Category Archives: Writing a (crime) novel

Three things I have learned about writing crime fiction

I wrote my first crime novel when I was 19, thirty-six years ago. I got a sniff of an interest from an agent who liked my writing but not what I had written and asked for something else. By the time I had produced another novel, she had lost interest.

I re-visited the crime genre with my Scarborough Mysteries series. The Art of the Imperfect was published in 2014. I have written four more crime novels since then; two (The Art of Survival and The Art of Breathing) have been published, the other two await next steps.

Writers learn to write through reading, through study, through supportive critical feedback, but most of all writers learn to write by writing. This blog details three things I have learned since re-dipping my toe into the crime genre.

(1) Jeopardy
An agent has recently told me my crime novels lack jeopardy. She said readers today want real page-turners, they want to be kept on the edge of their seats through the whole novel. Whether this is true or not (perhaps some readers, like me, want an intriguing puzzle or a social critique or complex characters) this idea has an effect on what crime books appear on shelves.

I ask myself, therefore, how to increase jeopardy? The main way is to put someone in danger. If a writer wants to stay close to reality, this causes a problem: most murderers kill once, for a very specific reason. A writer, therefore, has to work out a reason why a murderer might be thinking about acting again.

Then there’s the question of who is going to be in danger. It has to be someone who the reader cares about. A woman, especially a young one, or a child, generally automatically garners a reader’s concern. But if a writer is not going down that route, then there is another character the reader should be getting involved with: the detective. I have noticed that more and more, it is the detective who is being put in peril in order to increase the jeopardy of the story. Obviously this causes an issue in a series, just how many times is a detective stupid enough to risk their lives in the line of duty?

(2) The lone wolf detective
Gone are the days when novels with casts of thousands – à la Dickens or Tolstoy – are acceptable, especially in crime fiction. Once a writer has a victim, the victim’s entourage, a few suspects and a team of police officers, there’s not much room for any other characters. It seems to me this might be one reason why detectives with no friends or family are becoming more the norm.

(3) Naming
I often struggle to find names which stick for my characters. Names denote all sorts of things, including age, social class, nationality, culture, race, gender. The way a character feels about their name and whether they alter it can speak volumes about them. I have a habit of having characters change their names for various reasons and sometimes I have to curb the temptation to use this trope.

It’s not a good idea to have characters with names which start with the same letter or sound similar, unless there is a particular reason for doing so. This can cut down the choice. Dickens sometimes gave his characters names which reflected in some way something about them. I am drawn to this method, though it has to be done with a light hand.

 

What have you learnt about writing in a particular genre?

How to write a (crime) novel #9

In previous parts of this series of blogs I have looked at

  • Getting started.
  • Characterisation.
  • Plotting – setting clues in plain sight.
  • Structure.
  • Settings.
  • Finding the ‘shadow’ side as part of characterisation.
  • The crime genre as a vehicle for asking questions about our society.

Hopefully you have found something useful and of interest in each part. However, in the end, the only real way to write any type of novel is to write, read, write, read, write, get some decent feedback and write some more.

Unless we are lucky enough to have a literary agent or publisher interested in what we are writing, the hardest thing may be to stay motivated. For me, it’s about routine; being in love with the process and craft; and having supportive writing friends. Sometimes it hits me that, in all honesty, the only person who would care if I never wrote another word would be me – and that’s a difficult realisation to swallow. But I do care, because writing gives me such pleasure and at many levels keeps me sane.

If you have kept motivated and you have worked on your craft, it maybe that you now have 60,000 words you want to share with an audience through publication. There are currently two routes. The traditional, find a literary agent, or ‘indie’ publish. You will find much advice on ‘indie’ publishing on my blog. However, I have said little about the traditional route.

In the UK, for fiction, it is generally through a literary agent, as publishers won’t look at unsolicited manuscripts. On the other hand, some will have ‘open submissions’, so it’s worth looking out for them. In my opinion, as well as working hard, having some talent and shed-loads of luck, to go down the traditional route you also have to be very strategic.

When I started, thirty years ago, it was about researching the right lit agent for your genre. It’s art-of-breathing-covergone way beyond that. You have to be tuned into what’s going on in the literary word, building yourself an author platform, entering competitions, networking,… I have come to the recent conclusion that the only way to get a literary agent these days is to go on one of the very expensive courses they have begun to run.

