and the war on truth. The lunchtime treat was television writer Jed Mercurio, whose recent programmes, Line of Duty and Bodyguard, have had the nation on permanent tenterhooks. Interviewed by BBC Breakfast host, Steph McGovern, we learned much about the mechanics and research for his writing but, sadly, no hints were given as to the identity of the elusive ‘H’.
Over the weekend we sat in on panel sessions discussing class, pace, the underworld and, I think, the best session title of the year – Blood, Guts and Gratuitous Violence. We had to miss some sessions in order to see what was going on in other rooms in the hotel or in the outdoor tents. Publishers became very inventive, enticing festival goers with games such as Guess Who? and an escape room. There was even a fire engine in the grounds at one point to publicise Will Schindler’s book, The Burning Men. Proof parties and the Dead Good Reader Awards kept our cocktail glasses fizzing.
What did I learn from this crime writing festival?
- TV adaptations. Some authors, such as James Patterson, are relaxed about any changes that are made. They see the original books and their screen equivalents as totally separate entities. Others, like M.C. Beaton, are frustrated at changes that are made to their characters: she hated what they did to her beloved Hamish Macbeth. Stuart MacBride, however, is so protective of his books, he has so far refused permission for his stories to be adapted because of the radical changes that would have occurred.
- Animals. Apparently writers can do whatever they like to humans in their novels but heaven forbid they harm an animal.
- The process of writing. When Harlan Coben was asked about the process of writing his books, he was keen not to ruin the magic. “It’s a bit like a sausage,” he said. “You might like the final outcome but you don’t really want to know what goes into it.” Like other authors he was adamant that writing had to be tackled like a proper job. If he was a plumber, he explained, he couldn’t throw his hands in the air and exclaim, “Today, I just can’t do pipes!
- The rhythm of a book. I loved Jeffery Deaver’s explanation of a book being similar to a symphony. “You wouldn’t have three adagios in a row.” There are movements, a crescendo and a coda of reconciliation at the end.
- How to grab the reader. Chris Brookmyre explained how you need moments in a thriller where the readers will be stopped in their tracks. In his inimitable way he described his new stand-alone novel, Fallen Angel, as achieving this with having “two f**ks and a cry.”
- Characters. Steve Cavanagh suggested readers like characters they want to be and characters they are afraid they might become. Steve was the winner of the 2019 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year for Thirteen – I can highly recommend it.
- Ireland. It was fascinating to hear from the authors on the Emerald Noir panel discuss their very real concerns over Brexit. Brian McGilloway explained how the Irish border is both physical and psychological for the people on both sides. He talked about the use of the word ‘troubles’ – the terrible events in Ireland sounding more like an inconvenience.
- Colloquialisms. Authors have to be careful their words can be understood. I now know the phrase ‘one arm as long as the other’ is an Irish saying. It indicates someone is mean – a visitor who comes to your home without a gift won’t have one arm weighed down with a present!
- Previous jobs. It was interesting to note that many crime fiction authors began their careers as journalists or lawyers. This gives them either a gift for writing to deadlines or a knowledge of the law. I was particularly interested, however, in authors whose partners are in the medical profession. Chris Brookmyre’s wife is an anaesthetist; Harlan Coben’s wife a paediatrician. I have a retired GP at home with some time on his hands. Maybe we could work on a little collaboration…