Tag Archives: crime fiction

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?

Sense of Place

Recently the film and the sit com both called Scarborough have had their UK release. I have some issues with both movie and TV series, but the town I have chosen as home certainly comes out as visually stunning. At its UK premier, Barnaby Southcombe, the director of Scarborough the film, explained how the location had informed the final version. The plot contains two interweaving narratives and Southcombe said the two were filmed at separate times of year, aiding the feeling of a shifting time frame. Though in many ways both film and sit com are not really rooted in Scarborough, they could have been set in any (at times faded) seaside town.

In my series of crime novels Scarborough and especially the sea are more than mere backdrops. I want them to become almost like another character interacting with the stories being told. I am currently working on Scarborough Mysteries number 5, No Justice, and seas and oceans from various parts of the globe flow through the narrative.

* * *

Extracts from No Justice:

She lets her gaze travel across the sea to where it meets the sky. It had been a blue day, tolerably warm given such a late Spring. Now the darkness is sifting through the scrapes of cloud to reach down to the flat sea. It is like molten silver alloy. The sun is setting and tinting the hills behind Hannah. It is the brushwork of the moon which is painting the water. A misshapen orb is nudging above the castle which stands on its headland to Hannah’s left, above the harbour, between the two bays.

She continues down the cliff path, through the gardens to the beach. Below her is the meringue-white curve of the sun court attached to the Victorian Gothic spa buildings. At the base of the cliffs, she sits on the sea wall. The waves are easing themselves up the tawny sand, she can smell the salt on them and the Bladder Wrack which garlands the rocks. She’s taken this walk many, many times since moving to Scarborough, five years ago. Temporarily as she thought at the time, to finish her training as a counsellor, moving back in with her parents, into the house she now owns. It hadn’t really been her choice, she had felt she had to finish something, succeed at something, but now she relishes her life here. Especially her walks by the sea. Though more recently, Kelsey’s story has given Hannah pause for thought. She’s more likely to start at movements, which are usually a bird or squirrel rootling about in the bushes. She gives men more than a second look – though the vast majority are obviously dog walkers and many are elderly. She looks out across the water, she won’t give this up, she needs this breathing through her.

Where Blessing and Marianne live, all their windows are nailed shut and the watchers insist the curtains are kept drawn. Only the bathroom has a narrow louvred opening. Through it Blessing can smell the cool salty air. She’d caught the scent of it the early morning of their arrival and had a glimpse of the expanse of dark water, like a tank of oil, a fire lit at its rim. The ocean. Only here it is the sea.

She has memories of holidays by the ocean, with her family, when she was young. For several years they had owned an apartment on the beach. She and her husband had visited the ocean, during the early years, before things became difficult. She had swum in that ocean, strong, steady strokes. She had sailed along the coast of that ocean. She had thought a sea, an enclosed sea, where, in places, one shore is clearly visible from another, she had thought such a sea could hold little danger. How wrong she’d been.

* * *

I am also collecting together some short stories I have been writing over several years. In these the sense of place is more germane. As every writer knows, stories can start from anything – an idea, a person, an overheard conversation, a walk through the countryside, a visit to a museum….. I found that every time I went away somewhere new, a short story began to emerge and I would take down notes. Once back home, I would work on these stories which are very much rooted in a place. The place itself birthed the story.

Extract White Night

The white nights will send you crazy. I walk the hills between Fløyen and Ulriken. I keep to the route, mostly, and there are plenty of others out there being sent crazy by the daylight at midnight. The grey granite rises steeply. There’s rowan, beech and birch on the lower slopes. These soon give way to the spruce and red pine under which the soft fronds of the ferns unfurl and bilberries ripen. Blackbird and coal tit chitter in the branches. Terns swoop silently over the still waters of the Blåmansvannet. A crow caws abrasively. Soon after the trees peter out leaving the naked rock scarred with lichen and moss. I have found my own paths which are safe to stray down, leading to the sheer drops; down, down to the fjord, a black mirror rippled with silver wire. I know the spots they choose, those sent crazy by the white nights. I know where they saunter too close and I am there waiting.

