• John Dempster

Crime Tips with Gareth Halliday


We had lovely, relaxed Workshop evening on Tuesday, attended by 11 people in person and 7 on-line. The speaker was Beauly-based Gareth Halliday, author of From the Shadows, Dark Matters and the soon-to-be-published Under the Marsh, crime novels set in Inverness and surroundings. Margaret Chrystall from the Courier wrote a lovely five-start review of the evening here


In the course of the evening, Gareth read the first few pages of Under the Marsh, showing us what a fine writer he is, gifted in evoking character and place in words which reveal so much. He was asked about his journey into print, and described how he wrote his first novel ten years ago at the age of 30, writing 500 words a day. He offered the finished MSS off to the agency who represents authors such as Lee Child, fully expecting a knock-back. Instead he received a email – he told us this was the most exciting moment in his writing life – asking him to submit the full text. Soon, he was working with an agent, and the book sold in an auction to Vintage.


So what could we learn from Gareth about crime fiction writing? He gave us an exercise in reflecting on the ‘hook’ we’ll use to draw people in – an action, a question perhaps: something to excite the reader and urge them to keep reading. Like the opening of Under the Marsh – I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy to hear what happens to Freya and how young Jessica reacts. To Gareth, the ‘hook’ is the starting point for planning the novel – it not only acts as a hook to draw the reader into the finished story, but it leads the author forward and guides him through the web of possibilities.


To discover the ‘hook’, Gareth suggested reflecting quietly, letting ideas simply well up from the subconscious; or considering a book or drama you like, asking how you’d pitch it to a publisher, and letting the insights this generates inspire your own hook-fishing. Some of us (on-line and in-person) shared the opening lines we wrote in response to this challenge: every one of them made me ask ‘what comes next?’


And then we’d a question-and-answer session – Gareth appreciated this, as it’s the first presentation he has done to fellow-writers, and our questions were different from those he’s used to from general readers.


His approach to structuring a book is to have a fairly vague idea of where the story is heading, and then let it develop as writing progresses. He aims to have what he calls a ‘mini-drama’ to keep the reader’s interest every three pages, and emphasizes the importance of suspense and tension. He realizes that this approach leads to the need for heavy editing later, but for him to have a rigid structure in place is too limiting, and prevents him from letting the story develop a life of its own.


He was asked about whether he ‘ties up’ all the loose ends in a story, or whether he plants ‘loose ends’ which can be picked up in subsequent books in the series. He says he is comfortable with leaving in loose ends – but his publishers like loose ends tied up, as they annoy readers.

However he has panted some seeds in the more recent novels (he has already completed his fourth) which he hopes to pick up in later books. And there’s a hint of a prequel……


(interestingly, Gareth speculated on the rise of interest in crime fiction from 20 years ago when he worked in the Stirling Waterstones and saw only a couple of shelves of crime novels. He speculates that this may be because of a decline in religious faith – as people have moved from finding morality and ethics in religious narratives, are they looking to crime fiction for an assurance that good is stronger than evil?)


After lots of questions and answer, the evening finished about 8.30pm. Mo, who was chairing the event, thanked Gareth, and presented him with a bookmark she had specifically designed and made for the evening. She also thanked Scott Fraser and Cathy Carr who managed the technology, and made it possible for it to be a ‘hybrid’ event.


(Photos: above - Gareth; below - Gareth and Mo, Scott and Cathy, and Gareth's novels together with the bookmark Mo created for him.)




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