Jacqueline Winspear
Thursday, 22 November 2012

How to write a murder mystery

Inspiration for her bestsellers came when she was stuck at traffic lights. Now, Jacqueline Winspear reveals her writer’s secrets to Katy Pearson

Written by Katy Pearson
Question: How do you turn a fictional housemaid-turned-student-turned-nurse- turned-private investigator named Maisie Dobbs into nine bestselling novels, numerous awards and a legion of fans?

Just ask Jacqueline Winspear, who has transformed a lifelong interest in the First World War and the 1920s and 1930s into a very successful living.

Jacqueline says a moment of ‘artistic grace’ inspired her to write Maisie. ‘When I started work on the first book I hadn’t actually intended to write a novel,’ she says. ‘I was a nonfiction writer, but then I was on my way to work one day, stuck at traffic lights, and it was like watching a movie. The idea just came to me.

‘I’m a bit of a daydreamer anyway, so when you’re stuck at the lights and it’s pouring with rain, well, what do you do? I must have been really thinking about it – suddenly I had all these cars honking at me from behind, and by the time I got to work I had the whole story planned out in my head, waiting for me to write.’

So why did she choose a murdermystery series? ‘A mystery story’s true essence is a journey through chaos to resolution. It offers an interesting way to look at social issues, and at history.’

She goes on to explain the particular appeal of the Maisie Dobbs series. ‘I can remember the bestselling author Lee Child speaking to a group of fledgling writers and saying that people come back to a character not because they want to know what the sleuth does to the case, but to see what the case does to the sleuth.’

And with nine books in the series to date, Jacqueline describes how she developed the character with a cowriter. ‘I shared the first manuscript with this one friend, who was my writing buddy; we always shared our work with each other but we didn’t criticise. A writing buddy doesn’t critique your work, they just highlight what they like, and that means you have a real sense of what resonates. Plus it keeps you going when you’ve got other things on at the same time.’

Then, Jacqueline had written about a third of her first novel when she was seriously injured in a horse-riding accident. Her right arm was completely out of action – ‘in scaffolding’ – but her friend said it was the perfect time to finish her book.

‘I said, “You’ve got to be kidding, I’m right-handed”,’ recalls Jacqueline. ‘But she looked at me and said, “You’ve got a left hand for something. Get on with it”. And I thought, she’s absolutely right. So I came home and started writing with my left hand and finished my book.’

The manuscript was finished in three months – and surgeons were amazed at Jacqueline’s progress. ‘I was so desperate to get my right hand on the keyboard that I was very good with my daily exercises,’ she adds.

Despite the huge success of the series, she reveals that it didn’t all fall neatly into place. ‘When I was working on my second novel, I almost stumbled into writer’s block. That’s when I thought, they’re going to find me out; I don’t know what I’m doing. So I drew upon the other great love of my life, which is dressage.

‘Every day you practise basic skills. And I thought, that’s what I’ve got to do with my writing. I was living an hour from the University of California, Los Angeles, at the time, and I flicked through its brochure one day, and saw an ‘Illuminating Writers’ workshop. I thought, that’s it, I need to be illuminated. I signed up for it and I had such a great time. I went back time and time again.

‘Like an athlete, you have to crosstrain. If you’re a high jumper, you don’t just practise high jump all day, you also practise running, balance, all sorts of things. As a writer, I’m writing fiction and telling stories that are in my head, but it helps me to write non-fiction.

‘I always know my beginning and end when I start writing, and I always know my title. But I’m not too restrictive in planning because I want freedom. I don’t make that big a deal out of plot, to tell you the truth, and that might be my biggest weakness. To me it’s about characters and a chain of events, and bringing those characters together through that chain of events…’

And what does the future hold… Will Maisie Dobbs have as long a sleuthing career as Miss Marple? ‘Well, I have some very specific plans that I can’t tell you about right now,’ says Jacqueline.

And on that suitably mysterious note…

A Lesson In Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear is published by Allison & Busby in paperback, price £7.99.

Meet Jacqueline at The Lady Literary Lunch on 4 December.

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