Life Lessons from The Ladykillers
The crime fiction festival, Iceland Noir 2016, was full of writers who make their living shaping the lives and deaths of their characters. Yet there were plenty of laughs, inspiration and wisdom, too. Here’s a selection of the chat shared from the stage, including why writing is like baking, how protecting your Monday afternoons could be life changing, and that keeping cats alive is best all round.
First, an introduction to The Ladykillers – Scotland’s Val McDermid, Denmark’s Sara Blædel, Finland’s Leena Lehtolainen and England’s Ann Cleeves and Zöe Sharp.
Getting stuff done
Ann Cleeves’ has written a series of books featuring DCI Vera Stanhope. Vera is middle aged, overweight and has bad skin. Ann is often asked why. (I was cheering inside my head when she told us).
Ann grew up in the north of England in the 1950s and as a child of post war Britain was surrounded by women who wore frayed skirts, thick stockings and sturdy shoes. These women were real and they knew what they were doing. They were competent. And this is what Vera is based on.
When obsessive focus is still placed on what women look like, rather than what they do and who they are, isn’t it wonderful we have Vera Stanhope who isn’t busy taking selfies and is getting on with stuff?
A better writer
What are the best methods for producing good, solid writing?
Leena described that writing was like baking and of the importance of taking rests “Let the dough rise for a while and don’t be too hasty.” She also recommended writing poetry in between writing fiction as “Poetry is like yoga for language.”
Val emphasised ring fencing a creatively productive time of the day that works best for you, sharing that her first four books were written on Monday afternoons, a time she’d protected for her writing.
Ann advised writers to find their own voice and tell the story they wanted to and Sara shared that writers should take their time and enjoy the writing process.
Zoe recommended a dramatic approach in “Putting you character up a tree and throwing rocks at him.” I loved this. Put your character through the ringer and show what he’s made of.
Loved and lost
“Have you ever regretted killing any of your characters?” was a great question from the audience. Leena gave a cheery and quick “no” to this question. This didn’t surprise me. Leena was dressed in a bold pink cotton shirt and the twinkle in her eye suggested she was more interested in fun than regret.
Sara felt bad about finishing off a character who had taught her all about Johnny Cash. She still misses him.
And Val spoke of a death she put a stop to, when a script for the TV adaptation of The Wire in The Blood series tried to include the death of DCI Carol Jordan’s cat. Val was having none of that, protesting that you couldn’t kill off the one functioning relationship this woman had and also that they’d never be able to sell the series to the States if this happened. The cat was spared.
So, take a page out of The Ladykillers’ book. Write about real people that you love, do some language yoga with poetry and most importantly, be kind to cats.