I came to crime fiction really late. I didn’t publish my first novel until I was 64, and then spent three years on a character driven trilogy before I decided to try crime writing. I read crime stories and I have some idea how they’re constructed and what makes them work. So why not have a go? How hard can it be?
Oh, the misplaced confidence of the (relatively) old!
Online crime writing course: tick. Found and studied my notes on the ‘Three Act Structure’: tick, although I worried that genre protocols might make the writing formulaic. Then I plunged into ‘Cruel Tide’, a story about institutional child abuse, and ignored most of the genre protocols I’d identified. I refused to make it too graphic and violent; I avoided the expected romance between my two main characters, and – mercy! – I left the ending ambivalent, with the goodies thwarted and the baddies apparently getting away with murder, literally.
I thought it was a good first attempt, but some of my readers were fretful. They wanted a ‘cosier’ theme, more romance, and the wicked to be punished. When I wrote the sequel ‘Fatal Reckoning’ I bent towards these expectations a little more, but that’s the end of the plot spoilers. My ebook and Print on Demand publisher, Fahrenheit Press, dubbed the two crime novels ‘Cumbrian noir’ and I was actually quite chuffed about that. ‘Noir’ has great resonance: it conjures up unresolved wickedness, dark landscapes, claustrophobic interiors, moral ambivalence. If you love ‘Double Indemnity’ you’re a noir fan, and I do. So if I have a crime fiction sub-genre it’s definitely not cosy crime, nor classic police procedural, and there’s no ‘great detective’ who reveals all in the penultimate chapter.
So Cumbrian noir it is, and I decided to have another go, setting the story in one of the darkest times in recent Cumbrian history, the catastrophic foot and mouth disease outbreak of 2001. I’ve reached the point where I’m reasonably happy with Act 1, and Act 3 looked clear, important and achievable. But here’s the hard part, Act 2. Tension has to mount, complications are necessary, a few blind allies and red herrings come in handy. If it all sounds a bit meandering, that’s the problem. You have to pull the reader along into the breathless tension and twists of Act 3 and then leave things feeling reasonably well resolved by the end. Trouble with Act 2 is a common problem, apparently.
When Act 2 isn’t working, you’ve got some choices. A new character? A new sub-plot? An unexpected twist that raises the danger level? Or there’s something more radical, that might take more time to sort out: you can change the ending you’d planned.
Many writers recommend starting with the denouement and planning backwards from there, and it’s tempting. But sometimes as the characters develop they just don’t fit into the dramatic ending that seemed so attractive in your earlier plans. Or you realise that the underpinning theme that’s emerging from the story doesn’t chime with the original ending. You need to take a deep breath, go back to your outline, and start again, at least from the half way point to the end. It feels drastic, and you need to think hard about the next outline before continuing with the first draft, or you could be wasting even more time than you’ve lost already.
That’s my way out: my ending has to change, and I can see Act 2 taking a better shape already. Phew. Hope it works!
A year or so ago, it seemed as if the psychological thriller was destined to overtake most other sub-genres of crime fiction. There’ll always be a market for ‘cosy crime’, but the best-seller thrillers were at the other end of the spectrum, featuring graphic violence and sadism, much of which was either directed against or perpetrated by women, and written by women too. Highly improbable twists and turns were the order of the day, and the final climax was required to be sickeningly bloody.
As an aspiring crime fiction writer I was depressed by this trend. I found the books very hard to read, couldn’t contemplate writing that way, and was therefore apparently condemned to be ‘unfashionable’. Was this just squeamishness or cowardice on my part? No, it was a choice, and I chose not to go that way. My two crime books ‘Cruel Tide’ and ‘Fatal Reckoning’ were strong on setting and character, but seemed to fall between two stools – harmless ‘who-dunnits’ on the one hand, and miserable misogyny on the other. I was heartened when Fahrenheit Press agreed to publish my crime novels both as ebooks and POD, but I was less interested in writing further crime fiction if I couldn’t resolve my dilemma about the style.
Discussing my future writing ideas recently with a well-connected London-based ‘commissioning editor’ I was surprised and pleased when she offered the view that the trend for violent thrillers was waning, nudged away by a renewed interest in rural rather than metropolitan settings and a gentler view of life, which would in turn produce a different style of crime fiction.
And in recent reports from the London Book Fair, similar views have emerged there too. Maybe it is felt, as I have felt myself, that excessive violence verges on the pornographic and has reached its limits as a popular genre. If this is true, I for one am delighted.
Interesting piece in the Telegraph this week about the apparent increase in explicit violence in crime fiction. I read a fair sprinkling of the genre, and know that I have learned my limits in what I choose to read, and to watch. Reading words leaves less of an imprint on my brain than seeing and hearing images on a screen: and it’s easier to skip pages than it is to block both sight and sound. I skipped many pages in the Stig Larsson trilogy, although by the third book I was skipping to avoid badly edited tedium, wondering if it had in fact been edited at all.
Most of the time I prefer my books and films to infer, and avoid excessive violence. Against children the mere inference of violence is too much for me: I even have to avoid some of the NSPCC ads on TV. Violence and cruelty against adults, female and male, are difficult, and even more troubling is the trend towards female victims, where the violence tips over into sadism that makes the reader complicit. Not good. I have no doubt violent scenes in books sell copies – why else would there be such a plethora in these times when sales seem to count more than anything else? I want to sell copies, of course I do, but not if it means writing something I really wouldn’t want to read myself.
One of the beauties of self-publishing is that the author can be under no external pressure as they make choices about content, style and everything else. Instinctively, and without any evidence, I picture the editor of a publishing house whispering in the author’s ear how a bit more explicit sex or violence would catch more readers’ attention, and probably media attention too, cajoling and tempting the writer to go against their own better judgement. Maybe that’s just my ‘don’t even think about trying to push me around’ mindset. Maybe it would never be like that, but for me it’s hypothetical anyway. My editor Charlotte is a fine professional and an old friend who knows there would be little point in pushing me to do anything I wasn’t happy about.
My interest in writing crime fiction for the next book, number four, remains strong, and I’m gradually resolving some of these issues in my head. There are bound to be bad and violent people and actions, or there would be no crime in the crime fiction. But I want to make both content and style more subtle if I can, without sacrificing the grip of the story. I just hope crime fiction readers who pick up a book of mine aren’t so jaded that they lose interest unless the details are laid out, full and frontal and covered in gore.