Writing Magnus I: Tap Tap Tap


Writing Magnus I was a lot of fun. I liked Magnus, and it was good to know that we were just getting acquainted; in my previous novels, my heroes, as I naively persist in calling them – protagonist is just too analytical even for me – had come and gone. I hoped Magnus and I would be together for a while. And it was fun to write about Iceland. When the writing is going really well, I feel that I am actually there, on the streets of Reykjavík or the slopes of Mount Hekla.

Research File

I had my photographs of Iceland to refer to, and my notes. Lots of notes. I had spent a week cutting and pasting notes from all my reading and my trip into a Word document, sorted under headings like ‘Bars’, ‘Thingvellir’, ‘Police procedure’, ‘The Tjörnin’. In the ten years and four novels since Magnus I, this document has become massive, over four hundred pages. But it definitely helps when writing a novel. Or even a blog.

The Quarterly Review

When writing my eighth financial thriller, I came up with a little trick that works quite well. At the quarter-way stage, I stop and reread what I have written and think about it. Is the book going the way I intended it? If it’s not, is that a good or a bad thing? Are the characters developing in an interesting way? And, most importantly, now I am well into the book, do I have any ideas about new directions the plot or characters might take? I usually do. This means I have to go back and make changes to what I have already written, and also to my plan. I do this again at the halfway stage, and before the ending. It takes time, but it strengthens the book and also cuts down on the rewriting required for second drafts.

Getting it right

There are some writers who don’t need editing, who get it right the first time under their own steam. Some of these are overconfident; some of them are geniuses. I am neither of those writers. If there is a problem with a book, I like to know about it before it’s published, or, in the case of Magnus I, before it even goes out to publishers to accept or reject. I recruited Richenda Todd, an old friend from university who is a professional editor, to help. We embarked on a second draft, polishing style, strengthening characters, improving plot and pace.

I also sent the novel to Pétur, who kindly agreed to read it and point out the errors in my descriptions of Iceland, big and small. Pétur explained that there was no chance of him publishing the book in Icelandic: Icelanders wouldn’t see the point of a crime novel set in their country written by a foreigner. Fair enough. And that made me more grateful for his generosity in helping me.

Looking back at them now, he had some useful corrections, such as ‘There are no apple trees in Iceland’, ‘Jaywalking is not illegal in Iceland’, ‘Anna Karenina is not available in Iceland’ and ‘In the sagas it is not so clear who are the good guys and who are the bad guys’.

A Confession

By the way, I have to admit in the small print at the end that the Magnus I photo here is a fake. It’s not the original first draft that I wrote ten years ago: that’s in the storage shed. It’s actually “Magnus VI”, which I have just finished, with a doctored sheet of paper placed on top. Please forgive me.

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  1. Just received your latest email.,and oh my what awesome news about Death in Dalvik. At last something to look forward to early next year. I sincerely hope there will be signed copies available.

    I watched Alexander Armstrong's travel documentary last night and one thing stood out ...£10.00 a pint !

    Cheers Michael.

    1. Rule 1. Never buy a round in Iceland. Sad, but necessary.


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