In the first of an occasional series, the acclaimed South Lanarkshire-based author talks about his writing methods and rituals

Where do you write? 

The outdoors tends to be my primary workspace, mostly walking around Bothwell and Uddingston. I am fortunate to have the path along the Clyde to Bothwell Castle within minutes of my house, but it’s not merely a matter of seeking inspiration by communing with nature. According to neuroscientists, when a certain part of the brain is occupied with motor functions, such as walking and even driving, that focus allows connections to be made in the background in a way that doesn’t happen sitting at a desk.

I dictate ideas into my phone as I walk, which can make me rather self-conscious around passers-by, as sweary dialogue or discussions of how best to get rid of a body are not what you want overheard.

I seldom dictate fully formed prose and dialogue to myself, so the next part of the process is to sit at my PC, stick on some headphones and transcribe. I expand upon the ideas as I type them up, but even then, it is still rough material, which I try to refine into something more coherent at the next stage.

Describe your working day

I tend to rise early, long before anyone else in the house, so I find the peace and calm of first thing in the morning conducive to transcribing audio. As that is the least taxing part of the process, it is something I can get on with while I am waiting for my brain to fully waken up. I usually go for a walk after breakfast, though if the words are flowing on-screen, I will wait until later in the day.

Do you have any working rituals?

I like quiet for working. I don’t play any music because I get too drawn into it. Loud noise itself isn’t necessarily a problem. When my son was much younger, I would often take my laptop along to a soft play area. By the time we left, even though my ears would be ringing from the cacophonic screeching of 100 excited kids, I would find I had zoned it out and lost myself in what I was doing. It left an impression though: that’s why in All Fun And Games Until Somebody Loses An Eye, I included a scene of an attempted abduction of a child from just such a facility.

Do you plot out stories in advance?

I do increasingly plan before I write. I have come to realise that writing a novel is like painting a room. You might feel like you’re not making progress if you’re not putting words on the page, like slapping paint on the walls, but a huge part of the job is the preparatory work. If you don’t do that properly, it takes longer and the result is a mess.

In the past I would sometimes take a concept and run with it, see where the story took me, but in recent years I have become more methodical.

You also write as half of Ambrose Parry with your wife, Marisa Haetzman. How does that work?

The process has been constantly evolving over the course of the three novels we have written together. What has been liberating for me has been that while I am writing my own novel, Marisa is busy working on the plot, themes and characters of the next Ambrose Parry novel, which means that I only have to come up with a new story every two books. When we come to write it, I have the luxury of working on one area of the story while she writes another section separately, then we tend to swap over and rework each other’s material until our separate voices are no longer distinct: it no longer sounds like either of us, it just sounds like Ambrose.

Writing with Marisa has made me more disciplined, because if you’re working with someone else, it’s crucial that you both understand where the story is going

What inspired the leading characters in your latest Chris Brookmyre novel, The Cut?

For Millicent I was driven to address the fact that, with the notable exception of Miss Marple, there are very few older women in crime fiction, other than in passive roles. Marisa had told me about a practice in Scandinavia whereby older people offer cheap or even free accommodation to students, in exchange for them spending social time together so that the two generations develop a closer bond. I was inspired to write about such a scenario, and what an unlikely meeting of the minds it might throw up.

I have always been fascinated by the craft of practical special effects, and I was part of that generation who first discovered home video, which meant I was voraciously consuming horror movies throughout my teens. I decided to make Millicent a special effects make-up artist, so that I had an excuse to write about that world.

I tapped into that for Jerry, whose formative years were shaped by those movies. But also drew upon my memories of being a student: the impostor syndrome of feeling I was surrounded by people who were more confident and seemed to know what they were doing.

The Cut is a standalone novel. How did its creation differ from, say, your work on the Jack Parlabane series?

In a stand-alone book it feels like the relationship between the world you are imagining and the character you are creating is symbiotic, each influencing the other, and there are ways in which the story becomes about that relationship. With a series, it feels like a lot of the furniture is already in place, which means you know the terrain and you can therefore focus on the new elements you might bring into it. I think that is why with the last three Parlabane books, I split the narration between him and a different female protagonist.

How has lockdown affected your working life?

Marisa and I felt very fortunate in that the pandemic did not impact our ability to do our work (though bookshops being closed during the publications of my last two books has been sub-optimal, to say the least). Normally I would take a break between delivering one book and moving on to the next, but there was literally nothing to do and nowhere to go, and the motivation of getting a novel written proved invaluable. We were able to focus so much on writing A Corruption of Blood that it gave us a healthy distraction from what was going on around us and what we weren’t allowed to do.

The downside has been that we both greatly miss festivals and bookshop events. Not only is it when we get to talk to readers about our work, it is also a huge part of our social life, as festivals are when we get to meet up with so many of our friends. I am particularly missing rehearsing and playing with the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers.

Do you ever suffer from writer's block?

I heard writer’s block very helpfully described as a reluctance to make decisions. If you are struggling it is often because you won’t commit to one particular idea in the hope that if you wait long enough, something better will come along. I find that the solution is just to go with an idea and just see where that takes you. It might not prove to be the right idea, but the view is different from the other side of it.

Are there pitfalls to working at home?

One of the downsides is that people perceive you to be permanently available, to say nothing of people’s perception of the seriousness or value of what you do (as opposed to a proper job). You have to be very firm in conveying to people that just because you are not out of the house at an office, that doesn’t mean you are free. It also means that I have a tendency to treat any cold caller like the man from Porlock.

When do you clock off?

My friend Mark Billingham once wisely said that once you start writing a novel, you’re never not writing it. So although I will finish when I feel I have run out of steam at the end of a day, the story is running in the background all the time, and ideas can sneak up on me at any moment; whether I’m cooking the dinner, walking around the supermarket or cleaning the bathroom, ideas will pop into my head and I will scurry off to mumble them into my phone.

The Cut is out now. Time for a rest?

I didn’t take any break after The Cut, but the new Ambrose Parry was delivered in the autumn, after which I had a brief period of downtime. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to distinguish it from work time, as it largely consisted of going for walks. And once I start walking, I start creating, so I am now underway with my next book, and Marisa is already laying the groundwork for Ambrose Four. It never ends, which is the way we both like it.

The Cut by Chris Brookmyre is published by Little, Brown (£18.99). Chris will be appearing at an Aye Write event with Denise Mina and Louise Welsh on April 28. Tickets will be available from March 29, details on