How we designed a crime scene investigation course for writers

Graham Bartlett
27 October 2021
Article uploaded by
Emily Ronan

Former detective and Police Advisor Graham Bartlett has years of experience helping crime writers create more credible and authentic fiction. Here, he details his experiences designing our unique online course where writers race to ‘solve a murder’.

Crime Writing - Solving a Murder

7 February 2022
  • Add depth and authenticity to your plotlines and characterisation
  • Turn fact into gripping crime drama
  • Ensure accuracy and detail in your depictions of crime procedure

Crime Writing: Making it Real

When the Professional Writing Academy suggested that I design and run an online course for crime writers to investigate a realistic (but fake) crime scene, then create a story stemming from their findings, I jumped at the opportunity.

I’ve always been passionate about helping crime writers have their cake and eat it when it comes to writing gripping scenes and exciting characters all while remaining credible and authentic to the real thing. For years I’ve critiqued manuscripts, advised authors 1:1 and answered procedural questions, but this course is something different. An immersive online experience where students are racing to solve a ‘murder’ and being drip-fed investigative details as per real life, all while keeping the craft of writing compelling fiction front and centre.

To do it, I brought in some of this country’s top authors, Peter James, Mark Billingham, Elly Griffiths and Julia Crouch to record their inside tracks on how they approach research and craft their heroes and villains. And, having access to a profiler, Lesley McEvoy, and a real life Scenes of Crime Officer, Kate Bendelow (both successful crime writers), I included modules on offender psychology and behaviour and how a crime scene is actually examined.

And for the course’s murder scene’? I caked my son in blood and forced him to lie statue-still amid a carnage that resembled his bedroom. I might have bribed him a little so he did as he was told, while I photographed and videoed him from every conceivable angle. My other son had just joined the police so I made him rehearse his radio procedure for the scenario. Aren’t I kind?

Crime fiction readers are a savvy bunch and if you want them to stay on the journey with you, you need to create a credible and authentic world for them.

Graham Bartlett

A key focus of the course is fixing what so many writers in books and TV, through no fault of their own, get wrong. For example, in real murder scenes there is far more irrelevant detail than clues. Likewise, the time it takes for a scene to be examined is often woefully underestimated. So I made sure to design the course’s ‘murder scene’ with plenty of red herrings and balance more realistic investigation timeframes with the need for pacy fiction.

Plus, managing people’s expectations over when they would ordinarily receive information and evidence remains a constant battle. DNA, with a fair wind and a wedge of cash, can at a push come back after 24 hours. House to House enquiries take days and interviewing the suspect is a slow and iterative process that easily smashes the 24 hour custody time limit, which isn’t the limit at all.

All this is important. Crime fiction readers are a savvy bunch and if you want them to stay on the journey with you, you need to create a credible and authentic world for them. Sure, you can take one or two liberties – and I show you how on the course – but if you are going to do more than give a nod to what UK police are doing, or how police characters speak or relate to one another, you really do need to know your stuff so you can take an informed creative decision as to how far from reality you will veer. If you guess, you risk being found out and no one wants that in their Amazon reviews.

The imagination and creativity that develops is mind-blowing and serves to prove that there can never be a dearth of books. The only thing that holds us back in coming top with something new is ourselves.

Graham Bartlett

We’ve now run this unique course three times and I have to say I’m delighted.

Aside from changing the course from being over one weekend to four weeks (it was a little TOO intense) it’s been an unqualified success. First, the great sense of community and shared learning is a delight to see. Those attending have all the camaraderie of a close-knit investigation team, encouraging and developing each others’ writing and drawing on individual strengths.

The storytelling is stunning. On more than one occasion the writers have picked up on something in the crime scene which even I didn’t know was there (I won’t say what so you can spot it yourself!) The detective skills they show would serve them well on any of my teams back in the day. Then the intelligent critiquing of the reading and viewing show a real understanding of their craft, or in helping more novice writers to grasp story structure better.

Finally, a broad range of amazing stories have evolved from this course. I cannot believe that with the same information, the same crime scene, the same learning no two writers have ever come up with the same theme. The imagination and creativity that develops is mind-blowing and serves to prove that there can never be a dearth of books. The only thing that holds us back in coming top with something new is ourselves.

I’m so proud that the Solving a Murder Course has become a unique catalyst to spark unrivalled imagination and stunning stories. I can’t wait for the next one to start.

Learn more about the Crime Writing: Making it Real – Solving a Murder online course.

 

Graham Bartlett

Graham Bartlett was a UK police officer in Sussex for thirty years. He mainly policed the city of Brighton and Hove, rising to become its police commander. On the way he was a homicide senior investigating officer and led on managing dangerous offenders, sexual offences, domestic violence, child protection and hate crime. He was a qualified strategic firearms and public order commander, leading the policing of many armed operations, large scale protests and sporting events.

Since retiring, he has become a police procedural and crime advisor helping around fifty authors and TV writers (including Peter James, Mark Billingham, Elly Griffiths and Dorothy Koomson) achieve authenticity alongside their drama. He is also a best-selling crime writer, with two non-fiction books – Death Comes Knocking and Babes in the Wood – to his name and a crime novel in the pipeline.

Graham will soon be launching a crime fiction online course in partnership with Professional Writing Academy.

Crime Writing - Solving a Murder

Begins: 7 February 2022