You know we love the kind of writers who really throw themselves into their work. Karen Long began her working life as a secondary school teacher but took up full time writing ten years ago. She has written numerous screenplays and is currently working on the second novel in the DI Eleanor Raven series. Her first novel, The Safe Word, was published on kindle and in paperback last month, and was inspired by several stays in Toronto, Canada.
Karen lives in rural Shropshire with her filmmaker husband, three children, three dogs and a small disabled crow.
Tell us about Eleanor Raven.
Eleanor is a complex creature. She is contained, independent and confident in her abilities but the opposite is also true. She carries a burden of guilt from her childhood, which manifests itself in her masochistic sexual practices. She lives by the mantra that she never ‘judges’ yet she has judged and condemned herself for not recognising the ‘signs’ that could have saved her school friend Caleb. I believe that this is essentially the human condition and why every central character’s struggle should essential be with him/herself. Her journey is, and hopefully will be in future novels, to come to terms with her guilt and forgive the child’s mistake. Essentially Eleanor is a modern woman. She is sexually liberated and proactive, physically aggressive and defines herself through her career and not through family.
How would you describe The Safe Word to a potential reader?
It’s modern crime fiction set in Toronto featuring a strong but flawed female lead, whose personal life becomes dangerously entwined in the unfolding action.
Would you describe The Safe Word as a ‘whodunnit’?
The Safe Word’isn’t about the sudden revelation of the killer from a pool of potentials or misdirects. Don’t get me wrong that can be very exciting. My favourite example of a sublime ‘whodunnit’ is Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club, which I’ve read three times now. What I am more interested in is the gradual uncovering of the motivation of the ‘who’, which is inexorably linked to the ‘why’. My killer has a very clear vision of why he does what he does and I want to learn why his thought processes are so different to mine.
However, that’s not to say that one of the most important aspects to writing crime fiction is to supply frisson at regular points in the narrative. Characters should be imperiled; there shouldn’t be a formula as to who can die and who can’t or as to what can happen or when. Crime fiction should be a roller-coaster ride; don’t allow your reader to become complacent because that’s one stop away from bored. The ‘what if’ you asked yourself before you started typing the first sentence should be asked after every scene.
What’s your writing process? What comes first – plot or character?
It’s a close run thing for me. I was browsing the Toronto Sun newspaper and chugging coffee when I read an article about police being called to save a woman who appeared to have been kidnapped off a Toronto street and bundled into a van. When police swooped in to arrest and save her they were stunned to discover that the woman had arranged to have herself kidnapped as a sexy treat. There was the material for a ‘what if’! Eleanor Raven followed on pretty closely and I started to outline the plot.
Take us through a typical writing day
As I only have one daughter left at home now and my husband works abroad for most of the year the day starts when the front door slams shut, the dogs/crow/ferret have been fed and watered and the biohazard that is the kitchen is tidy. I have to be very determined to keep myself on track, as there are so many domestic distractions that break my concentration. I also have to write in total silence (no music or radio) and without anyone else being in the house. If I know someone is popping in for a coffee it can make it impossible to write for the whole day. There’s no sitting in coffee shops and putting out a couple of thousand words for me, sadly!
I see the story I’m writing as a film that can only be played linearly. I can rewind a couple of chapters but invariably I read from start to finish once a week. I really envy writers like Stephen King who have such an organised, methodical and productive approach to writing. My husband, a writer himself, frequently sends me links to pages on ‘The rigours of writing’ but I guess there’s just the way that works for you.
Who are the authors you love and why?
