Tag Archives: novel writing

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?

Writing Tips: Voice

I have previously blogged on ‘voice’, so some of this may be a repeat for some of my readers. However, I am adding to my previous thoughts.

I think there are two aspects to voice for a writer. Firstly there is the writer’s voice. This might include (among other aspects) choices as to plot or point of view or language, structural quirks, an outlook on the world and/or future. In some ways this is like the voice of an actor. There are different types of actors. I watch a film with Michael Cain in and I know I am watching Michael Cain. On the other hand, one year I saw three films starring Daniel Day-Lewis and it could have been a completely different actor in each, so effectively did he morph into the characters. I think writers are the same. For me, Colm Tóibín is more of a Michael Cain, while Louise Doughty is more of a Daniel Day-Lewis.

Then, if a writer is creating fiction, there are the voices of the characters. Here I do believe a writer should strive for diversity, which must mean going beyond their own experiences.

One of the narrative characters in my Scarborough Mysteries novels is Theo Akande – young, black, gay, male. What is a fifty-five year old white woman doing writing in a young, black, gay, male voice? There has been some suggestion that this disjunction is one reason why it has not been picked up by literary agents. Perhaps it smacks of appropriation or colonisation. There is a good point here, there are not enough young, black, gay voices out there and publishers should be focusing on promoting them rather than a voice created by me. I do get that. And sometimes I do feel nervous that I’m not getting Theo ‘right’ in some way.

I was cheered slightly by an interview with Bonnie Greer which I heard on the excellent podcast: https://www.thelastbohemians.co.uk/. Greer said we are, after all, from the same species. She also said don’t be an artist if you want to be safe.

Theo evolved over several novels (unpublished & published). Initially he was the ‘sane’ counterweight to Hannah’s descent into depression. He has faced prejudiced and bullying and has many reasons to feel aggrieved, but he maintains his more balanced view of the world because of the ‘secure base’ (à la Bowlby) of his upbringing. I believe Theo is more unlike me because of this than because of his other attributes. I have a very bleak view on life. I also wanted him to be different from the many ‘cops with hang-ups’ which are out there in contemporary fiction, while also having his vulnerabilities. He is more a Peter Wimsey (DL Sayers) than a Rebus (Ian Rankin).

Whether readers will be content with my depiction of Theo is up to them. However, as writers, it is worth considering how we come to characters who are very different from ourselves. I have several suggestions. Firstly, writers need big ears for listening. We also need curiosity. When we meet someone, we need to be asking questions and listening to the answers. The ‘overheard’ is also a great source. Secondly, we research through reading, TV, radio, internet, social media, interviewing… Thirdly, I come back to what Greer said about us all being the same species. At a very basic level, we all have the same impulses to want to be loved and respected and have a sense of purpose. How we might try and gain love, respect and a sense of purpose will vary, more, I believe, by nurture than by nature, though genes must play its part. I only have to look at me and my siblings to understand that. Fourthly, characters develop if we writers allow them to. Planning is often useful, but not if it gets in the way of characters bouncing off each other and off what is happening to them. As with real life, characters behave differently, and are changed, because of what is going on around them.

Finally, as a writer, it is important to believe that all human behaviour is possible. For me, I want all my characters’ behaviours/feelings to stretch back to those fundamental needs of love, respect and sense of purpose. I suspect I would not be able to do great violence to another person, I am far too squeamish and fearful. But I wanted to write from the point of view of someone who could and created Max in my short story Adrift (still available on Amazon somewhere). I feel I managed to capture a mindset which could allow extreme violence and rationalise it. That’s not saying I believe what Max did was right, only that he thought it was right.

What is your experience of creating character and voice? Have you deliberately set out to write a character very different from you?

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?

One small step….

What with the anniversary of the first moon landing, we have all been reminded of the oft-quoted ‘One small step… one giant leap…’ It fits with the idea of the slightly cliched: every journey starts with the first step.

And every piece of writing starts with writing the first word (even if later that first word will be discarded or become the 10th or the 100th or the last). In recent weeks I have been in conversation with several people who are struggling with the next steps in their writing. When drilling into what is going on for them, it appears to boil down to two issues:

  • What will people think?
  • Being too fixated on the product and not enjoying the process.

These may be dressed up in any numbers of ways including thoughts such as: I’m not good enough; what’s the point of this; I haven’t enough time; I’m not a writer; I should be doing the cleaning (or any other soul-destroying job you can think of). Or perhaps actions which means that any writing/thinking time gets squeezed out by trying to meet the (supposed?) needs of others.

