AS an author, Val McDermid is used to getting into the minds of some of the most evil characters ever created. Serial killers; misogynists; sadists - they're often central to Val's plots. The more twisted the better.

So, how does she ever sleep at night? Does she draw on her journalistic background - using her professionalism to keep her characters at a distance? Or does she dream of psychotic blokes with greasy comb-overs and rimless glasses coming at her with knives and other serial killery paraphernalia? Ropes and leather gloves for example?

"Other people's work gives me nightmares but not my own," she says. "When I'm writing, I know what's going to happen, plus I'm too busy thinking 'is that the right adjective?' 'Should that sentence be there?' There's a combination of distance and control."

I'm chatting to Val on the telephone. It is always that bit harder to build a rapport with someone over the phone, but Val's straight-talking professionalism is wrapped in a cloak of warm chatter. Later on, when she relaxes further, her earthy humour shines through. I like her. She would be good to have a pint with, I decide.

Val had a happy childhood, growing up in working class Kirkcaldy, on the east coast of Scotland, at the heart of the Fife coalfield. She would often go off for hours when she was younger, her backpack full of books.

But Fife was geographically isolated, its inhabitants somewhat insular. About 80 per cent of her teachers had grown up in Fife and there was a tendency for their students either to head off to university in St Andrew's or Edinburgh and then come back to Fife. Val had other ideas.

"I knew at the age of 15 or 16 that I wanted wider horizons," she recalls. "So I thought if I go to England I'll go to Oxford University, because it was the only place I'd really heard of. The school was not very keen on the idea because in a typically Scottish Presbyterian way they said 'if you don't get in there it will reflect badly on us'."

But Val did get in, and headed off to St Hilda's College to read English - only the second time she had been to England. Understandably, the experience came as a tremendous culture shock, but Val, now 51, has always been good at fitting in places, like a chameleon, she says.

"Although I did have to learn English when I went there so they could understand me," she laughs.

Today her accent is barely discernible, more of a lilting brogue. But she soon switches back to Fife if she goes home, and demonstrates by thickening her accent, with a gleeful cackle, to the point where I can barely understand her.

"Certainly when (Chancellor) Gordon Brown and I are sitting in the box shouting at the Rovers it comes back," she says, referring to her beloved team, Raith Rovers, which her dad used to scout for.

"I usually try and get up a few times a season. We had a supporters buy-out so I now own somebody's left ankle."

Val was 32 when she had her first novel, Report For Murder, published after working as a journalist for 14 years. She still remembers the day she got her acceptance letter.

"I couldn't quite believe it to be honest," she says. "I didn't even have an agent but they accepted it straight away. All my dreams came true in that moment."

After four years of fitting her novels around her work, Val finally gave up the day job to concentrate on writing full time. She has now penned more than 20 crime novels, won countless awards, and is the creator of two of television's most popular characters - Tony Hill (played by Robson Green) and Carol Jordan (Hermione Norris) - in the award-winning Wire in the Blood series. She is heavily involved in the drama and adds her notes to all the scripts.

"It's still very much my vision which is translated on to screen," she says.

"I think they do a fantastic job. I always said from the beginning that the ambience had to be right."

As well as being happy with the production, Val says that Robson Green's portrayal of Tony Hill is pretty close to how she imagined him in her head. She also feels the role has stretched him as an actor.

"He said one of the reasons he wanted to do it was because it would force him to work and not just be a cheeky chappy," she says. "He works very hard at Tony and takes it very seriously and calls me up with bizarre questions like 'if Tony was going to wear a hat, what kind of hat would he wear'? He will ask anything about his character that he's not sure about."

Asked what her average working day is like, she laughs before adding "very boring." She writes between 1,500 and 2,000 words a day in 20 minute bursts, and takes walks, rings people or answers emails in between.

She has a prosaic attitude to her work and says if there's anything her journalism background has taught her, it is that "you can't wait around for the muse to strike".

VAL lives part of the week in Manchester but has her main home on the Northumberland coast, which she loves.

"I love the advantage of living in both the city and the country and being able to walk out of my front door and on to miles and miles of sand," she says. "I was walking along the beach the other day just having this nice stroll and I'd been working really hard and, out of the blue, I suddenly said 'it's because they speak to the husband first, not the wife' and Kelly is going 'what?' I often find the beach is where the next bit falls into place."

Up until this point we have not talked about her personal life. I know Val is gay and that she has a young son. But it soon becomes clear she is keen to protect her son's privacy. Her tone becomes immediately defensive at the mention of him.

When I ask if Kelly is her partner, the warmth returns instantly, and she exclaims proudly: "She's my wife!

"She's in publishing so she knows what writers are like and it's great to have somebody who understands," she says, joking that she "couldn't live with another selfish writer." The couple, who've been seeing each other for two years, took advantage of the new civil partnership laws and married at Alnwick Register Office last month.

"The service was quite small, family only, but then we had a big bash in the village hall. We had a local Scottish country dancing band. Robson was tripping the light fantastic with my mother."

The couple honeymooned before the wedding because of their various work commitments. Val loves travelling and acknowledges her writing has enabled her travel the world, including Russia.

It is her passion for new adventures, and for new writing, which will see her host the War & Peace event as part of Durham Literature Festival next Thursday, featuring the work of leading contemporary Russian writers who's works she describes as "fresh and exciting". Val has a voracious appetite for new fiction. "I'm one of those people who always has a book in my bag," she says.

She intends to set her next book in Fife using a junior detective from The Distant Echo as her main character. "I like the fact that I can pick and mix from my books," she says.

Is it like greeting old friends when she creates a new adventure for Tony Hill, or her other protagonists, Kate Brannigan or Lindsay Gordon?

"Yes it's exactly like that," she adds.

And as for any nightmares, she leaves those to her legions of dedicated fans.

* The War & Peace event hosted by Val is being staged at the Gala Theatre, Durham on Thursday, at 7.30pm. Entrance is £5 (with a £2 discount from the War & Peace collection). For tickets contact 0191-332-4041. For more information log onto