The fjord has its moods. Its surface turns from charcoal, to ivy, to forget-me-not, concealing its glacier-torn depth with a pleasing cloth. An uncareful step, a slip, and a body is gone. A body turns to bone before it is discovered. I am little more than a skeleton now, since you left me here. No flesh. Unremembered, unspoken of, the flesh loses its corpulence.

Since it is unlikely you will return to save me, I have my existence and I follow those who have misplaced the path, envious, let it be understood, of their lustrous flesh. I am made crazy by these white nights.

* * *

I am now reworking the story drafts following comments from various first readers. During my recovery from my hysterectomy I have done a lot of listening to the radio especially to stories being read. It has made me wonder whether I should produce these stories as audios rather than in print. There is something magical, I find, in being read to and I think my collection would lend itself to this approach.

Has anyone else made a podcast of their stories? Any advice?

A Writing Life: time to take stock

I don’t do Christmas and New Year. I hope not in a bah-humbug way, I’m just not really interested in the fuss which explodes around this time of year. Gifts; over-indulging in food; the commercial pressures to buy, buy, buy; the societal pressures to be hippy, happy, hoppy, when there’s lots in the world to be sorrowful about – none of it makes much sense to me. Being with friends and giving and receiving meaningful loving and supportive gestures, well that makes sense to me whatever time of year it is. Why just keep it for December 24th to January 2nd?

However, there is something about this time of year which for me encourages reflection. In this hemisphere we are headed towards the longest night. After this the days get imperceptibly (at first) longer, the light begins to return. Hence our impulse to use candles and electric bulbs to remind us of this. Many animals hibernate, perhaps this is another reason I feel inclined to go inwards and take stock of the preceding months.

I have completed a draft of my fifth crime novel No Justice and it has gone to a couple of fellow writers for comment. I am proud of this novel. I feel I have grown in confidence and become more skilled and this has only happened through continuing to write. Yes, it’s important to read to be a writer and to listen to critiques, but the most important thing is to keep writing. Like many things in life, we only get better in the doing.

For the few stalwart fans I have out there (thank you my dears, I am very grateful) you may be wondering what happened to my fourth crime novel Drowning Not Waving. A literary agent is still considering whether she will take it on. I submitted it in April (after a three-month re-write requested by her). I heard from her on the 31st of October, she said she would give me a response within the week. And I continue to wait. Patience is perhaps another requisite for a writer wishing to be traditionally published.

I have also pushed forward with three other writing projects this year. I have collected together short stories I have written (or half written) over the years and they are in differing states of readiness to be critiqued. I have pulled together various strands of my non-fiction writing into a collection which I have entitled The Long Distance Writer. This encompasses what I have learnt about the creative process, the connections I have found between writing and walking and my thoughts around memoir. Again this is all in draft form and needs further work before being released, possibly in sections on this blog.

Finally, in a moment of madness I entered 3000 words of a novella to the Mslexia competition. I recently went back to their website to see what the timescales for the competition are. I discover that if I am short-listed I have to submit the whole novella in January. I still only have the 3000 words I submitted. I think it entirely unlikely that I will be short-listed, however, hope springs eternal in a writer, so I feel I need to be prepared. Part of my festive period, therefore, will be spent furiously working out a plot for this novella and slamming out another 15000 words. It would be desperately ironic if this piece of writing which I have spent the least time and care over should actually get further than those I craft and craft.

As I look towards 2019, the one thing I am certain about is that I will continue to write. Writing is the spine of my life. It keeps me sane. It brings me a great deal of joy as well as the friendships of some wonderful people. I am signing off from this blog until next year, so (though it maybe a bit early for some) I would like to wish everyone the festive season they aspire to and a creative New Year.

 

A writer’s motivation

I am pleased to say my re-write of No Justice, the fifth in my Scarborough Mysteries series, is going well. I am finding some inventive ways to tell the story and I am also pulling apart the time-line, giving the narrative more space to breathe. It all appears a bit messy at the moment, but I like messy and I am confident it will all come together in the end.

