Ian Rankin on how to write a Rebus novel

An attention to detail that’s been with him since childhood, when his imaginary band hit the Top 10, serves Scotland’s top crime writer well when the literary merry-go-round leaves him just 120 days a year to come up with the goods, writes David Robinson

‘EDINBURGH-based crime writer, interested in beer and rock music” is how Ian Rankin describes himself on Twitter, and even though he claims he has no friends, you can’t help liking the guy already. That, presumably, also goes for his tens of thousands of Twitter followers, the hundreds of thousands who enjoy his savvy contributions to Late Review or the millions throughout the world who buy his books and have done since he first started writing about a certain now-retired maverick detective 25 years ago.

In Standing in Another Man’s Grave, which is published on Thursday, John Rebus is back after a five-year absence. In that time, Rankin has written two novels about Malcolm Fox, an inspector in Lothian and Borders’ internal affairs department, and a standalone novel, Doors Open, that has not only turned out to be his best-ever selling book but has been adapted into a two-hour TV movie starring Stephen Fry that will be screened just before Christmas.

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For all Rankin’s modesty about his success, its roots lie in Rebus. “In the Rebus novels,” Allan Massie pointed out while reviewing Exit Music five years ago, “Rankin has not just produced the most sustained body of fiction devoted to modern Edinburgh, but has made it once again a city of the mind, as Dickens made London and Chandler Los Angeles. He has changed the way Edinburgh people imagine their city.”

The last time I talked to him was a year ago. He had an idea for a new novel, he said, but he wouldn’t tell me what it was about. In any case, it wasn’t much: just the barest outline of a plot, no more than a couple of scribbled sentences. He didn’t even know whether it would star Rebus, Fox, or Rebus’s former sidekick Siobhan Clarke. Now he can reveal all.

“I had this scrap of paper that I’d put in a file of ideas I keep in my study. A bit of notepaper torn in half that said, ‘Someone is driving up and down the A9 in search of a lost child. Can’t let go.’”

He’d been doing a lot of driving on the A9 – the Rankins have a second house on the Black Isle – and the road intrigues him. “I kept stopping on different bits of it, getting ideas about the different people who use it – lorry drivers, reps, the men doing roadworks. It’s a road that seems to have a hidden life of its own. North of Perth, it feels different. Time slows down. And suddenly this very small country opens up, gets bleak and spectacular and your head starts working in a different way.”

There’s a clip in an 
Imagine documentary about Rankin’s writing year to be screened on BBC 1 tomorrow night that shows him opening up his file of ideas last October and coming up with that scrap of paper. For weeks, he was just thinking of writing a standalone novel about parents coming to terms with loss. Rebus wasn’t involved. “Then a cop told me they had changed the retirement age to 67. So Rebus – who’s about 62 now – could apply to come back. And if he did, he’d have to be vetted, and who would do that? Malcolm Fox. And would Fox want this renegade back in the police? Probably not.”

So now the plot changes. In comes Rebus, who is now a civilian, working in the Serious Crimes Review Unit, investigating unsolved cases, at Fettes police HQ in Edinburgh. A woman whose daughter went missing in Aviemore years ago gets in touch with him. He can’t do anything to help – until she points out that another girl has gone missing on the A9, that maybe there’s a pattern here. Maybe there’s been a serial killer on the loose for years…

At this stage, let’s imagine that you are Ian Rankin. You’re a one-man multinational. You don’t even have a PA (“because I’m a control freak” he told me last time we met), but you’re locked into a whole network of publishing deals. It’s January, and you’ve finally got an idea for the next novel you’re going to write.

“It’ll be a Rebus,” you tell Orion, “It’s going to be about missing persons and it’s going to be called Standing in Another Man’s Grave.” They remind you that you’ve got to have it finished by June.

But it’s still only an idea. It’s not a complete plot. There are enormous gaps, not at the beginning, because you’ve got that sorted, and not at the end, because you’ve a vague idea how it’s all going to wrap up. Between the two, though, there are yawning chasms. There are no guarantees that it will all work out.

You or I, we’d find that frightening. We’d probably worry about that June deadline, about all those people, from cover designers to sales reps, from typesetters to book exporters who were working to it too. Not Rankin. Not knowing how the plot is going to unfold is the very thing that compels him to write the novel, as if the book were a wind-up radio and his uncertainty the twist of the key.

“There have been times – not many – when I worked out a plot so thoroughly in my head that I’ve not needed to write the book. I did that once with a standalone psychological thriller I came up with when I’d already written three or four Rebus books. I’d worked out what was going on, why, who was doing it … and then I thought ‘Fine, I don’t have to write that one.’ It’s best for me if I don’t know who the killer is when I start. I’ll start to get an inkling half way through the first draft.”

The first draft is the key. You race through it as fast as you can, from January to early April. You say no to every journalist who wants to know what you’re doing for Valentine’s Day or Easter or what you think about independence (“you can ask until your blue in the face, I won’t tell you”), every request for an interview or to do something or other for charity.

There’ll be some time for some of that later – not too much (you’re still only a one-man band, remember) – but a lot more than most writers. But those days between January and May are sacrosanct: you guard them jealously. They are the ones you have blocked off to do the one thing you really want to do: to write. In a whole year, you only have 120 of them.

The second draft is for getting things absolutely right, so in April you drive up north to the place off the A9 north of Inverness where Rebus is going to start to crack the case. It’s called Edderton. You’d picked it from the map – you’ve never been there before, but it turns out that you’d imagined it the way it is. The two-man film crew are with you as you tour round the Highlands, making notes all the time to put into the second draft.

