ASK Val McDermid how she typically spends Christmas and the answer may surprise you. But, then, when it comes to McDermid, there is always a delicious twist – that is the hallmark of her crime novels.

"Our festive traditions are slightly odd," she says. "People either go, 'That's amazingly wonderful' or 'That's mad'. For the last five Christmases we have gone off to a clinic in Germany and spent our Christmas fasting."

Her newly published collection of short stories, Christmas Is Murder, has no shortage of surprises either. It brims with chilling, atmospheric tales and characters that leap off the page: ghosts, famous detectives and dastardly villains (more on that in a moment).

McDermid, 65, is always a fun interviewee. Even as we ruminate amid the doom and gloom of a pandemic, she can make you laugh out loud with her quick wit and wry observation.

That's not to say it hasn't been a tough year. But the Fife-born author has kept busy. She published Still Life, her 36th novel to date and the latest instalment in her long-running DCI Karen Pirie series, in August.

"I have been quite productive," she says. "I finished this year's book and I edited an anthology supporting the Homeless World Cup. I have done various bits and pieces, including one of the Scenes for Survival for National Theatre of Scotland."

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McDermid has also written a foreword for Afraid Of The Christmas Lights, a crime thriller anthology published this Tuesday, bringing together short stories by Sophie Hannah, Mark Billingham, Harriet Tyce, Jo Furniss, Victoria Selman and more, with all profits going to domestic abuse charities.

"It is a great collection and turned out to be quite an expensive operation for me," she jokes. "There were a few people whose work I hadn't come across before. I read the short story, liked the short story, then went and bought the books."

Work has been a distraction to an extent, yet McDermid admits that the swirling uncertainty and gnawing anguish of 2020 has never been far from her mind. "I have been busy and I'm writing at the moment, but it has felt very odd," she says.

"Earlier in the year, it was a time when I would be writing anyway. It wasn't so very different from my normal life, sitting in a room by myself, staring at a screen, and going for walks to get my brain working.

"But what I did find was that I wrote more slowly. I would get to the end of the day and there would be fewer words on the screen than normal. I think that is because, like so many of us, there was always that low thrum of anxiety going on underneath."

The Herald: Author Val McDermid photographed at The Dome, Edinburgh. Picture: Gordon Terris/The HeraldAuthor Val McDermid photographed at The Dome, Edinburgh. Picture: Gordon Terris/The Herald

However, in more recent weeks, there has been a distinct glimmer of hope. When we speak it is early November and news of the first effective coronavirus vaccine is still a few days away. McDermid is already feeling optimistic.

"It does appear there will be a vaccine available on the horizon," she says. "It is looking like a reality. I have some contacts into the Oxford team and what I am hearing from them is very positive.

"We will reach a point of equilibrium with this disease and we will go back to something like normal. It will probably be the case that, by this time next year, we will be living more or less normally – a bit more cautiously perhaps, but more or less normally."

McDermid lives in Edinburgh with her partner Jo Sharp, a geography professor at the University of St Andrews. How have they dealt with the long months of lockdown and restrictions?

"I'm very lucky," says McDermid. "I am with somebody I like as well as love – I think that makes a huge difference. I know a lot of relationships have come under strain during these times. But being locked down with somebody whose company you enjoy is not the worst thing in the world.

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"I am very aware of how lucky I am. We live in a house and have some outside space. There are lots of nice places around us to walk. I'm in one of the few occupations that has, theoretically, benefited from lockdown because people are buying and reading lots more books.

"I am conscious that the overwhelming majority of people are not in that privileged position. I think the real catastrophe of Covid is yet to come when the government stops paying furlough and people are losing their jobs, their homes and their families. There are some tough times ahead."

Earlier this year, it was announced that ITV has commissioned a three-part crime drama based on The Distant Echo, the first of the DCI Karen Pirie books, set in St Andrews. It is being made by World Productions – known for Line of Duty and Bodyguard – and adapted by Harlots writer Emer Kenny. "We are hoping to film in the New Year," says McDermid. "That is moving forward."

