Writing Crime Fiction: a personal approach
WRITING CRIME FICTION
I discover most of my stories by accident. I don’t go looking for them, they find me, in the sense that something I read, see, hear or muse on will suddenly – or gradually – reveal its story potential to me.
As examples: When articles about a quack cancer doctor appeared in a newspaper recently, I instantly saw the fictional possibilities – a motive for murder, for example. When I found that my letterbox had been destroyed by fire overnight, I asked “Who did it?” like an outraged citizen, then asked it as a fiction writer, and began to see two young men roaming the back roads one night, drunk, viciously bored, and one of them discovering that he quite likes lighting fires… And so a major subplot of my first Challis and Destry novel, The Dragon Man, emerged. When I holidayed on the island of Vanuatu many years ago, and saw some of the shady yachts at anchor and yachting types in the waterside bars, I knew that my professional holdup man, Wyatt, would visit one day (see Port Vila Blues). And for years now I’ve been reflecting about the current fear and demonisation of Muslims, and relating it to my intense childhood fear of Russia and communism in the late 1950s, and gradually seeing the fictional possibilities for a novel about a rural murder through a child’s eyes.
So, ideas for plots, incidents and characters are in and around me all the time. If I was obliged to list types of sources, they would include:
Interesting characters seen or met
Other art forms: music, photos, paintings
Overheard conversations: when I was writing The Dragon Man, a killer was operating around Frankston, north of where I lived. The community fear was palpable; I overheard many fearful discussions whenever I went shopping – for example, some women were making radical changes to their family routines so their teenage daughters wouldn’t go anywhere unchaperoned.
Places: the wreckers’ yard in Snapshot is where I once went hunting for a wing mirror for my car. Family holidays in Noosa gave me the setting for the eighth Wyatt thriller, The Heat.
Stories told to me: my hairdresser has given me great insights into housing estate life
Witnessed incidents: coming home along a back road late one night, I came upon a car that had been stolen and set alight by kids: I use it as a pivotal plot point in The Dragon Man.
Speculations: One of the most common sources of ideas is asking the question “What if…?”. For one of my short stories in Straight, Bent and Barbara Vine I asked: “What if the cop investigating a murder is the murderer?”
Personal experiences: see the letterbox, above
Newspapers: All of my Challis and Destry novels were prompted by newspaper stories to some degree:
The Dragon Man by the three Denyer murders near Frankston (in the state of Victoria), as well as older stories about murders on a lonely stretch of highway in Queensland, and an American story of a police switchboard operator who believed a panicky victim was a hoaxer.
Kittyhawk Down was inspired by the case of a Canadian embezzler who fled to England and took on the identity of a man he murdered.
Snapshot grew out of two newspaper stories about the swinger party scene – genteel suburban orgies, in other words, which suggested to me a world of blackmail, guilt and sexual bullying.
Chain of Evidence, awarded best crime novel of the year, was suggested by several articles regarding child abductions and paedophile activity on the Peninsula, and another about a murder victim found hidden under a coffin in a legitimate burial plot.
Blood Moon is based on the demolition of a heritage house by a wealthy developer, who sent in the bulldozers at 7 a.m. the morning after she heard that local people had applied for a protection order. Was there a tip off from within the shire? I could certainly see a motive for murder…
The thing is, I’m not interested in writing about what really happened. Actual events are a springboard for ones that I invent, and I also draw on many other sources.
Also, I can sit on an idea for many years, waiting for it to stir in my unconscious, or for another idea to come along and round it out or ignite it.
Like a detective, I suppose, I discover and investigate. I want to use another term: interrogate. Let’s say it’s the early stages of a new book. I have folders of newspaper clippings, scrawled notes regarding characters and their actions and a scratch plan. Before these become a firm plan – not that my plans are ever too definite – I interrogate these scraps of ideas I throw questions at them to see how likely they might be, how believable to me and to the reader. For example, I’ll ask: Why did he do X? Why didn’t he do Y instead? Would she do A, given the type of person she is? What would happen if she did B instead? Who has most at stake here? Would he risk giving that up? What might change her mind? What’s holding him back? What is she hiding?
Causality is at the heart of fiction, even if deeply buried.
Of course, the outside world impinges. For example, it’s dark outside at 5.30 on a winter’s afternoon; a detective trying to reach the city by 8.30 a.m. will strike heavy traffic; the local Peninsula newspapers come out weekly, not daily; a dirt road might be boggy in August; schoolkids are on holidays in September... These all affect the actions of my characters.
Now, the investigation phase. In addition to interrogating my notes and ideas, I do research, enough to make the book seem true to life. The little touches are important: for example, a uniformed policeman has a chronic back pain from all the heavy gear strapped to his belt. At certain times of the year there are ibis and Pacific herons poking about on Peninsula farmland. A snooty woman holidaying on the Peninsula is rude to the local shopgirls. A service station displays photographs of cars that have fled without paying for petrol. Telling details like these can fix a setting and a scene in a reader’s mind.
