12 Criminally Good Hints for Crime Writing by Laraine Stephens
by Laraine Stephens
- Start with reading in the crime genre. You’ll pick up how different authors approach their craft. You’ll learn to recognise good writing and bad writing. Also, there’s great advice in books and blogs about how to write crime.
- Join a writers’ group. Attend workshops on the craft of crime writing, such as creating characters, convincing dialogue, a ‘killer’ first chapter, unreliable narrators, developing tension, and so on. Join Sisters in Crime, the Crime Writers’ Association of the UK and the Crime Readers’ Association of the UK, to name a few, which offer support and ideas, and make you feel as if you are part of a community.
- Are you a planner or a pantser? Do you want to know where the story will go before you start, or do you fly by the seat of your pants? Or are you a combination of the two? Flexibility is the key, no matter which route you choose. Be open to inspiration and new ideas, or the need to re-think a plot point. Be prepared to ‘kill your darlings’. Although you love something you wrote, have you realised that it just doesn’t work?
- Create a chronological record of the events in your novel. If it’s 1918 or 1964 or 2022, download a calendar from the internet, with days marked, for the period you are writing about. It allows you to keep track of what happens, and when, and whether the action is evenly balanced.
- The first chapter should hook the reader into wanting to read on. Make something happen. Then stagger the events or high points in the novel to keep momentum going.
- As you write, build up a character profile of your protagonists: their appearance, quirks, inner conflicts, secrets, clothing choices, opinions, how they speak. They must be compelling. Who are they? What motivates them? Is there a story arc for your protagonists? Where have them come from and where do they end up? Each character should have a backstory, to some degree. Names are important too. You are giving life to a character by choosing their name.
- Crime writing depends on conflict. The main character encounters physical/mental obstacles in their desire to reach a resolution. Tension, conflict and dilemmas sustain the reader’s attention.
- Location and setting. How does it relate to the crime or the plot? Does it add to the action? If you are writing historical crime, do your research. Read digitised newspapers from the time to add authenticity to the setting.
- Sight, taste, hearing, smell, touch. The five senses. How does the protagonist react and respond to situations?
- The twist. Predictability is a killer. Keep the reader engaged – and guessing. What will happen next? Those red herrings, suspects and plot twists are really important.
- Review. Re-read and review what you’ve written, on a regular basis. Then, when you have a first draft, put it aside for a few weeks then re-read. You will see it with fresh eyes: what works, what doesn’t work or what needs some amendment.
- Manuscript appraisal. You’ve agonised over your manuscript and now it’s time to face the day of reckoning. Hand it over to a reputable editor for a manuscript appraisal. Not your best friend, an ex-English teacher or your mother! You need an objective eye to look for the strengths and weaknesses. Character development, descriptive ability, dialogue, grammar, the length of the work, plot and pace, as well as markets and audience are areas that may be looked at. Whether you take your editor’s suggestions is up to you. In the end, it’s your work.
- I wish you criminally good luck in your writing!
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