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Crime writing with Sophie Hannah

How do you write convincing characters and construct a page turning plot?  I asked a bestselling crime author.


It’s 5pm on a Monday evening, I’m about to phone Sophie Hannah and I’m trying to picture the inside of her house.  My mind conjures up a Cluedo board – a library, a kitchen, the maid and other key components of the pretend world of murder mysteries.  How else could she devise the cunning clues and hairpin twists and turns of her plots if she were not living a life of constant intrigue?

Sophie was born in Manchester where she grew up and went to university.  She now lives in Cambridge with her husband and two children.I’m convinced that every question I’m about to ask her has been asked innumerable times before and tell her this when she picks up the phone.

She laughs and tells me not to worry and to plough on. I’m already in awe of her – she’s widely regarded as one of the best crime fiction writers of the moment – but more so now that she has so kindly put me at my ease.

First questions

Let’s start with the obvious, why do you write?

Sophie says ‘I just can’t imagine doing anything else.’ Before success, Sophie experienced what most of us can relate to: picking up a book and wishing we could write half as well.  She confides that the feeling has never left her.

So how do you carry on beyond that point?  Sophie tells me what I want to hear: “You think about all you can achieve if only you try hard enough. If you think that way, you want to carry on.”  She adds, “If you don’t look at what’s possible, you’ll never know what you can achieve.”
This is a message I’m keen to absorb and pass on to other writers. We are all afflicted by the fear that we’re just not good enough, but must nevertheless keep going.

Reading essentials
No surprises that Sophie reads voraciously, getting her inspiration from a range of books –  mostly crime and mystery fiction.  She cites Enid Blyton and the Secret Seven as inspiration in her early years, followed by the likes of Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell who, along with Nicci French, she counts as her main inspiration.  She says that she has always wanted to write the sorts of books that she loves to read.

Real-life drama
Sophie also gets inspiration from dramas in her own life.  The plot behind her first best-seller Little Face revolves around a baby that has been swapped for another.  It came to her after a spell in hospital after the birth of her first child.  A midwife took Sophie’s baby away for checks without her knowledge. She went to pick up the baby she thought was hers only to be told by a desperately anxious midwife it wasn’t.

Sophie admits that each of her books has an autobiographical element; a bit of her or somebody she knows in each of the characters. But none, she assures me, are completely based on one real person (though people often think they are).  She laughs when telling me how often people get it wrong trying to put names to characters. She says she would never, ever reveal the truth when asked, which is often.

High-concept mysteries
Sophie describes her books as high-concept mysteries, pointing to Little Face andThe Other Half Lives. Each starts with a weird mystery designed to make people think what on earth is going on?  Sophie needs to be mystified by it herself – if it doesn’t work for her, it won’t work for her readers either.  Once she has the kernel of a story, Sophie tends to mull it over, without consciously thinking how the mystery can be solved.  She often arrives at the solution while doing ordinary things.  The entire plot for one book popped into her mind at the checkout in Morrisons.

The 99 per cent perspiration formula might be true for some writers but not for Sophie.  There’s a lot of inspiration involved she admits, but the hard work comes later when translating the perfect idea in your head into a halfway decent book!

“I know where I’m starting from and where I’m going to.  I work it out one chapter at a time.  I know what the first chapter will be.  A lot of it’s instinctive; what feels right for what should come next.  I think about changes of pace and tone, ways of ensuring constantly fresh adrenalin so it doesn’t sag in the middle; a chronological way, sort of like writing in miniature, fast-forwarding through the process.  A brief chapter outline: this character goes here, does this, meets another character, and so on.”

How to write
Sophie has a well-worked out writing routine.  If it’s a first draft, she starts work as soon as she can.  She’s not an early riser, getting out of bed only after her husband and kids have left for the day.  She’ll only start writing once the house has been checked and everything has been declared tidy.  Then she’ll write through to 6.30/7pm.  It’s an intense block, but she does her best writing in these longer periods.

