Crime Writing with Claire McGowan

I went to listen to Claire McGowan talk about crime writing as part of the 2012 Lichfield Literature Festival.

First of all she gave us 3 good reasons for choosing to write crime fiction:

  • Crime accounts for 1/5 of all adult fiction sales
  • In 2011 crime dominated the top 10 library loans
  • Agents and editors are actively taking on new crime writers

Then she listed the essential elements of a crime novel:

  • A good plot
  • A gripping pace
  • A satisfactory resolution

Suspense also forms an important part of a crime novel and the reader can be kept on tenterhooks in two ways:

  • Wondering what has happened – for example, What dark secrets are the characters hiding? How did the victim meet his death when he was in a locked room?
  • Wondering what is about to happen – for example, What will the killer do next? Will he be caught in time?

As well as the theory behind crime writing, Claire shared her own method of writing – which can be applied to any genre. She said it’s important to start with a one sentence ‘high-concept’ of what the book is about but it’s not necessary to plot every detail in advance nor to write long life histories for each character. Claire says she gets to know her characters as she goes along – a bit like getting to know someone in real life.

By writing 1,000 words a day for 3 months you can finish a first draft – and that first draft doesn’t have to be good! Claire repeated this last point several times. Once the first draft is complete, you can work on it and improve it. And Claire writes her first draft without research, to avoid getting side-tracked. She checks her facts later.

Doesn’t that make it sound easy?! So what are you waiting for…

Claire’s first book ‘The Fall’ is available here and her second book ‘The Lost’ will be published in April 2013.

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  1. #1 by susanjanejones on October 14, 2012 - 7:46 pm

    That does make it sound incredibley easy Sally. Which I know it isn’t. I like the 1,000 wds a day idea though, should be giving it a try. I always begin with a whoosh, then fizzle out like a damp squid.

    • #2 by Sally Jenkins on October 15, 2012 - 12:06 pm

      Susan – it’s all too easy to fizzle out like a damp squid, isn’t it?! It happens to me all the time once the initial burst of enthusiasm for an idea has gone.

  2. #3 by Debbie Young on October 14, 2012 - 9:41 pm

    Thanks for sharing this, Sally, really interesting – and not a little worrying that the nation is so crime-obsessed! I especially like her tip to write 1,000 words a day for 3 months – sounds a much more sensible approach than NaNoWriMo, the idea of which I’ve been toying with (17 days to go before we have to make the final decision!) but which I’m worried can too easily fail.

    • #4 by Sally Jenkins on October 15, 2012 - 12:10 pm

      Debbie – I’ve done Nano (successfully!) once but it did require a lot of discipline. With hindsight, I should’ve done some planning first. In nano there’s no time to think, you’ve just got to get the words down. On the plus side, it only lasts 30 days, not 3 months. So I suppose it’s swings and roundabouts between that and 1,000 words a day for a longer period. Good Luck if you take the plunge!

  3. #5 by margaretsmuses on October 15, 2012 - 7:14 pm

    Hi Sally, writing crime fiction does sound easy when you read how Claire McGowan expresses it. However, I would think that to write such stories you have to be really familiar with how crime investigators or private detectives work. I could write a murder scene with reasons why the murder had been committed but how to carry out the actual investigation and forensics would be beyond me. Would you think that most crime writers have prior knowledge of such things or if not, are they allowed to interrogate those people that have?

    • #6 by Sally Jenkins on October 15, 2012 - 7:27 pm

      I’ve always wondered that, Margaret. Claire said that there is a Police Handbook that is available to buy for around £30 which is very helpful. She also mentioned trying to find retired policemen – but I don’t know how easy that would be! I suppose it might be easier to write about an amateur sleuth or a private detective than to embark on a police procedural.

      • #7 by margaretsmuses on October 15, 2012 - 9:38 pm

        I think you are right Sally, there is a discerning public out there and unless you know your craft in crime writing they would soon wonder why you have tried to write something you obviously know nothing about.

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