The secret of good research, and how to play God
“I find writing crime quite cathartic – it gets it out of your system, so crime writers tend to be fairly well balanced people,” says Ian Rankin. Crime fiction is also brilliant if you want to write social realism – the problems we have in society whether economic, racism, it’s a great medium for exploring these questions. I there’s a preoccupation with Scottish writing per se - the notion that we all carry within us the ability to be good and to be evil.” He pauses. “If you look at The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, you’re never sure if she’s a force for evil or for good and I like the ambiguity. Are some people born evil or made evil?”
Ian Rankin’s soft Scottish burr gives an added intensity to the ideas that bubble out of him like spring water. As the UK’s number one bestselling crime author, he has won numerous awards and is most famous for his Inspector Rebus books which have been translated into 23 languages and are bestsellers on several continents as well as being made into a major TV series.
But Rebus wasn’t popular straight away. “It was book 7 or 8 before I hit the bestseller lists,” says Ian, “I was lucky that publishers would take a risk then, i.e. publishing at a loss for a long time in the hope that eventually they would find an audience. When the books did find an audience it was a big one.”
So why are the Rebus books so popular? “He’s a conflicted character with a lot of baggage – he’s not easy to get on with.” Ian laughs. “I guess male readers like him because he can do things they wish they could still do, such as play rock music late into the night, and drink whisky. I don’t know why women like him – maybe they want to change him. They seem to want him to stop smoking and have a decent meal.” He pauses. “But he’s a maverick, and we all have a soft spot for mavericks.”
The Impossible Dead, out October 2011, sees the return of Malcolm Fox. “Having spent some time with Malcolm I felt the process wasn’t yet complete so I thought I’d find something else for him to do. I liked the milieu he works in – Internal Affairs, and the idea of cops who are more like professional voyeurs – they are investigating themselves so they are liked by nobody,” Ian explains. “To be that kind of person you have to have a certain mentality that is pretty much 180 degrees from Rebus.”
A sense of place is very important in Rankin’s books. “The Rebus books have a strong sense of Edinburgh,” explains Ian. “I think it’s something that crime fiction does very well. You can walk through Maigret’s Paris, or Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, and I wanted to show a side of Edinburgh that people don’t usually see, and I thought a detective was a good way to do that because police have access to different layers of society.” He pauses. “I still write about Edinburgh because I still haven’t found out what makes it tick.” For those eager to experience Edinburgh through Rebus’s eyes, there is now the Rebus Walking Tour and if you have an Iphone Rebus has his own App. “I think readers like that it takes place in a real city with real pubs and a real police station; as an author it helps to get the readers to suspend disbelief. If they know that this stuff is real they might start to believe that what I write is also real.”
Having read his books, it’s surprising to hear that he doesn’t do a lot of research. “I’m not research heavy. I go to the police if I have a specific problem but I don’t want my books to be PR exercises for the police.” The research doesn’t come till after Ian starts writing. “I get a question that I want to try and answer, and find a plot to allow me to do that. Then once I’ve done work on the structure I start writing. Between the first and second draft I’ll go and visit the place. An agent said to me a long time ago, ‘Keep writing, do the research after.’ Sometimes you can know too much and the secret of good research is to persuade the reader that you’ve done it without hitting them over the head with a sledgehammer.”
When it comes to the requisites for a good crime novel, Ian believes there is no easy answer. “There are tightly structured whodunnits like Jonathan Creek which are about solving the puzzle, or some books are about spending quality time with a character detective. Other books explore a sense of place in a different culture like Vienna or Los Angeles, and some books are about social commentary and ask big moral questions about the state of the world.” Ian pauses. “Put them all together and you get a rollercoaster ride of tension and danger thrown in which for a reader is about getting ‘a lot of bang for your buck,’ as the Americans would say. Hopefully you’re getting all of those.”
Given all the ingredients required, Ian does not plan his books in any detail. “I’ve never been to a creative writing class: I’ve tried teaching it and find it incredibly difficult because I just write off the top of my head most of the time,” he explains. “I’ve got a theme I want to explore, I’ve got the inklings of a plot, I’ve got enough notes to write the first 20 to 30 pages and by the time I’ve written these first 30 pages I’ve introduced a cast of characters and I’ve decided which are relevant, but the story constantly surprises me.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen when I start writing: the book knows what’s going to happen, but I don’t. And so the story will say, ‘hang on , Ian, we need to go here now because that guy who walked out 20 pages ago is the guy who was in the hotel that night’. And I go, ‘oh right! I didn’t know that!’ So the first draft of the book is me playing detective: getting to know the characters and their motives and how useful they can be. I don’t take a lot of notes before I start but I make notes as I go along during the course of the first draft.” He pauses. “It all gets tidied up in the 2nd or 3rd draft. The first draft is making sure the plot makes sense. I write that very quickly – in about 2 months. The 2nd/3rd draft puts meat on the skeleton of the characters, colours in the settings so they are vibrant and realistic, makes sure the theme is there; that’s when the hard work gets done. Then it gets finished about mid June.”
So what does Ian find hardest about writing crime? “Making it all work! You’ve usually got a large cast of characters, maybe 3 or 4 different subplots that eventually need to meet up, and I don’t know how it will end. It’s only when I get to know the characters that I know who the potential villains are. And there is this fear that this time you’re going to fall flat on your face: that it won’t work out.”
Of course Ian Rankin’s books always work out in the end, a fact that he doesn’t take for granted. “The most enjoyable moments are when I start to see connections between characters and plots. But sometimes it can be the second draft when that happens which is really quite worrying.”
Having written since he was a young boy, it’s clear that Ian has found his métier in life and loves it. “I get to play God!” He laughs. “This morning there was a big queue in the post office: a guy at the head of the queue was taking his time, holding everyone up, and I can just come home and kill him! That is quite cathartic – the power of life and death.” He pauses. “Also I think writers are all children who’ve refused to grow up so we still play with imaginary friends. It keeps you young,” he adds cheerfully.
When it comes to advice for writers, Ian believes that reading is vital. “Read lots of writers and maybe early on copy their style, whether consciously or sub consciously, and only through doing that does your own style emerge,” he says. “You have to have a story that you don’t think anyone else is doing, but apart from that there really are no rules. The structure for a crime novel is crime, investigation, resolution, but within that you can do pretty much anything you want.” He pauses. “And if you’re really clever you don’t even need to stick to that.”
The Impossible Dead is published by Orion October 2011
Writers' Forum January 2012