Author Interview: Fergus McNeill

Thursday 11 June 2015
Today I have Fergus McNeill on the blog with some great answers to my hopefully not boring questions! I was reading his short story Broken Fall when I thought it'd be a good idea to have Fergus on the blog for a Q&A given that the review would be short. You can read that review here, and I hope you enjoy reading the Q&A! Check back tomorrow when Gilly Macmillan will be featured.

Broken Fall is currently free on Amazon!

Can you introduce DI Graham Harland and your books to those readers who might not have read them yet?

Graham Harland is a Detective Inspector with Avon & Somerset Police. When we first meet him in 'Eye Contact' he has a fairly bleak outlook on life, following the death of his wife, but over the course of the series he finds solace in the cases he's assigned to. My books do have a little bit of 'police procedural' in them, but I like to focus on the human side of things too. Also, I usually try to devote around half the chapters to my baddies – I know it can be unsettling, getting into the head of the villain, but once you're there you've got the best seat in the house to enjoy the story.

Broken Fall is a novella. What was the biggest difference you found in writing it compared to your full-length stories? Was it easier or more difficult?

A bit of both! From the outset, Broken Fall was constrained by a strict word-limit. Unlike my full-length books, I didn't really have the luxury of exploring the story from multiple viewpoints, so it's told entirely from Harland's perspective. Doing this was a challenge, but it meant that I was able to do my first proper 'whodunit', which was actually a lot of fun.

In terms of development, I took the same approach with this as with all my other books, spending time in Bristol to carefully research the settings, writing "on-location" wherever possible, and so on. In the end, it was probably more effort per-chapter, for a shorter end result… but I'm pleased with the way it turned out.

Where do you get your ideas from? Eye Contact has a particularly intriguing sounding plot and so I am excited to eventually - late I know - read it! And Cut Out was a gripping crime novel with a psychological edge...

I suppose the ideas mostly come from letting my mind wander, day-dreaming, and asking myself What if…? Above all, I like to find a premise, or situation, that captures my imagination and makes me feel something. The psychological equivalent of a flickering candle in the gunpowder store-room… that's what I'm looking for.

Once I find something compelling, it's all about winding up my characters, setting them in motion, and seeing what they do. And if I'm still excited by it after that, it's probably time to start writing things down!

What is the writing process like for you? Do you have everything planned out before you write, or does the story change once you've started?

I like to know where each story begins and ends, and I do try to plan out as much of the plot as possible before I start. However, I've found that being too strict about this can really stifle some great ideas, so now I've learned to treat my outline plan as a kind of backup – it's there if I need it, but I'm completely open to something better, if it takes me in the direction I want to go. Stories always change, and some of the things I'm most pleased with came unexpectedly, a long way into the writing of the books concerned. But I suppose that's really not so strange, as I'm learning more about my characters and their world as I go along, and I know them better once I've been writing them for a while.

What does a typical writing day look like for you? With your job do you have to set time aside to write or can you write anywhere and everywhere?

My day job keeps me busy during the week, so a typical writing day for me would probably be a Saturday or Sunday. I'm definitely not a morning person, but I'll try and get to the station as early as possible, and set off for wherever I'm currently writing about. For a long time, that was Bristol, but at the moment I'm working on a standalone psychological thriller set in north London. I'll sketch out some ideas during the train journey and then, weather-permitting, write in the actual location (or a café close to it) for the morning. Through the course of the day, I'll often walk around a bit, change locations (or cafés) and generally try to immerse myself in the world my characters inhabit. I continue writing on the train back.

I do sometimes write at home, or during lunchtimes at work, but usually that's only to capture an idea or a train of thought while it's fresh. I prefer to lose myself in the story when I'm writing, and that's not always easy at home (or allowed at work)!

How long did it take from first word written to Eye Contact becoming a published novel? And what have you enjoyed most about being a published author?

That's one of the most original questions I've ever been asked! I'm not sure about the exact dates, but I know I started writing Eye Contact in late 2008, finished the first draft in July 2010, got an agent in April 2011, a book deal with Hodder in July 2011, and first hardback publication in September 2012… so that's about 4 years, end to end. It seems like a long time overall, but some parts of the journey pass quicker than others; nervously waiting for feedback is definitely the bit that drags the most!

There are two things that I truly love about being a published author. One is that enormous, surreal thrill when you see one of your books in a shop – it sounds silly, but it still gets me every time. The other is hearing from readers about the stories – I absolutely love it when people have questions, or theories, or just want to tell me how they felt about events in the books. More than anything else for me, that's the real reward in being a writer.

You are active on Twitter in the brilliant community where authors, bloggers, readers and publishers spend many hours discussing great books. Do you have a favourite author or a particular book that stands out from the past 12 months?

I've been lucky to make lots of author friends, and it would be impossible to pick one favourite, so instead I'll choose an absolutely brilliant book from someone I've not yet met – A Pleasure And A Calling by Phil Hogan. It's a gem of a story, with one of the most darkly enjoyable characters I've ever read. I can't recommend it highly enough.

What was CrimeFest like? Since becoming a blogger I have really wanted to attend a festival, and often experience pangs of jealousy when some of the accounts I follow Tweet from the various events!

CrimeFest is probably my favourite festival – basically, it's the best part of the UK crime book community, all relaxing and mingling together in one bar, for several days. Yes, there are brilliant panels, talks, and book-signings, but the real joy is in meeting so many wonderfully approachable people, all of whom share the same interest. It can also be a bit like having your Twitter feed come to life, with real people instead of profile pics, which is a lot of fun! And of course it's in Bristol, one of the most beautiful cities…

9What can we expect from you in the future? DI Harland is definitely a character I would like to keep reading about.

Thank you! I do have another Harland story planned, but I'm currently working on a standalone novel. This one's a little different; it's a psychological thriller, told by a female lead character, and it revolves around a series of killings near Hampstead Heath. I'm not sure about the title yet, but it should be out some time next year. Bristol and the rest of the country are safe from me 'til then!

Thanks to Fergus for answering my questions! 

About Fergus McNeill

Fergus McNeill has been creating computer games since the early eighties, writing his first interactive fiction titles while still at school. Over the years he has designed, directed and illustrated games for all sorts of systems, including the BBC Micro, the Apple iPad, and almost everything in between. Now running an app development studio, Fergus lives in Hampshire with his wife and teenage son. EYE CONTACT is his first novel.

You can visit Fergus's website, find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter

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