Once some literacy skills have been gained, writing isn’t hard. I mean it’s not hard in the way going down a mine is hard or trying to eek food from an unforgiving soil or climate. What more often than not gets in the way of our writing hand is our heads. I am not immune. I can get mired in fears of being found wanting or in trying to find a point to spending time writing (beyond the simple fact that I enjoy it).

And there are parts to writing which I enjoy less. Such as currently I am re-reading Drowning Not Waving, in preparation for getting ready for (self) publishing. This novel, the fourth in my Scarborough Mysteries series, has not had an easy gestation. Picked up and then unceremoniously dropped by an agent, there are parts of it which I feel I wrote to please her and do not entirely please me. However, I have a strong urge to get it finished and out there, so I can move on. Plus, I am very aware that I see every sinew in magnified detail while the majority of readers will barely skim the skin.

So my challenge is not to take the first step, but to keep going though the terrain may be getting uncomfortable. My method (should you choose to adopt it) is to break things down into palatable chunks, write them on a list and tick them off as I do them. I am half way through my ‘re-read and take notes on Drowning Not Waving.’ I am doing it an hour at a time with breaks in between for walking, swimming, eating, reading, seeing friends, yoga, playing tennis….

It is perhaps a harsh reality that most of what most of us write – most of what we tear from the cavities of our hearts and commit to paper – will not be read in any great detail (if at all) nor appreciated much. Shed a tear for this and then think, wow what freedom this gives me. I can write to please myself! How joyous is that?

I have just spent a week in Swanage. One of the things I most enjoyed was swimming in the bay, especially in the morning in the flat sun-rimed water, in sight of the Isle of Wight and Old Harry’s Rocks. It wasn’t easy to get in. The sea was chilly, there were sharp pebbles to be negotiated, but once I stopped hyperventilating and just let myself go, relaxing into the waves, it was glorious. Another metaphor, if you want one, for my writing method.

 

 

Midsummer Magic

It is the Summer Solstice. Yes it is! I always feel midsummer comes too early at these latitudes. I have barely got my shorts on. However, midsummer it is.

Why not give yourself permission to give your creative spirit some time to play and let the midsummer magic sink in.

Scarborough lighthouse at dawn. Mark Vesey 2019

If you haven’t read it already, take a moment to jump back to a previous post: https://bit.ly/2RqqBKn

Now look at these amazing photos – or maybe you have one of your own – and do some free writing.

Scarborough beach huts at dawn. Mark Vesey 2019

Write freely for about ten minutes. Perhaps leave it for a while (take a walk or do some breathing/stretching) then scan through and pick out five or six words, sentences or phrases which seem interesting. Spend 30 minutes playing around with these. Perhaps you will put them down the page like a poem, adding in other words/phrases as necessary. Perhaps you will see if they will lead you into a 100 word narrative which goes across the page.

It doesn’t matter what you end up with. The main thing is to play and enjoy.

If anyone does this and feels like doing so, feel free to put what you’ve done in a comment so it can appear below this post.

Thank you!

 

A Writer’s Toolkit: Reading


We read to escape, for pleasure, to learn something, to divert, but sometimes we read to meet ourselves. We read to have something in ourselves, in our experience, confirmed as acceptable. Or, at least, not so far beyond the possible as to be beyond the pale.

Many of us take up a writing journey to resolve things that, in the end, are un-resolvable. Possibly once we have realised they are un-resolvable, we will find acceptance. Reading another’s perspective or story can also bring us to view what is going with us in a different, perhaps more compassionate, way. Reading can be all encompassing.

Patricia Leavy, author of Handbook of Arts-Based Research (Guildford Press, 2019) suggests:
‘Research shows that reading fiction engages our entire brain, including some unexpected areas, such as those involved with movement and touch. We literally place ourselves in the stories we read, becoming immersed. There are activations in our brains for days after reading a novel, which is not the case with nonfiction prose.’

However, as writers we also read to develop ourselves and our craft. Read widely. Read actively. Don’t just think I enjoyed that (or not), ask what makes it appealing (or not) to me. Look for techniques which we may want to bring into our own writing. I’m not advocating plagiarism here. As with walking, we may all take the same path, but we will all experience it and talk about it in different ways. With writing, if we allow the means and the subject matter to be mediated through our self, then using similar methods to other writers will still result in a unique piece.

So essential items in a writer’s toolbox are: a library card, a shelf full of books and a community within which books can be leant and borrowed.