It can be a painstaking process to have a protagonist make the leap from books to screen. "It is really important we get it right," she says. "That's one of the things we spend a lot of time talking about. Because it can disrupt your own relationship with the character.

The Herald: Author Val McDermid photographed at The Dome, Edinburgh. Picture: Gordon Terris/The HeraldAuthor Val McDermid photographed at The Dome, Edinburgh. Picture: Gordon Terris/The Herald

"A friend of mine Liza Cody, who wrote private eye novels back in the 1990s, had her books adapted for television. She was so appalled by what they did with her character that she just couldn't write the character any more."

Hopefully, that won't happen with Pirie, the savvy, no-nonsense detective that is beloved by many of McDermid's loyal readers. They may soon have another character to fall in love with.

McDermid reveals she is already working on her 2021 novel ("Normally I would start in January. But what else was I going to be doing?") and has coined a brand-new series inspired by current events – or rather the need to escape them.

"My books tend to be set against the here and now," she explains. "They deal with contemporary life and I'm finding that very difficult to write about at the moment because there is no solid ground to stand on.

"Everything is shifting sands. Things change from day to day, week to week. I was contemplating a book that will be coming out next August and who knows where we will be next August or what the world will be like?

"I'm struggling to imagine how I can write a book set against that. So, I decided I am going back in time and I am writing a book that is set in 1979 because I know what happened in 1979."

Her plan is to write a quintet of novels, "with the same central character but not necessarily doing the same thing in terms of profession," she says. "It will set in 1979, 1989, 1999, 2009 and 2019.

"I was so glad when the National Library of Scotland opened its doors again because one of the useful ways of getting into a period is to go and look at the newspapers of the time."

Before becoming a novelist, McDermid spent 14 years working as a journalist. During that time, she covered stories including Hillsborough, Lockerbie, the Yorkshire Ripper and the aftermath of the Moors murders.

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"I have been sitting in the National Library looking at old back copies of the Glasgow Herald and the Daily Record. The weird thing is I was actually working on the Daily Record in 1979 and, bizarrely, I keep coming up against stories with my byline that I have no recollection of writing.

"It is about getting a sense of what people were writing about and talking about. It is useful for things like what furniture was available and how much it cost, what was in fashion and what people paid for a dress or a coat, how much a can of lager was, what was on at the pictures or on the telly."

The novel will be set between Glasgow and Edinburgh. "In this particular one, the protagonist is a journalist. Because I'm lazy basically and I know about journalists in 1979," she laughs. "It is amazing I have a five-book plan because normally I never know anything beyond the book I'm writing."

Readers will have to wait until next year to see how that pans out. In the meantime, they can curl up with a copy of Christmas Is Murder. Given the subject of her short story collection, it would be remiss not to throw in some festive-themed topics and McDermid, naturally, is a good sport.

The magic of a Christmas murder mystery

"When you are writing about Christmas and happiness and joy – not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse – if you drop a murder into that, right away you have the shock value.

"The other side is the proximity of family members that you perhaps don't see so much of the rest of the time. All those repressed feelings can bubble to the surface. I think there might be a wee bit of sublimation for people reading murder mysteries over Christmas.

The Herald: Christmas Is Murder by Val McDermidChristmas Is Murder by Val McDermid

"I know that in Norway they have a tradition of going to their family cabins at Easter after the cold weather of the winter. The habit there is they read thrillers and crime stories.

So, it seems that when you are thrust into the bosom of your family, those murderous impulses rise to the surface and perhaps reading about them is a way to not give in to them."

Finding inspiration for fiendish festive plots

"It is often a throwaway line that will give you the idea. There is a story in the book called A Traditional Christmas. The inspiration for that – which I can't reveal because it would be a spoiler – is a bizarre fact I heard on the radio. I thought it was so extraordinary, I had to use it."

