Pat McDonald is the author of the crime novel Getting Even: Revenge Is Best Served Cold the first book in her Crime Trilogy. Her career as a researcher, project manager and programme manager began initially in the Health Service – in Medicine, Mental Illness and Learning Disabilities; after which she spent 17 years working for a police force where she gained experience across all areas of law enforcement and the justice systems.
Time to chat with Pat!
What is your latest book?
My book Getting Even: Revenge Is Best Served Cold is the first published crime novel in a trilogy. The second Rogue Seed is currently being proof read and the third one Boxed Off is at the stage of finalisation of bringing together all the plots and being edited. My writing limitation is the inability to end a story and I usually amass a number of alternative endings – sometimes choosing is a problem for me and I tend to write them all in, usually leaving a ‘cliff hanger’ which naturally takes the book over into the start of another book, hence I found myself writing this trilogy. Although deciding to finish and finding a suitable ending for the trilogy, I would not definitely say that is as far as this group of characters go. Maybe I will take it up again, but that is not my current plan.
What are the special challenges in writing a series?
Starting as I have new to crime fiction and beginning by writing a three book series, meant I was faced with difficulties that I did not foresee. It was quite a challenge remembering all my characters and those minor things that make continuity a really important issue. My style and process as a ‘free flow’ writer makes it important to re-read and edit continuously. By ‘free flow’ I am not sure whether that is a legitimate description for my vivid imagination. I do not plan a book and neither do I set out the plot beforehand – it emerges as each scene is revealed. Like a large quilted blanket each is stitched into place to form an orderly pattern. Somehow it seems to work.
How often do your characters surprise you by doing or saying something totally unexpected?
All my characters are a huge surprise to me because I have no idea where they come from! I find myself building them around snippets or impressions of a variety of people I meet or have met in life. It could quite easily be someone I met whilst travelling, at an airport or a bus station; I have a continued interest in ‘people watching’ and seem to attract an inordinate number of interesting people as if I were a magnate and some seemingly quite odd or strange make an impression and often become a trait of one of my characters. More oftentimes revealing itself in the dialogue between my characters that I love so much to write; or perhaps a mannerism, or piece of strange behaviour – one such character is Hugo Bott who enters at Rogue Seed and continues through to Boxed Off. He is a character I enjoyed creating and developing and it was difficult to decide whether he would emerge as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Do you have complete control over your characters or do they ever control you?
My characters are as real to me as those in everyday life. They are in fact unpredictable and often take me by surprise when a scene emerges and I write it to its natural conclusion. The hardest part is deciding whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because the basis of my crime stories is this underlying theme – some people are nice and some people are just plain bad. I have a tussle sometimes because you can get awfully fond of the wrong characters and even where you want to make them into better people, they just won’t change! As a writer I like to elicit a reaction from my reader and do have a tendency to want to shock – any kind of reaction is all we can hope for from our readers. I pride myself on including the full spectrum of emotions and nothing makes me happier than to have a reader tell me they cried at one of my scenes. I do and I write it!
What part of writing a novel do you enjoy the most and least?
This is an easy question and I think perhaps universally felt by all writers – I love just writing, letting the plot flow and take me with it, losing myself to my imagination and letting it pour out. The least is the processing for publication, the dreaded editing. This is made worse for me by a rebellious streak and a love of writing as an art form – I do not want to comply with convention and be told how long my books should be, how many chapters etc. I want it to be as close to how it flowed from me as it possibly can be. Or indeed to be told where I should put adverbs. Did anyone tell Picasso how to hold his brush, how much paint to apply or what each stroke should look like? My writing isn’t a Picasso, but to me it is my creation. I have a problem with the conventions of this process.
Some authors, like me, always write scenes in order. But I know some people write scenes out of order. How about you?
