I had the absolute pleasure of meeting the author of Volta, Nikki Dudley, in person in London recently! I know, how rare is that these days? We bonded over starting writing projects during lockdown (her amazing MumWrite for writing mums and my Write By You for diverse young female writers) and coping with writing and parenting during lockdown.
And then we got down to book chat. While I don’t often read crime novels, I loved the characters in her book. They were so interesting and relatable and it was great to follow them through the twists of her cleverly-plotted novel. Read on to find out how crime writers get the inside knowledge on police procedure and what it was like to win the Virginia Prize…
One thing that really struck me in your book was the characters. They are so nuanced and interesting. How did you go about planning and creating them within the tight plot constraints of a crime novel?
The most important thing to me is the characters and how they inter-relate. I love having strong characters who are bouncing off each other in novels. Though I write crime, what I love most is humanity and how humans react in all sorts of situations – in this case, under extreme pressure. I wanted there to be real friendship between SJ (the main character) and Aris (his police friend), which would then put under the microscope due to the tensions of the main plot (the crime). Then I wanted to bring in some history with Aris’s sister, Mari. I think I just had a lot of fun writing all of them and I don’t think I can ever write solely crime without some humour and affection peppered throughout.
Speaking of plot, I don’t usually read crime novels but am always impressed by the way they lead the reader through the story, often concealing elements from them until later in the book. How did you go about creating this?
It’s funny because sometimes I feel like the characters take over the story as I’m writing but there were a few key twists and turns I wanted to include. For me, feedback was key here. Some people said the reveal was too shocking in the earlier drafts so it was about introducing smatterings of information leading up to any big twists so the readers don’t feel like I just turned the wheel on them and they had some clues. I hate when that happens so I try to write as I would like to read – hopefully being shocked but without feeling too stupid about it!
Another element I find intriguing is all the behind-the-scenes stuff. How did you go about researching things like prison visits and police procedurals and make them seem so natural?
The feedback on all the procedural stuff came after I had won the Virginia Prize. The publisher sent me so many amends, I wanted to cry! Though in the end, I think this actually made the book a lot better. However, I did keep in some character stuff that they wanted me to lose because I felt it added to the sense of the characters and their relationships.
With the research, I was lucky to stumble upon a course led by ex-police officer, Graham Bartlett, on Custody and Interviewing. He led a fascinating workshop with lots of inside knowledge and I learnt so much! Afterwards, he also gave me some feedback and arranged a one-to-one with him to go over all my plot holes! One good bit of advice he gave was that I needed to understand the background but the readers only needed enough to understand the plot, which was a great reminder not to overwrite things. I also did lots of research on some great Facebook groups and tapped up any key contacts I had, such as friends who are therapists or lawyers! They’re all in the acknowledgements…
The theme of childhood trauma, particularly related to parental relationships, comes up a lot. Why did you choose this as a theme and how did it shape the book and its characters?
I think when you write, you sometimes tap into your deepest fears. I suppose one of mine is probably losing a parent. I’m also fascinated by the power of memory, which is how the two come together in this novel. I wanted SJ to have a historic event that was informing his present state and the character of Briony is the perfect vehicle for this. However, she also has a dark past, which is slowly revealed. I am interested in juxtapositions and transformations too, which I think are both present in the novel.
Congratulations on winning the Virginia Prize! How did this help with your route to publication and what advice would you give to writers at the start of their career?
I had a novel published a long time ago but before the Virginia Prize, I hadn’t had as much success with novel writing. I was actually close to giving up when I entered the prize! So it was a big shock when I won. I knew the work was far from done though and the redrafts took a long time. In the end, I hope the book is much better for it and I’m proud to have achieved what I have.
My advice to new writers? Write about what you love and what interests you. Always accept valid feedback but stay strong if you think something needs to stay as you wrote it. And keep going – writing is full of rejection but being rejected just means you put your writing out there and that’s a huge step.
Author, streetcake managing editor, workshop leader.
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Winner of the Virginia Prize for fiction 2020
More about my novel, Volta: https://www.nikkidudleywriter.com/voltanovel.html
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