I am indie publishing for the third time. The Art of Breathing, Scarborough Mysteries #3, has been written, copyedited, proofread and formatted for a local print run, for createspace and for Kindle. All the Scarborough Mysteries have swanky new covers. And I am now in the throes of organising a marketing campaign for the launch date of October 31st. Having paid a professional copyeditor, proofreader and designer for my covers, there is no way I will make any money back on sales. But I am happy to do this as I am very, very proud of my novel series.

Which would you choose: traditional or indie? And why? If traditional, do you have any tips to pass on?

 

 

 

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 (https://charlottecoleeditorial.com/).

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?

How to write a (crime) novel #7 – structure

hangerThe 1930s in the UK has been called the ‘Golden Age’ of crime writing. The genre was massively popular and some of our best-loved crime writers – Agatha Christie and DL Sayers – were at work. At first sight, it seems perverse that readers in a country still traumatised by the First World War should lap-up stories revolving around violence. One explanation is that crime novels are an antidote to the indiscriminate carnage witnessed and experienced during the ‘Great War’ in that they offer resolution, they come to a meaningful end.

One possible reason that we as humans love stories is this idea of resolution. To misquote Gillie Bolton (The Therapeutic Potential of Creative Writing, 1999, Jessica Kingsley Publishers) most of us are muddling along with middlings in our daily lives. It is rare that we really get to fully experience a completely obvious beginning or conclusive ending. Stories allow us to enjoy the possibility that things can be settled acceptably. As readers we can relax into the knowledge that the writer will carry us safely to the end page, however disturbing the story might be.

In order for this to be the case, narratives have a structure. To put it in basic terms there is usually: (1) a beginning with a question or crisis; (2) a few peaks of tension – in a crime novel these normally hinge around red herrings and (as we near the end) an increase in jeopardy (someone else is in danger); and then (3) a resolution of sorts. It was rare during the Golden Age for the baddie to ‘get away with it’. However, resolution in today’s crime novels can be less certain. In my first crime novel set in Scarborough, The Art of the Imperfect, the conclusion was flawed, as the title suggests.

When I think about structure, I think of a rail with hangers on. The rail is undulating, some of the hangers sit at the top of an upward sweep, others in a dip. Incidents from my story will eventually sit on these hangers and fill up the rail. Personally, this rail is at the back of my mind when I begin to write, it will only be later that I start to put the hangers in order and decide whether they belong on the crests or in the hollows. But then I am more of a ‘pantser’ than a ‘plotter’ see blog post, How to Write a Crime Novel #3.

The best way to learn about structure is to read, read, read and study structure as you do. Try representing the novel you are reading visually on a ‘rail’ or time-line. Which incidents cause the tension to heighten? Which bring about a lessening in tension? What would happen if you move the hangers/incidents around on the ‘rail’?

What are your tips for structuring a (crime) story?

Crime novels set in Scarborough:
The Art of the Imperfect  https://goo.gl/JrGat2
The Art of Survival   https://goo.gl/6RPzk5

How to write a (crime) novel #6: getting in touch with our shadow side

We British like a crime novel, so says Alistair Horne, of Cambridge University Press, http://goo.gl/KBPfpy, it is by far the best selling genre in the UK. Is this because we are a particularly heartless or ghoulish lot? Perhaps, or maybe, as suggested by Melanie McGrath in The Guardian Books Blog, June 30th 2014: ‘Crime fiction gives us permission to touch on our own indecorous feelings of rage, aggression and vengefulness, sentiments we’re encouraged to pack away somewhere… where they won’t offend.’

I am a trained psychotherapeutic counsellor and have spent many years in therapy myself, and I believe we have many potentials. Just as we are capable of great loves and joys, we are also capable of great unhappiness, anger, envy, hate, fear. We are driven by all our emotions. I also believe that unacknowledged feelings are likely to surface in unintended ways.

Generally speaking in a crime novel, someone has to do something which hurts another person. We all know hurting others is wrong (even though we sanction our armed forces to do it legitimately, but that is probably another blog post). What I am interested in when writing or reading a crime novel is what drives someone to hurt another. I think most people who hurt others have some kind of rationale or logical/reasonable explanation for why they’ve done it. And I am interested in this too. Plus I think this is what makes a crime novel more than an excuse for nasty voyeurism.

We go back to the old question which keeps a writer writing: what if? What if? What if I sincerely felt this about another person? What if I thought this was my only way forward or way out? What would I really do if things began to unravel?

