Lin Anderson on How to Write Crime Fiction and Running a Book Festival in Scotland

lin anderson-photo Name: Lin Anderson
Hometown: Born in Greenock, Scotland
Current Residence: Edinburgh and Carrbridge
Education: MA Glasgow, Med Edinburgh, Masters in Screenwriting Napier Edinburgh
Curriculum Vitae:
Taught Math initially, then Computing Science for 17 years. Taught all over Scotland, including in the Highlands and Orkney islands as well as Glasgow, Haddington and eventually Edinburgh where I was Principal Teacher of Computing at George Watson’s College Edinburgh before leaving to write full time. I also spent five years in Nigeria, where I taught at Kano Capital School and Savannah Bush school. Have written eight books in the Dr. Rhona MacLeod forensic expert series.
Nominated for TAPS writer of the Year award with “Small Love”, Celtic Film Festival best drama for “River Child”, also Student Bafta for best short drama with “River Child”.

Favorite Read:
Too many to name, but if pushed possibly To Kill a Mockingbird, although Les Miserables ranks high too. It depends on the mood and the time.

Pet Peeves:
Don’t really have any.

If You Weren’t a Writer You’d Be…
I’ve done the other stuff first and finally come home.

Up Next:
The next and ninth in the Dr Rhona MacLeod series which comes out next year. Paths of the Dead is published by Pan Macmillan. I also have a new series launched next year, starring a Scot/Frenchman private investigator who the French call Le Limier (the fixer). Patrick de Courvoisier lives and works from an old French gunboat in the old port of Cannes. Also I wrote a feature script inspired by a short story of mine,”Dead Close”, which will be filmed in March next year. It’s a bit like Don’t Look Now, but features the old town and under town of Edinburgh rather than Venice.

What’s the literature scene like in Scotland?
Firing on all cylinders, especially in the crime genre.

Have you ever been the victim of a crime?
Was mugged in New York when I was 18. Nothing hurt but my pride and the fact he stole all the money I had left.

You’re the co-founder of Bloody Scotland, the Scotland’s international book festival. What goes into running a book festival of that magnitude?
Bloody Scotland is the brainchild of myself and Alex Gray. Scottish Crime Writers are numerous and internationally well-known, yet we didn’t have a festival in Scotland that celebrated that. It was a good idea which took over three years to plan, but we hit the ground running. You need huge enthusiasm and goodwill and hard work, specialist knowledge and self belief that ‘if you build it, they will come’. And come they did. Authors flocked to take part, as did readers. This year was up 43% on last year’s ticket sales. Next year it opens the day after the Referendum on Scottish Independence, when the eyes of the world will be on Scotland. We aim that they will be on Bloody Scotland too.

Did the character Rhona MacLeod come to you out of nowhere? Where did you get the inspiration for her?
My father was a Detective Inspector in Greenock who worried about the safety of his three daughters. I had this idea that someone arriving at a scene of crime would think the victim was connected to them. Thus the idea for Driftnet was born. I decided the person would be a woman, and she would think that the victim, a teenage boy, might be the son she had given up for adoption 17 years before. That was the dramatic premise. Having decided it would be a woman, I wondered why she was there. Then I had a good idea. I taught a girl called Emma Hart at Grantown Grammar School who became a forensic scientist. I knew Emma and her family well, and she would come back home and tell us stories about her work. This was well before “CSI”. I just thought I would make my protagonist a forensic scientist. Best thing I ever did. I went back to Glasgow University to do a course in forensics, I enjoyed it so much. As for her character.I’m getting to know her all the time.

Do you think you will ever tire of her?
I took a year off after Picture Her Dead. That book brought to a close many of the threaded stories. It seemed like the end of an era for Rhona. I’ve really enjoyed being back with her for Paths of the Dead.

You’ve written screenplays, short stories, a novel, even a nonfiction book. Is there anything that you haven’t tried, that you’d like to take a stab at?
I also wrote a short play when doing a new writer’s course with the 7:84 theatre company, which was staged at the beginning of my writing career. More recently, I was asked to write an academic paper on Scotland’s Crime Fiction and to give a keynote speech on that at Guttenheim University. I must say I do prefer writing fiction. Making things up, as Chris Brookmyre would say. Or writing lies for fun and profit as Lawrence Block would say. Storytelling is my love.

What advice do you have for those who want to write crime fiction?
The best advice I was ever given which I follow to this day is to keep the secret as long as possible. That’s all secrets, not just the big one. If you’ve given away information, ask yourself if it’s too soon. It always is.

What do you think are the most indispensable elements to crime fiction writing?
Crime books are more about character than the crime. That’s why they sustain series. We want to be back with a character we love. We want to share their lives. We are distraught when we leave them.
lin anderson

You’re a novelist, but you’re also a screenwriter. With a novel and a screenplay, there are different rules to follow. Does the novelist and the screenwriter in you clash at times?
Not really, but perhaps that’s because the novels are very visual. I always think in terms of scenes. In fact when I begin a book, all I know about it is that opening scene, and it never changes. After which, I imagine Rhona walking on to the scene and how she would view and interpret it. I never know the ending or how the muddle in the middle will play out, and like it that way. If I don’t know by page 100, neither will you. The one thing I don’t like about screenplays is providing a treatment or a step outline. For both, you need to know what happens!

What advice do you have for those who are wanting to adapt a screenplay into a novelist, and novelists who are wanting to adapt their work into a screenplay?
A novel is much bigger than a screenplay in terms of story. In a screenplay you need two plots. One that sticks with your protagonist, and a subplot. Where they combine you get the big clash of stories that give you the really memorable scenes.

If you’re thinking of writing a screenplay, read lots of them and watch the film, particularly those in the area you plan to write. And remember, dialogue comes last. Show the story visually in every way you can. I recently watched Papillon on BBC iplayer starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman and was struck how much of the movie has no dialogue. There are of course wonderful movies full of dialogue, but you don’t have the luxury of being in your actor’s head unless you use voice over.

In terms of the research involved for your books…what is your process like?
I have an idea such as the neolithic stone circles in Paths of the Dead. I write my opening scene, then writing and research go hand in hand. I find that way ideas keep coming and the excitement stays. E.g. In Final Cut I knew I wanted to use broken glass because forensically it’s very interesting. Then I discovered that stained glass is even more interesting, so ended up going down that route.

Is there a little bit of you in all your characters?
Probably. McNab is an urban warrior, uncompromising, but with a big heart underneath. I like him. Rhona works essentially in a man’s world. Computing, when I started out there was pretty much a man’s world. It still is. Detective Inspector Wilson is modeled on my dad and his attitude to his family. Rhona is single and unlikely to change, but I’ve been happily married for forty years. Make of that what you will.

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