The Crime Readers' Association

Quentin Bates – Living With A Stranger

6th June 2014

It’s almost like being married all over again. Let me clarify… I’ve been married for a long time, and only the once. But a few years ago another woman turned up and has been living with me ever since. My wife hasn’t objected because this other person is mostly inside my head.

I imagine it’s the same for every writer with a series featuring the same long-running character. Even though that person lives in your mind and on paper, he (or in my case, she) becomes a constant presence.

My series of books, the fourth of which was published recently as an e-book by Constable & Robinson, features a female police officer who solves crimes and catches bad guys in Reykjavík and around the south-west corner of Iceland. It’s now almost ten years since Gunnhildur Gísladóttir appeared on the scene, practically fully formed, and became the focus of the first book, Frozen Out. I think it’s fair to say that the book took shape around her as a character rather than the other way around.

Frozen Out went through much editing and several re-writes before it was deemed ready for publication, but there weren’t all that many changes to Gunnhildur, otherwise known as Gunna for short. However, there was a contretemps over her age, as the original Gunna was closer to fifty than forty. The publisher preferred a younger character, presumably with a longer working life ahead of her before retirement might start to loom. I wanted to keep her as she was, with none of the callowness of youth and with the wisdom that some of us, supposedly, acquire through experience.

So there was a compromise and the only real change to the character was lopping ten years off her age instead of the twenty that had been suggested, and adjusting her family circumstances. Oh, and a bloke was required.

‘Someone has to fancy her,’ this very much wet-behind-the-ears new author was told. Fair enough. It wasn’t hard to comply and a suitable boyfriend was conjured up in a way that slotted in with the plot. But with Gunna being the cross-grained, determined character she is, it couldn’t be just anyone and the lugubrious Steini made a tentative appearance in Frozen Out. He seemed to work and although I had expected to lose him somewhere along the way, Steini has stayed and become an important character in his own right, although he doesn’t appear often.

Since then I’ve been living with this big-boned, black-browed woman at the back, and often at the front, of my mind as a more-or-less permanent presence. Occasionally it has been unnerving to have a fictional character become so lifelike. I can only hope that she’s just as lifelike to people who read the books.

It’s not something I’ve discussed with other writers, but I imagine my experience with Gunna is far from unique as she pops up occasionally in opportune and awkward moments with a caustic comment or some sarcastic observation.

Does Ian Rankin hear Rebus shouting at him in the middle of the night? Did Simenon have a glass of beer in the Brasserie Dauphine with an invisible Maigret sucking his pipe next to him? Did Nicolas Freeling live with van der Valk impatiently pacing the floor upstairs? I do hope so.

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