I definitely write scenes as they come out and often rearrange them according to the emerging story. Someone once said that there is a difference between being a writer and a storyteller; a writer plans what they are going to write whereas a storyteller sits in front of a blank screen or piece of paper and writes. Although I have been a writer all my life in my varied careers and academic writings, I am now a storyteller. It gave me a sense of freedom through writing that I have never known before. When I begin a book I have no idea how it will end and sometimes even what the next scene will be – it is gloriously addictive.
Is it important for you to know the ending or title of a book before you write it?
The ending of a book is my foible and I often have more than one which is why I probably write such long books and so many in a genre series. But when the end comes to me, I then work back and fit the plot into producing that ending. It is often like doing a jigsaw puzzle, but when I find a good ending (for it is a discovery not a plan) I know it is close to me fitting it altogether. My titles either come from the way the book flows as in the first one, or as the next two given to me by a chance conversation with a person I meet and I suddenly realise just how good a title it would make. The titles become the theme of the book and I explore the different facets of it, allowing my characters to describe through their exploits what that theme is. Rogue Seed came from a conversation about a strange plant that grew from a packet of chilli seeds! It allowed me to explore the botanical concept – something growing where it shouldn’t be found, or the police concept of ‘going rogue’ where an officer diverges into criminal association, or even the biological concept of a human seed growing in the womb. My characters link it together whilst criminal activity abounds. I often joke that I have more bodies than Midsomer Murders (which is a UK crime drama series).
How important is the choosing of character names to you? Have you ever decided on a name and then changed it because it wasn’t right for the character?
I find names fascinating and whilst in the beginning they came largely out of my imagination, as the number of characters and the different ethnic backgrounds emerged I found myself turning often to a Name’s Generator package which gives names randomly according to the gender and ethnicity. Where it fell short was when I needed a Jamaican name and found that in Jamaica there is a large emergence of different nationalities rather than that which was solely native to Jamaica. I resorted to pulling up the Jamaican national football and cricket team players and finding a first and last name I like that went together! I thought that was quite ingenious, for me. I like to explore the meaning of names, and some of my characters have meaningful names. The only time I have changed a name is when I think it might be misconstrued as someone in real life which none of my characters are.
Have you ever written characters that you truly despise?
Not being overly fond of murderers, rapists, child molesters and torturers I would have to say unequivocally yes. My main ‘baddie’ took some stomaching and he had this habit of calling the wife he abused ‘My love’ in a sarcastic and jeering way. When someone said this to me in real life I found it hard to take and asked them would they mind not using that! Quite funny, yet made me cringe. I have to say I do have a fair proportion of not very nice characters, but I do balance them out with some lovely ones too. Being true to real life, my despicable characters often get away with it!
Do you allow others to read your work in progress, or do you keep it a secret until you’ve finished your first draft? Can you elaborate?
I think most writers find it difficult to let their work be read – it took me a while to acclimatise to the concept that I was writing for others to read my work. I have now begun to overcome this and have Rogue Seed being proof read by a friend who has read the first novel. I have had the need to grow into this aspect of being a writer, but now wish I had let my first Crime novel be read. I read it eleven times and thoroughly hated it by the time it was released! There are a few typos even at the final revision, and one very hilarious mistake that only one person has spotted so far – maybe one day I’ll offer a prize to whoever spots it!
Were you “born to write” or did you discover your passion for writing later in life?
I think I realised as a child that I wanted to be a writer. I had an insatiable appetite for reading and as a member of my local library joined the children’s section and read my way through it. I was granted permission to the adult section before I was old enough (with Librarian vetting!) and proceeded to read classics, poetry, plays and just about anything. I started writing in early teens and when I read the short stories (not so short was my foible even then!) it still amazes me that I wrote them. I wrote poetry early on and published some of my poems in anthologies and I still write poetry, and now dabble with Haiku. Since joining social media and meeting a large number of very talented writers I also try my hand at Micro Fiction – but this is more as a therapy – to try and limit my tendency to lengthy prose!
