NEWS15 March 2018

Val McDermid’s research advice: get answers to questions you didn't ask

Impact 2018 Leisure & Arts News UK

UK – Scottish crime writer Val McDermid told an audience at Impact 2018 that the best research and insight into people’s lives comes from the answers to the questions you haven't asked.

Val McDermid_crop

Interviewed by Martin Lee, Acacia Avenue’s co-founder and strategist, McDermid was speaking at the climax of this week’s MRS conference.

She talked about her childhood in Kirkcaldy in Fife, how a sole Agatha Christie novel (sitting alongside a bible) at her grandparents’ house sewed the seed of her crime fiction career, and how a love of libraries allowed that seed to grow and flourish.

Born into a working class family, McDermid later became the first student from a Scottish state school to be admitted to St Hilda’s College Oxford.

But this course of her life hinged on a strategy of deceit during her childhood. As a nine year-old, she had to fabricate her mother being ill in order to take adult books out of the library. The ruse worked for years and McDermid's muse was fed by works including those of Christie.

But that minor crime  came back to bite her. When she attended an event at the library, her mother in tow, and the two librarians whom she had lied to were there, apparently very surprised. "Mrs McDermid," they said to her mother, "we thought you must be dead, being an invalid all those years."

McDermid’s literary beginnings were not in crime, but in an attempt to "write the great English novel". A failure, but one that was subsequently transformed into a play, and saw McDermid gain an agent and the accidental status of playwright at age 23.

"The problem was that I didn't know how to replicate that success, I didn't know how to make plays work dramatically," she said. "After a few years of dismal failure, my agent fired me.

"Maybe I needed to concentrate on something that I knew how it worked. Well, I thought, I understand how crime fiction works."

After working as a journalist, she eventually became a full-time fiction writer, with her first book Report for Murder: The First Lindsay Gordon Mystery published in 1987.

McDermid cited crime writing advice from Colin Dexter on how you know about police procedure ("you just make it up"), how crucial structure is to a tale (such as her use of the killer’s point of view) and how crime fiction can shine a light on society’s ills.

"Storytelling is investigating why people do what they do," she said. "How many times does a perpetrator get a sentence that doesn't reflect the gravity of what they've done? How does an investigator bridge that gap? Those are the ideas to explore."

McDermid talked a bit about research, how for her novel The Last Temptation she spent a lot of time going on barges and talking to bargees and discovering "a lot of things you realise you don't know that you need to know".

"If you go to the library or use the internet for research, you get the answer to the question but you don't get the answer to the question that you didn't ask."

Finally, asked by an audience member whether she had any advice for data researchers, McDermid replied: "Know where to start your story. Where you should start your story is where you start one when telling your friends in the pub."