So you want to write crime fiction?
Supposing you’re a regular reader and lover of all things dark, twisty, gritty, and mysterious and you fancy writing something of your own where do you start? Using the experience, I’ve garnered from five years in the industry I’m going to introduce you to the basics. But first you need to ask yourself one question: why do I want to write a novel of my own? Is it to tick a box on your list of things to do before? Or do you want to write for publication? Whatever your reason you need to be able to answer that fundamental question before you put pen to paper. Talking of paper, most novels are easier written on a word processor, especially if you want to be able to send it out to publishers. It cuts time. So without further ado here is my first piece of advice: get writing. Whether you’re going to be a plotter or not depends on how you choose to begin your book. You’ll figure out which you are only by writing. If you’ve already got a story idea jot it down. If not make some notes. A list of themes, a character description, or a basic scene you have in mind is all you need to start. Once you get some words down you’ll find your conscious brain take a back seat and your subconscious take over.
This might look something like this: daughter goes missing. Biological father is suspected of her disappearance. Child’s body is discovered in woods close to missing girls house. The child’s body belongs to a girl who was kidnapped ten months ago. The daughter has been kidnapped by the local school-teacher and she’s being held in his basement.
The next thing to consider is what kind of book you would like to write. The crime genre has several sub-genres. And if you look at your book shelves you’ll see a trend in dominance. Do you prefer police procedurals where the main protagonist is the detective in charge of the case? Or psychological thrillers where the plot is a device to support a slowly suspenseful character build-up to reach the inciting incident? Here is an example:
Crime thriller- usually involves three main characters including the: antagonist (perpetrator), victim, and hero/heroine; usually begins with an introduction to the antagonist while in the process of carrying out his/her first crime, the victims chapters may alternate throughout the novel, and the hero/heroine may be an innocent bystander with a special interest in the crimes (a potential future victim of the perpetrator) or an investigator of some description (private investigator, journalist, family member of the deceased, concerned citizen etc); the crimes escalate and the tension mounts as the hero/heroine gets ever-closer to discovering who the perpetrator conducting the offences is.
Psychological thriller- can involve one or several main characters, but usually no more than four who each take turns to tell their version of the story. This could involve the missing child, the mother, her biological father, and the teacher; the crime has either already happened (is introduced as a prologue- an introductory chapter before the “real” story begins) so the reader knows from the outset that x killed y or the language suggests something awful is about to occur to y. Whichever is used will focus more on the psychology of the characters and the motives for their behaviour, unlike crime thrillers which tend to focus more on the crimes being committed and who the offender of those crimes is. Thus, psychological thrillers tend to be termed why-done-its.
Police procedurals tend to focus almost exclusively on the antagonist, victim(s), and the detective in charge (shortened to DC in the UK) of discovering who committed the crimes. With the same precedent as the crime thriller, the plot is driven by waves of tension, and a continued mix of red-herrings, twists, and revelations. Most of the chapters will be distributed to the detective whose aim (to bring the culprit to justice) will hit obstacles. Procedurals however tend to have an eclectic mix involving the investigative goings on of the case from the Point Of View (termed POV by authors) of the detective in charge (suspect interviews, witness statements being collected, forensic experts such as: pathologists/blood splatter analysts, Crime Scene Investigation such as: evidence discovered beside the body, data professionals looking into intelligence from CCTV footage, the relationship between the DC and his/her superior, their work-life balance as they close the net on the offender). This is achieved by working out the unknown suspects Modus Operandi (termed MO by US and UK police authorities). The antagonists “mode of operation” (kidnapping girls of school-age who are presently being taught in the school he works from, killing them, and dumping their bodies in the woods to taunt the police over the fact he hasn’t yet been caught) reveals their motive (the teacher’s reason for kidnapping the girl), enabling the detective to discover who the offender is (the teacher). Procedurals then, tend to incorporate the characters (mainly the antagonists) psychology to explain what led them to commit the crime (the why) alongside the investigation of the crime scene and the murder victim’s final hours, which tells the detective how the girl was killed, what she was killed with, when she was killed, and where she was killed. Only when these things are known is it possible the detective will be able to answer the fundamental question: who would have killed this girl like this? And the race is on.
Domestic noir is a psychological thriller that focuses on family, usually within the sphere of their home and often the interactions between them reveal secrets, lies, jealousy, paranoia, guilt, or denial. The identity of the antagonist, victim, or hero/heroine is unknown, and this plot device serves to demonstrate how the family home can be used as a smokescreen to disguise hurt. The victim is usually one of a couple, but the domestic setting can be used to portray the suffering experienced by a child or sibling too. The setting is claustrophobic and tense because the home is where we’re supposed to feel safest, and when our safe place is compromised the fractures aren’t always evident to outsiders. They’re creepy, slower-paced, and the characters tend to be unreliable narrators of their own story, allowing the reader to guess, then second-guess themselves, before ultimately being shocked and saddened by the ending they weren’t expecting.
Grip-lit involves a consistently foreboding atmosphere, uses lengthy description to unsettle the reader, and puts more emphasis on place/setting and character than plot. Often grip-lit focuses on gently rising tension towards the climax which is based primarily on the relationships between characters and the world. It is grippy literature based on contemporary women’s life experiences and could include the workplace, friends, or neighbour’s interactions with one another.
