A Story to Kill for: Writing Crime & Detective Fiction

By Victoria Salvas

Are your Twitter and Facebook feeds filling up with True Detective and Sherlock predictions? These hit series are just the latest detective stories to overtake mainstream media, but crime novels and detective fiction have been turning heads since the 17th century. The best detective writers have become household names and their stories have spawned star studded blockbuster films. Legends like Hammett, Conan Doyle, and Christie carved out the archetype of the style, which Larsson, Flynn and others have made their own in new and eerie ways.

If you’re inspired to write your own blood-soaked stumper, we’ve put together some guidelines and resources to get you on your way.

Writing Crime & Detective Fiction PhotoCreate an Original Central Character

A detective story is only as good as its detective. Before you begin, you should ask yourself; is this detective a veteran or will he/she discover and develop their talents over the course of the story? Do they answer to an overbearing chief?  Or are they a rogue acting on their own accord?

One thing that makes the expert detectives of crime fiction so fascinating is their ability to understand the human psyche on a level that the average person just can’t. However, the quirks that make them great at their jobs (and not to mention irresistible to members of the opposite sex) may also isolate them.

Martin Edwards, author of The Coffin Trail, stresses that writers remember that their characters don’t exist in a vacuum of the novel – they are living, breathing people. They change and can do unexpected things.

On that note – it’s best if your detective uses actual science and reasoning to crack the case instead of intuition, spirits, or ‘acts of God.’

Construct Authentic Crime Scenes

Whether your sleuth is a novice or a vet – your crime must be extremely complex in order to keep the reader entertained. When planning the crime, keep in mind it should be something sufficiently violent, yet believable.

No one knows crime better than real cops, as Joanna Penn learns from her guest blogger, retired RCMP homicide detective (turned novelist), Gary Rodgers. Rodgers has become a resource for tips on how to create the perfect crime. This a must read blog post if you are a gumshoe crime writer.

As with any fiction – it is crucial to hook the reader early.  Nothing is more captivating to readers than a gruesome, complex, and seemingly unsolvable crime. Try to get to it within the first three chapters.

Know the Genre and Read Widely

Why?  Because PD James says so! In an interview with BBC News, James, who’s been publishing detective fiction for nearly 50 years, stressed the importance of knowing what’s out there and what’s been done before writing. Read the classics (Cornwell, James, Rankin) and then find out everything you can on what’s new and upcoming in the genre.

Choose a Good Setting

If you close your eyes and imagine a particular setting, it can be a multi-sensory experience; a well of emotions, memories. Imagine the soggy streets of London, a quiet New England town, the neon lights of Hong Kong. This is always a good exercise at the beginning of your writing process, and if you ever find yourself stuck along the way.

The Who’s Who of Whodunit

Start your research with some of these classics and up-and-comers:

Edgar Allen Poe Tales of Mystery & Imagination (1852)

Arthur Conan Doyle The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)

Graham Greene Brighton Rock (1938)

Raymond Chandler The Big Sleep (1939)

PD James A Taste for Death (1986)

Gillian Flynn Gone Girl (2012)

Dennis Lehane Live by Night (2012)

Alexander Soderberg The Andalucian Friend (2013)

Joe Nesbø Police (2013)

One comment

  • If you want to offer tips on writing detective stories, Raymond Chandler wrote an excellent essay on the subject called The Simple Art of Murder (published in the short story collection with the same title as the essay).

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