Who would you say are the best crime authors of the day? If I asked you to write down 5 names, I think I could probably guess most of them:
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- Agatha Christie
- P.D. James
- James Patterson
- Patricia Cornwall
You might even have some other well-known names on there: Peter James, Erica Spindler, Mo Hayder, Lee Child, Stephen Leather, Ruth Rendell, Mark Billingham, Tess Gerritsen, Karin Slaughter, Martina Cole, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid. Seeing some familiar names there are you? If you don’t recognise at least half of those names, I suggest you take the time to Google them, and if you can only claim to have read maybe one of these authors then you should probably reconsider your reading pile.
If you want some recommendations, leave me a comment and I’d be happy to oblige.
But on a more general term, it’s agreed that these are not only the most current writers of crime fiction, but some of the best in history and their books will have you staying up until 3am, turning the pages and hungry for more. They will leave you with a sense of abandonment when you finally close the last chapter and a sense of heartbreak at the climax of the story.
They’re all famous, full-time writers with a string of success behind them and a good future ahead of them. So what’s the secret?
Your main character needs to have a moral centre, but be highly conflicted. It’s no good writing a character where everything is just peachy. The conflict can be big or small, but it needs to have a big impact on your characters life.
This is where James Patterson is in his element. His long-standing series about Detective Alex Cross addresses this conflict as just that. He is constantly torn between his job and his motherless children, often jeopardising their safety as well as his own.
The crime doesn’t have to be horrific.
Many people think that the secret to crime thrillers is to make the crime as horrendous as possible. To turn the serial killer into the biggest monster this world has ever seen. Well not only is that not the case, generally peaking your killer doesn’t even need to be a serial killer. One dead body can often be enough to set off a great book.
This goes back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and how one murder would trigger an investigation. More often than not, there is only one murder and no-one’s ripped out guts, chopped them into little pieces or anything so sinister. There’s a dead body on the moors, let’s leave it at that.
Keeping your plot simple is actually the take home here. I’m probably one of the million writers that have written a crime fiction book and attempted the stereotypical complex whodunit type plot. Well there is a way around that.
I read a book by Tess Gerritsen and was astounded by the simplicity of the plot. A guy was dead, she was a suspect. End of. The resolution was slightly more complicated. Something to do with planning permission, housing etc. But the reality was a jealous lover after revenge. Sorry if I’ve just spoiled it for you but I had to in order to demonstrate that this was probably one of the best books I’ve ever read, and the simplest. Piece of pie.
Know your stuff. Now this one actually goes hand in hand with secret number 5 but we’ll address that in a minute.
Patricia Cornwall is probably the most iconic figure for this. Know your shizz. She not only knows it, but she’s lived it. And when she goes through the post mortem scene, she can detail every millisecond of an autopsy down to the smallest thing. It’s authentic. And you need that to create the thrill, the feeling of catching the bad guy, it needs to be as real as possible.
Yet down bog down the details too much. There are some scenes in Cornwall’s books where all I want to do is skip a few pages forwards, after all I don’t have a clue what she’s talking about. I’ve never been in an autopsy room in my life so I don’t know what an entertome is or what the hell a hagedorn needle is – I know it’s a needle, but I can’t picture one. So without Google to hand to answer some questions, the likelihood is that I feel so distant from the book I get bored.
So let’s take a quick look at Val McDermid, another lady who is remarkable at creating a detailed scene. She knows all about geographical profiling of a psychopath and the psychopathic mind as well. And she includes these details – and more – on a constant basis throughout her novels without making the reader feel like an idiot. So it’s a fine line between knowing your stuff and knowing too much.
These ‘secrets’ may seem like obvious writing tips but you’d be surprised how many of us – me included – get sucked into the traps. And although no writer is completely perfect, no writing style is universally liked, we can combine the techniques and styles of our icons to create our own version of writing that is as equally flawed.
Do you feel like I’ve missed something? What should be the 6th secret of crime writing?
[Image sourced puamelia Flickr]