 

Update


My own writing projects continue to progress. I have pulled together my thoughts on writing, walking and memoir into a non-fiction piece and am waiting to see how I might develop that into something I could share with an audience. The short stories I discovered in embryonic state in my writing journals are drafted and are out with readers for comments.

 

 

 

 

I have completed Drowning Not Waving, the fourth in my Scarborough Mysteries series. It has been with a literary agent since the beginning of 2018. Initially she said she loved it and she enthusiastically talked to me over the phone, asking me to do some re-writes which I did before re-submitting it to her. On October 31st 2018 she said she would definitely get back to me with a definitive answer within the week. That is the last I have heard from her.

While all this has been going on, I have completed the fifth in the series, No Justice. I am currently at the re-writing/editing stage and hope to be able to indie publish both as one volume by the end of this year.


 

A Writer’s Toolbox: the self

If you’ve read the first post in this series, https://bit.ly/2RqqBKn, then hopefully that has encouraged you to write regularly. You may have adapted the sprints to suit yourself, all well and good. The point is to be writing regularly without critiquing and without too much concern over what is the point, apart from enjoying yourself.

Now we come to the most important implement in the Writer’s Toolbox: the writer themselves. Everything that comes from the writer is mediated through the self. So let’s consider how the self might work for the writer.

We have five physical senses: touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. We may favour one of these senses. If I say the word ‘tractor’, do you see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, feel the texture of it? This little exercise gives an idea of which sense you may lean towards. A writer encourages the development of all the senses. Try these explorations:

  •      walk (preferably through a bit of nature) with all your senses opened. Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.
  •       Once you have worked out which sense you least favour, go for a walk and focus on that sense. Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.
  •       Take an image (a photo or a postcard or a picture or a painting), imagine yourself within the picture, what would you be seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling? What textures could you touch? Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.
  •       Imagine that one of your senses has gone. Take a short walk without that sense working. Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.

You may discover your own ways of opening up your senses. Keep exploring what your five physical senses can tell you.

Writing is about imagination, inspiration, that’s what people commonly say, which all sounds very head-based. Poet William Blake likened the imagination and inspiration to a grinding millstone and a blacksmith’s forge. If we continue with his analogy, then we need the grain, we need the base metal, for the millstones or the fire in the forge to produce anything. We need the raw materials for the imagination and inspiration to feed on. These raw materials come through the senses, but also through the body as a whole. The body is the receptor by which we experience the world as we pass through it, then the mind puts language and interpretations to this experience. Working in concert, the two enrich our writing.

The self can be a tuning fork, resonating with the environment and finding the individual note for the individual writer. One of the things I have found which encourages the mining of the resources of the body is mindful walking. Mindfulness is a word which is used in many different contexts with a myriad of meanings. I like this definition from psychologytoday.com (accessed 5th October 2015): Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience. Try walking mindfully and then writing for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.

Writing creatively means engaging emotion, both for the writer and for the reader. We don’t think emotions, we feel them. Philippot et al. (2004) suggest that emotions are primarily experienced though bodily sensation and then translated into feelings and brought into consciousness. Writers connecting with their bodies are more aware of emotion, more able to capture them and find ways of communicating them which will touch a reader. However, writers are in the business of engaging with a plethora of emotions, not just the ones which we might think are nice or respectable or allowed. This can be hard, can be painful, can be distressing. Be sure you have supports in place to help you through.

The self may also be the spanner in the works, which jams the creative wheels. Another part of a writer’s toolkit is a small but resilient core of self-belief. This is usually difficult to hone and maintain. Writers need to experience a full range of emotions to put them into their writing, some, such as shame and anger, are not conducive to self-belief. Writers might lay themselves open to criticism and rejection – generated by themselves or by others, or (even harder) imagined others.

It is worth remembering that both the creative practice and the construction of self-belief are iterative. There is a back-and-forth to the process. ‘Onwards and upwards’ is an oft repeated phrase, as if going forwards is always what’s best. Writers can feel they are going backwards or round in circles. Remembering that this is an important part of being creative may help this become less frustrating.

Take your time exploring your senses and mindful walking and see where it takes you. I’ll be exploring further tools in the writer’s toolbox in the next post in the series in the coming weeks.

 

Philippot P, Baeyens C, Douilliez C, & Francart B. (2004). Cognitive regulation of emotion: application to clinical disorders. In: Philippot P, Feldman RS (eds.). (2004) The regulation of emotion. New York: Laurence Erlbaum Associates.