Last week I met with a friend of mine and we got into a discussion about the pros and cons of indie publishing against the pros and cons of having a literary agent. For those of you who are regular readers of my posts, you will know that I don’t exactly choose the indie route, it is more thrust upon me. I don’t feel it suits me as I am not good at marketing. I am very grateful for the readers I have, but it is fair to say, I appeal to a niche market. I am not terribly commercial. On the other hand during our discussion, I did come to appreciate the freedom of being an indie. The freedom to try out. The freedom to experiment.

We tend to think that because the publishing industry is as it is today – with large conglomerate publishers and literary agents as gate-keepers (at least for fiction) – thus it has always been. Not so. We only have to go back a hundred years to find a much more mixed picture. Authors who are now household names basically ‘self-publishing’ or publishing by subscription (the original crowd-funding). Sometime between then and now publishers and literary agents ascended to the power they currently have to decide what we shall and shall not read.

New technology should have brought some democracy. However, it seems to me, that the reading public has not embraced the possibilities as much as the listening public has for music. Reviews, TV/radio slots, bookshops, awards, festivals, long & short listing still dominate how readers decide on their next purchase. These are almost entirely closed to indie published novels.

I am as guilty as the next reader. If you want to sample indie, you really have to go looking forward it and do your own research. Having said all that, there are stories all over social media (and figures from Amazon) showing indie published authors who have readers in their millions and who make more money than traditionally published authors, so there are other experiences than mine.

My friend ended our discussion by asking the age-old question: why do we do it? If readers, exposure and money are not guaranteed, why do we keep slogging away? Plus, though the books we write are all-important to us, containing as they do our toil, our imagination, little particles of us, it must be realised that for most readers they are ephemeral. They are in a reader’s hands for only a short while before they land on the pile for the charity shop.

The only answer I could give my friend is that I do it for the love, because I enjoy the process. I find enormous pleasure in the splurge of ideas at the beginning of the writing journey and then in the crafting, crafting until I have something I feel I might want to share. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t do it.

Why do you do it? What motivates you?

 

Experimentation in Writing

I have begun my read through of novel #5, No Justice. I put it away several months ago, so I am coming to it with a relatively clear head, in preparation for re-writing. I had set out to write a straight forward crime novel, but it seems I am incapable of straight forward. I break several ‘cardinal’ rules: there are many characters; there are many narrative voices; there are ‘poetic’ descriptions; we’re several chapters in and there is no crime to investigate.

On the other hand I enjoy writing (and reading) it, and since I may be its sole reader, isn’t that the point?

I admire writers and artists who break the rules and stick to their own creative vision. We would not have most contemporary prose without Virginia Woolf’s ‘stream of consciousness’ approach. Yet she had to self-publish as she could not cope with the rejections she got from commercial publishers. She and her husband Leonard set up the Hogarth Press to publish her novels in 1917 with a hand-press in their dining room. The hand-press cost them £19, the equivalent of £900 today. Hogarth press is now part of Random House publishing. Ironically perhaps, RH is one of the big conglomerates which currently so dominate the market that they can dictate what books we find on shops’ shelves and what reviews we find in the media.

I have written elsewhere about trends in experimenting with the narrative arc (https://bit.ly/2yTSX6Q). I recently read Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor and boy does he knock around with our expectations of story-telling. Each chapter is a year, there is no traditional paragraphing, human tales are given the same value/space as nature’s tales, there are no speech marks (this last, I personally found rather confusing). Not to mention the unresolved resolution. I had some complaints about the ending to my first novel, The Art of the Imperfect (for me the clue was in the title, it’s going to be imperfect). I would suggest these critics would hate McGregor’s finish.

I understand that some readers want an easy ride, they don’t want to be pushed or challenged, but I like it, and I want greater daring to come into my writing. In my last post (https://bit.ly/2xinR5B) I said I was entering a piece into a novella competition. I made the deadline and my submission included fictional prose (which moved between centuries), literary criticism and poetry. Maybe the judges will merely see it as a mish-mash, however, I was pleased to have attempted something different.

Currently I am wondering how to pull apart the timeline in No Justice without losing pace. Or, given I’m already transgressing various ‘cardinal’ rules, maybe it’s OK to lose pace?

