Ripped from the headlines: from journalist to crime writer

Fiona Barton

In my sketchy synopsis for my debut novel The Widow, journalist Kate Waters was simply the character who allowed other people to tell their stories – much as I had done for thirty years. But gradually, she made her own voice heard and, tenacious as ever, she has stayed.

Fiona BartonAt first, I was nervous about putting her at the heart of the narrative; the reputation of reporters was in the gutter, just above politicians and estate agents in terms of public trust – and I was unsure about how readers would react to her. But I wanted to challenge the labelling of journalists as weasels or criminals. I set out to give an honest account of what I suspected was a largely unknown world.

And the other reason I kept Kate was purely selfish. It felt – and still feels – like coming home when I am back in the newsroom with her.

I had to stop being a reporter before I could write a novel and there are days I still miss it – when a big story breaks and friends ring to say they are about to catch a plane to somewhere exciting. My working world has changed to a physically smaller space – often my bed at home – but it has expanded to allow unlimited freedom in what I write.

This has meant unlearning some skills: journalism requires listening, probing, testing other people’s words and telling a story concisely and often under 500 words. That includes telling the whole story in the first paragraph – not a great move when you are writing a thriller…

Fiona BartonI can decide what my characters think and say, I can invent motives and twists, inner voices, events and feelings but everything I write is fed by my experiences as a reporter. I have kept my reporter’s eye for telling details, my ear for a phrase that will bring the story to life and my unending fascination for unanswered questions.

I have been everywhere Kate goes and the people I have interviewed, watched or read about have coalesced into an astonishing archive of characters to draw on.

The reaction from readers to Kate has been fascinating. Some see her as pushy and willing to overstep the mark, some as a feisty investigator determined to find the truth, others as a working mother with flaws and ambitions like any other. Everyone has a different opinion – and that is as it should be.

I am longing to hear how she is seen in The Suspect, when the tables are turned and Kate finds herself as the story instead of the reporter.

There is always a question at reader events about whether Kate is me and I understand the confusion so, for the record: Kate and I don’t share DNA.

But we know each other very well…

Buy The Suspect by Fiona Barton
The Suspect by Fiona Barton

Fiona Barton’s debut, The Widow, was a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller and has been published in thirty-five countries and optioned for television. Her second novel, The Child, was a Sunday Times bestseller. Previously, she was a senior writer at the Daily Mail, news editor at the Daily Telegraph, and chief reporter at the Mail on Sunday, where she won Reporter of the Year at the British Press Awards.

While working as a journalist, Fiona reported on many high-profile criminal cases and she developed a fascination with watching those involved, their body language and verbal tics. Fiona interviewed people at the heart of these crimes, from the guilty to their families, as well as those on the periphery, and found it was those just outside the spotlight who interested her most…

Follow Fiona on Twitter.

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