Today I’m delighted to welcome the fabulous Dr Brooke Magnanti to the CTG blog to talk about her crime novel THE TURNING TIDE.
Brooke is the writer behind the best selling Belle de Jour books, and has a PhD in Forensic Pathology which she uses to great effect in THE TURNING TIDE – her first crime novel. Having read the book (it’s awesome), I couldn’t wait to find out more about how the story and characters were developed and all about Brooke’s writing process.
So, to the interview …
Welcome, Brooke. The Turning Tide is your first thriller, can you tell us a bit about it?
The story starts in Molesey near London, where a woman named Erykah MacDonald finds out the husband she was about to walk out on has just won the lottery. What she doesn’t know yet is that the money comes with significant strings attached. The very careful, anonymous life she struggled to rebuild after a scandal in her teens is about to be blown apart. There’s also a dodgy new political party trying to establish its roots on Scotland, and a decomposing body that washed up on the beach there – Erykah has to quickly learn who she can and can’t trust before she ends up getting killed too.
Erykah is a great female anti-hero; resourceful, determined and dynamic. What was the catalyst for creating her as a character?
Initially, Erykah wasn’t the main character – the story was told more or less as it is now, but from the point of view of the radio station intern, Kerry. And much as I loved the plot and the characters something about that just wasn’t working out. I realised that I was still trying to write as a twenty-something, someone who was the age I was when I wrote the Belle books. That’s not where I’m at now and writing twenty something when you’re forty something doesn’t really ring true. And there was this already existing character, Erykah, who was someone closer to my age, with more experience of life than Kerry, and who had more at stake, more to lose when things went wrong. As soon as I rewrote the book to put her at the centre of the story it all made sense.
In the book you have some great mortuary scenes and forensic details. How did your PhD in Forensic Pathology and experience in a mortuary laboratory help influence your fiction?
It was a huge influence. The layout in the Cameron Bridge mortuary is patterned like a smaller version of the Sheffield Medico Legal Centre where I studied, though a little bit smaller and a lot older. The techniques and equipment being used, as well – all the things that were used day to day at the MLC. While none of the cases I saw during my time there were exactly like the bodies in this book, I did lean pretty heavily on the many decompositions I did see in my time there to try to put together something that would be both realistic and unusual.
The story also covers social media use (and abuse) and tracking people through technology. How did you go about researching these aspects of the plot?
Nearly all of the social media parts were either something I have done, or seen people do on the internet. For example, getting someone to click on a link to a domain you have control over, to find their true identity… that’s been a strategy to unmask anonymous abusers since long before Twitter. When I was anonymous, I had to be very aware of what technology people might be using to unmask me, and to avoid getting trapped. It helped that I had a background in computer science and web design. A lot of other people have tried to be anonymous and didn’t realise what clues they were unwittingly leaving behind, so were quickly unmasked. Even when fashions in social media change the basic investigating techniques really don’t.
There’s a lot of ruthless political shenanigans in The Turning Tide. How did you go about setting up this element of the story?
I started writing the book before the Scotland referendum, and of course with no idea how that would turn out, had to follow the news very closely to keep up with all the incredible developments. Once you get your eye in with politics, though, it’s tough both to craft a story that isn’t too close to reality – you don’t want to libel anyone – and that won’t be overtaken by real events. This is almost universally the case in political trillers: the last season House of Cards is not remotely as gruesome as the current US election, and The Thick of It seems a lot like a documentary at times. It was a very strange thing to be writing about, but I loved it.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing process – do you plot the story out first, or do you start writing and see where it takes you?
A bit of both. I like to start with a big idea – in this case, it was how much the media controls what we think of other people, and how it feels to survive that – and then start putting characters in that world. From there, I try to keep to a chapter by chapter plotting plan. Though sometimes the characters speak up for themselves, and end up doing things I wouldn’t have expected. That was a fun experience with writing this. I really didn’t know, until the end, what would happen to Erykah.
For those people aspiring to publication as crime writers, what advice would you give?
Write every day. I can’t tell you the number of amazing elevator pitches I’ve heard from people over the years, but 99% of them never sit down and write the damned thing. Start writing, keep writing. You wouldn’t believe the number of unpublished manuscripts I have sitting on my hard drive. It’s all experience.
But also, you know, don’t forget to live life. You can tell the difference when someone is writing from what they know versus just going through the motions. Clare Macintosh’s I Let You go rang absolutely true because she had been in the police, it really stood out a mile. Books and expert sources can fill some gaps but you do the best research by living an interesting life.
And, finally, what does the rest of 2016 have in store for you?
I’m currently working on a follow up to The Turning Tide. It’s not a straight sequel, but it’s set in the same world. You’ll definitely see more of the mortuary staff, and there will probably be a few other cameos as well. After that? I’d love to stay in Scotland, and I’d love to stay with thrillers. So we’ll see!
Massive thanks to Brooke for letting us question her about her latest book – THE TURNING TIDE – and her writing process.
To find out more about Brooke, like her page on on FaceBook and follow her on Twitter @belledejour_uk
To read my review of The Turning Tide click here