How I began to think about murder

Caro Ramsay
Opinion - Books Monday, 04 May 2020

Caro Ramsay, osteopath and novelist, on how she fell into crime writing

I never had dreams of being a crime fiction writer. It was something I fell into. Looking back, I suppose the evidence was there at the age of 7 or 8, when a teacher asked our class to write a story based on our favourite nursery rhyme. I chose the Teddy Bears' Picnic, but in my version the teddy bears attacked the children and ate them. I clearly remember the closing line: "4-year-old Emily was the last one to die."

After studying osteopathy at university in London, I returned home to Glasgow and set up my own practice. A few years later an old spinal injury came back to haunt me when I tripped up some stairs and fractured a few vertebrae. It would be another year (and 250,000 words) before I was on my feet unaided.

The lady across the ward from my bed watched the TV incessantly, at full volume. Who Wants To Be a Millionaire was on three times a day. Who wouldn't start to think about murder?

"When I deliver a book, I still worry I have written the last story I have"

Then a friend brought me a clipboard, a notebook and a Papermate pen. I was unable to move, but as those pens write when held upside down I could get words on to the paper. I didn't find it difficult. I ended up with the quarter of a million words that became my first two books. Absolution, which was shortlisted for the New Blood Dagger, begins with a girl lying in a hospital bed. I didn't see the connection at the time.

By the time I recovered totally, I took my quarter of a million words to a local writers' group, and the writer in residence advised me to send the first few chapters to the Gregory & Co agency. Jane Gregory asked to see the rest of it, and then asked me to fly to London. We had lunch in a very posh restaurant.

Subtle interview
I'm not sure what I was expecting, but we chatted about dogs, marathon running and my university years in central London. I had to keep reminding myself that the lady opposite me represented Minette Walters, Val McDermid and Mo Hadyer; here I was talking about my pit bull and the upcoming London Marathon. She never asked about the book, where I saw it going or what ambitions I had. I remember phoning a journalist friend on the way home, a little confused that there had been no mention of a contract. He reassured me that a very subtle interview had taken place. The next day, Jane called and said that she would be delighted to represent me.

I joke about the phrase, "This is a fabulous book, can we change everything about it?"; but that was my life for the next two years. I was somebody who had not written a word of fiction before, had attended no creative writing class, or undergone training of any kind. What did they see in the typescript I had sent in? Eight rewrites later, the first two books were snapped up. I got that phone call while I was at work, and had to ask who "Michael Joseph" was. "Hardback Penguin" Jane answered, realising at that point that she was dealing with an idiot. The first book was Absolution, and the Anderson and Costello series, now consisting of 13 books, was born.

I always hope that writing will get easier the more books I have under my belt, but what really happens is that the problems you encounter change. I always try to make the next book better, more technically challenging. And different. I'd hate to be an author who rehashes the same plots.

Selling books today is a tough job, and all authors have to go out on the road, go to festivals and sell themselves. I enjoy that part of the job, it's a nice balance to the isolation of the months spent getting the words down on the page. There have been times, while being the front end of a pantomime horse or playing the theme to Van Der Valk on the kazoo, that I wonder how this all happened. Sometimes, my two careers merge - for example, at a workshop called Breaking Bones, where I talk crime writers through how to murder people effectively. It's very popular.

Creative retreat
I like to think I manage to keep the osteopathy and the writing synergistic. Running a therapy centre with over 30 staff is a big responsibility; but if anybody really annoys me, there's always the danger they will end up in a book. The writing is a creative retreat for me. The osteopathy keeps me very grounded.

When I deliver a book, I still worry I have written the last story I have. But the ideas for The Sideman began to niggle me the next day: my memory of a friend who had suffered a really bizarre memory loss (she knew her dog but couldn't recognise her children); the time when I stood at the top of the most dangerous road in Scotland and thought, "This would be a good place to dump a body!"; and speculations about the talented musicians who play alongside a star for 20, 30 years while apparently never craving fame for themselves. And of course, they are called sidemen, which I thought was a pretty nifty title!

And then there was the basic plot hook of The Sideman, which revolves around the police catching a killer when the killer's alibi is the police.

The Sideman by Caro Ramsay is published by Black Thorn Books on 7 May at £8.99.

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