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Pen and Ink: Claire McGowan on How I Write

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Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin

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Last week I met crime writer Claire McGowan at the National Library’s fabulous Cafe Joly, a favourite haunt of Dublin’s writers and the perfect place for literary chat.

Claire McGowan is 32 and grew up in a small village in Northern Ireland and after a degree in English and French from Oxford University she moved to London and worked in the charity sector. The Fall was her first novel, which is followed by a series starring forensic psychologist Dr. Paula Maguire in The Lost and The Dead Ground. 

When she’s not writing Claire is a freelance journalist and teaches an MA in Crime Writing at London’s City University. Despite so many achievements, Claire explained, “I always wanted to write but I convinced myself that it would never happen. I started lots of different stories but never finished them…When I was about 25 I started something and realised that I could actually finish it – it was one of the best moments of my life. I started sending it out and on a whim entered it into a competition that had about ten minutes left until it closed. I knew nothing about the industry but I got an agent as a result of that competition.”

Paula McGuire, McGowan’s protagonist, is part of a cross border Missing Persons Review team based in the fictional town of Ballyterrin. Claire revealed that she doesn’t quite know at the start of a novel what is going to happen – often she knows the end, and the core themes – in the next book one of these is hunger.  “I know what’s going to happen to Paula and what happens to the sub characters, and the various threads that are going to run through the book, so that gives it a structure. But when I’m starting writing I have no idea what happens, it evolves organically. I trust the process.”

claire_mcgowan_notebook_1cropWorking in bursts, writing 30,000 words taking a break and then writing the next 30,000, and so on until she gets to the final 10,000 words. Claire tries to write 1000 words a day when she’s putting together her first draft – and she doesn’t look back over it until she’s finished. Finding the online world a major distraction, Claire prefers to write long-hand in beautiful notebooks (apologies for dodgy photography, I didn’t have Ger Holland with me this time!) . “I get a really rough first draft, it’s almost like sketching, building a picture.”

claire_mcgowan_notebook_2cropClaire is also  very particular that she needs a black Bic biro with the lid on the end in order to do that. Without the lid she can’t write! Many writers have rituals that help them write, and another of Claire’s involve drinking LOTS of leaf tea.

Once Claire has a substantial part of her draft written, she’ll type it up, going over the story as she does so.

The Dead Ground has a brilliantly grim opening with a flashback to the early 1990s and the abduction of a man and the savage beating of his heavily pregnant wife – who then performs her own caesarean on the kitchen floor. It leaves no doubt that Claire is a true crime writer, although she didn’t set out to write in any particular genre.

The Dead Ground blurb is as gripping as the book itself: A stolen baby. A murdered woman. A decades-old atrocity. Something connects them all…

A month before Christmas, and Ballyterrin on the Irish border lies under a thick pall of snow. When a newborn baby goes missing from hospital, it’s all too close to home for forensic psychologist Paula Maguire, who’s wrestling with the hardest decision of her life.

Then a woman is found in a stone circle with her stomach cut open and it’s clear a brutal killer is on the loose.

As another child is taken and a pregnant woman goes missing, Paula Maguire is caught up in the hunt for a killer no one can trace, who will stop at nothing to get what they want.

 The Dead Ground will leave you gasping for breath as Paula discovers every decision she makes really is a matter of life and death…

clairemcgowanPaula Maguire is a fascinating character who has many secrets in her past that McGowan intends to reveal more of in future books. She told me, “I have an idea for how the series develops, it depends how many books there are.” The fact that the BBC has optioned the Dr. Maguire stories and there is talk of a TV series may well mean there are many more books to come which will give McGowan space to develop Dr. Paula Maguire still further. Indeed, McGowan mentioned that she is thinking of taking Paula Maguire out of Northern Ireland to a fictional island in the Republic like the Arran Islands.

Claire says, “The Dead Ground is the first time I’ve written a sequel, so in some ways it was much easier – I knew what had to happen to all my recurring cast. But it was also hard to remember what I’d said about things (what is the unit actually called? What colour are people’s eyes? How old is everyone?) and to make sure I wasn’t duplicating scenes from The Lost. You get to find out what Paula’s going to do about the cliffhanger at the end of The Lost, and a bit more about her missing mother, and there are developments for everyone else you met in the first book.”

As well as writing crime, Claire is venturing into women’s fiction and has been spending one day a week working on a new project, a lighthearted novel that steers clear of her more usual dark and grim subject matter. She’s very open to writing two books a year if her women’s fiction finds a home. She says, “It’s fun to write and no one gets killed.”

(c) Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin

For more tips on using notepads and writing your first draft, check out Hazel Gaynor’s thoughts on keeping a notebook

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