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|During what was billed as a rare visit to
the Black Country, Minette Walters attracted a record audience to
Tipton library. Before meeting her fans, she spoke to
Walters never loses the plot. As one of the countrys leading
crime writers, she happily admits not having one. Whats more
she can be two-thirds of the way through a book and still not know
whos the murderer. As far as Walters is concerned, its
the only way to write and shes on a personal crusade to urge
others to do the same.
Im always trying to encourage people to have the
courage, forget the plot schemes. Say, Im going to go out
there and write a book. Just fly by wire. Go with it. Its
exciting. Its a wonderful way to write. That its a
successful formula for Walters is unquestionable.
She has the manor, the Jaguar and the clout to prove it. The early
blurbs invariably described her as having taken the crime fiction
world by storm. Her debut,
Ice House, won the John Creasey award in 1992. The following
year saw an Edgar from America for
Sculptress , and a CWA Gold Dagger for
Scold's Bridle in 1994 rounded off a unique hat trick. More
success followed. In fact the storms never really abated. By
the time you read this, her latest book Acid Row will probably be
topping the bestseller lists.
If it all seems effortless, just a little too easy - it isnt.
Walters is a professional. She did the time before doing the crime.
She still puts in the hours and turns out the goods: eight hours a
day; hopefully a thousand words at the end of each. And if the goods
arent good enough, she scraps them and starts again. Its
an integral part of the wire flying technique and ensures she never
has mornings when the blank screen stays that way.
The minute you release yourself in that way, its very
liberating to be unafraid to chuck two chapters out if you decide
you dont like them. If you have no problem with that, if youre
not looking at every word as something thats been dragged out
of you, and if you actually see them as something that works or
something that doesnt work, its brilliant. If it doesnt
work, you dont want it; its crap, throw it out. If you
have that approach to it, then it doesnt matter if you feel
youre going nowhere because youre still putting words on
The process of putting those words on the paper and deciding
they arent going to work means that actually youve
probably seen what will work. I think an awful lot of people do get
terribly hung up on the fact that whats there, and what was
there yesterday, has to stay because its building a story.
As for writers who dont know which way to take the story: Most
people wake up feeling they dont know where to go because
actually the bit theyve done in the last week has taken them
in the wrong direction. Its better to recognise that youve
taken a fork, go back to the point where it was working, take out
the fork and start again on the main line. Then youre in a
much stronger position because you start to feel happy again.
Walters exudes the happiness.
Crime writing gives her an enviable lifestyle. The manor, paid for
from her earnings, is in Dorchester, about a mile from Thomas Hardys
house. She and her husband both work from home. Her two sons are at
university. Her study, in what used to be an old dairy, has three
French windows where she can look out onto a lily pond. Not that she
seems to need the inspiration.
Were very, very disciplined. About 8.30 in the morning
we take ourselves off to our offices and we probably wont see
each other again till half-one/two. It depends whos cooking
I then take off probably about three hours after lunch
because thats not a good time for me for working. I can do it
but it tends not to be very productive. I start again about
five/half past five and I work through till eight/eight-thirty. Its
a long day
but thats the joy of being able to work from
home. You can actually take the breaks.
Its a long way from the magazine world where she started. At
one point she was subbing a womens magazines crochet
If you got one stitch wrong, the whole thing fell to pieces.
It was a nightmare. Wisely, she decided it wasnt her
metier. She progressed to her first feature: a 250-word evaluation
on the merits of rival cold creams. Promotion beckoned and she
became editor of the magazines hospital romances. Every month
she read four hundred, 30,000-word manuscripts and usually found
only four that were publishable. The experience helped focus Walterss
own fiction-writing ambitions. After moaning to her boss about the
quality of submissions, she was told to do one herself. She ended up
writing thirty-five. This was in the days of genteel virgins who
werent allowed to kiss until the final page. Sex was taboo and
double entendres outlawed. (One writer came up with a 30,000- word
story about love on a tennis court without once mentioning the word,
balls). Think Cartland not carnal. It was a great learning
experience and brilliant practice for the future but as Walters puts
it, crime writings a great deal more fun.
