Clare Donoghue has been making waves in the crime genre since before the publication of her first book. After ten years working in a London law firm, she quit her job to pursue a career in writing, and success soon followed. Longlisted in 2011 for the CWA Crime Dagger, Clare published Never Look Back, the first in her Detective Jane Bennett and Mike Lockyer series, in 2014, and has since gone from strength to strength; this month sees the publication of her latest novel, The Night Stalker.
How did she get started- and what’s she working on now? I caught up with her to find out.
What inspired you to start writing, and make the switch from being in the legal profession?
Before I was an author I worked in London in credit control, as a Deputy Credit Manager. My job was to collect debts, which, to be honest, wasn’t very exciting! I’m a really big crime reader, and one day I picked up Mo Hayder’s Pig Island on the way home from work- and finished it at 2am in the morning. The book was fantastic, and I thought how amazing it would be to be Mo Hayder, and write a book that would keep a stranger up until the early hours of the morning.
That was the spark: I then looked at her bio and saw she did a Masters in writing from Bath Spa University. I looked at it, and saw that you needed a portfolio of work in order to apply there, so I started writing! I wrote everything I could think to put a scary twist on: everyday scenes, made-up stories and friends’ stories. After that, I applied; after an aborted attempt where I almost convinced the examiner I was a psychopath, I got in.
I wrote my debut novel as a part of the course. At the end of the Masters, you arrange a party for agents, so you can pitch your novel to them, and get them to look at your work. I got onto the committee, and I made sure there were lots of crime authors around! At the party, I was lucky enough to get an agent and after a while I was signed with Pan Macmillan.
Where do you get your inspiration from- for instance, when writing The Night Stalker?
I did do some research. When writing The Night Stalker, I really wanted to write something inspired by Steven Spielberg’s fantastic film Jewel. It’s a masterclass in suspense, and I wanted to do replicate that feeling in my novel. I moved down to Somerset before starting my latest book, and whilst there I went out with a ranger to the Quantock hills and while we were driving he mentioned ‘Dead Woman’s Ditch’. He told me all about the legend: nobody knows why it’s been called that, although 200 years ago a man did murder his wife and leave her body there. The idea was simply too compelling- and spooky- to leave alone, so I worked it into my story. Though I’d already started it, the idea was so enticing that it took over the novel. I had to do a lot of editing and change the plot a lot in order to make the move towards a different story, but I think it’s much better for it.
What do you think about the editing process?
I love it! Editing is my favourite part of writing. Once a story has been written you can muck about with it for as long as you like. It’s really satisfying: I love making sure the story flows nicely, by changing plot points around and polishing the writing. I can sit down and do it for hours: I put a Disney video on in the background and edit away. I find the music and colours quite relaxing whilst I’m working!
What was your inspiration behind the main character in your series, Mike Lockyer?
I don’t know why I decided to write from a man’s perspective rather than a woman’s. When it comes to character work, and creating a character with a distinct personality, I like play a game, where you ask yourself questions about the characters you’re creating- what they listen to, for instance, or where they shop. I asked myself question after question about Lockyer, and he just came into being that way.
I used a similar technique when it came to creating his autistic brother, Bobby. I wanted to give Lockyer an empathetic edge, as he’s quite a gruff man, and I was very interested in autism at the time. When writing from a woman’s perspective, like Jane’s, it’s easier to be empathetic, but Bobby was conceived as a way to give Lockyer a softer edge; otherwise I felt he’d have been a rather stereotypical character.
Your books have to be meticulously plotted in order to make the plot hang together. How do you plan your stories?
I am very organised. I tend to write a two to five page synopsis before I start, so I know exactly what’s going to happen. I have an Excel spreadsheet detailing every chapter: whose point of point of view it’s written from, if there’s a plot point that needs to be carried through, how many words long it is. I only plan four or five chapters in advance, and once I’ve written them I plan the next five. Being prepared is vital for writing police procedurals I need to be on top of what’s going on.
What’s your writing process?
At the moment I’m making sure that I write every weekday. I give myself a target to hit, wordswise, and then I sit down and write: I have a daughter so I write around her. I aim to write about 5000 words a week, which is a good target; sticking to that, I can probably get a book done in three months at a push. I’m also trying to write all the time, rather than in fits and starts, so I can better keep my momentum going.
Do you have any advice for aspiring crime writers?
My advice would be to read a lot and to read up and really push yourself to emulate your favourite writers. I would also say that it’s a good idea to join a writing club or do a writing course, because it’s imoprtant to practise, to work with other people and immerse yourself in the writer’s community. They can be really supportive and by working with others you can learn how to edit and give feedback on both your and their work. The more you practise, the more your writing improves; the more you can criticise other people the more you notice the same flaws in your own work.
I would also say it’s important to share your work: lots of writers don’t do it because they think their ideas will be stolen, but that never really happens because even if you have the same idea, nobody can write the same book. Get out there and share it. Don’t give up because your first book didn’t make it; by practising you develop your own voice. Lot of authors have written books before releasing their debut, and by constantly writing you start to know your audience, and get better over time.
What’s up next?
I’m currently working on a standalone novel, still set in Somerset. Anything else is under wraps!
Clare, thank you very much!