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by Maria Z/GD.
Mobs, murder, espionage and suspects – there is much more than just those elements to crime fiction. It is the genre that accounts for at least 30% of the consumers’ book market in the USA. What makes novels by Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle and Ian Rankin required reading for fans of this genre?
Crime fiction is a guessing game in which the readers are the players. The core of most crime fiction stories is a heinous crime which is usually murder, several suspects with motives and an investigator who dives right into the mystery and attempts to solve it. Towards the end of the book, from the clues the writer scatters within the plot, readers deduce their own solution.
Writing such a story would require many hours of brainstorming and clever plotting. However, your main concern should be the message you are trying to get across, eg. the consequences of committing a certain crime, the battle against modern evils or the price of vanity. Writing with a definite purpose in mind will help you maintain a clear idea of the story.
• Cozy / cosy
o Set in the 1920-1930’s of middle-class England.
o Graphic details of murder scenes are either downplayed or described humourously.
o Popular writers of this subgenre include Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers,
o ‘International cosies’ such as the African Ladies Detective series by Alexander McCall Smith, and the Vish Puri Mysteries by Tarquin Hall.
o ‘Hardboiled’ is most a reference to the detective’s nature of going through perilous situations and emerging the victor while solving a case, in comparison to other ‘half-boiled’ detectives who merely solve cases without facing much risk.
o Also refers to a boiled/tough use of graphic violence and unsentimental sex.
o Popular writers of this subgenre are Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, Walter Mosley, Nicholas Blincoe, Stella Duffy and more.
o Stories revolve around lawyers, their cases and the suspects, leading to courtroom drama.
o It is hard to run from clichés with this subgenre. Being equipped with thorough knowledge of the law may not be enough to write a killer legal crime story.
o Stories are highly-dependent on strong characters.
o Reading works like The Runaway Jury and Street Lawyer by the king of legal crime fiction, John Grisham, is a good way to observe how characters develop.
• Police Procedural
o Stories of this subgenre have an inspector or detective who conducts investigations to find the perpetrator.
o These stories have highly-intricate plots supported largely by the connections between the main characters.
o Popular writers of this subgenre include Stephen Booth and Ian Rankin.
o Includes TV shows CSI (also Horror gennre) and many others.
The story is really about how two people (almost always men, often older guy/younger guy or straight guy/slightly off-kilter or comedy guy) relate in stressful situations.
The buddies are usually cops with some sort of secret shameful past, with the crime background keeping it exciting (and sellable).
Mismatched pairs are the norm, ‘about to retire’ another cliche, so try and be original. Perhaps two identical twins, separated at birth, who both sign up to become cops.
• Real life crime
Many ex criminals, some still in jail, have written up their exploits as more or less reliable memoirs. Or writers have produced gripping biograhies. Examples here include the many books about the Kray brothers in London’s East End; Razor Smith’s excellent autobiograhy ‘A few kind words and a loaded gun’.
These are made up but the truth is usually more horrible. Many great novels by Irving Welsh are in this general area, such as Trainspotting (and the sequel); Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs.
So fiction can be used to create false histories and made up real life dramas.
• Drug crime
Can be gangs, individuals, this is a hot topic and very popular, especially with TV and film. Often has a double crossing or three, stolen drugs, fake drugs, prostitution, assassins, international elements. Has to be true-to-life – which is easy as so many non-fiction books.
• Space crime
Another commercial genre, many SF novels have a large crime or whodunit angle, particularly cyberpunk, which is usually about computer hacking, brains, corporate crime, drug subcultures etc.
Where to Start
• Create a premise for your story. Try to craft a unique crime scene. Consider the:
o location of the crime
o the methods that the criminal uses
o the people connected to the crime.
• Read up on basic forensics.
A few commonly-used terms will do the trick. Peppering the story with too much technical jargon will leave your reader disconnected from your story, so don’t get too carried away with that copy of Forensics for Dummies. CSI (crime scene investigation) works on TV because of the gory graphics, as it is partly in the horror genre.
• Develop your protagonist.
Draw inspiration from protagonists of your favourite writers and give them a personal twist. This is surprisingly common – think of female spy/crime action heroines, very popular nowadays, a simple updating of a rather tired male cliche.
• Pick a suitable location for your primary scene of crime – a jewelery heist in a childcare centre just wouldn’t sound right. Unless it was in a very rich area…
• Pick a suitable time setting for your story.
• These two will influence your characters entirely, so plan wisely.
• Designing the plot with plot boxes is a huge help. Title each box ‘Exposition’, ‘Conflict’, ‘Climax’ and ‘Resolution’, then write your notes under each respective label. See elsewhere on this view.
• Crime fiction needs many twists and turns to keep it from being a bland, no-brainer case. Add red herrings to mislead the readers (in very much a good way, I assure you) and to make way for the final uncovering of the actual criminal. Red herrings are suspects or leads and clues that turn out to be false; technically a rhetorical device to distract attention.
• Incidentally, the term red herring allegedly refers to the use of the smelly kipper to draw a false trail for hunting hounds; but this seemingly plausible use was in fact invented by the journalist William Cobbett in an article published in 1807.
• If you are struck by the lightning of criminal inspiration while not at your writing desk, make sure you record your ideas before you lose them in the dark recesses of your cerebrum. Use boxes to expand these ideas and fit them into any story frame box you might have already prepared. (We do not recommend that you try out the criminal inspiration to see if it would work!).
• Introduce intriguing individuals as suspects – give your readers reasons to place their suspicions on the characters.
• Relate the protagonist’s past or feelings to the investigation to strengthen the reader’s connection to the character.
• When the reader has formed a strong connection to the protagonist, putting the character in jeopardy will affect the reader as well – if something is important to the character, it will be important to the reader too.