So, with no plot scheme, no synopsis, no plan, where does the fun
begin? I start with relatively simple ideas and I explore
those ideas through characters, so I spend a lot of time building
characters, and a lot of that never gets into the final book. The
reason I dont do a plot scheme is that if I knew what was
going to happen, Id become very, very bored writing it. It
would just be filling in gaps. Im as excited, I hope as the
readers are, every time I wake up in the morning thinking, I wonder
whats going to happen next?
One of the details she muses about is: who did it? I can get
half-way or two-thirds of the way through and I begin to get
slightly concerned because I cant tell which one of them has
committed the murder. Its not as illogical as it sounds. Its
actually a very good way to approach crime novels, I think, because
then you write everybody up to the same extent. Youre not kind
of glossing over people who you think, oh well they didnt do
it so they arent important.
She approaches it like a police officer at a crime scene, asking a
series of questions about the victim, the suspects, their
relationships and so on.
Im asking all those questions and Im working it
out along with the real policeman who might exist in real life. But
there does come a point - thank goodness so far in all of them
when I think: Yes! Actually I do know who did it. And its all
to do with motivation. You suddenly realise that one of them has
more motivation than the others.
I often get seduced by other characters and I think, oh,
maybe Ill go for that one. But all the while its
very, very strange - when you go back and re-read
you find youve
written in all the clues to the one who has done it. So clearly,
while youre writing, your subconscious is very well aware of
the guilty party but you need your conscious to be aware of it as
well. Its a very interesting process
Shes thrilled if she can write more than a thousand words a
day. Im not so happy when, say, Ive managed, like
in one twelve-hour period, to write only two sentences. When youre
getting towards the end of the book and if youve got a
deadline, that kind of thing can be a bit worrying.
It rarely happens. In fact, for every thousand words that appear,
shes probably written twice as many. Because Im an
exploratory writer, a lot of it gets thrown away. I write a great
deal more than anyone will ever read. It sounds terribly easy if you
say, oh she writes a thousand words a day. It actually takes much
longer than that. It comes back, again, to getting the words
down, a process she feels some wannabe writers are reluctant to do.
I get very concerned about people approaching retirement age
coming up to me and saying, Ive always wanted to be a writer.
And I say, Fine. So how much have you got in your bottom drawer? And
they say, Oh, nothing but I was very good at essays when I was at
Just as actors are stage struck, I call it being page struck.
If you want to be a writer, you will have vast quantities of things
youve written. Yehudi Menuhin did not pick up a violin and
play a concerto at the age of six without practising. You have to
practise the craft and the only way to do it, is to write, to know
what works and what doesnt.
Shes also a great believer in agents. I think if you
can get an agent before you get a publisher, thats definitely
good news. But its much harder to get agents nowadays than it
is to get publishers because theyre so picky.
Walters is with Gregory and Radice. The agency specialises in crime
fiction and regarded as one of the best in the business. It was
smart enough to hang onto The Ice House until an offer came in from
a good publisher, despite the book being turned down by almost
everybody. Macmillan paid just twelve hundred pounds for it
but as Walters laughs, at that time, Id have paid them
twelve hundred quid.
Nearly ten years on, a signed first edition is probably worth more
than the advance. No wonder Minette Walters is laughing. Who wouldnt?
"At the beginning, I have no plot scheme. I dont do
synopses. I start with relatively simple ideas and I explore those
ideas through character. I spend a lot of time building characters
and a lot of that gets thrown away. It never gets into the final
book. The reason is that if I knew what was going to happen Id
become very very bored writing it. It would just be filling in gaps.
I want to know what happens. Im as excited, I hope as the
readers are. Every time I wake up in the morning, Im thinking,
I wonder whats going to happen next.