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To Tell the Truth, Anna Smith

Writing.ie | Magazine | Crime Fiction & True Crime | Special Guests

By Vanessa Baker

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After working as a chief reporter for Scotland’s The Daily Record, Anna Smith published her first novel, Spit Against the Wind, in 2003, to critical acclaim. Her debut was followed by The Homecoming in 2005.

Smith went on to begin the Rosie Gilmour series in 2011, with the latest novel released in February of this year.

In To Tell the Truth, the second book in the crime series about journalist Gilmour, Smith draws on some true investigations she conducted as an award-winning journalist in Glasgow.

Attempting to recover from the events of the first book, The Dead Won’t Sleep, protagonist Gilmour takes a much needed holiday, but finds herself covering an abduction after a three-year-old girl is taken from her parents’ holiday home in Spain.

Smith says the things she was exposed to during her time as an investigative journalist lead to a fascination with the types of stories depicted in her books. “As a journalist, the stories I covered varied from whatever big news story was breaking anywhere in the world, to investigations and exposés. Crime and thrilling writing, for me, just grew from there.

“My first novel, The Dead Won’t Sleep, is about prostitution, drug barons, and bent cops – all of which I’ve reported on and exposed over the years. I spent so much time at the heart of these kind of stories and in the underbelly of Glasgow, that turning my experiences to fiction, with a woman journalist as the main protagonist, came naturally.”

Real crimes often serve as the inspiration for Smith’s work and provide an in for her to tackle issues like human trafficking, which is a major theme in To Tell The Truth.

“All of my plots are based on people I have either encountered, or stories I worked on. What draws me to characters are the people on the fringes – those on the outside with no voice – and how they get used and abused by people in power. I don’t keep a scrapbook of stories, but most of them are so graphic, they are always at the back of my mind. A few of them still haunt me.”

Smith admits that, as a journalist, there were times when legalities prevented her from exploring or reporting on topics that interested her. “A lot of my stories are about the underbelly [of society], and it’s true that there are some stories I wasn’t able to write because of legal reasons. So it’s good to be able to fictionalize the stories and the characters.”

As a weekly columnist at the Scottish News of the World, Smith says the hacking scandal that forced the paper to shut down meant a lot of work done in the public interest was unfairly coloured by a few crooked people. “I would have gone to great lengths to get a story, and not all of my methods would be popular, but hacking phones or e-mails is something I have never done. I’m very much old school when it comes to that. Although, I wonder how people would feel if there was an international paedophile ring, and the only way to trap them was to hack their phones. Worth thinking about.”

While Smith has won awards and covered a range of stories during the course of her career as a journalist, she prefers writing fiction to reporting facts. “Fiction, for me, is where I feel most comfortable, because I live in my imagination. As a journalist, I was reacting to major news stories, newsgathering, travelling non-stop all over the world. And it can be a lot of pressure, so being able to explore a character and plot while I’m cycling around my home in the Dingle Peninsula is a mighty privilege.”

The scope of story ideas Smith had conjured up using her journalistic background as fuel lead to the conception of the Rosie Gilmour series. “Even before I started the first Rosie Gilmour novel, I had her in mind as a character to drive a series of novels, because I have a wealth of stories in my locker. So I’ve made her age somewhere in her 30s, because I want her to be quite experienced as a journalist and a woman.”

In addition to inspiring plot ideas, Smith’s professional experiences have also helped inform her settings. “What I’m trying to do with Rosie is to take her out of Glasgow and make her travel, as I did as a journalist. I want to give my character and novels an international feel, and that’s why the second book is in Spain and Morocco, and a lot of the third book is in Bosnia, Belgrade and Kosovo. I’ve been there, so I can make these places feel real, I hope.”While she originally set out to write a series, she doesn’t have a precise plan for the overall arc of the books. “I have just finished book three in the series, and I’m about to start the fourth, but I hope I can have several more. The challenges of writing a series are keeping the character attractive and maintaining a gripping plot and building other characters that the reader will care about. Having a gripping story is the key. If you have a fast-moving story in every novel, you’re halfway there. But keeping the character fresh with fresh challenges in every book is the most difficult part.

“I do a bit more plotting in my head than I used to. I try to work out how each scene and event will impact on the other before I sit down and write a chapter. I also have notes to keep reminding me of the various twists in the plot, because it’s easy to get so caught up when you’re writing. But I find once I’m into a character, they almost tell their own story, and when I’m doing that, I know I’m hooked in. It’s a good feeling.”

Since the demise of The News of the World meant the end of Smith’s weekly column, she has more freedom, though says she still structures her day with a routine of news consumption, exercise, and writing. “I write in the afternoons, but not every day, unless I’m working to a deadline. But a lot of the time, I’m working in my head. Being down in the west of Ireland is really conductive to writing, as the solitude and loneliness helps. But I do get a bit of cabin fever on my own. So when that happens, I just up and leave and go somewhere else for awhile.”

Though Smith’s writing interests lie primarily with crime fiction, her reading taste is more diverse. “I’m a fan of American crime authors: Clancy, Crumley, Coben. And I read some UK crime authors too. I’m currently reading Stuart Neville’s latest novel, and am most impressed with his style of writing. But I also like books other than crime, and will happily lose myself in one of my favourite books, such as A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, or anything by Paulo Coelho, as I love anything that’s beautifully written. I also like Colm Tobin. But to be honest, I don’t read as much as I would like to, as I’m busy with deadlines for my novels, and I rarely these days take the time to lose myself in a novel unless I have a couple of weeks where I’m doing nothing else and can do the book justice.”

Smith advises aspiring crime writers to take advantage of the freedom the genre gives. “The best advice I would give to new crime writers is, ‘Don’t be daunted by your imagination.’ As we see from newspapers and worldwide television, anything is possible in the world of crime. People do all sorts of evil things, and often their stories take our breath away. Also, it’s important to do a bit of research, so your story and plotline are believable. And give your characters plenty of attitude.”

About the author

(c) Vanessa Baker March 2012

Vanessa Baker is a freelance journalist and M.Phil Creative Writing student at Trinity College Dublin. She holds a Bachelor of Journalism with Combined Honours in Human Rights from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She can be reached through her blog:http://bakervan.wordpress.com/ or via Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/vanbakes.

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