April 21, 2012
Editrix: In what ways is writing a sequel different than writing an original? What particular challenges are there in telling a new story with familiar characters?
LC Tyler: Writing a series sometimes feels like traveling with an ever increasing number of suitcases. You start the first book completely unburdened. As you go on, each character brings a little more personal baggage from the earlier books. Stretching this little analogy to (or a little beyond) breaking point, the reader becomes some sort of customs official with the right to open all of those suitcases, and to point out to you any discrepancy between what you claimed your characters were like in book 1 and what you were saying about them in book 3 or 4. So, each new book in the series sends you scurrying back to re-read the earlier ones and check your facts. And you are stuck with whatever dumb decisions you made before. Of course, by that stage the characters are old friends, so you don’t mind too much carrying their stuff around. (Elsie’s case is massive though – what does she keep in it? Chocolate?)
Ed: The most distinctive style decision you made is setting off the opening sentences of several chapters as stand-alone paragraphs. How did you settle on that choice? What did you hope to accomplish with it?
LC: I’ve given this a lot of thought and the best I can say is: “As affectations go, it seems harmless enough”.
Ed: The first book is written mainly from Ethelred’s perspective. At least, he’s the opening narrator of The Herring Seller’s Apprentice. In Ten Little Herrings, it feels like the opposite is happening. What motivated that switch?
LC: I hadn’t originally planned to have Elsie as a narrator at all. It just happened roughly a third of the way through the book. Elsie sort of demanded to be allowed to speak. In the second book, I wanted to start with an opening chapter that was, in a way, the mirror image of the opening chapter of Herring Seller – this time Elsie is in the flat and receives a mysterious phone call. After that she hogs the narrative for a while until Ethelred can get a word in edgeways. In the later books, I’d say the division was more or less 50:50. I try to be fair.
Ed: Can you walk us through your research for a book?
LC: I did very little real research for any of the series. My technique (such as it is) is to be as vague as possible about everything. Wooly generalizations are very difficult to refute. But occasionally I did have to check a few facts e.g. about stamps, which play an important role in the plot of Ten Little Herrings. I had collected stamps many years ago (and still have them somewhere) so I did know a little bit. After that, you can find out most things on the internet. Oh, and you can talk to people who do stuff like that – stamps or whatever. Once you find somebody with specialized knowledge they are usually happy to share it.
What I’m working on now (historical crime) is very different, though and entails long days at the British Library reading up on the sequestration of cavalier estates, the role of the village constable in 17th-century England, and many other things that I shall almost certainly never have a use for.
Ed: You originally had a career not connected to books or publishing. How did you make the jump from being one of the millions with an idea for a novel to someone who actually gets paid to write one?
LC: Luck, really. I finished Herring Seller just as Pan Macmillan launched their New Writing scheme to find new authors. I submitted the manuscript, and they took it.
Ed: Why mysteries? Are there any other genres that you’d like to tackle?
LC: I’ve always felt I write humor that happens to be mysterious rather than mysteries that happen to be humorous. It was only when the policeman announced they found a body in Herring Seller that I realized that I was writing a mystery. I have written one non-crime book – A Very Persistent Illusion – but it hasn’t been published in the U.S. Other genres? I’ve no particular ambition to write sci-fi or romantic fiction, though I might do straight historical at some point.
Ed: Can you describe your writing process? Do you work with outlines first, holding a plan for each scene? Do you come up with a basic idea and then improvise your way from there?
LC: Each book has been different. There was pretty much no planning at all for Herring Seller. With later books I tended to get the first few chapter down to get the general feel of it, and then write a detailed plan before carrying on. What I have done with all of them, though, is usually to write each chapter in my head before I start typing it. I also do masses of re-writing. Some lines will have been re-written twenty or thirty times before I have a version I’m happy with.
Ed: Do you work according to a set schedule every day? And what’s your writing area like?
LC: For a long time, of course, I had a day job as chief executive of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. Writing had to be done at the weekends if it could be fitted in, or on holiday. Now writing is my main activity, but I also sit on employment tribunals, which takes up several weeks a year. So, I’ve never written every day. I also couldn’t (for example) set myself a target of so many thousand words a day or a week because I spend so much time revising – after a full day’s work, the manuscript may be a couple of thousand words shorter than it was. “Messy” is the best description of my writing area. Let’s draw a veil over that one.
Ed: What challenges did you face in writing from the perspective of a woman?
LC: I think any writer should be able to write from the point of view of any character. The thing is to make them consistent and believable as themselves, rather than a representative of a particular generation or sex or race. I’m currently having much more trouble getting inside the head of a 17th-century man.
Ed: Ten Little Herrings—even more than the original—plays with meta-fiction and storytelling, perhaps most obviously in the closing chapter when the reader is told, more or less, that the ending he reads didn’t really happen. But also, Ethelred walks the reader through the clichés and common knowledge that often comes into play in mysteries. Why did you think that mystery novels were ripe for this type of commentary?
LC: I know that the term “metafiction” may in itself be enough to put some people off a book, so I tend to use it with care. Most people will in any case read the E&E series without the word occurring to them, though they may see the books as being slightly quirky and different. Of course, a lot of humor borders on metafiction, in the sense that it asks us to take a second look at things we take for granted – in this case the conventions of crime fiction. You can take this approach with pretty much any genre – but mystery readers seem to enjoy a wide range of styles, so I think there’s room for a bit of quirkiness.
Ed: What or whom would you count as your major influences? How much is Ethelred (or Elsie) based upon people you know?
LC: Humorists more than crime writers. Mark Twain, Jerome K Jerome (maybe less well known in the U.S., but with a very similar style to Twain), P.G. Wodehouse, Stephen Leacock, Evelyn Waugh, Hunter S. Thompson. I have stolen feely from all of these. I often see Ethelred and Elsie as different sides of my own character. Some people claim to know which agent Elsie is based on, but, in truth, I knew very few agents when I started writing Herring Seller.
Ed: What writing advice do you wish someone had given to you when you were starting out?
LC: If you are going to write a series, plan the arc of the series before you write book one.
Ed: Are there any plotlines that you played with but wound up needing to discard? Do you store up your discards – discarded characters, scenes, pieces of dialogue – in the hope of using them down the line?
LC: Most plot lines that get discarded get discarded for a good reason. They are usually not worth saving. Occasionally I will record some dialogue (maybe something overheard) in my notebook for use in a future book. What you have to avoid doing is writing a whole scene just to have that as your punch-line. It rarely works. You often have to discard what seem (to you) to be great lines or even great chapters because the book as a whole is better without them.
Ed: In the language of reality-TV, are you on Team Ethelred or Team Elsie?
LC: I never watch reality TV if I can possibly help it …