How to write a (crime) novel #8 – two bits of advice

gaudy nightIn the last posting for How to Write a (Crime) Novel, I mentioned the Golden Age of crime writing and the author DL Sayers. She gave two pieces of advice to crime writers which I think are still apposite today.

Firstly, leave clues in plain sight. The reader should have a sporting chance of solving the mystery. Some writers play around with this, allowing the readers to see clues that the detective does not. However, it is rare these days, for the detective to have access to information which the reader is not privy to – unlike in Sherlock Holmes, who always had to explain his workings out to that dullard Watson so we, the reader, would understand.

Because of the way I write – character-led – planting clues and red herrings at appropriate places in the plot is not uppermost in my mind. It is, therefore, something I will begin to think about once I begin to structure the story. Then I will return to the idea that a structure has to have points of crisis and tension at spaced intervals within the narrative. It’s like looking over a flower bed and noticing where the earth is bare and wondering whether this patch requires filling and, if yes, with what. I do find this hard to do myself, I generally need the help of others, my writing friends and my wonderful copyeditor, Charlotte Cole (

Secondly, DL Sayers likened the enjoyment of reading a crime novel with that of completing a crossword puzzle (crossword puzzles also gained in popularity during the 1930s). There is a pleasure for me in working out the mystery in a novel I am reading, generally I like to do it a little before it is revealed, but not too far before. However, I do think crime novels have gone far beyond merely being a conundrum to be unravelled.

Author Val McDermid has said that, of all the genres, crime is the best at tackling current issues. In a recent Artsnight (BBC2, 22nd July 2016), she explored what she described as the ‘complex relationship between truth and fiction.’ She said she had, ‘Walked the fine line between making things up and staying real.’ And, for her, ‘The very act of imagining has been a powerful way of accessing the truth.’

This is echoed by Nigerian writer, Helon Habila, when he said the crime genre was the best atArt of Survival Coverfront onlyfinal addressing issues in society, it is the best for putting a mirror up to our world and asking questions about it. Polish writer, Zygmunt Miloszewski, said readers of crime novels now expected more than a body, they wanted a guide book, a keyhole onto other cultures and countries. (Quoted from BBC Radio 4 series Foreign Bodies 17th Nov-21st Nov 2014).

In my novels, a crime series set in Scarborough, I aim to explore mental ill-health and wellbeing, particularly what I consider to be the very shaky and dim line between the two.

What is your experience of bringing current issues into your writing?

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