CrimeFest is all said and done this year. Over the past days we’ve been having a sort of withdrawal here at Thriller School, missing the prime advice from fellow crime writers. I say “fellow” because they’re just like you and me. A bit quirky, love their food and drinks, and—most of all—enjoy talking about their most recent homicides over a cup of tea. See? Normal. The best part about CrimeFest is feeling as if you’re one of the writers, not just someone who came to the zoo and has to look through the bars. The people, writers and even readers I spoke to were individuals I wouldn’t mind sitting back and having a drink with. I didn’t even feel intimidated when we started talking about the different ways a person could die or how long it would take for them to decompose. But I don’t need to state the awesome quirkiness of the crime fiction lovers since we all know this already.
“You need to write the book you want to read.” – William Ryan
Are there any new crime plots out there? As writers, we’ve all heard this question at one time or another. While we’re all itching to stamp the big letters, Y-E-S onto the lips of every person daring to ask such a thing, we have to admit, plots have been run through the washing machine quite a bit. The key detergent to put in that laundry bundle of a plot is character. “Make plots different through character,” said Robert Wilson and this is good advice coming from the Gold Dagger winning author. After all, the characters are who we share the journey with and if we as readers don’t like anything about the character, why do we care? They need to be interesting and grab the reader’s attention; make them care. Characters are typically relatable, but don’t be too nice, however. Readers live through them, doing things they can’t do in real life. Crime fiction “brings danger into our safe lives,” as David Hewson would say and that is why we read. But what if you have the character already that people enjoy, but you feel as if the twists aren’t twisting as far, or the readers aren’t jumping as much in their seats as they read your words? Some of the best advice I was given (that many of the authors shared and agree with) is to surprise yourself. If you’re writing along and your character does something you didn’t expect, go with it. If it surprises you, the writer, it’s going to surprise the reader as well. Writing is “95% nuts and bolts and 5% writing charm,” Jasper Fforde said. The grammar and structure can be taught, but the “charm/magic” is a talent or skill. We all have a bit of magic in us somewhere so go out and “write the book you want to read,” make characters who bring “danger into our safe lives,” and always, always let your characters surprise you.
“Is the murderer always the guiltiest person in the book?” – Sophie Hannah
Now if that doesn’t make your fingers itch to write, I’m not sure what will. As crime writers we have to look at many angles, trying to come up with the perfect murder or perfect trauma to instigate on our characters. But what if that Good vs. Evil wasn’t so black and white? Not only has crime fiction typically been littered with police procedurals, but there’s been this tiptoe away to psychological thrillers. “The human mind is fascinating and endless,” agreed the panel concerning books with psychologists, psychotherapists and psychiatrists as the main characters. Readers want to see how other people act in certain traumatic situations, as if taking notes if something so horrible should befall them. Jake Woodhouse says crime fiction is “fiction with its sleeves rolled up.” Readers get the nitty-gritty action their normal lives couldn’t tolerate. And if the story revolves around psycho drama the reader is immersed in a mind and not just a setting. The reader might find out things like how, “vulnerable doesn’t mean weak.” When Sarah Hilary made that remark she was referencing female main characters, but I think it can apply to anyone. Finding that combination of vulnerability and weakness is tricky, however, but it all goes back to surprising yourself as you write. If you’ve created a strong character, s/he won’t want to be weak, so let go of the reins for a while and see where the character will steer you. Don’t forget to challenge yourself as a writer. Jasper Fforde starts off his books with a dare and never lets himself off the hook. Make a goal and follow your character to that goal. After all, the character is the one with his/her life on the line. If there was anyone who could get out of such a situation, it would be that character, right?
“Old, unspoiled England.” – Andrew Martin
There were whispers of readers leaning towards historical crime fiction because there are believable holes for things to go wrong, or the opportunity for unlikely heroes to step in and take the spotlight. There is also the romanticism of it all, where people respected one another, life was simple, life made sense—sometimes I wonder if those people have ever read a crime novel. I can see their point, however, especially when it comes to finding holes where murderers can slip in or places where the cat woman down the street can find a body and solve the murder in less than 36 hours. With all of the high-tech gadgets around nowadays, does that mean crime novels are harder to write? When asked about how accurate crime writers have to be to real life, Imogen Robertson said you have to be “accurate, but [get] the right emotional sense.” If the emotion is off, the reader will notice, but s/he might not notice if there is some kind of inaccuracy with the technicalities. That’s not to say writers shouldn’t do their research, however. There’s “nothing magical about research,” Patrick Easter said concerning how to go about and find information, but he did stress the need to search. As we all know, setting is important when it comes to a book. If the reader is immersed in the world, s/he shouldn’t have to be jolted out of if by a mere inconsistency. Some authors said it is better to go to the location the book is set in order to not only see it, but to feel it as well. With the help of Google Earth, many of the other writers feel a long, expensive trip isn’t needed, but they all stressed the same thing: emotion. As mentioned before, it’s important to get the emotional connection correct so that the reader can be fully immersed in the world you have created. Along with that emotion lingers one of the big questions, “How much gore is too much?” Some authors don’t like to be vivid with their details and others do; a lot of it is personal preference. It also depends on the story you are writing. Horror stories tend to have more detail than cosy detective stories. Know your audience. Another good pointer to always remember is, no matter how much gore you are writing, as Mark Billingham stresses, “Write about what violence feels like, not what violence looks like.” And one last note on violence that every panel never forgot to stress: don’t kill or torture puppies. You have been warned.
“Learn by doing; learn by thinking about it.” – Ben Aaronovitch
The only way to learn writing, is to keep doing it. It has to envelope your world and, as all us writers know, even though we’re not typing on a keyboard, we’re all still writing stories in our heads. We ask questions of the world around us and then try to answer those questions through our writing. Another good bit of advice came from David Hewson when he said, “A reader wants answers to the questions.” As writers we are readers because we are both trying to find the same thing in the end: answers. So, stop reading this blog post and go write!
And make a little goal for yourself, straight from Jasper Fforde, “Having written is more fun than writing.” Go create.