Ruth Downie is the author of the New York Times bestselling Medicus, as well as Terra Incognita, Persona Non Grata, and Caveat Emptor. She is married with two sons and lives in Devon, England.
Tell us a bit about your current project.
I’m currently halfway through the sixth novel in the Medicus series, the follow-up to SEMPER FIDELIS. It takes place during the building of Hadrian’s Wall. I daren’t say much about it yet because I have a feeling it may end up being very different to the way I expect.
We are all about journeys...unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.
I was in a writing group with some wonderful people, but after a few years I began to think that my inability to write as fluently and confidently as everybody else meant I really wasn’t a writer by nature and it was finally time to start facing the housework. What I had written of the first Medicus novel was destined for the bonfire. However… before it got there, I had a phone call from the BBC to say I was a finalist in their short story competition. This was a real shock - I’d only entered because some of the group thought it would be a good exercise for us to try.
After the initial programme the BBC then went round filming all the winners for a possible follow-up, asking them about what they were writing. They’d been so encouraging to us all that I dared not say, “Nothing, I’ve given up.” Instead, I rambled vaguely about my Roman novel. “Great!” they said. “We’ll be back in three months to see how it’s going!”
Well, it was either write or be humiliated on national television. So I wrote. And wrote. And cursed and panicked and wrote some more, and after a while I realised three months had long gone and there was no word from the BBC. Apparently they’d decided not to make the follow-up after all. But since I’d almost finished the book, it seemed silly not to write the last chapters. My husband persuaded me to send it to an agent I’d had some contact with before (I suspect he didn’t want to think he’d suffered all that angst for nothing), and to my amazement, the agent sold it.
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.
Oh yes! I’m usually convinced that what I’m writing is terrible.
There’s a quote from Frank Darabont pinned above my desk. It contains the words, “…please know that we all battle the usual feelings of frustration and insecurity, regardless of age or experience. For me, writing has always been a process of working through my self-doubt…” and later he says, “The good news is, every time you smack into it, that wall gets pushed a little further back… That’s why it’s important not to give into your fears and doubts, and to keep writing…” I wish I could remember where I found that quote. The man who wrote the screenplays for The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile still has doubts! That’s very consoling.
I’d also recommend Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art for anyone who shares my tendency to procrastinate.
What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?
Research. I like to walk the territory where the book is set and handle artefacts from the time (I’m never happier than when down in the mud with an archaeological trowel) but in the end most of the story ideas come from researching the Roman era and trying to imagine how people went about their daily life. Often something will recall a parallel in the modern world, and that’s the spark for the story.
Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.
You mean like the night when my husband woke to find me sitting up in bed next to him, studying “Dreisbach’s Handbook of Poisoning”?
For goodness’ sake, do more writing and less worrying!
What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course )?
Hearing that people have enjoyed the books. However this may not be apparent, as the first time I met a stranger who’d read one I was so amazed that I didn’t know what to say!
What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?
Plot. It’s fatally easy to bumble along and go nowhere. I’ve found that writing crime mysteries is a useful discipline because you have to work from a question to a solution.
What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
Tidy up the muddle from the last one so I have space for all those lovely new research books.
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
Combination. The neatly worked-out plot and writing plan have to be thrown aside when you get a better idea than the one you had first. I haven’t yet found a way to get straight to the best ideas without meandering through the ones that, up close, either don’t look so good or don’t fit together.
What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy
characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?
I’m conscious of the danger of the Saggy Middle and do try to avoid it, but sometimes I’ve gone too far the other way, and set so many hares running that it’s a problem to catch them all at the end. Conversely, I’m often asked to bring the crime nearer to the beginning. This is the sort of thing that makes me value agents and editors, who have years of experience in spotting where things have gone awry, making a few thought-provoking suggestions and then leaving you to find your own way to fix it.
Have you discovered any successful marketing/promo ideas that you'd share with us?
I haven’t tried it myself yet, but a friend ran a very successful Book Swap evening along with a launch, so that everybody got something new to read sort-of free and had a chance to talk books in general rather than just having to make awkward small talk while queuing up to buy from the author. Now that, to me, sounds like a fun evening.