Thursday, 1 April 2010

CRIMINAL INTENT

(NB: this is an April Fool-Free zone, I promise. I'm not in the mood today, and you may guess why later on in the post, if you don't already know. And crikey, I've talked about it enough...)

So, crime fiction post, here we go.

Crime fiction is a hugely popular genre and includes many different sub-genres. It's changed a lot over the years, too, so what used to work and what you remember working may no longer do so. As ever, you have to read in genre and focus on what's being published now if you want to attract a publisher.

I'm not an expert in the subject, from a writer's viewpoint. Yes, I did write a YA thriller, Deathwatch, which would fit the category. In fact, I feel driven to point out that bookseller, Vanessa Robertson, wrote on her blog: "Something that did strike me at the end was that Nicola is clearly a talented crime writer and it would be interesting to see her write a crime novel aimed at a grown up readership…" Oooh, now there's a thought! And yes, I do enjoy reading crime, especially the psychological types, such as Barbara Vine's deep and nasty ones, but I haven't kept pace with the huge leaps forward in recent years and don't feel qualified to enlighten you very specifically.

But I know a woman who is! My good friend and highly successful crime writer, Aline Templeton, has agreed to answer some questions. In return, I am delighted to push you over Aline's way if you haven't yet read her books, though I know many of you will have. She has many fans.

Aline has come a long way since, at the age of six, she wrote her first book, The Adventure of Mr Wiz and Mrs Woz. No cover available... I am terribly sad never to have the chance to read this doubtless thrilling oeuvre. After reading English at Cambridge, and then spending some years teaching, bringing up a family, and doing journalism and radio / TV work, she (Aline, not Mrs Woz) had her first novel published. Following that came a number of stand-alone novels - Shades of Death was the first one I read and I loved it, though it did nothing for my claustrophobia - before the launch of her current highly successful series, featuring the formidable DI Marjory Fleming, or Big Marge as she is called behind her back. Big Marge is a hugely engaging character, as she remains professional and yet caring while dealing with domestic dramas and the sometimes wayward behaviour of her Rabbie Burns-loving side-kick, Tam MacNee.

The most recent and hugely recommended one in the series is Dead in the Water, of which the Daily Record said, "A scalpel-sharp plot... Takes Fleming from strength to strength."

Before I ask for Aline's advice to you, I will copy a paragraph from her website, because it echoes what I often say: first be a reader in your genre, before you write in it.
"Why crime? Sometimes it seems strange to dwell on the darker, bleaker side of life, when my personal pleasures come from laughter and the love of family and friends. But it seemed natural to write what I enjoyed reading, and still when I'm writing a book to some extent I'm telling the story to myself as well."
I recommend that you read Aline's website, because there's a lot of useful stuff about how and why to create a series character, and many other aspects of crime writing, though Aline does not set out to preach or teach.

By the way, if you ever meet her, it's "short A as in apple" followed by "leen". Get it right - many don't!

Here we go. Oh, and by the way, I decided, for good reason, to schedule this blog post for April 1st, the day of entry to our new flat, sans furniture. The good reason: my husband and I will be having supper at Aline and her husband, Ian's house that day, no doubt with guffaws of laughter, as they are very valiantly rescuing us from our boxes and paint brushes. So, we will raise a glass to you as you read this and hope to see some comments or questions.

NM: I'm always cautioning writers to read current work in their genre. What changes do you see between crime writing years ago and now?  
AT: "From what is known as the 'Golden Age' of crime fiction - Sayers, Allingham, Christie, Campion, Dickson Carr and a dozen others - the crime scene has changed so much as to be almost unrecognisable.
It has always been a broad church, and never more so than now: cat detectives and the English village at one extreme, the pornography of violence at the other.Undoubtedly, the most successful novels now tend to be fast-paced, gritty and dark, but there's a strong following for the psychological thriller type too. The classic ingenious Agatha Christie solution has definitely fallen out of favour.