Her favourite festive books

"I have a great fondness for The Mistletoe Murder And Other Stories by PD James. I wrote a foreword for it a few years ago. It is a lovely wee collection, four short stories, each of them distinctively PD James in the way it writes about place and character.

"Another I like is tangentially a Christmas book. It is by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, who wrote the Martin Beck mysteries, and called The Laughing Policeman. I think it is one of the best of the 10 Martin Beck novels."

The Icelandic tradition of Jolabokaflod

As part of the festivities in Iceland, people participate in Jolabokaflod, which translates roughly to English as "Christmas book flood", where they exchange books on Christmas Eve. What books will McDermid be giving this year and what would she love to receive?

"It has been a bumper year for great reading. I would give the entire Seasonal Quartet by Ali Smith. It is an astonishing achievement. The thing I love about Ali is her books are imbued with imagination and hope. Even when she is writing about dark things, she somehow manages to bring us hope.

The Herald: Author Val McDermid photographed at The Dome, Edinburgh. Picture: Gordon Terris/The HeraldAuthor Val McDermid photographed at The Dome, Edinburgh. Picture: Gordon Terris/The Herald

"The one I would like to receive is the third instalment in Doug Johnstone's Skelfs trilogy. We have had the first two already – A Dark Matter and The Big Chill – and I loved them. They are set in Edinburgh with three generations of women who are undertakers and private eyes.

"I loved the first two and I can't wait for the third one. He writes really well about women and he writes really well about Edinburgh. They are absolutely delicious.

"The other half of that tradition, according to Lilja Sigurdardottir, the Icelandic crime writer, is that the books are accompanied by chocolate. So, you go to bed on Christmas Eve with a book and a box of chocolates. What more could you want?"

Her own unusual traditions

"At the clinic in Germany, we spend two weeks with 400 calories a day and long, healthy walks in the foothills of the Alps. There are various lovely massages and treatments. That recharges our batteries for the coming year.

"It started through my friend Jeanette Winterson, who was convinced I was living an unhealthy life. Jeanette basically nagged and nagged me, saying, 'I don't want you to die. You have to go there'.

"Eventually it was just easier to give in. We went the first time full of doubt and wondering why we were doing this and taking ourselves away from all the festive fun. But, actually, it was really restorative, and we have done it every year since.

"We usually go out mid-December and come back between Christmas and New Year. Afterwards we feel energised and recharged. In the dead of winter, you always feel a bit tired. It is nice to have two weeks where you are focusing on your health and wellbeing.

"Of course, we are not going to be able to do that this year. I keep threatening Jo that we will have a week of 400 calories and, somehow, she seems not very keen on this."

Best childhood Christmas present

"Lego. The great joy was the way it fed my imagination – you could build a spaceship or a theatre. I suppose the equivalent now is Minecraft. For a time, when my son was younger, we would meet each other online in Minecraft and build things. He is grown-up now and off at university."

Biggest disappointment at Christmas

"When I was five or six, I really wanted a bike and instead I got a pram. It was a beautiful coach-built pram with a wee doll in it. But I wanted a bike. I looked at this pram and my heart sank."

A festive faux pas

"The turkey was sitting on top of the chest freezer, which was in the porch. I accidentally locked the cat in the porch with the turkey. There were teeth marks and chunks of the turkey breast missing. We ate it anyway. I reckoned that the temperature of the oven would kill any residual germs."

Favourite Christmas foods

"We have a great fondness for pigs in blankets in this family. We try various ones from different stores and butchers to decide which ones we like best that year. That sampling period will be beginning relatively soon, I imagine.

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"I like a good mince pie. My dad used to make mince pies with puff pastry. Our family tradition when I was wee was that my mum and I would go to the midnight service, while my dad stayed at home.

"When we came back, he would just be taking the mince pies out of the oven. They would be gorgeously golden with flaky pastry and smelling fabulous. The difficulty was waiting until they were cool enough to eat or you would burn your mouth."

Christmas Is Murder by Val McDermid is published by Sphere, priced £10