Here’s a writing exercise: quickly write down a list of all the things you are not and then a list of all the things you would not do. Pick one thing from each list. Begin to construct a character. Remember in their world what they do is completely acceptable.

This is what I did for my story Adrift (https://goo.gl/AcPKdk) I wanted to write in the persona of a man who could justify his violence towards women. It was an uncomfortable ride, but an interesting one.

We tend to assume crime arises from the less acceptable emotions such as hate or anger, but Art of Survival Coverfront onlyfinalin my two novels in my series #ScarboroughMysteries, The Art of the Imperfect, https://goo.gl/JrGat2, and The Art of Survival, https://goo.gl/6RPzk5, the motivations are closer to love. What would we do for the person we care most about in the world?

Then there is the question of how much a social environment might cause crime. It is always an individual who finally makes the choice to commit a wrong-doing, but in some settings, in truth, how many options are there?

Neel Mukherjee, shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize, suggests: ‘What should the novel do: be a mirror to the reader’s world, reflecting it back at her, or be a clear pane of glass, not reflecting but offering something away from the self, a vista of a bigger, wider, different world outside? The moral energy of the novel form derives from its capacity to imagine the lives of others. This empathy can be seen as the beginning of the moral sense.’

As writers and readers maybe it does us good to explore the shadow side of ourselves and society. Not so we can sit back and feel smug about how we are, but so we can have some fellow-feeling for others. Perhaps our appetite for crime novels says something optimistic about us as a nation after all?

What do you think? How do you find the protagonists, particularly the more challenging ones, for your novels?

How to write a (crime) novel #5: settings

The lighting is subdued, the weather is stormy, the landscape bleak, a lone car travels along a winding single track road. The scene is set, is it not? It feels as if since the introduction of Nordic Noir to our TV screens, the landscape has become an essential character to any crime novel. However, this is not a recent device. In his novel, The Moonstone, published in 1868 and considered by some to be one of the first of the crime genre, Wilkie Collins created the shivering sands. In his description he said it was as if it had ‘hundreds of suffocating people under it – all struggling to get to the surface, and all sinking lower and lower in the dreadful depths!’

ScarbbeachI’m very fond of the natural world and enjoy stories where it is poetically and originally described. I also believe it can add a metaphorical aspect, giving depth and nuance. I do think that for contemporary tastes having a clarity about the setting is a must.

So where does your crime novel take place? Urban or rural? Small town or big city? Concrete or moor? Sea or landlocked?

I knew my crime series would take place in a small seaside town in North Yorkshire. At first I was cautious about setting it too firmly in Scarborough, the model for this place, and I played around with using different names for it. I then went to the local theatre to see a play with ‘Scarborough’ in its title. The auditorium was packed out and I would bet on a fair percentage being there because it was specifically about their home town. This decided me, my setting would be very definitely Scarborough.

For the moment, I am happy with this decision. Readers have been fulsome in their praise of my descriptions of the sea and landscape. And I love the sea, every day it’s a different character, I Art of Survival Coverfront onlyfinallove its moods, I love its strength, I love its wily ways. Yes, I am indulging in some anthropomorphism, which is the key to bringing the background of a crime novel to the foreground and giving it a role.

Here’s an exercise
Go for a walk in your neighbourhood. Indulge in what I call mindful walking: be aware of the outside through all your senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch – and how the inside of you interacts with the outside. After about ten minutes, sit and write for five minutes, quickly without thinking too much, just get words on the paper. Repeat if you feel like it. Then choose something specific – perhaps a tree or a wall or a gate or a bench – if it could talk, what story would it tell?

The crime scene can be crucial in a crime novel and often our protagonist (police officer or someone drawn into the investigation) has to explore it for clues.

Here’s an exercise
Your protagonist has walked into the crime scene. Where is it? Inside? Outside? Describe it as if you were walking through it, with a forensic eye, and don’t forget you won’t only see clues, you might smell them. There might be a texture or a noise which is important.

What’s the setting for your novel? How did you come up with it?