The crime novel has certainly moved closer in style to what might be characterised as literary fiction, using the device of murder to work through serious issues."
NM: What do you think are the ingredients of a good crime novel?
AT: "An absorbing plot which arises out of the nature of compelling characters. When you reach the end of the book you should be able to see that the outcome was inevitable - but you shouldn't have been able to guess what it would be!"
NM: Why crime? What draws you to it?
AT: "I enjoy feeling that as I write my readers are in the room with me. I constantly think of their reaction as the plot unfolds. I want to keep them guessing, but I don't cheat so if there's something I need to disclose I rewrite the scene, and rewrite it again - and again, if necessary - until I'm sure that while the information is there, it won't be recognised. Pulling off the conjurer's trick of misdirection is a particular pleasure.
"Of course, the most addictive part of crime-writing - and any writing, I suppose - is when the characters develop a life of their own and you find you are writing faster and faster, being drawn on by the story to see what happens next."
NM: What about gore and gruesomeness? How far do you like to go and how far is it necessary to go?
AT: "Where you stand on the scale of gruesomeness is a matter of personal taste. I don't like to read books with very graphic descriptions so I don't write them, and I have reservations anyway. In the first place, there's the problem that once you have done maggots and intestines, what do you do for an encore? In the second, with a hint, the imagination can construct horror much more effectively than any words you could write could. The Monkey's Paw by WW Jacobs doesn't give any detail, yet by the end you are in thrall to a nameless terror which I've never felt reading books where it's all spelled out.[NM: Oh gosh, I SO agree with you! I haven't read that since I was about 12 and I still remember the horror of that understated idea.]
"In fact, I sometimes think there should be a 'Bad Violence' prize like the 'Bad Sex' one; I have a regrettable sense of humour, and reading a book by one of the most successful horror writers left me in fits of helpless laughter!" [Yes, Aline, you do have a regrettable sense of humour but I'm delighted you do. She does, everyone - I have regularly been shocked.]
I'm going to quote something else from Aline's website, which goes to the motivation and craft of the crime-writer.
"The other great joy about writing crime is that we're in this together.  ... When I've written a crucial scene, I ask myself, 'What will the reader take out of this?' because you're a clever lot and you will guess there's a clue in there somewhere.  So then I rewrite it again, and again, until I reckon that the clue you pick up won't be the one you need to crack the mystery – though it's there, I promise! I don't cheat."
"What will the reader take out of this?" Exactly! How many times do I say that we're doing this for the reader, not for ourselves (even though we must enjoy it, too)?

Aline also talks about "constructing the puzzle", and this is another crucial thing about a crime novel - it must be well constructed and must incorporate puzzles and red herrings. Actually, even though I know that I never know the outcome of my own books in advance, I do wonder if real crime writers perhaps need more of a clue, so I asked Aline.
"Do I know in advance? I think I know, but I'm not always right. As the plot and characters develop, sometimes a balance changes, and another solution emerges. There was one occasion when I was nearly at the end and reading through the book I suddenly realised that the person I had thought had done it, hadn't! There was a much clearer and stronger solution, with an additional twist. So I wrote the new ending, then went back to make the mechanics work and to my astonishment, everything was in place. Apart from giving the real murderer a little more prominence, for the sake of fairness, I had nothing else to do.- a clear case of the unconscious mind and the conscious one not communicating.
"Mostly, though, I know where I want to start and I have a pretty good idea of what someone once called 'the clever bit at the end' and work towards it, but in between I really don't know what's going to happen.  When I have that middle-book panic, when I think it's just not going to work at all, I tell myself, 'Trust the story' - and so far it hasn't let me down." [NM: I know that middle-book panic and I tell myself exactly the same.]
Fascinating stuff, and it certainly resonates with me.

I then had a word with Allan Guthrie, another Scottish crime writer, who is also an agent with the Jenny Brown Agency. His Noir Originals website has a whole load of links that you'll find useful. I asked him about resources for crime writers. 



He said,
"There are a lot more online resources these days. For crime writers,  http://www.crimespot.net/ is a must. It's an aggregator of most of the best crime fiction blogs. CrimeSpace, a social networking site with close to 3000 members, is well worth checking out too - http://crimespace.ning.com/. I'd also recommend the networking opportunities provided by crime writing festivals such as Crimefest http://www.crimefest.com/ and the Theakston's Crime Festival in Harrogate http://www.harrogate-festival.org.uk/crime/"
If you'd like to buy any of Aline or Allan's books, do go to Amazon through this link, and you'll send a few pennies my way. I would then get down on my knees and gather every last one up and put them to very good use. I'd find a way, somehow.

