Rosie Claverton is a screenwriter and novelist. She grew up in Devon, daughter to a Sri Lankan father and a Norfolk mother, surrounded by folk mythology and surly sheep. She moved to Cardiff to study Medicine and adopted Wales as her home, where she lives with her journalist husband and pet hedgehog.
Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Captcha Thief. To begin with, can you gives us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?
A: Captcha Thief is the third novel of The Amy Lane Mysteries, which features agoraphobic hacker Amy Lane and streetwise ex-con Jason Carr as they fight crime in Cardiff. In this book, they are investigating a break-in at the National Museum of Wales, where a security guard has been murdered and a priceless Impressionist painting stolen.
Q: What do you think makes a good mystery? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?
A: For me, there is only one thing that is sacrosanct – a good mystery must be solvable by the reader. I hate to have a surprise murderer introduced right at the end. It can be extremely difficult to solve, but it should be possible.
Apart from that, I look for great characters, people I want to spend time with – even if only because I love to hate them! If they have the sticking power for several books, even better. I also hate to be blinded by science. All the computer wizardry Amy works is theoretically possible, but I’ve been recently burned by purported mysteries where advanced too-futuristic science, time travel and the supernatural have come out of nowhere to explain the ending. If that’s going to be a feature of the book, I want to know from the blurb, not in Chapter 50.
Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?
A: With Captcha Thief, I had planned out the bare bones of the plot and figured out the murderer and their motivations – but something wasn’t hanging together properly at the midpoint. I was getting bored with the story, and I couldn’t work out why. So I rejigged some of the characters, changed the culprit’s characteristics and gave them an entirely different motive. Once that was all in place, the writing of the book flowed much better towards its conclusion.
Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?
A: Before I wrote Binary Witness, I wrote some brief character biographies for both Amy and Jason to get a feel for them – everything from favourite TV shows and best friends to their worst fear and how they react in a crisis.
For Amy, it was also important to be clear about her mental health problems and how they affected her. As a psychiatrist, I also wanted to be certain in my mind about things like diagnosis and what it would take to change things for her – if that was even possible. With Jason, it was more about getting the prison particulars right, and how that experience had forged him. I also knew family would be really vital to both of them, with Amy’s difficult relationships and Jason’s strong ones.
Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?
A: The most important thing for an antagonist is motivation. Just like a protagonist, they have to pursue goals and act in a way that they think is the best thing to do, for whatever gain. In Binary Witness, my serial killer was fuelled by delusional love, yet in Code Runner, I had a character who wanted to build a criminal empire, but also just enjoyed playing with people. I spend as much time constructing a new antagonist as I did with my protagonists originally.
Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?
A: I come from a screenwriting background, so I’ve developed a good understanding of pacing and story beats. When I’m planning the plot, I know how the character arcs have to swing – from a false victory to an “all is lost” moment. I used Save the Cat, a practical screenwriting book, as a guide to the basic Hollywood story structure and it’s also served me well in novels.
In the edit, I go through each chapter listing the main events, the character point-of-view, and the conflict. If the chapter is lacking in conflict or nothing really happens, I try to cut it or combine it with another to keep the narrative moving. An emotional scene without action can still have conflict, and can allow the reader space to breathe with the characters.
Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?
A: Cardiff is definitely the third protagonist in The Amy Lane Mysteries. When I started writing the series, I was living away from my beloved city, though I had been resident there for five years. That really helped me bring the place to life with words, because I missed it so much. Google Earth is also my best friend – I planned several chases and incredible journeys with that resource.
With Captcha Thief, I had the advantage of having taken that particular journey from Cardiff to Bangor and remembering a lot of features, such as stopping at the natural waypoint of Rhayader in mid-Wales and crossing the misty mountains beside beautiful, yet freezing lakes and reservoirs. Personal experience always enhances description. I’ve never visited Glasgow, so I asked my Glaswegian friend to describe for me the walk between two points – it gave the final sequence a very local and immersive flavour.
I have to work hard at description, as it doesn’t come naturally to me. The way I work on it is to think of all five senses and then what they might invoke in the character. Does the smell of fried chicken remind Jason he’s hungry, or of a very specific moment with his best friend and a stolen car?
Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?
A: My favourite theme to explore is identity. In Captcha Thief, this primarily came through with the villain of the piece. That person is fighting a number of conflicting pulls on them, trying to make something right that probably can’t be fixed.
The other major theme of this novel, coming after “letting someone in” for Binary Witness and “the past is never over” for Code Runner, was definitely “pride comes before a fall”. Particularly for Amy, it was important to see her getting much stronger and capable as an independent person, and then starting to erode at those certainties.
Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?
A: Having an editor you can trust is the most important part of the edit. I’ve had the same editor in Deb Nemeth throughout the series, and I know I can rely on her to give good notes. A good note resonates with you when you read it, twinging something that you suspected yourself but hadn’t quite confronted in the first draft. I learned in screenwriting that you don’t always have to take a note, but you do have to address the reason someone gave it – for example, “the plot loses pace here, so you should add an explosion”. You have to pick up the pace but things don’t necessarily have to explode.
Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?
A: In the first instance, you have to define success for yourself. Is it selling 100,000 copies or is it receiving an email from one devout reader who really took your novel to heart? For series novelists, I think success is measured by how many people come back for more, or tell their friends, or eagerly Tweet at you asking when your next book is out. Of course, it’s also nice to get good reviews and fat royalty cheques, but it’s reader engagement that I love most of all.
Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?
A: It’s a job, at the end of the day. I bristle when people suggest my writing is a hobby, because it’s definitely a career that involves development and investment as much as my parallel career in medicine. It gives pleasure and reward to the writer without making it any less like hard work!
Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?
A: Apart from Save the Cat, which I think all storytellers should read – or the more in-depth Story by Robert McKee or The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell – my number one recommendation would be to read voraciously. Read thoroughly within your genre, and expand your mind outside it. Read as many classics as you can stomach, and also watch television and movies. Expose yourself to as many varied ways of storytelling as you possibly can. This is by far the best education.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?
A: Patience is your friend. The more novels you write, the better you will get at them. I won’t say it gets easier, but you know yourself better. I’ve learned that I always get bogged down in the middle and hate the thing and want to throw my laptop out the window. Yet this too shall pass.