I love the Scandinavian writers, in particular Karin Fossum, Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdardottir. Their intellectual, complex lead characters set against a dour, unforgiving backdrop and intricate plots have me hooked. I particularly love Denis Lehane, who conjures up period and texture that finds a life in my mind as I read. Perhaps the most influential novelists for me are Graham Greene, William Golding and Joseph Conrad. They write about redemption and the human condition, which is for me the most interesting and important theme literature can tackle. Please don’t think I am comparing myself to the great writer’s mentioned above, but sub genres such as crime fiction should be open to incorporating layers of meaning and texture into less august subject matter. Never assume that your reader will be satisfied with a series of events culminating in a twist. Every novel should be satisfying on many levels.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
That it always takes longer that you thought to complete. That your choice of language, character and event is frequently not as entertaining or clear as you thought it was. That when people pay money to read what you have written they are entitled to an opinion. The most valuable lesson was given to me by a wise bird who said, ‘Show Don’t Tell’ and that is a mantra I run with every time I write. Don’t tell a reader how they should interpret an action or judge a character. That’s their job not yours so butt out!
How do you deal with the feedback?
Not always with good grace, sadly. But I have always held to Oscar Wilde’s belief that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. So provoking a reaction that merits comment and opinion is, in itself, rather flattering. I have also found that after shrugging off my initial outrage most people make very valid comments about my writing. I do believe that you have to be honest with yourself. If a comment reminds you that you had considered that question before then go back and deal with it but by the same token just because someone has a thought on a plot point or character or line of dialogue it doesn’t mean that they are right. Be flexible but believe in what you wrote. Eventually the sales will tell you if you were right.
How have your own experiences shaped your writing?
My husband is a movie director and I have spent the last ten years lurking around film sets and edit suites. I love to watch hours and hours of film being trimmed, compressed, enhanced and structured so that the story is exciting and satisfying. I want a reader to ‘see’ the story, as a film playing out in front of them and that means no flab!
I believe that every biological event that appears in your novel should be researched and accurately presented. I’ve spent many blissful hours consuming textbooks on forensics, toxicology, epidemiology and post mortem practice because if you don’t present forensics truthfully then you’re writing science fiction not crime fiction. I arranged several years ago to complete a work experience in a hospital morgue. It was an incredible experience. I was able to watch as a human body was dissected and reduced to plastic bag of organs, tissues and viscera. Perhaps the most seminal moment was when the face of the elderly woman was pulled away from the skull and left hanging, bag-like while the calvarium was opened and the brain removed. All the time the pathologist tutted empathically at the injuries sustained during her final moments in a road traffic accident.
What kind of research are you doing for the series?
In my second book in the Eleanor Raven’series I need to have a good working knowledge of embalming techniques, including plastination. Luckily the Internet provides loads of written material and Dr. Gunther Von Hagens has been no slouch when it comes to explaining his life work in documentary form. I’ve been to view the Body Worlds Exhibition twice now but I need a more proactive experience. I’ve spoken to embalmers and read the course work and now I’m going to watch an embalming procedure take place. Then the smells, the process the weights and texture will come through in my writing, hopefully enriching it.
Give me some advice for an author looking to get into the marketplace…
Self-publishing is now a real possibility for every writer that wants to get his/her novel out there. The process, though complicated is manageable even for a ‘non-techie’ (idiot according to my daughter) like myself. What this doesn’t give you is the experienced voice that an agent brings. I’m particularly lucky with mine; they like my writing, aren’t afraid to nag me to change elements and work alongside me to make my book a commercially viable enterprise.
A marketplace demands that you publicise your work effectively, keep abreast with all of the websites that could bring you an audience and that’s time consuming and not everyone is suited to it. I surprised myself by actually enjoying the whole social media/publicity process. It’s all about winning hearts and minds, generally one at a time! However, this is just the way I wanted to do it. Some writers are out there self publishing, self promoting and making thousands of pounds as a result. Judge yourself wisely and if you need an agent then it’s time to get yourself a copy of The Writers And Artists Yearbook, several spare cartridges for your printer and a bumper book of stamps!
What’s next for you?
I’m a good third of the way into my second novel in the Eleanor Raven series. It’s called The Collection, and follows Eleanor’s challenging return to the crime scene six months after the end of The Safe Word.