Three days after you’ve returned to Edinburgh, you’re reading The Scotsman when you find out that a teenage girl has committed suicide in the woods near Edderton. What do you do?

I’d have changed the name of the place, I tell Rankin.

“I thought about that. Do I need to go back into the book to find somewhere else that won’t have that resonance? I thought how bizarre it was, that in this tiny place that I’d plucked off the map that a troubled teenager had committed suicide not exactly where we were but in the vicinity.

“Then I thought, ‘But that’s different from what I’m 
writing about.’ I wasn’t copying it. It happened after I’d been there. It wasn’t as though I saw that place and thought, ‘That’s where I’m going to set my crime.’”

Why not just change its name?

“Because you can’t do that. If you’re writing about a real country, you can’t suddenly make places up. I can’t have a place called Dungow or Aberdee. It’s got to be Dundee and Aberdeen.”

But when Colin Dexter wrote his Morse novels about Oxford, he made up names for all the colleges, I point out.

“I don’t know about that, but I made a philosophical 
decision early on in my career that I wanted to write a book about the real Scotland, and that would be the basis for the books. Of course, if I want to have a rundown estate full of drug addicts, I would make it up. But Rebus isn’t going to drive north up the A9 to come to 
Inversneckie. He’s going to come to Inverness.”

He is surprisingly firm on this. I think it’s one of those small questions that prompts a bigger answer. And for that answer, I need to sweep all the way back to 1970, when Rankin was a 12-year-old growing up in Cardenden. Back then, he used to write lyrics for a fictitious band called the Amoebas, “a cross between Slade, T-Rex and the Sweet” in his diary. He was Ian Kaput, their lead singer. Millions of us must have done something similar. We might have 
imagined our band on Top of the Pops too.

But would we have carried it further? Rankin did. Each week, he would write out an imagined Top 10 in his diary. And it wouldn’t just have the name of the Amoebas’ latest album: there would be the lyrics of their songs, details of their world tour and TV appearances. When it came to listing their position in the charts, there would also be the names of the nine other groups, the names of their songs, how long they lasted, what they had on their B-sides, and their album covers too. You could dress this up as a PhD thesis –“Completism in the Works of Ian Rankin” perhaps? – because I think it extends into his adult fiction too.

Completism means getting all the details right, right down to not changing Edderton’s name to something else. Even now, Rankin is still clearly annoyed at himself for making Rebus live in Edinburgh’s Arden Street in the first book, mainly because that’s where he himself lived while a student. “It’s just so unrealistic. There were no cops in a place like that: it was mainly students. All the cops lived in places like Oxgangs or West Lothian.”

Yet it’s the very completeness of Rankin’s imagination that is the hidden ingredient in Rankin’s work. He may not – in fact, he doesn’t – know in detail exactly what his characters look like, he doesn’t see their faces before him as he writes, but he knows precisely how they interact with each other. The reader can sense this: time after time, where a lesser crime writer would feel the need to explain why a character is acting in a certain way, Rankin doesn’t. Instead, he makes that obvious by their actions: show, don’t tell, as the creative writing school mantra has it.

“With me, it’s an obsessive level of detail to create an alternative universe matched to a childlike imagination – the fact is, I’m just playing with my imaginary friends and I haven’t given them up.

“I think most writers are like this. Take JK Rowling. I’ve seen her writing in cafes in Edinburgh and have asked her what she was doing. This is after she finished the Harry Potter series. ‘I’m writing a family tree for a character in a Harry Potter book.’ ‘How far back are you going?’ ‘Generations’. He repeats the word admiringly, incredulously. 
“Generations.” There’s a slight pause. “All children have this. The only difference with writers is that they still do.”

I’ve heard him say this before, and I’m not convinced. I think it downplays his analytical side, the side that was doing an (abandoned) PhD on Muriel Spark, that makes him such a good critic and book festival interviewer, and helps him to block out his free time in such an organised way and work with such focus.

That said, being a one-man multinational can be wearying – so much so that Rankin has occasionally talked about walking away from it all, and indeed in 2010 he took a sabbatical for a whole year. Does he still feel like that?

“I don’t know about walking away from writing. But walking away from the circus? I’d be happy to do that. I can’t think of a single writer who became a writer because they wanted to go on tours, do interviews, go on the telly or be phoned up by journalists at all hours.

“Take next year’s book. Normally at this time of year I would have done my October tour and November and Christmas would be thinking and planning time. But this year that’s not happening. Standing on Another Man’s Grave is only coming out this week and then I have a tour of Australia and New Zealand. I get back from that on 
1 December and then there’s a UK tour start starts on 
4 December and goes on till 16 December.

“So I can’t start thinking about my next book until 
17 December. And there’s still a June deadline. I’ve never had one this tight. I had this meeting with my publisher a while back and I said, ‘Right, you want me to tour Australia, New Zealand and the UK. On top of which in January I’ve got a US tour, in March I’m doing the Dubai Festival and a Danish tour and I have some other stuff in April. When am I supposed to write the new book?

“And he replied, in words I am going to get tattooed on my forehead, ‘You’ll. Do. It. Somehow.’”

But somehow, you suspect, he will.

• Standing in Another Man’s Grave, by Ian Rankin, is 
published by Orion and comes out on Thursday. 
Imagine … Ian Rankin and the Case of the Disappearing Detective is on BBC 1 tomorrow at 10:35pm.