Having been born in Germany and growing up in the UK, do you think this offers you any advantage or disadvantage for writing fiction set in Australia?
I think my upbringing has helped shaped me as a writer. My British army parents were constantly being posted around the world, including two tours of duty to Australia. By the time I was 16 I had flown 12 times around the world.
My parents never stayed any longer than 2 years in each army camp, and as a result I was frequently holidaying in a strange country. When I was at school, I was one of about 300. When I was at home I was an only child with no one of my own age to hang out with. Similarly, having spent so long behind the convent walls; away from school I never felt particularly at home in the UK either.
I don’t consider myself as an outsider in Australia anymore, but I think I have still retained some of an outsider’s perspective. So yes, I think my migrant status has been an advantage to my writing. Sometimes things are much easier to see if you can step back from them.
Why did you choose to specialise in crime fiction, rather than another type of fiction or writing in a range of different areas?
I enjoy the almost unlimited boundaries and flexibility that crime fiction offers. There are subgenres to suit all tastes from the literary to the cosy, from sci-fi to the historical mystery. As long as the plot involves some kind of crime, you can do almost anything within the genre. I can’t see myself writing anything other than crime fiction at the moment.
How do you develop an initial concept for a story?
Basically I keep my ears tuned to what is going on around me, read the papers, follow the news and listen out for interesting topics that haven’t been done to death by other authors. Then I have to decide if I am interested enough in it to devote months of research to it. The initial concept has also got to be something that will strike a chord with my major characters. As well as being a cop, my protagonist, Stevie Hooper, is a mother, so I often have her involved with cases concerning children.
Do you have any strategies for getting from an initial concept to getting words down, or is it as simple as you just do it?
I don’t attempt to start a new project until my brain has been de-cluttered. I spend a lot of time staring into space and sighing, solving sudoko puzzles and reading my research material. Funnily enough, no one seems to believe me when I say that I am actually working. Somehow I just know when it’s time to start putting the words down.
What is the key to creating good mystery and suspense in a novel?
Be honest with your reader; make sure the answer to the mystery is there in the narrative for the astute reader to find. The structure and pace is also very important. Two writing clichés come to mind:
‘Make ‘em wait’— don’t reveal everything at once. This adds to the suspense.
‘Don’t be afraid to murder your babies.’ You might write something that you think is brilliant, but if it doesn’t move the plot forward or if it slows down the action scenes, be ruthless and get rid of it.
Good modern mysteries tend to be more character based than those from the Golden Age of crime writing. Having your reader care about what happens to the characters will also increase the reader’s suspense.
Which fictional works have been most influential to your writing or do you most admire and why?
Writers have to be huge readers, it’s almost like the written word is absorbed by osmosis over many years. Crime-fiction-wise, my tastes have changed. I used to go for the fast paced (often American) authors, now I lean toward novels of a slower, psychological bent (often British) where character is at least, if not more, important than plot. Some of my favourite crime authors are James–Lee Burke, Frances Fyfield, Minette Walters and Kate Atkinson. I’ve only recently discovered the latter. Her plotting is brilliant, her mix of humour and tragedy unique.
Could you give us an overview of how you wrote one of your novels?
In a nutshell my writing process involves finding things that I want to write about and tying them together with different threads. I’ll tell you about my latest, TAKE OUT because that is the freshest in my mind. If you don’t want to be spoiled don’t read any further!
There were several things I wanted to write about, for example the main crime plot, which is the cracking of a people trafficking ring. I also wanted to include the plight of an elderly stroke victim whom I called Mrs Hardegan. Also, years ago, I’d read about a baby who was abandoned for days in a house in New Zealand, but secretly fed by someone. The baby was to be my heroine’s (Stevie) trigger – the thing that really hit a nerve with her. Then I had to work out how to put those ingredients together.
The more I learned about people trafficking the more similarities I saw to the plight of the Japanese comfort women of WW2. I decided to make Mrs H an ex comfort woman. Furthermore, I discovered that elderly women are sometimes tricked into being used as mules for the trafficking of young women. The symmetry was falling into place. I decided to weave together Mrs Hardegan’s character with that of the trafficked Thai girl, Mai.
Stevie finds the baby in the opening scene of TAKE OUT and this sets her investigations off. Toward the end of the novel Stevie discovers that Mai is the mother of the abandoned baby and re-unites her with her child.
Is there any sort of writing you would like to see more of in Australia?
I think we already have a wonderful variety of writing in Australia; the problem is getting people to buy it.
What advice would you like to offer for emerging novelists about making their writing better?
Get as much professional help as you can. Take creative writing classes, employ manuscript assessors, join a (reputable) writer’s workshop and learn as much as you can about the publishing industry. Above all read widely and wisely.
What is next for you as a fiction writer?
I’ve back-flipped in time having just finished a historical mystery set in Edwardian England. The research is massive, but it’s wonderful not to have to worry about those pesky mobile phones, DNA and computers…
More on Felicity Young and her fiction can be found at www.felicityyoung.com.
The Australian Literature Review