Nicola Upson is the critically acclaimed author of the Josephine Tey historical crime fiction series – praised as ‘historical crime fiction at its very best’ (Sunday Times). Since the publication of her debut in 2008, Nicola has gone on to release eight more novels to widespread acclaim. With such a consistently successful track record of writing novels, we caught up with Nicola to find out how to get started on a new project…

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1. Make friends with your work

Ideas for a book or a short story come when you least expect them, and you never know what will spark your imagination – a lonely house or a snatch of overheard conversation, something you’re troubled or fascinated by, a quirk of history that not many people know about. When that moment arrives, there’s nothing more exciting and it’s tempting to jump straight in – but not every idea is rich enough to sustain a multi-layered plot and a memorable cast of characters, so choose wisely. You’ll be living with this idea for a long time, so it needs to be a friend you can go to no matter what mood you’re in, something you’ll be as committed to at the end as at the beginning.

2. Keep it real

99% of crime writers flout that golden rule ‘write what you know’. Most of us are lucky enough not to have personal experience of violent death or other crimes, but we have to convince a reader that our stories mirror life, and it’s vital that setting, character and plot work together to create a tangible reality. For me, the starting point of a book is always its sense of place: whether a location is real or imaginary, I want the reader to breathe the same air as my characters, to live in the rooms that they chose the furniture for. Setting affects the mood of the book and the people who live there, it roots clues firmly in the minutiae of daily life – and it should be a character in its own right.

‘Ask yourself what purpose each scene serves in progressing the story’

3. It’s the way you tell them

Some writers map out the path of a story before they start, others just see where it takes them. Whichever way you do it, structure – the way you present your story to the reader – is crucial. There are two levels of reality going on in most crime fiction: what the reader is learning page by page and what you – the author – know and are keeping to yourself. In the early stages of a book, all the scenes and ideas that you want to explore can seem overwhelming, so it’s vital to write them down as they occur to you. Ask yourself what purpose each scene serves in progressing the story – that will help you find its natural order – and choose the most suspenseful path.

4. Think before they speak

Dialogue can make or break a piece of fiction. The way a character speaks can say as much about them as what they are actually saying – and what they don’t say is also important, particularly in a crime story. It varies according to character and situation, but a couple of simple rules apply: never write something you wouldn’t say; and less is more – never give your character an absurdly detailed sentence just because there’s something you need your reader to know. Always read your dialogue aloud to make sure it sounds authentic.

5. A mind to murder

For me, the most important issue between me and my characters is not whether I like them or not, but whether I can empathise with how they feel and what they’ve done. If I can’t, I shouldn’t be writing about them. It’s essential to get yourself into the mindset of your characters, to write for them, not about them, and for the crime novels I write – which deal exclusively with murder – I have to believe myself capable of taking a life. No one is black and white, but it’s not my job to judge or condone my characters; it’s my job to get under their skin and show you why they do what they do.

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