So, there you have it - wise words and great resources. even so, nothing beats reading and reading analytically to work out what works and why a publisher said yes to these authors and might say yes to you.

10 comments:

catdownunder said...

I really like Aline Templeton's books so thanks for this. I'll re-read it later.
In the meantime I am crossing my paws for you (yes I DO know what you are doing today and I sympurrthise madly...we did the same once in a thunderstorm and a yard that resembled a mud bath. Good luck!)

Penny Dolan said...

Greatly informative post, Nicola, and useful links (and a new author) to be getting on with while you sink exhausted among your removal throes.

Wishing you good luck in your battle against the boxes!

Colette said...

I'm wondering how old Aline's character Big Marge is... It has occurred to me since your post on ageism of protagonists that there seem to be more over 40 leading women in crime fiction than elsewhere. (Sorry, still obsessing over that).

JaneF said...

Ooh, this is really exciting for me, because Aline Templeton is one of my favourite crime writers (and my Mum’s too). I just loved Night and Silence – I was completely gripped by the main character’s predicament from the start. Also love the Big Marge books. Like Cat, I will be digesting these words of wisdom – and trying to apply them to my own writing. Thank you!

In attempting to write a mystery myself, I’ve been finding it hard to walk the tightrope between intriguing readers and bewildering them. I think Night and Silence is a perfect example of a story that intrigues throughout but never confuses. Sigh – so much to learn!

Good luck with those dratted boxes, Nicola.

(Oh, and good news on the libel case, BTW.)

Elizabeth West said...

I'm in the US and I'm inferring from this that we're talking about mystery, correct? What about crime thrillers, in which you know who did it but the suspense is in catching up to him/her? That's what mine is; I'm not sure that's the same thing here.

Just curious; some of the terminology might be different across the pond.

By the way, good luck with moving. I know what a pain that is!

Janet O'Kane said...

As an avid crime reader and would-be published writer, I rushed at the chance to attend a talk Aline gave some time ago at my local library in the Scottish Borders. Since then I’ve read several of her books and highly recommend them. The one set during the foot and mouth outbreak captured that terrible time brilliantly, as well as being an excellent story.
Last year I went to her session on writing crime at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Her advice was practical and extremely useful (for example, how to convey local accents without resorting to unreadable dialect). I'll be looking out for her when this year's programme comes out.

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone. Sorry i haven't been replying - nightmare probs with internet connection in new home. Will need to get BT to put a new line in, apparently, or something. Erghhhh. I have so many things to do in the next few weeks that rely on internet connection - trying to write 40 blog posts for my new book's blog, so that they all go out in the right order during publication time... (www.talkaboutwasted.blogspot.com if you're interested!)

colette - I will ask Aline as soon as I remember. Good question.

Elizabeth - hmm, maybe there are some different erms going on because the result is that I'm not sure I understand your question!! I am certainly talking about crime thrillers - a whodunnit is just a sort of crime thriller, I would say. Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell) specialised in the "we know who did it and we want to see what happens and why" variety and has often been called "the queen of crime". Mysteries, whodunnits, thrillers - fifferent forms of the same genre and requiring the same type of craft. Does that make sense? Aline certainly writes what I'd call crime thrillers, but we tend simply to say "crime fiction".

Elizabeth West said...

Thank you, Nicola, that does clear it up, actually. I lean more toward the knowing-who-done-it type of book, both in my own work and what I like to read. I wasn't sure a lot of the same genre rules apply if you don't know the culprit.

I'm still groping in the dark here, and I learn every time I read this blog. Thank you for sharing. I'm hopping over to Aline's blog to check out her advice. :)

Alexandra Crocodile said...

thank you for this - it was a very interesting read! i dabble in crime writing myself, although i favour the chrsitie style rather than the modern works. but still, a very interesting read:)

sanjeet said...

useful links (and a new author) to be getting on with while you sink exhausted among your removal throes.
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