Write Advice: author Julia Crouch explains her drafting process

Julia Crouch
6 September 2017
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Mo Harber-Lamond

In her second session with our Writing Crime Fiction students, author Julia Crouch explores the importance of perfecting your novel’s setting, her drafting and editing routine, and how a book’s cover is designed.

  • Broaden your palette of crime fiction techniques
  • Master suspense and add intrigue to your plotlines and characterisation
  • Explore a new genre and assess your potential
Writing Crime Fiction

Q – Hi Julia, it’s great to have you back! I enjoy reading books set in places I know. In Her Husband’s Lover and other books, do you create new parts of Cambridge in your head, or only use existing locations as your setting?

Julia Crouch – Thanks for having me! For me, it’s really a combination. For example, Brookside Lane doesn’t exist, but it is, in my head, Brookside (very inventive of me…). The house is that of the family of an old boyfriend of mine, and Sophie’s house is in that bedsit land up near the bridge in Mill Road. It’s all pretty real, but nothing is too specific, because for people who know a place it’s annoying to read something that gets the details wrong. I did have to check that Reality Checkpoint was still there, and in doing so, I discovered that the aforementioned boyfriend’s big brother was responsible for the first ever bit of graffiti there and, in effect, named it.

Q – Do you jump around when you are writing, or stick to the rough sequence of events?

JC – It depends. With Her Husband’s Lover, I wrote the backstory as one chunk, and the ‘now’ parts as another. Then I broke them up and made them fit together so that they sort of bounced off each other to build tension.

Q – How many hours a day or week do you aim for?

JC – With a fair wind behind me, a first draft takes about 6-8 months. Don’t forget, though, that it’s my day job. I like to write 2000 words a day when drafting, then I spend weeks poring over my virtual Scrivener corkboard, moving stuff around.

Q – Her Husband’s Lover is very televisual, in the way The Replacement was for BBC last year. Do you write with this possibility in mind, or is it a bonus to be picked up by a production company?

JC – I write the novel I need to write. I did, however, spend a couple of years exploring screenwriting in my early thirties, and I loved it. I think some of it has stuck with me. I’m just about to sign an option with a film company for Her Husband’s Lover, so I’m waiting to see what will happen with that!

The focus on salient detail in screenwriting was a real training.

Julia Crouch

Q – How has screenwriting influenced your writing?

JC – It’s very different to novel writing. In screenwriting you can do in one line of dialogue and a few action directions what it takes several pages to achieve in a novel. But the focus on salient detail was a real training.

Q – You mentioned Scrivener earlier, so how do you rate it? I use it, but often struggle as I find it a little unintuitive.

PWA Tutor Tom Bromley – If you haven’t tried Scrivener before, it’s well worth a dip into. It doesn’t work for everyone, but really clicks for some in helping to order story, notes, research, ideas, etc.

JC – It’s impossible to use all of Scrivener’s features! I love it, and don’t know how I would write without it. It is a lovely mixture of structural and visual.  I would say to do the quick start tutorial, and then work with it and discover its features on a need to know basis. Don’t try and learn it all at once because your head will explode. David Hewson’s ebook Writing a Novel with Scrivener is a fantastic resource.

Q – Thanks for the Scrivener pointers – beyond saving everything frequently. I just tend to chuck loose papers and notebooks in a crate!

JC – A crate is actually a good idea. I have a box for each project, but as I get increasingly digital it’s more a folder on my hard drive and my Scrivener document. There’s nothing like real stuff, though. I have old Greek coins, my old travelling diaries from the early 80s and some old Let’s Go Greece guidebooks in my The Long Fall box.

Q – Do you ever give up on a novel if you feel its not working, or do you keep on editing and rewriting until it’s right?

JC –  Her Husband’s Lover involved a whole given up on novel. I rewrote the whole bloody thing. It literally took me another year. But out of the ashes of the failed first novel, I have two new ones, so it’s not too bad. However, I am of the belief that you can make anything work with enough self-criticism and the strength to make massive changes, even though, in doing so, you are creating a ton of extra work for yourself.

Even after all the problems, I carried on because I believed in the characters and the story.

Julia Crouch

Q – What kept you going with Her Husband’s Lover?

JC –  I believed in the characters and the story – I just had to find the best way of telling them. In the failed first novel, there was no back story. I realised that this was the key to making the present work. Luckily my editor and my agent were completely with me during this process, and we had many great discussions about the problems, so they kept me on track.

TB – So – without giving any spoilers away – what was the starting point for Her Husband’s Lover?

JC – The starting points for Her Husband’s Lover were the following: 

  1. A woman who will stop at nothing to erase the past and make a completely fresh start. 
  2. A woman wakes up in an overheated top-storey flat and sees a boy standing just outside her window
  3. A house I saw when I was on a train, on its own, in the middle of the Fens, with one light burning in an upstairs window.

Q – There are lots of visual ideas going on there!

TB – One of the many things that Julia is very good at is her use of the different senses in her description. I was teaching a session last week from her debut novel Cuckoo, and it’s brilliantly interwoven. That’s something to try and add into your own writing!

JC – Thanks, Tom. There’s this great theatre exercise I used to do with actors, where you just lie down and listen and note the noises around you. When you concentrate, it’s amazing what you can hear. The same about what you see or smell – sit in a spot and write for ten minutes about everything you can see and smell.

Q – With your background, are you ever tempted to ask your publisher if you can design the jacket?

JC – No – I’m too close to the material. Also, book jacket design is a dark art, all to do with marketing and current trends. I’m really happy to hand it over. I do have right of veto over my covers in my contracts, but, while I can express preferences and get the odd feature changed, I don’t think I could ever really turn down a cover that everyone else in the process is happy with.

Also, a lot of contracts give the author ‘cover consultation’ which means they have to show you it, but can then ignore everything you say!

TB – Thank you so much Julia for your time! Some really great answers here.

JC – Always happy to answer your questions! Good luck with your writing, all of you.

Julia has been a theatre director, playwright, drama teacher, publicist, graphic/website designer and illustrator. It was while she was doing an MA in Sequential Illustration that she realised what she really loved was writing. She took some online creative writing courses and wrote two NaNoWriMo novels. The second of these went on to become her debut novel, Cuckoo (Headline), which was followed by Every Vow You Break, Tarnished, The Long Fall and Her Husband's Lover. Her novels have been translated into six languages. She now works full time as a writer, but also really enjoys teaching. She has taught and mentored on MA courses and at festivals and workshops throughout the UK.

Writing Crime Fiction

Begins: 29 January 2018