Other matters require more intensive research. Who attends first at a murder scene? Who else is there? What are their specific tasks? Does a special vehicle cart the body away – I was surprised to learn that it’s often a local undertaker. Who’s in charge of a rural police station? And so on.
I’ve found the local police very helpful, keen to talk about a job that is often maligned and misunderstood. But while trying to be realistic about daily procedures I’m mindful of what might happen when a police officer is tempted by a bribe, bullied by a superior officer, or feels loyal to the culture that nurtures him (see the sub-themes in Blood Moon for example).
Other sources of information include books, the internet, and the telephone. However, I don’t do a lot of research, and it’s a huge mistake to swamp a book with technical detail. Suggestion and selection are two vital tools of the fiction writer.
And sometimes I get it wrong. A Melbourne man writes me letters along the lines of: ‘You cannot catch a tram on the corner of X and Y streets, the stop is a hundred metres down the road’. At least he’s reading the books.
All writing is driven by a question
All writing is driven by a question – even your shopping list (“What do we need for dinner tonight?”). In fiction, one of the most common is ‘Will the lovers get together at the end?’ Early in my career I published six novels featuring a professional criminal named Wyatt, with the seventh, Wyatt, appearing in 2010 and the eighth, The Heat, appearing in 2015. Wyatt robs banks and payroll vans. The question driving the books is: ‘Will he get away with it?’
The question driving the Inspector Challis and Sergeant Destry police procedurals is more conventional: Who committed the crime? Sometimes, for extra tension and suspense, the identity of the criminals is known to the reader but not the investigators for a great part of my crime novels.
The Challis and Destry novels are easy to read but are densely layered. Their defining characteristics are:
1. a regional rather than a metropolitan setting
2. an ensemble cast of characters, but with two central ones
3. a major crime is investigated, but so are several minor ones
4. they touch on the public and the private lives of the characters, including workplace tensions
5. they are police procedurals: we see the logical stages of an investigation, with the police working together as a team (I wouldn’t call the Inspector Morse novels police procedurals)
6. They are as much about a way of life – Peninsula life, with its extremes of rich and poor, pockets of social distress and rapid development – as crime and punishment.
Theme is tied to the plot and the question driving it, even though writers don’t often know the theme of their story or novel until it’s finished. Common themes in fiction are “Loss of innocence/The getting of wisdom”, and “We always hurt the ones we love”. I often think all fiction (including crime) boils down to this: “The search for a true home” (a place, a loved one, peace of mind, a solution, a sustaining creed, belief or philosophy).
To plan or not to plan
A big question for fiction writers is to plan or not to plan. There’s no right and wrong. John Grisham plans, so do James Ellroy and PD James. Agatha Christie planned in her head while doing the dishes. Ellroy wrote a 216 page outline for LA Confidential.
Other writers don’t plan. James Lee Burke has said he never sees more than two pages ahead; the late Tony Hillerman said that he never knew the culprit or motive until the end.
I plan my crime fiction in minute detail, taking several weeks. With my other types of fiction, I write to see what happens (bearing in mind the advice of the Irish writer, Sean O’Faolain, who said that three elements need to be present: a character, a situation and a promise), but might make scratch plans when I see the direction its taking. In any event, I always trust my instincts over the plan. Just before Snapshot went to the printer, I changed the ending and the identification of the killer, responding to a little voice that had been niggling at me. I’d thought my ‘literary’ novel The Stencil Man was going to be about life in a wartime detention camp, until a niggling voice told me the main character was going to escape.
During the planning and the writing stages I’m always conscious of balancing the demands of the plot with those of the characters. For example, the story might need a jolt of energy, like a prison break, but would my fictional character have the know-how to do something like that, and would he do it, given the type of person he is?
I also use, consciously and unconsciously, certain tricks and techniques to stay ahead of the reader and ramp up tension: turning points, partial or doubtful outcomes, sudden reversals, hidden secrets rising to the surface, red herrings, and withholding and delaying tactics (as Charles Dickens said: “Make ‘em laugh, make ’em cry, make ‘em wait”). These techniques can enrich all types of fiction. How often have you read a novel in which the prose is gorgeous, the characters absorbing, the themes interesting – but nothing happens? You’re dying for someone to pull out a gun.
At the same time, I try to be fair to the reader. Detectives must detect, not rely on chance or guesswork. The ending should be in the hero’s hands, not the cavalry riding to the rescue. I avoid using cheap tricks to get out of the corners into which I write myself. I don’t withhold obvious information from the reader. My heroes are rather like you, or me: they’re not superheroes who can shrug off a hit on the head, not private eyes who seem to have no private life or family or social context, not idiots who go to deserted parks at 2 a.m. to meet an anonymous source…
I write several drafts, first in longhand, then on computer, refining as I go along, until it’s the best I can make it, but knowing that the editor will suggest changes. The whole process can take a year.