This is the first in a new series of blog posts, exploring the process of writing crime fiction. To be honest, it will be my own peculiar process for writing my own peculiar crime fiction. And I’m not sure how regular the posts will be. This may turn out to be be the last as well as the first of them. We’ll have to see.
Let’s face it, being a crime writer is a strange occupation.
Much of my time is spent thinking about killing people. Fortunately, none of these people actually exist.
I’ve always believed that the most important character in a crime novel is the victim. I’ve written books where the identity of the victim is a mystery at the beginning. Not so much a whodunnit as a whobeendun.
As the story progresses, the reader (and the detective) discovers more and more about the life of the deceased, gradually building up a picture of who they were and why they were killed. And, eventually, of course, who killed them. So the whobeendun ends up turning into a whodunnit. With strong elements of whydunnit and howdunnit thrown in for good measure.
The advantage of this model is that it creates a very powerful motor for driving the story forward: questions that need answers.
The challenge for the writer is that it is relatively easy to generate mysteries. A little harder to solve them. It helps if you have worked out the answers to the questions you’re raising before you start. But I would say that. I’m a plotter.
If you’re not a plotter, then I guess you’re discovering the answers at the same time as your reader and your detective. Which must be interesting, if a little hair-raising. I’m in awe of writers who do it this way. Maybe one day I’ll try it. Just to challenge myself.
But even if you have got all the answers worked out in advance (clever you) you can still come a cropper.
The trick is to manage the pace of revelations. Giving enough to keep the reader reading, but not giving too much too soon, so that the tension goes out of the story. Premature elucidation, you might call it.
A Gentle Axe followed the whobeendun pattern, and I’m pretty sure I’ve written others that do too. It’s not the way I did it in my last novel, The White Feather Killer. There I introduced the reader to a number of characters and had them guessing which one was going to be the victim. And then try to work out the why, how, who of it all.
That’s more or less the pattern I’m using in my work in progress too. However, in this one I am toying with the idea of having the actual murder as a prologue, and then going back to tell the story of the events that led up to it. I was tempted to do that in The White Feather Killer but decided not to.
Why does one technique work for one novel and not for the other?
It’s all down to the fact that I’m playing a slightly different game in each book. In the new book, I don’t think there’s much doubt who’s going to be the victim. In fact, I’ve been having a lot of fun making that character a thoroughly nasty piece of work, and lining up the characters who have a motive to do the deadly deed. So it wouldn’t do any harm to reveal the crime early on. Equally, it wouldn’t serve any purpose to delay it. Whereas in The White Feather Killer, not knowing who – if anyone – is going to get killed is one of the things that keeps the reader reading. (Spoiler alert, someone does get killed.)
As I said at the beginning, being a crime writer is a strange occupation.