To students of crime writing looking for clues as to how to create and sustain a plot, she has this advice: “Basic things apply.  You need an overarching question or mystery, which is what the reader is reading on to find out.  For example, here’s a dead body, who did it?  Along the way to the revelation, you need to build in minor questions and minor solutions because you can’t sustain energy over the period of a long novel without pay offs along the way.  If you’re waiting to find out who killed so and so, you can’t wait the whole novel. So the police will find out one big thing, and on the way discover the next dramatic point in the mystery, for example, who killed Dan.  In the end you find out that it was Rose, but by the end of the chapter you might find out that Dan was in the mafia and had loads of enemies.  By the end of chapter 9, we discover Dan’s still alive and it was Tony who was killed.  These little dramatic moments make the reader gasp along the way.”

Sophie likens the crime-solving (and writing) process to hospital heart machines, showing peaks and troughs.

“When writing Little Face, after finishing one chapter intuitively knew I had to have some new pace or tone to the next chapter, to introduce depth. So I had the police inspector shouting at his team –  ‘look you’ve been working on this so long and we have nothing to show for it’.  It worked brilliantly, helping to move the focus away from a sad woman to another point of view in a busy police station.   It added a jolt of adrenalin and the pace really picked up.”

Creating characters
I ask Sophie about the continuity of characters in her novels.  She had always wanted to write about women in peril – psychological thrillers of the Nicci French variety – and also liked the genre of a returning detective, like Inspector Morse, so tried to blend the two sub-genres by putting together a first-person narrated woman in peril psychological thriller with a returning detective book.

Her distraught heroine would need help at some point so why not bring in the same police that her readers would get to know?  Sophie thinks it’s the best decision she’s ever made, ‘Because police don’t own the whole of each book and I never get bored with them.’  Each book has a different flavour and tone, depending on the story line, unlike with Inspector Wexford and others, where the police are the main characters.

They are in effect, stand-alone psychology thrillers and Sophie doesn’t know anyone else who does that.  Many writers do police characters, murders, and characters’ points of view well – read Mark Billingham, Val McDermot and Peter Robinson.  The difference with her books, says Sophie, is that they don’t have a series feel.

New work
I ask Sophie about her current novel, The Room Swept White, out in paperback and receiving rave reviews.  It seems to offer the reader the first hint that there is more to Proust than being just a horrid boss.  She says she added this to create Proust’s back-story, “It reminds the reader that as well as being a horrible boss, he has a more complex character.”

“None of my characters is all bad and none is all good.  People who don’t like my books don’t like that the heroines are all white too.  For example, Fliss instead of really caring, is a bit of an air head who reads Heat, which makes her unsympathetic.”  Sophie says that she’s just not interested in idealising anybody.  “I write from inside my characters’  heads. Sometimes they think noble, worthy things and sometimes they think horrible things.”

I ask Sophie about ‘non-judgemental crime fiction’, a term used by The Independent to describe her writing.  She explains that A Room Swept White was based on cases like those of Sally Clarke and Angela Cannings, women convicted of murdering their children.  After carrying out in-depth research on those real-life cases, it seemed to her that everyone involved, lawyers and doctors, were convinced they were the good guys and the others were evil, witch-hunting monsters.  “Everyone was really anti the other side.  The truth is that no doctor gets a kick out of an innocent mother going to prison; they’re just trying to protect children.  Similarly with mothers, if they have done something terrible like smother their child, it’s an act of desperation, misery and despair.  It’s not a callous killing.”

“I wanted to write a novel where no one was an out-and-out baddy.  All the way through the book, the character of Julie Duffy was described as a monster but she was not a monster at all.”

“People often say crime fiction iss a very moral genre, where baddies get punished.  I don’t think it’s a good thing.  You want to find out who the baddy is but don’t necessarily want them to be hung, drawn and quartered.”

“I wanted to take a more enlightened approach  – and challenge the mindset that if someone makes a terrible mistake you go against them.”  A classic example she says is Tony Blair who people now talk about with disgust.  He made bad decisions but we shouldn’t hate him.  “Sometimes people make a bad decision when genuinely thinking that they were doing the right thing.”

Book to film

I ask if she’s pleased about her books being turned into TV dramas.   “I’m pleased that mine’s being converted and delighted it might lead more people to read my books, but I’ll never write a book thinking I hope it gets made into a film.”  She points out that once rights have been signed over, a writer has hardly any control over the script.

This article first appeared on the Professional Writing website

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