By Evangeline Jennings
Minette Walters is not necessarily an easy writer to love. She shuns the obvious in favour of the new every time. I like to think this is a reaction to the period she spent as a sub on a romantic fiction magazine, writing articles, short stories and 30,000 word novelettes to help pay her mortgage. But maybe that’s just me.
What I do know is Walters’ books always repay my efforts. There’s no familiar heroine to offer me a shortcut to the story and her locations vary widely so I rarely feel immediately at home but there’s an always powerful imagination at work and a story well-worth reading.
The first was The Ice House, a modern gothic and psychological take on classic country house mysteries like 4.50 From Paddington. Her second novel, The Sculptress, again read like Christie through a glass darkly with a touch of Lecter thrown in. Needless to say, I was hooked. And since I’m an anal completist, I’ve collected all Minette Walters’ books since. Except the romance novelettes, obv.
There are lessons we can learn from Minette Walters.
She has refused to write a series – despite the obvious attractions – and argues this makes her a stronger writer because series lead to formulaic writing which encourages laziness and a lack of creativity and adventure. In her case, at least, it’s also stopped her boring herself. She’s said she would tire of writing the same character over and over again and would send her quickly off to the Alps to trip over the Reichenbach Falls.
By starting from scratch each time, she certainly ensures that her readers never know what to expect – an indisputably good thing in these days of franchise and reboot – and the result is that since she’s always challenged, she works harder and delivers more for the reader. Her books invariably enthrall and because they are entire in themselves, they also come with a more real sense of closure.
When she ploughed the interminable romance furrow – my choice of words, not hers, Walters’ specialty was hospital romance. In an interview with Martin Edwards – an excellent crime writer in his own right, she revealed that she had to pick eight stories a month from hundreds of submissions. Because the standard was so low, she ended up writing a 30,000 word “demo” to show would-be contributors how to combine romance with trivialities such as characterization, suspense, and plotting. Her colleagues were impressed and as a result she went on to write about 35 such novelettes under a dozen different names. Which, in its own way, reminds me of writers like Lawrence Block and Donald E Westlake and their adventures in pseudonymous soft porn.
“It was marvelous practice,’ she told Edwards. ‘I looked at the mistakes other writers made, and tried to avoid them. I learned a lot from that. At the back of my mind was the recognition that you can grab the reader at the start of your story, but you also need to continue to work the reader, and come up with constant surprises. If the story tails off into a boring sequence of events, the reader will lose interest.’
Walters is a big fan of news and current affairs radio shows and finds her inspiration there. She also relies on her characters to reveal their stories to her rather than setting out with a roadmap believing that if she constructs their characters deeply enough and sets them on their path then the story will generate itself because there is only one way they could respond to any obstacle or crisis.
The price she pays for this is heavy. ‘I need to throw a good deal away. To come up with a book of, say, 110,000 words, I might need to write 160,000 words, perhaps 180,000. I compare it to making a journey from London to Glasgow. When you start out, there are a hundred different routes you can take. But the number of choices diminishes, the further you get along the road.’ She doesn’t baulk at the cost, however. ‘It’s important not to get bogged down. This is an exciting way to write.’
And when you’re as good as she is, a very successful one.