Chillers are grittier versions of the age-old cosy mystery. They are slightly darker, more atmospheric, and usually involve a similar set-up to the psychological thriller, however they are slower paced and similar in style to domestic noir, in that they tend to involve characters whose relationship to one another is close (think partners, children, or siblings).
Hardboiled crime thrillers are a complex work of art that mix the very best of dark, gritty crime thrillers and police procedurals but the investigation is often conducted by several detectives, not one. The protagonists may each have a voice (in third-person perspective), but unlike a typical who-done-it the bad guy/gal might not get their comeuppance, or if they do, the satisfaction will be short-lived because out of the woodwork will come the kidnappers father, the real culprit after the teacher has been charged with murder, leaving room for a sequel, and demonstrating to the reader that every action has a consequence and that happy endings don’t always exist.
Mysteries have been renamed suspense thrillers for one reason only. Readers prefer the modern usage, but the style remains intact. The protagonist sets out on a quest to discover who is responsible for the crime that they have been confronted with. They are often shorter and less edgy than their counterparts, but just as good.
Now you’ve got to grips with the subgenres of crime fiction you should note down your preference based on the ideas you have for your novel or the profile you’ve built for your main protagonist(s). This will help you to decide who is telling your story (it’s useful to known that you are merely the vessel they will use to write it), and how they want their story to be told. One way of working this out is to listen to your internal monologue chattering away: is it your own voice or someone else? Is the speaker telling you what to write or telling you what happened to them? What do they sound like? How are they speaking to you (I, we, you)? This will help you to decide whether to write as though you have been possessed by them (from their point of view, as in: I drew a heart on the bark of the tree, digging so hard I split my nail and drew blood) or from a slightly distanced perspective (close third-person POV, as in: she drew a heart on the bark of the tree. ‘He will love me,’ she spat), omnipresent third-person POV (she dug her name in the heart and felt her anger dissipate with each dig of her nail until she scored the wood so deep her nail split and her finger bled) or less popular, but if done right, second-person POV as in: you will feel each mark of my nail through the bark as though it’s a knife scoring through your skin). Whichever you choose will determine how much or how little the reader absorbs your story, and to what affect. You should take your time to work out which POV works for you by reading a paragraph or two of a couple of your favourite books and decide which sounds more authentic, absorbs you more into the story, and how quickly you can empathise with the narrator. Are the characters showing you their world, or telling you how they feel? Is the narrator regaling a story as though they witnessed it happening sometime in the past or are you being led through someone’s thought processes?
My second piece of advice is to ensure that when you begin outlining your ideas based on these suggestions, you think carefully about your writing style. The way you write is unique to you, the way your inner monologue works, how your characters speak to you, and how powerfully you project your words. It is a separate organism to theme, plot, time, place, pace, characters, story, genre, and POV, but a very important one. You will get an idea from what you have written note-wise so far. For example, here is the first paragraph of my upcoming novel In Her Shadow. It’s a hard-boiled police-procedural crime thriller. The individual narrator is a recently released twenty-something-year-old female who has served her prison sentence in a psychiatric hospital. These are her first thoughts, when facing her imminent departure from prison: The time has come for them to die. Those who have wronged me. I’ve been waiting two years (© Louise Mullins, 2018).
The antagonist’s chapters are told in first person POV, in the present tense and alternate chapters are told in first-person past tense (detailing her journey to adulthood). My protagonist, the detective in charge, is not actively assigned the case to investigate who is the serial offender responsible for several murders because the unknown suspect is thought to be a prisoner recently released after serving her sentence for the detectives attempted murder, and the victims are members of her own Homicide Investigation Team (HIT, or MIT in the UK).
These are the basics. I know who is telling the story (characters), what my characters story is (plot: premise, three-tier arc, and twist ending) – more about these things in my next blog post So you’re ready to write crime fiction? – what themes the story covers (life adversity and revenge), the type of story I have written (a hard-boiled police procedural crime thriller) which builds a portrait of my characters psychology (Sociopathic Personality Disorder, and how poverty and continued bereavement effects individuals), why my characters wish to tell their story now (during action when the stakes are high, counting down to the imminent conclusion we hope won’t happen), how they wish to tell their story (first and third person POV told alternatively in present tense alongside first person POV told in the past tense), and in which style: direct, short, sharply decisive sentences for action scenes and dialogue to ratchet up the tension, interspersed with slower paced, more detailed writing to create atmosphere and suspense.
In my next blog post I will guide you on how to build on your plot structure, advise you on the important characteristics of crime fiction as opposed to other genres and demonstrate how to build create suspense while building tension by showing the reader what’s happening/what’s happened without telling them how your characters feel. In the meantime, my only suggestion would be to continue writing your story ideas, as this will form the basis of your plot which you will need for the next exercise.
Louise Mullins is the critically acclaimed international bestselling author of two British historical crime fiction novels, eight British psychological thrillers, a Welsh based crime thriller trilogy, and a US based hard-boiled police procedural series. The extract (above) is the first sentence from In Her Shadow, the third title in the Death Valley series, published 19th September, available in eBook (Kindle) and paperback direct from Amazon in all locations and territories throughout the world, here:
You can follow this website by signing up to receive alerts to new releases in the Contact me Box at the bottom of the homepage, in the Contact tab at the top of the web page, or follow Louise via: