How (and What) I write – Cathy Ace

The plot thickens as Cathy Ace, an unrepentant plotter, describes her techniques and how they carried her through a recent period we would all love to forget.

Back in January 2020 I was interviewed at this very blog. At the time I was writing the 9th Cait Morgan Mystery, The Corpse with the Crystal Skull, and was about to head off on a Caribbean cruise, where I intended to finish writing the book which – happily for me! – is set on Jamaica.

At the end of the interview, when asked ‘What’s next?’, here’s the reply I gave:

‘Once this book is released into the wild (2020) I’ll get on with the next psychological suspense novel where ex-detective inspector Evan Glover (who retired from the West Glamorgan Police Service in THE WRONG BOY) and his psychotherapist wife Betty play a role (for 2021). Then? Possibly the fifth in my WISE Enquiries Agency Mystery series, which features four soft-boiled female private eyes who run their business out of a converted barn on the estate of a Welsh stately home, the seat of the Dukes of Chellingworth in the Wye Valley (for 2021/2022). Or maybe I won’t be able to resist the pull of another Cait Morgan Mystery – I don’t know.

Of course, I was among the billions around the world who had no idea of how a global pandemic would change all our lives!

When invited to write this blog post about ‘How I Write’ I felt it necessary to insert the (AND WHAT) into the title because, upon reflection, whilst lockdown (or, as we’re calling it now, The Pandemic Pause) didn’t really change how I write, it certainly changed what I write, which, to be honest, is something that hadn’t occurred to me until just now!

HOW I WRITE: My overall writing process is that of a plotter…and I admit I’m a fanatically detailed plotter. This means I imagine the whole book in my head, as though it’s a film, before I put anything on paper, so my initial outline goes from the start to the end of the story with the entire plot already in place. Then I shape the storytelling and break the whole thing into parts (or acts, like a play), then into chapters. I do all the character development, including backstories for everyone (much of which might not end up in the book), and carry out all the nitty gritty research I need (poisons, weapons, technology, places, timings, phases of the moon…whatever). Finally, I build my chapter outlines against the headings of WHERE the chapter takes place, WHO is in the chapter, WHAT happens to them/they do, WHEN this all takes place, WHAT I want the reader to know at the end of the chapter, WHAT I want the reader to feel at the end of the chapter, and, in notes for myself, WHY all of this happens.

Because every story I tell comes from the deep within the psychological core of my characters (yes, once a psychologist, always a psychologist, it seems!), this way works best for me – I can’t drop in clues at a later date because everything has to arise from the characters and circumstances as the story unspools. THEN – I sit down and write the book (first drafts of around 90,000 words take me about four weeks at the laptop), trying to get the film that was originally in my head onto paper, without the words getting in the way of the storytelling. Eventually, there’s editing and polishing (I have a substantive edit after the first draft, and a full edit after draft x [insert any number from 3 to 15 here]), proofing, and – AT LAST – publishing.

This method works for me – which is not to say it will for everyone.

TIP: If you usually plot, try flying by the seat of your pants for one week of writing, and see how the different style suits you, and vice versa. I did, and quickly found out that being a ‘pantster’ wasn’t for me, but it might be for you, or – if you don’t usually use a plotting approach – you might find that plotting helps you save lots of wasted writing, because you know where your story is going. Also allow for a hybrid approach: plot up to a certain point in the book, knowing the basic shape of the ending, maybe, then let your writing take flight.

Over the past almost-three-years since I answered that original question, the HOW aspect of my writing hasn’t changed. But WHAT I did with that period of time is not what I expected.

Yes, the 9th Cait Morgan Mystery was launched into what was, at the time, the uncertain void of lockdown. It came out in June 2020, was exceptionally well reviewed, and has sold well. BUT…I didn’t turn to psychological suspense next: I didn’t feel up to dwelling in the dark corners of characters’ minds, because that’s where we were all living at the time…in a place of uncertainty, where the use of the word ‘unprecedented’ had taken on tragic overtones we’d never expected.

No, instead, I decided to give my protagonist, Welsh Canadian professor of criminal psychology Cait Morgan, a murder to solve that took place on her own doorstep in her adopted home of Canada (The Corpse with the Iron Will) because I wanted her to have to reassess her relationship with concepts like security, home, community, and her own mortality, as I was – and billions of others were – doing, but I chose to not mention the pandemic at all.

I used my process to get me through writing that book…it became my escape at a time when going out just to buy a loaf of bread was a major undertaking, with associated, pre-vaccine, nightmarish risks. I’m delighted to say that it ended up being not only well reviewed, but also shortlisted for the Crime Writers of Canada’s Award of Excellence for the Best Canadian Crime Novel of 2021 as well as the Crime Fiction Lover Best Indie of the year, too. And the sales were excellent – thank you, dear readers.

TIP: I’ve discovered that people are just finding the first in my Cait Morgan Mysteries series now, ten years after it was published…something for which I am grateful. While I certainly trust my readers to consider the first publication date of a book and generally factor that into their understanding of it (eg: technology etc.) I don’t want them to be ‘taken out’ of the story by attaching the tale to a specific point in time. Consider how specific FACTS and EVENTS may change the way current and future readers will view your writing, and make a thoughtful decision about including/excluding events we/your characters have lived through.

Still unable to face writing a book about psychological challenges, I decided to stick at it with Cait; the optioning of the books for a TV series meant I had a good reason to make sure there were as many stories featuring Cait Morgan and Bud Anderson as possible by the time TV production was able to get going again, so I wrote two more books in the series (I had so much more writing time available due to the fact that leaving Canada, even to visit Mum in Wales, wasn’t a possibility).

This was another opportunity for ‘comfort writing’ because I set The Corpse with the Granite Heart in London, where I’d lived for seventeen years, so was able to take Cait to an imposing house I knew well, fill it with a dysfunctional family upon whom tragedy of Shakespearean proportions was heaped, and to ‘visit’ galleries I love and miss, as well as restaurants that now only exist (thanks, pandemic!) in my memory. Then I packed her off to the Arizona desert (I wrote the book when it was minus 22 degrees outside!) where I delivered her into the clutches of a cult (The Corpse with the Turquoise Toes) because…well, let’s just say that over the past few years, I, along with millions of others, have become all-too aware of the power it’s possible for ‘charismatic individuals’ to gain over people, when those people are desperate for answers.

Then, finally, this year, I was ready for a bit of fun! (Weren’t we all!?) After five years, I rejoined my chums at the WISE Enquiries Agency (The Case of the Disgraced Duke). For them, only a few weeks had passed since I last spent time with them; they’d lived through no pandemic, no real problems, no significant ageing…but I gave them another set of cases to tackle, using their individual skills, yet working as a team. Oh boy, I enjoyed writing that book, and it seems the world was ready for a cosy, comfy Welsh murder-mystery, where layers of history meet modern technology…the sales have been phenomenal. Thank you!

So, over time, my process – my HOW – has remained constant, but my planned WHAT has changed. When will I be ready to write that next dark, psychologically suspenseful Evan Glover book? Not sure…but I think now’s the time to keep giving readers what they’re telling me they want – some more tales of dastardly deeds in ultimately-comforting Welsh surroundings, so I think I’ll spend a bit more time with the WISE women for the foreseeable future.

TIP: Be flexible – if you’re not in the right frame of mind to tackle a certain project/topic/style, try something fresh…maybe even a short story vs a novel. A change really is as good as a rest.

Thanks for the chance to think things through like this, here – despite the weeks I’ve managed to spend with my family in Wales this year (finally hugging loved ones – thank goodness!) joining the gang at Crime Cymru is always an added bonus.


Find more about Canadian resident, Swansea-born Cathy Ace on her website: https://www.cathyace.com/
Or follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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