Essays

Writing Tips from Alexander McCall Smith

Writing Tips from Alexander McCall Smith
By Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels and a number of other series and stand-alone books.

After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write?

Some writers set out to develop a complete road-map of the book, complete with a great deal of detail. I tend not to do this; instead, I mentally write the first paragraph and, on occasion, the last paragraph. With these two elements in place, all that remains is to write the bits in-between. The first sentence is very important. For me, that can set the whole tone of the book, and once I have the first sentence the task of writing proves relatively easy.

When I am writing at home, though, especially when I am beginning a book, I will use music to get me in the right mood.

Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking?

Writers can be ritualistic, insisting on all sorts of conditions – where the desk should be and so on. I find that I am able to write wherever I happen to be, and will write in planes and on trains, in hotels or in restaurants. When I am writing at home, though, especially when I am beginning a book, I will use music to get me in the right mood. I have different pieces of music for different series: when I sit down to write my Isabel Dalhousie series I will often play a particular piece of Mozart – the trio “Soave sia il vento” from Cosi. This sets the scene, so to speak.

What’s the best piece of advice you have received?

When I was a university professor, I wrote a number of academic books with a senior colleague, Professor Ken Mason. Ken, who is now in his nineties, was at school in the UK a very long time ago, and told me about his English teacher when he was aged about twelve (well before the Second World War). This teacher was called Mr Robertson and Ken told me that he gave the boys (it was an all-boys school) the following piece of advice: Never use two words where one will do. I laughed at the story, but then I realized that the late Mr Robertson was right. Since then I have been careful to pare down descriptions and to avoid the excessive use of adjectives. Thank you, Mr Robertson!

Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not?

I am careful not to base fictional characters on real people whom I may meet. The reason for this is that real people may not have the chance to answer back. Some years ago there was an author in Edinburgh, where I live, who based an undesirable character on somebody who she thought had let her down. Everybody knew who it was she was talking about. I don’t think I would care to do that. However, I do put real people into my novels – under their own name and with their permission. I find that the readers like the fact that some of my characters are real people. I once promised the First Minister of Scotland a cameo role in one of my Scotland Street novels, but then I had to find something for him to do. I had him save Bertie, one of the characters in the series, from a runaway bus. The First Minister was extremely pleased.

What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you?

I have been much influenced by W.H. Auden’s poetry, and in particular by his Collected Shorter Poems. Other books that have influenced me include the Malgudi novels of the great Indian writer, R.K. Narayan. I very much appreciate Jane Austen and her twentieth century reincarnation, Barbara Pym.

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The Talented Mr. Varg by Alexander McCall Smith
The Talented Mr. Varg
By Alexander McCall Smith
Hardcover $24.95
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To the Land of Long Lost Friends by Alexander McCall Smith
To the Land of Long Lost Friends
By Alexander McCall Smith
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