Report by Sarah Noon
Louisa Scarr’s talk ‘Beginning a Life of Crime’
Louisa Scarr (also known as Louisa De Lange and Sam Holland) has written a series of detective books featuring DS Robin Butler and DC Freya West. She has been a writer for six years and explains that she has now developed a way of writing which works for her. Before she shared this with us, however, she told us a little about herself:
Louisa gained a degree in Psychology from University of Southampton in 2000. She says she did this because she “wanted to know what made people tick but needed to do a ‘proper job. ’” A ‘proper job’ for Louisa meant one that required “a suit, heels and a badge.” So, she joined Siemens as a recruitment officer (“hiring and firing”) – a job enabling her to wear all those things. She always enjoyed writing and even worked in a library for a while, but ended up working in the headquarters of B&Q “hiring and firing again.” However, she was later given a role within B&Q which involved writing for them. She quit in 2016 and became a freelance writer, finishing the book she was working on.
After lots of hard work, Louisa was eventually picked up by Orion. Her first novel, The Dream Wife, is speculative fiction – crime with a science fiction twist. It was a two-book deal, which lead to Ask Me No Questions. At this point, she says, her agent pointed out that what she was actually writing was a police procedural, about a police officer – DS Kate Monroe. She then went on to write Nowhere to be Found which she describes as “the easiest and quickest book I’ve ever written.” Following this, she left Orion and joined Canelo.
Louisa describes herself as “a fast writer”. She says she can write an 80,000 a book in about three months. She wanted a publisher that was able to work with her at this fast pace. With Canelo, she explains, she has a deal where she has a book out every six months.
With the aid of several photographs, Louisa goes onto explain her (now finely tuned) process. She starts with a whiteboard in her office. Here, she writes down initial thoughts, chapters, plots etc. The second stage is done with index cards (the various POVs) and post-it notes (the clues and evidence) laid out across a wall (she originally did this on the floor but “it didn’t work because of the dog!”). Consequently, this has now evolved into rows of post-it notes across her wall. She talks about the importance of chapter beginnings and ends to hook the reader and maintain interest. Spreadsheets are used to record details of recurring characters – their features, facts about their lives etc, in order that continuity is maintained.
When writing a police procedural, research and knowledge of the inner workings of the organisations and departments involved have to be portrayed accurately, and as Louisa explains she “has never been in the police force.” Her experience, she says, “is based on Broadchurch and The Bill.” However, she has built up a team of experts around her to whom she can go for for advice, clarifications and guidance. She gives us some examples: A police officer she met on the school run and his wife (a 999 Control Officer) have been invaluable. Her stepbrother is a consultant anaesthetist who has given her lots of advice when she is describing injuries.
Her sister-in-law is a pharmacist who is able to advise when her stories involve drugs and medication. Her friend is a CSI – specifically a blood spatter expert. Other friends include a meteorologist, and her stepsister-in-law is a paramedic. Louisa’s writing leans towards her experts and she goes on to tell us just how much she values them.
In addition to her group of experts, Louisa’s personal library consists of serial killer books, forensic books, Blackstone’s police manuals and legal books. She also uses Google Scholar to access relevant journals.
Louisa’s commitment to authenticity has seen her wear a crime scene suit (she was given one so she could feel what it is like to wear one) and has even been on a ride-along!
Louisa’s books also maintain their accuracy by the fact that she sets her stories in places that she knows. She shows us some pictures of scenes and settings she has used. Many are in Southampton, including the Common, Winnall, B&Q headquarters and Portswood. She has also used Reading. She has a friend that lives in a village in Devon and used this as home for one of her characters. She is therefore able to visit the locations, photograph them and describe them accurately.
With regards to her characters, she tells us that she sees them in her head “cinematically” and bases her characters on famous actors and then watches their work via film and TV.
There are a variety of highs and lows when working as a writer. Louisa lists the highs – the first proof, seeing your publication in a bookshop for the first time, positive reviews. She says that there are not many lows. One of them, though, is dealing with bad reviews (we are introduced to a scathing review by “Marion”). She says, “you have to be ready for that.” She cites structural edits as another low, describing the tackling of these as “the hardest few weeks”.
The final thing Louisa shares with us, is regarding the creation of her upcoming book The Echo Man. One of the first things she wrote, it was rejected in her early days due to its strong language and violence but will now be sold in about 10 countries. She has written the book under the gender-neutral pseudonym Sam Holland in order to appeal to a larger demographic.
Louisa ends her talk with a game … about serial killers! She shows several images of serial killers, and we have to write down who they were. Interestingly, nobody knows all of them, but one or two have achieved enough notoriety that most of the audience can identifiy them.
An intriguing look into Louisa’s methods and processes – we eagerly await her next book!
Jan Carr – Special Guest
Jan Carr is a children’s writer from Southampton. Writing older middle-grade stories, she is best known for her novel The Wonder Girls. Set in London in 1936, the Wonder Girls are a group of girls hiding from the paramilitary Blackshirts. Her latest book, The Wonder Girls Resist is set in Southampton in 1937 against the backdrop of immigration stemming from the Spanish Civil War. Like its predecessor The Wonder Girls Resist has a political stance, exploring a time when the country was on the brink of war.
Jan tells us that at school she struggled to read but “loved a good story”. As a mum, she felt she couldn’t tell a good bedtime story to her children and was envious of those parents who seemed to be able to make up stories on the the spot. She therefore believed that she didn’t have a good imagination. However, over time she has discovered that the key which enables her to create stories, is simply to “sit at a keyboard and write”.
She confides that her first drafts are a mess, “a bit like throwing clay at chicken wire,” but she says that at least this gives her something to work with. Jan is an independent author, giving her a higher degree of freedom within her writing. Whilst her difficulty in getting a publisher initially made her feel “like a failure”, she explains that she is now happy to be an independent writer, with the control that provides her with.
Jan goes on to talk about her book, Spare, which is also an audiobook. Many people auditioned to narrate her book. When she found the person who “had the right voice” for her book, she sold a quilt in order to raise the funds (£450 for narrator to read a 7- hour book). She says she really enjoyed the collaboration within the project – giving her confidence because someone else was committed to reading her book.
She has had previous success with competitions, winning and being shortlisted for prizes. The first book she wrote created some interest with publishers. However, Jan was told that the book was good – just not not right for the particular publisher. This though, gave Jan the confidence to publish independently. She used a credit card in order to get the books published and printed. She then made herself available to Southampton primary schools, visiting the children, doing workshops with them and selling signed copies of her books.
By the time Covid hit, The Wonder Girls Resist was ready to promote, but as lockdowns loomed, Jan was limited as to how she could do this. However, she launched a Kickstarter campaign in order to get 1000 copies of her new book printed as well as more copies of her first book. Kickstart funding, she says, is an emotionally draining time and a little risky. Nevertheless, in just over a month she had the funding she needed. Now that life is adapting to Covid, Jan is able to school visits again – via her Kickstart sponsorship pages. She gets pupils writing and participating in drama activities. She also includes some craft activities (she explains that she was a teacher in a former life!).
Jan is currently writing the third Wonder Girls book – set in 1938, but she is being secretive about its storyline! We are looking forward to reading The Wonder Girls Resist very soon!
Reports by Sarah Noon