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Monday, 14 June 2010

Interview with Leigh Russell

I interviewed Leigh Russell - author of Cut Short and Road Closed - by e-mail last month. Here are her responses to my questions.

How did you first get into writing?

It seems unbelievable that three years ago I had an idea, started writing and haven't been able to stop since. It was like turning on a tap.

Was Cut Short your first published work?

Yes. In fact Cut Short was the first story I ever wrote.

What do you think about creative writing courses and have you ever attened one? Do you think they help writers achieve publication?

I've never attended a creative writing course so I can't really comment on how useful they are, but I've given talks to a number of writers' groups and I think the mutually supportive atmosphere can be very positive. It is very helpful for any writer to have trusted readers who can give feedback.

In what way was Road Closed easier, or more difficult, to write than Cut Short?

I enjoyed writing Cut Short, I enjoyed writing Road Closed and I'm enjoying writing Dead End. I just love writing! My main problem is finding enough time to write!

Do you think it is important to have a series character - such as Geraldine Steel - in crime novels?

I hadn't anticipated how important it would be, but fortunately there has been a generally positive response to my detective so far, which has surprised me! Her popularity has even spread to the US where Jeffery Deaver wrote 'you're just plain going to love Geraldine Steel' and US Publishers Weekly described Geraldine as 'a compassionate and complex heroine who's sure to win fans.' I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they are right.

How do you research the police procedural side of your books?

The best form of research is always real people. I'm lucky that I have one particularly knowledgeable contact in the police force who always responds to my queries immediately and in great detail. Sometimes I have quite trivial questions to which I could never find an answer by researching on the Internet. I have collected a number of fans on the force who are all incredibly helpful and I'm very grateful for their input.

How did you feel about Jessica Mann's comments last year about crime novels always featuring women as corpses? Do you consciously decide to have a man or a woman as a corpse or does this come out of the needs of the plot itself?

This arises out of the plot. All my corpses in Cut Short are women but this certainly isn't true in Road Closed or Dead End. I'm not going to say any more!

Many very popular authors put an excessive amount of graphic violence in their books as violence seems to sell well. Cut Short contains very little 'one the page' violence - did you deliberately set out to write a crime story with very little violence?

No. Graphic descriptions of violence don't inspire me for their own sake, although I will include them if the plot requires it. It is the characters who interest me, and what motivates them, so if I have a character who is a sadist I might include a violent scene exploring my character's feelings. I do find some contemporary crime writers rely too heavily on the shock factor of violent scenes, instead of focusing on writing a gripping story.

Did you get any rejections for Cut Short before No Exit Press accepted it?

No. I sent my manuscript out to three publishers who specialise in crime fiction and No Exit Press telephoned me two weeks later to express interest and shortly after that they offered me a three book deal.

Do you have an agent? Do you think it necessary for an author to have an agent in order to find a publisher?

I recently signed up an agent after the runaway success of Cut Short. I seem to have done everything the wrong way round! In general I would say it is much better to seek representation before looking for a publisher as agents can advise and guide an aspiring author. I was unusually lucky to find a publisher straightaway without an agent and it was my success, once published, that led to interest from agents, rather than the other way round.

How did you first create the character of Geraldine Steel?

When I started writing Cut Short I had no plans to write a series. It never even occurred to me that my writing would one day be published. So I wrote what interested me. I was fascinated by my killer and wrote pages and pages about him. My detective was really only there to serve the plot. My editor quite reasonably pointed out that the detective continues from book to book and had to become a character in her own right who would hopefully engage my readers' interests. At that point I had to do some work on my detective's character and her story begins to unfold in Road Closed and develops further in Dead End.

Do you have plans for any more books featuring Geraldine Steel following on from Road Closed?

I have written the first draft of the third book in my series, Dead End, and my publishers have already put it an offer for a fourth book, so it looks as though the series is going to run for a while.

Do you think of your plots first or the characters?

I think the crime - so far murder - comes into my head first, so that's really a combination of plot and character. Although it's the plot that drives my narrative, my characters and their motives are my main interest.

Some authors use complicated systems for plotting their novels such as charts and timelines. How did you work out the plot of Road Closed?

I didn't plan Cut Short at all. I just started writing one day and found I couldn't stop. I had to so some work on my initial manuscript once I found a publisher, to make sure readers would be able to follow what was going on. I did plan Road Closed on an A3 sheet of paper. My novels are written in 'real time' in the sense that I follow the investigation day by day. So I plotted what each character would be doing each day. That meant that when I moved certain events there was a knock on effect on everything else that occurred. I got in a terrible muddle but managed to sort it out in the end. By the time I was plotting Dead End I had an agent who advised me to write a ten page synopsis so I could see where everything was going to fit in before I started writing. Sounds foolproof? I'm afraid I still ended up getting in a muddle as I decided to move a murder to improve the narrative pace. I write very easily but organisation is not my strong point!

Do you write with a pen or pencil or straight onto a computer?

When I started writing I followed a certain routine writing every word in long hand before typing it up. Now that I'm more practiced - and more confident - I can type, write, jot down, scribble - you name it. When I'm writing, I write, and I'll use whatever comes to hand.

I've heard other writers say that their characters sometimes 'take over' and start doing things which they hadn't planned for them. Have you ever had such an experience?
Yes! Because crime fiction has to be tightly plotted, characters often need to perform certain actions for the sake of the plot, but as an author I cannot allow a character to step 'out of character' or my readers might not believe in them. So I have to keep a tight rein on how my characters want to develop. It's not always easy.

Thank you very much to Leigh for answering my questions. Both Cut Short and Road Closed can be purchased online from or from I can thoroughly recommend both of them and I hope they continue to sell well. There's always room on the shelves for well written crime.

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