How do you experiment in your writing?

 

The Joy of Re-writing

For this New Year, my project is to re-write my crime novel Drowning Not Waving. Re-writing is often a real struggle, especially for novice writers. Where to start? What to do? Here are some pointers.

Firstly take some distance. I finished the first draft of this novel over six months ago. That’s a good length of time to leave before attempting a re-write. It should mean that when you re-read your work you can do so more as a disinterested reader than as the involved writer. Six months ago I thought I had done a pretty good job on my novel. However, when I re-engaged with it in January, I could immediately see problems with the pacing, with when and how clues are revealed and with keeping the tension going. Being a crime novel, these aspects are important. What’s paramount in making your novel work will depend a bit on what genre it is. Though issues around pacing, reveals and tension are probably worth considering whatever the type of story it is.

Secondly get some feedback. I got some following a writing course I did with Curtis Brown Creatives and this has helped me to focus. I started by tightening up the character profiles. I usually discover a character by writing about it, but at some point I pin down a profile with everything I now know. I had done this last year. I re-visited them and ironed out inconsistencies, worked on back-story and refined motivations.

I then pulled apart the time-line, creating more space for characterisation and creating jeopardy. This has also meant moving chapters around which does get a bit hairy, as I then find things happening in an earlier section which can’t until something in a later one occurs.

When I am writing my first draft, I generally find I am carrying all my characters around in my head. At this stage, I have them and my narrative arc which – as a friend helpfully put it – is currently a partly unravelled piece of knitting. It feels like a delicate balancing act, so excuse me if I appear distracted….

Thirdly ensure your feedback is from someone who understands the concept of re-writing. This is not the moment to show your writing to someone who is pernickety about grammar or spelling. What you want is a fellow writer or a reader who is able to take in the narrative as a whole and see where the kinks are or the patches where it limps along. Who is able to meet the characters as real people and suggest where they become too thin to be believed. Who can hear your dialogue and root out where it clangs or where it is unnecessary. It is not an easy task, nor one for the faint-hearted.

I am about two-thirds through this re-write, with all the unpicking and re-stitching I have done, I have no idea whether it will work as a whole. But for the moment I feel confident and energised, so I hope this will carry me through.

What are your tips for re-writing?

Keeping Motivated

For most people, the festive season is a break with routine, which will probably mean a break from writing. Then January dawns dark and cold, possibly accompanied by a hangover caused by too much indulgence, too little sleep, or too little peace and quiet (or all three). How to get writing again?

I love to write. I love the act of creating something which will communicate to another, crafting an idea in a way so that it can be shared and understood. I like to tease over words and sentence construction until I have that well-turned phrase or that evocative description. I love to create and enter into imaginary worlds. I also feel better when I’m writing. The act of expression – even if it is only between me and the page – can bring pleasure and relief.

Even so, it is sometimes hard to get going again. Making space and giving permission to myself to write are key. This year, I made some physical space. I spent two days re-organising shelves and filing drawers along with sorting and shredding documents. There’s space there now for new works and that is exciting.

As those of you who have read this blog over some time will know, I have indie published three crime novels based in Scarborough. I still have a couple of boxes of these books and I have decided to run down my stock. The best way I have found of selling books is to get out there and give talks. I now have five set up – see my events page. And I have been enjoying developing a new talk about book cover art. It is a fascinating subject which I will bring more of to these blog pages in due course.

I am also re-writing a fourth crime novel based in Scarborough which is tentatively entitled Drowning Not Waving. Where to start with re-writing? Here are some suggestions: (1) Get feedback from trusted sources. (2) Leave several months before going back to it. (3) Re-visit character outlines and time lines to ensure they are coherent and characters are well-rounded with a decent back-story. (4) Re-read with a reader’s head on, with as much distance from your work as you can muster. (5) Make guidance notes for yourself. (6) Use your notes to start re-writing from page 1 and keep going, one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time….

I feel energised with these projects on the go. I hope whatever creative projects you have this year, they prove to be satisfying and full-filling for you.

Any tips for keeping motivated when writing?