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Five habits that led to Ian Rankin’s success as a fiction crime writer

When working on a novel, Ian Rankin writes every day until he has his first draft.

Rachel Idzerda/The Globe and Mail

Scotland's Ian Rankin considers himself an accidental crime novelist, having fallen into the genre that made him a star. His latest, Even Dogs in the Wild, marks the 20th time out for everyone's favourite curmudgeon, Detective Inspector Rebus. Here Rankin – who starts the Canadian leg of his book tour in Vancouver next week – shares some of the secrets to his success, including why writing sex is a not-very-sexy endeavour.

You don't find your calling, your calling finds you

I fell into crime fiction by accident while I was trying to write the great Scottish novel. I thought of the first book [Knots and Crosses] as literature, a gothic novel. What I was tying to do was a contemporary update of Jekyll and Hyde. And then it was reviewed as crime fiction and categorized that way in stores. The first time I found my novel in the crime section, I moved it. I stuck it in the literature section beside Muriel Spark. But then I started to read a lot of crime fiction, and I thought – this is great. For a long time there was a lot of snobbery [around the genre], but that is changing. You can study crime fiction at university and people are writing PhDs on it. The crime novel allows you to look at human nature and contemporary social and political culture. You can tackle some big issues.

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The ending is its own entity

My books begin with a theme that I want to explore or a question I want to find an answer to. It can be something like racism, xenophobia, human trafficking, immigration. It usually comes from a story in a newspaper or an anecdote I've been told, and then somehow that gets the cogs in my brain working. I find a crime that will allow me to kick-start the book. When I start writing, I often know as little about where the story is going to go as my detective does. I may not know who the killer is, why the crime happened. I just feel my way toward the ending by looking over the shoulder of my detectives as they ask questions, find connections between different incidents and characters. I think people have a misguided idea of the crime novel. Because it looks very well-structured – there's a crime, an investigation and a resolution – people think you need to know everything before you start, but I've interviewed lots of crime writers and many of us don't know where the story is going to take us. Even if I've got this very fixed idea of where the story is going to go, the story will often tell me, no, that's not what's going to happen.

The sexiest sex isn't on the page

In book three of the Rebus series, I was still getting to know the character. There was a sex scene and I felt awkward writing it. Writing sex scenes can be very difficult. I was lucky because my editor at the time said that I should just leave the sex to the reader's imagination because the imagination is much more powerful than what you can put on paper. He gave me permission to pause at the bedroom door. The bedroom door closes, the chapter ends, next chapter – they had a great time. What else do you need?

Just keep writing

If I'm working on a novel, I try to write every single day. It may not be much, but it's seven days a week. I think that by writing quickly you inject pace. If a book is written quickly, it tends to be a quick read as well. My first draft will be very rough, but it won't take me much more than 30 or 40 days. I remember one writer that I met couldn't start chapter two until he got chapter one just right. That's just not how I work. My rule is to just get the thing down on paper. Even if there are mistakes, misjudgments, I'll ignore that and know that I can go back later. I remember I was talking with an agent one time. He asked how things were going and I said they were going great, but that I was just about to take a break because I have to research this one thing. He said no, no – just make a note to yourself to do the research later and keep writing. I save a lot of time these days by doing the bulk of the research between the first and the second draft. Research can be a rabbit hole and you don't come out for weeks. Once you have a first draft, you know what you need and that saves a lot of time.

The wisdom of the poets

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The first piece of advice I would give any writer is to read a lot and to read widely. Firstly you start to realize what's out there and what isn't out there. Publishers are looking for stories that haven't been told before. Reading other people can also improve your own writing. I love reading poetry even though I wouldn't think of writing it. A great poet can say in two lines what it takes me a whole novel to express. If I've learned from any kind of writing, it's poetry – and the lesson is concision. What can you leave out and the reader will still get the message?

This interview has been edited and condensed by Courtney Shea.

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