The Art of the Imperfect: https://goo.gl/JrGat2

The Art of Survival: https://goo.gl/6RPzk5

 

How to write a (crime) novel #4: arrive late, leave early

The best piece of advice I read/heard for writing any kind of novel, but particularly a crime novel:

Arrive late, leave early
(apologies, not sure of the source)

When I’m writing, I tend to be focused on telling the story – letting it unwind – and hearing the voices of the characters. It’s when I re-read, I begin to employ the above guidance. It generally means cutting away pre-, and post-, ambles and, as far as possible, jumping into the action/conflict. Does the reader really need to know in any detail how these characters physically reached this place? Or how they will depart from it? Sometimes yes, but often not.

This may seem to contradict two other aspects of the way I write. (1) The landscape, particularly the sea, is integral to the narrative. (2) I do like my characters to do ordinary things such as eat occasionally, even go to the bathroom. However, my intention is that (1) & (2) will support the story-telling and/or the characterisation and not be merely wallpaper – delightful as wallpaper can be sometimes.

Do you have a golden nugget of advice you’ve been given about writing which you could pass on? How do you feel about bringing (1) & (2) into your writing?

How to write a (crime) novel #3: plotting

Are you a ‘planner’ or a ‘pantser’? In other words, do you prefer to know exactly what is going to happen on every page of your novel before you write it? Or do you prefer to start writing and see how the story unfolds.

I always thought I was more of a pantser but for the third volume of my crime series (the Scarborough Mysteries) I find myself becoming more of a planner. And probably most writers will move between the two. I think both approaches have their pros and cons. I think being a pantser is likely to create more quirky and interesting plot lines as there is the space for the unexpected to emerge. However, especially when talking about a crime novel, a certain amount of the planner is useful to ensure all the loose ends get tied up and none of the twists culminate in unintended dead ends.

Stories can start from anything – with a notion perhaps, an image, a character, a plot, something overheard, a dream. Generally I tend to start with a gaggle of characters in search of a narrative, so I am always on the hunt for a plot or two. I collect them in a folder; they particularly include pieces which catch my eye from the news or documentaries or the local paper.

Here’s a writing exercise
Take your local paper and go to page 5. Write a couple of sentences from this page in the middle of a sheet of paper, then begin to ‘mind-map’. Jot down on the empty space ideas and words which spontaneously occur to you. After about fifteen minutes a narrative thread may well be revealing itself to you, one which you could begin to follow.

There are particular issues around plotting, structuring and pacing a crime novel which I will explore later in this series.

Meanwhile are you a planner or a pantser?

How to write a (crime) novel #2

Last time, I gave you some pointers on how to get going with writing and encouraged you to take your writing seriously. This time I’m going to suggest ways of finding the characters to tell your story.

A piece may start with a character or an experience or a feeling or an image or a dream… or in any number of ways. But ultimately we have to find the voice or voices which will tell the story to our readers. The days of the omniscient narrator – who sees, hears, understands everything – beloved of nineteenth century novel are pretty much gone. Readers expect the characters within the story to narrate what is happening. Generally this means that, as in life, the tale which is being told will depend on the perspective of the tell-er. We live in a era where philosophically we accept there are many truths, many ways to explain an experience, and this is reflected in our literature.

So in writing we have point-of-view characters, the one or ones who will narrate our story. Whether we be using first or third person, we (and our readers) will be discovering what’s happening through these characters’ eyes, their ears, their bodies. We need to get inside them for this to happen.

It is true that I am advocating a particular type of writing here. There are crime and other genres of novel which are very plot led and where the characters are not deeply explored. Some writers and readers prefer this approach. However, I don’t, I am not that kind of writer or reader, and if you aren’t either then this blog post is for you.

I believe strongly any character we create has at least some aspect of ourselves within it. Even though we might model the character on someone we know, seen or imagined, we are mediating them through us, so parts of our self will inevitably stitch itself in there. I am also a firm believer that we have many potential selves within our self and these can be given voice through creative writing. If we write freely enough within our writing journal, then the voices will emerge.

We can also find characters by people watching, keeping our senses and minds open to how those around us are. A snatched overheard conversation in a cafe might set us off to finding a character to tell our story. Listening and internalising how others speak, can certainly help us to create dialogue and voices which are realistic and engaging.

Hopefully something here is sparking off ideas about how our narrator(s) might be. Now the only way to get to know them enough to allow them to develop as characters is to write about them and write using their voices. If there is one ‘how to’ book I would recommend it is The Novelist’s Guide by Margret Geraghty (http://goo.gl/sq0tQM).  In it she suggests keeping a diary as a character for a week and also putting a scrap book together using words, images, things pulled out of magazines or off the internet, to begin to get to know this character – this person’s – likes and dislikes, desires, motivations, fears… Our characters also need a back-story, we need to know about their parents, maybe even their grandparents, even if none of this comes into the final novel.

