This year’s crime writing exhibition from the British Archive for Contemporary Writing reveals the intricate planning behind some of our greatest contemporary crime novels, with material from Val McDermid, Stuart MacBride and Robert Edric – author of a crime trilogy set in Hull, this year’s City of Culture.
Here, UEA archivist Justine Mann, introduces her personal highlights.
MacBride’s notebooks and mind-maps are the earliest incarnation of his novels. He has created a literal map to visualise his fictional town of Old Castle – all the better to locate the murders and the distances between them! What begins as an impressive tool evolves into something the Ordnance Survey would be proud of, and is published within a subsequent novel.
Perhaps the most unusual element within this display is a graph. At first glance it appears to be a chart of multiple, frantic sound waves, but on closer inspection it reveals the rise and fall of plot points marshalled in order to create the most devastating effect on the reader. MacBride remarks casually that ‘this has been known to give other writers nose bleeds’. The display also reveals his painstaking restructuring of the plot for In the Cold Dark Ground, scene-by-scene with scissors and sellotape.
The author’s latest novel, Insidious Intent, ‘impeccably plotted and intensely gripping’ also began in notebook form. On display are original pages from a numbered outline charting key plot developments. McDermid says: ‘When I start a book, I have an idea of the story arc and I’ve spent most of my prep time thinking about the characters: how they’re going to conduct themselves, how they got to be the person they are today.’
The evidence here suggests that McDermid’s subconscious is working hard on plot design before she tackles the page. While crafting the language she refers to, the outline notes to keep the structure on track. She recently revealed her daily routine to The Guardian:
‘Around the second cup of coffee, I take a look at what I last wrote, tweaking and revising, stripping the prose back till I’m more at ease with it. I spend the first month feeling my way into the book, getting a sense of its world and learning its nooks and crannies. Then it picks up pace and I can’t escape it.’
How does a literary novelist take on the challenge of writing crime fiction? In 2002, Booker-longlisted author Robert Edric took a break from writing literary novels to create a crime trilogy set in Hull, this year’s City of Culture. In The Times, Neel Mukherjee applauded Cradle Song, Edric’s first novel, for: ‘its vertiginously devious plot twists, the maze of multiple-crossings (which) all close like a fist around the throat of the reader.’
‘When I’m working on a literary novel,’ Edric says, ‘it’s less important to me whether I write a, then d, g , x then e. The meaning of the book might be in the middle. The goal is not the end, but whether it fails or succeeds in your own mind. With a crime novel, you’re less organic. There has to be a logical process.’
A sense of place has always been important to Edric and in the opening chapter on display he uses Spurn Point – a bleak yet beautiful peninsular, 30 miles from Hull and ravaged on all sides by the North Sea – as the setting of a key meeting between ex-copper Sullivan and private investigator Rivers. The drafts reveal the key phrases and striking images that survive, almost in tact, from first draft through to final publication, as well as the tweaks and line edits that heighten characterisation and plot tension.
Don’t miss an exclusive preview of the exhibition, available to ticket holders for the Arne Dahl and Martina Cole events on Friday 15 September.
‘Plotting the Perfect Crime’ will be open to the public for free from Tuesday 19 September – Friday 22 December, in the UEA Library Foyer.