Crime fiction is riding a wave of popularity. But how do you go about it writing it? To help you figure it out here’s five tips from debut novelist, Sarah Thornton, author of Lapse, the first in a series of crime thrillers featuring blockbuster heroine, Clementine Jones.
1. Start with the hero
It doesn’t matter how clever you are with clues or plot twists, if your lead character is boring or unrealistic or somehow off-putting, you’re going to struggle. I had a very clear sense of Clementine Jones before I began writing—she virtually insisted that I not only bring her alive on the page but push on to the end to complete her story. Your protagonist will be someone you feel strongly about and feel comfortable ‘living with’ over the weeks and months you spend writing them into existence.
Handy exercise: think of the type of person you like reading about, whether fictional or real life (politics, sport, business, the arts etc) and build your protagonist around that type.
2. Know and live your setting
Most good crime novels create a sense of place that resonates, ratcheting up the suspense as the reader is drawn “inside” the story. This should come easily if you’re setting the drama in a place you know well but if not then I recommend a mobile writers retreat. Don’t Google ‘writers retreat’, Google ‘campervan hire’—actually go to your chosen setting for a few days and absorb the landscape, the flora, the fauna, the rhythm and beat of the place, writing slabs of sensory description for use later on.
3. Give the hero an ally
For me, it made things easier to consciously create allies—people who inhabit your MC’s world and who open up possibilities for plot or action elements but also for dialogue in which key character or story features can be developed. This may be obvious for those writing police procedurals where detective and cop work together to solve the mystery, but for private eye or amateur sleuth novels, I think it bears mentioning.
4. Avoid stereotypes
Crime is hugely popular but this makes it all the harder to make your story stand out from the rest and whilst genre writing has certain stable attributes, you still need to create a unique space for your story. It may be the choice of hero, like Emma Viskic’s deaf detective Caleb Zelic or, in my case, Clementine Jones, a female football coach (anything other than the alcoholic detective). Or perhaps it’s something unusual or distinctive about the setting, the villain or the circumstances of the crime—vive la difference!
5. Start with a dead body
Readers need to understand that the stakes are high (someone died / has been kidnapped etc) just as much as they require a satisfying ending (the bad guys lose). I didn’t do this initially and it created no end of stress. I think I successfully dealt with it in the end (you be the judge) but in book two of the Clementine Jones series I will be making life a bit easier for myself and delivering to the reader that staple of crime novels: the much-in-demand, bog-standard page one corpse.
Happy writing and let me know how you go!