When the character becomes a person to us the writer, we have a fighting chance of the reader engaging with them as such.

There is an oft repeated piece of advice: show don’t tell. What does this mean when it comes to characterisation? I think it means don’t write, ‘Steph was scared’, describe what it is like for Steph when she is scared. The problem is sometimes the ‘showing’ can fall into cliché; Steph’s teeth chatter or maybe she has butterflies in her stomach. One way to avoid cliché is to pay attention to how emotions feel inside our self and explore this in our writing journals. What does fear/love/hate (delete as necessary) feel like from the inside, is a question I’ve often posed for my students.

What are your tips for creating characters which can carry your story and engage readers?

Tips on writing a (crime) novel #1

You want to write a (crime) novel? But don’t know where to start? Let me suggest two concepts: to write a novel, you have to start writing; and to write a novel, you have to have some kind of routine.

If you’re serious about writing a novel don’t wait until (a) you’ve retired; or (b) your garden is tidy; or (c) you’ve learned cordon bleu cookery. If you’re serious about writing a novel, then you have to be serious about your writing, giving it the physical and psychological time, space and permission it deserves. Which does mean, in my experience, letting other things go.

I take as my inspiration, the grand dame of crime writing, PD James: ‘Learn to write by doing it. Read widely and wisely. Increase your word power. Find your own individual voice through practising constantly.’ (Quoted in 2016 Mslexia diary, www.mslexia.co.uk.)

Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. If you start writing, inspiration will come. These days I am lucky to work part-time, so I can write at my preferred time of the day, the morning. But all through my 20s and 30s I wrote while still doing a full-time job. I commuted into London, worked, commuted back again, snatched dinner and then sat down to write for two hours. I wrote at weekends. I produced a plethora of non-fiction articles, short stories and four novels. I know I could not have done this without routine.

Whatever schedule you decide for your writing, make sure you tell yourself it through noting it down in a diary or on a programme. And make sure those around you are aware of it and ask them to support you to stick to it.

A writer notices. A writer notices and listens. A writers notices, listens and then writes. Get used to noticing and listening. An exercise which is great for expanding a writer’s capacity for noticing encourages the use of all the physical senses. We have five physical senses: sight; hearing; taste; smell; touch. We also have how we feel emotionally, which will express itself through our bodies.

We will have a physical sense which we tend to be most comfortable with. If I ask you to describe a tractor, some of you may come up with a sound or a colour or a smell or a texture or even maybe a taste (taste and smell are linked, so I can taste diesel when imagining a tractor). What’s the sense you tend least towards, the one you find hardest to put descriptive words to? For the next two weeks you are going to become obsessed with that sense.

For the first week, you are going to consciously ask yourself to utilise this sense as you are out and about. Then at least three times a day you are going to sit down and write for twenty minutes about what you have noticed, including whether you’ve had any emotional responses, describing how they manifested themselves in your body. If you can, take short mindful walks (see blog post: http://goo.gl/88bMMY) and then write for ten minutes about everything you noticed around you and within your body.

For the second week, either imagine what it might be like to lack this particular sense or to have it enhanced. Again do the short bursts of writing during the day.

I prefer to do this kind of writing long-hand with pen and paper and I have a writing journal for this purpose. I think the connection between hand, pen and paper, brings forth notions which are hidden behind what we think we ought to be writing. One student of mine described it as ploughing a field, turning over the top-soil and finding what is underneath the ‘now of the mind’. However, it may also be possible to do this writing on a digital device. Try to write quickly and try not to worry about ‘getting it right’, attempt not to censor yourself.

These exercises are like the warm-ups in the gym. Something may come out of them which you Art of Survival Coverfront onlyfinalwant to use in writing you share with an audience. But you can make a choice about that later, for now they are purely for your own enjoyment and to practise and develop your writing skills.

Next time I will explore how to start finding the characters who will tell our story.

The first in my crime series set in Scarborough, The Art of the Imperfect and The Art of Survival are available on Amazon on Kindle and in paperback (click on their titles to be connected).

AND if you’re an indie author come and join our International Indie Book Tour: http://katemcolby.com/2016/01/25/last-day-to-join-the-2016-2k-indie-book-tour/