Mark Hill is the author of two great novels, His First Lie (which I reviewed under its previous title, The Two O’Clock Boy, see here:https://bit.ly/2KGGYig) and the recently released sequel, It Was Her (see my review here: https://bit.ly/2AJVT6R).
Before becoming a successful novelist, Mark was a book reviewer, blogging under the guise of the Crime Thriller Fella. This was a blog that I found hugely influential, not least for the Q&A’s he hosted with other writers. Unlike many such Q&A’s, his were always focused on the craft of writing which I imagined he used to help hone his own efforts. Well, it clearly paid off and I’ve been replicating the Crime Thriller Fella Q&A style ever since in the hope that I too might learn a thing or two.
Obviously now Mark’s made it I wanted to know a bit more about his writing process, in the shameless and undisguised hope that some of his magic might rub off on me. Luckily, he was happy to oblige.
Where did you get the idea behind It Was Her? While we’re at it, where did you get the idea behind His First Lie?
I started writing His First Lie back in the distant mists of time and it evolved an awful lot. I think I wanted to write about a corrupt copper and initially there was plenty of banging heads together and fisticuffs and high-octane action with people smashing down doors and some choice language. But that wasn’t really my style, so I went in a different direction. I’ve always loved those books and shows that have two timelines – there’s a mystery in the present and it’s connected in some weird way to a mystery in the past - so I played with that, and added a conspiracy element, and over time it kind of became more of a psychological thriller.
With It Was Her, I knew I wanted to write about someone who went into other people’s homes and made themselves comfortable, a kind of cuckoo. But I kind of wondered what would make a person do such a thing and explore the reasons for that. And, of course, I couldn’t resist my two timelines format – two mysteries! One in the past, one in the present! - which has become a big part of what I do.
How do you get your ideas more generally? What’s the process and how do they go from vague inspiration to fully fleshed out notions?
These are really hard questions. I’m not sure I can answer this fully comprehensively, but I do think idea generation is like any other muscle. The more you do it, the more it becomes easier. Once I’ve got an idea I’ll open a new document and I’ll sit and type out ideas – flinging down as many as I can onto the page – bits of dialogue, characters, possible scenes, relationships - and, sooner or later, connections form, ideas begin to interweave, and a narrative begins to lift off the page. That document can end up being very long indeed.
And, of course, the best ideas pop into your head as you’re washing-up or drifting off to sleep. A rather good writer once told me that you never have to write the good ideas down, and that’s absolutely true, they stay with you, but you do have to fight your way into a new book, you have to lay siege to it, until it bends to your will.
Tell me about the research that goes into your writing?
I’ve got some nice policemen who help me an awful lot - they are unbelievably helpful considering I tend to ask the same questions over and over - and a really helpful paramedic. Usually, I’ll try to write the first draft and then worry about research. But sometimes, if there’s a scene I want to write and I’m not sure it would happen – cops water-skiing down the outside of The Shard, for example – I’ll check on the feasibility first.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I’m a plotter. I like to know where I’m going. The idea of just, you know, making stuff up as I go, terrifies me. I like to put in some twisty stuff and have to tend to set that up early - and the best way to do that is by plotting. A lot of people swear by it, but pantsing just doesn’t seem like a lot of fun to me, there are already thousands of micro-decisions to make in every chapter. One day I’ll pants my way through a book - I’ll see if I can do it, I promise - but it’ll probably be the most-boring book ever. It’ll be two people in a room making each other cups of tea for 100k words.
Tell me about your writing, do you write full time?
Yeah, I’m lucky enough to write full-time, and I try to write every day, too. It’s taken me a long time to get to the stage where I’m doing something I love, really love, and to do it for a living, and it kind of consumes me now. I take my hat off to anybody who can hold down a full-time job, bring up a family and manage to write books.
When is your most productive period of the day?
There is no right or wrong time. I don’t tend to write in the early hours anymore because – well, I like my sleep. I like to write in the morning and usually I’ll carry on into the afternoon. But I’m a great procrastinator so I do a lot of pointless reorganising of documents. I’m also highly inefficient and disorganised, and more than once I’ve lost great swathes of polished text by reorganising everything. Don’t be like Mark, kids. Remember to back up your files at the end of every day.
Is any part of your writing biographical? Any of the characters based on you or inspired by real people?
I’m afraid not. I’ll take the odd characteristic from people. Reviewers have often commented on how my characters are neither good nor bad, but a little bit of both, and I like that ambiguity in people. I’m fascinated by our flaws, they’re what make us all different. However, stay tuned, because Sasha Dawson is going to be new territory for me…
What other writing projects are you working on?
I’m thrilled to be starting a new crime series for Head Of Zeus which features a new detective, the awesome DI Sasha Dawson. Sasha is the antithesis of Drake – as well as being terrific at her job, she’s a nice woman, funny, empathetic, and her team are devoted to her. Trouble is, she’s always rushed off her feet trying to sort out other people’s problems, pulled this way and that – if it’s not the investigation, it’s her big, troublesome family. I love Sasha, I’ve loved spending time with her, and I hope readers will love her, too.
Finally, I’m going to shamelessly poach two questions from your old Crime Thriller Fella blog. I like to think that the answers to these questions helped you glean valuable help for your own writing. Certainly, reading them on your blog has been helping me. So here goes:
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
That Crime Thriller Fella knew how to write a killer question, didn’t he? Writing a novel is a long, hard slog. It takes ages to write a book. Well, it does for me. It’s a mountain to climb and there are absolutely no short cuts. And it’s like wrangling cats, too, as you struggle to pull all the threads of it together into a whole and get it into shape. There’s nothing, absolutely nothing, like that feeling when you eventually finish it, but the process can’t be rushed.
Give me some advice about writing?
To quote the great John Irving, you’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.