Ms Han­nah, in the con­fer­ence room, with a lap­top

The National - News - The Review - - Cover - Tahira Yaqoob

In a ster­ile board­room in a Dubai ho­tel, there are dead bod­ies strewn all over the place.

There is the vicar nailed to his church’s cross, a so­cialite drowned in an in­fin­ity pool, a Pope be­ing poi­soned by one of his own devo­tees and a mil­lion­aire locked in his own panic room and left to die.

Be­hind such grue­some end­ings are an as­sort­ment of moth­ers, con­struc­tion work­ers, mar­ket­ing man­agers and even a 15-year-old school­girl, all hun­gry to learn how to dis­pose of the ev­i­dence while keep­ing ev­ery­one guess­ing.

For this gath­er­ing of 12 re­cruits with mur­der in mind, as­sem­bled in the An­tibes con­fer­ence room in the Sof­i­tel Dubai Jumeirah Beach ho­tel, have signed up to a three-day course on how to write a great mys­tery story, led by So­phie Han­nah. Her suc­cess­ful re­vival of Agatha Christie’s Bel­gian sleuth Her­cule Poirot makes Han­nah the per­fect teacher to share top tips on how to keep read­ers riv­eted un­til the last page.

“The most suc­cess­ful books are the ones whose first pages do a whole range of use­ful things,” says Han­nah. “[The writer] Ruth Ren­dell al­ways said you have to hook your reader with the first line.

“There does not have to be a dead body in the first page but you do need to make it clear it is a crime novel with the sense of lots be­ing at stake. If you get that feel­ing quickly and ef­fi­ciently [as a reader], you are far more likely to read on.”

Han­nah her­self looks as if but­ter wouldn’t melt. Mumsy with wan­ton hair, flo­ral-pat­terned tops and flip-flops, she barely raises an eye­brow wan­der­ing through the lobby of the ho­tel, which is host­ing the Emirates Lit­er­a­ture Foun­da­tion event.

In per­son too she is ex­traor­di­nar­ily down to earth, pep­per­ing her teach­ing with hu­mor­ous anec­dotes and break­ing down an art form cloaked in mys­tery for many of her stu­dents into eas­ily sur­mount­able chal­lenges.

Han­nah starts by telling our class of 12 (they are whit­tled down to nine by the end of the work­shop, although that is more likely down to the early hour than a mys­tery for Miss Marple) to write a blurb for a mys­tery novel, one which we never have to write.

Af­ter­wards she tells us re­verse psy­chol­ogy can some­times un­lock a writer’s imag­i­na­tion.

“Say­ing you do not have to write it ac­tu­ally in­spires you,” she says. “It is eas­ier to im­prove a flawed thing that ex­ists than to work on some­thing that does not ex­ist.

“Give your­self per­mis­sion to write some­thing flawed. The most im­por­tant thing is [to] fin­ish your first draft.”

The ex­er­cise in­spires Bel­gian art his­to­rian and tour guide Re­nilde Ver­voort, 56, who has a doc­tor­ate in Dutch witch­craft rep­re­sen­ta­tions from 1450 to 1700, to come up with a fan­ci­ful idea about a plot to top­ple the Pope, cen­tring on a 13th cen­tury mag­i­cal man­u­script. Han­nah says the more out­landish the idea, the bet­ter – but adds it has to be matched by an equally un­ex­pected end­ing while still be­ing plau­si­ble.

“You have to plant clues and the reader has to see them,” she says. “You want the reader to think: ‘Of course, it was men­tioned 15 times but I never no­ticed it.’”

She is an ad­vo­cate of hav­ing a firm plan in place be­fore start­ing to write so the only sur­prises are for the reader.

“I see it as an es­sen­tial part of the process. I think of it like an ar­chi­tec­tural plan of a house.”

A strong be­liever in lists and con­struct­ing sto­ries me­thod­i­cally, she shares her top-10 tips on crime writ­ing es­sen­tials – what to in­clude on a first page, how to struc­ture a plot and how to fix a novel if it is not work­ing.

She ad­vises at­ten­dees to “mis­lead the reader. A fair novel will set up who the cul­prits are but you have failed if the reader can see what the pay-off will be.”

Han­nah’s fo­cus is on dis­pelling some of the myths sur­round­ing writ­ing, point­ers which can ap­ply to all kinds of nov­els, not sim­ply mur­der mys­ter­ies. She arms her pro­tégés with the skills to start telling en­gag­ing, sus­pense-filled sto­ries and gives en­cour­ag­ing ad­vice.

Praise is lav­ished on Swedish Ebba Skoog, whose open­ing for a so­phis­ti­cated psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller set in a max­i­mum se­cu­rity hospi­tal is de­scribed by Han­nah as “al­most 100 per cent per­fect. Your writ­ing is very pre­cise. It’s like a Swiss watch – pre­ci­sion-engi­neered.”

Skoog, a pupil at the English Col­lege Dubai, then star­tles the class by re­veal­ing she is still only 15.

“I have al­ways been a big reader so I wanted to write some­thing of my own,” she says.

“Un­til now I have never shown what I have writ­ten to any­one else. I did not know how to write a mys­tery novel but this has given me a lot of point­ers.”

Some of the class, like mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tive Kate Lil­lie, 36, are begin­ners and sim­ply look­ing for the en­cour­age­ment to start pur­su­ing their pas­sion; oth­ers, like Dubai Eye pre­sen­ter Brandy Scott, have been writ­ing for years and are look­ing for tech­niques to hone their craft. Han­nah says she hopes they leave with a strong frame­work in which to be­gin.

“A lot of writ­ers place their en­ergy into wor­ry­ing about the process of writ­ing but be­cause you can never be ob­jec­tive about your writ­ing, there is no point in wor­ry­ing,” she says.

“Treat it like a game and give your­self per­mis­sion for it to be more fun.”

Tahira Yaqoob is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Dubai and a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to The Na­tional.

Cour­tesy HarperCollins / AP Photo

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