I knew at 15 years of age I wanted to write fiction, spending years writing academic books, papers, reports, reviews and manuals of guidance. It was only when I finished full time work that I sat down and did what I had promised myself – became a writer of fiction.
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, how do you get around it?
I did suffer writer’s block early on in my first novel. I had spent every day writing a number of other genre before I began the crime novel and write fairly consistently straight onto a screen. I discovered quite by chance a way to dispel the problem when I went for a coffee in the coffee shop of my local garden centre. I sat reading a letter from a friend about her holiday and really loved being amongst people I didn’t know, a world of passing strangers. I took out a tiny note book I carried and wrote a whole chapter that came to me and I was off and writing once more. I became a frequent visitor and wrote most of my first crime novel and the second sat in the same seat; almost a minor celebrity I found people moved from the table to let me have it! It taught me to write anywhere and part of the book I wrote flying out to Dubai and a good chunk staying in Al Ain and Fujairah on the Indian Ocean – needless to say I wrote these places into my novel – research is research!
If you could add a room onto your current home, what would you put in it?
There is really only one room that I would love to have in my home and that is a library. I have spent my life collecting books for the time when I own such a room. I can visualise what it looks like with the walls floor to ceiling with book shelves, a large oak desk in front of French doors that open onto a wonderful garden and it would contain a large and very comfortable couch for me to sit and read and review other people’s books. What I actually have is a house where most of the walls in most of the rooms have book shelves, so much so that I think they are now lode bearing! People often ask me why I keep all the books and did I know that I could sell them on eBay. I politely hold on to my inner voice and just smile – for if they don’t know why, then then don’t understand.
What simple pleasure makes you smile?
There is a lot about life that is joyous. Someone once told me that I seemed to enjoy the simplest of things, but I probably didn’t understand what they meant then. I think the world is a beautiful place and most people let it pass them by unnoticed. There are such fascinating natural occurrences that I feel fortunate to have seen. For me happiness and contentment has always been about how I felt; partly the feeling of being free, partly of experiencing to the full some of the real things in life. Breathe the air, feel the sun on my face, watch a sunset, sunrise, a total eclipse, a wild storm, a huge flock of swarming birds, the Northern Lights; all of which I can appreciate and which make me feel good to be alive. Scotland drew me and gave me pleasures I could never imagine; sitting on a rock overlooking Loch Muick with deer roaming in the heather and the sun on my face was such a wonderful almost spiritual feeling – a place to soothe the soul.
If you could be invisible for a day, what would you do?
I think people who know me would expect me to give an amusing example of what I would like to do if I became invisible. The truth is that over time it is something I have often felt and have written about the need to withdraw and recoup from the world; on days like this you hope to go about your business unnoticed and ignored. I have a tendency to attract the attention of some of life’s strangest of people whilst out. They come up to me in the most unlikely of places and tell me their life’s story; and yes of course I listen because they have a need to do so and it might be important for them at that moment in time. But I am a people watcher and like to sit in terminals and observe the daily round of people going about their business, be it terminals for trains, buses, coaches, planes and such like. I think it is fuel for my imagination.
What music soothes your soul?
I have a wide taste in music, but love some classical music more than others. I have recently become reacquainted with the Viola which I once played in a couple of orchestras and lost touch with. I treated myself to one and began with the basics (still at that level), but found I love to listen to Vivaldi. I love Africa and Arabian music and find this very soothing and very moving.
What are three things you think we can all do to make the world a better place?
There are only three things that I believe would make the world a better place. The first is kindness, the second is kindness and the third is kindness. If everyone in the world indulged in one act of kindness each day the world would change because kindness grows and spreads when it is passed on. It’s like a ripple on the surface of a calm lake when you throw a pebble into it, the ripple moves outwards. Your act of kindness to someone you know or don’t know is likely to encourage them to be kind to someone else. It doesn’t have to be huge, just a smile, a card, a helping hand, a word of encouragement that might make their day. I try to live my life like that.
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