Novelist Julia Crouch's top tips for crime writers

Julia Crouch
30 November 2017
Article uploaded by
Mo Harber-Lamond

Crime fiction is a genre that relies on intricate plots and nefarious twists, but even the most meticulously planned story will flop if it’s not written well. Author Julia Crouch knows a thing or two about writing a successful crime novel, and here she offers her top tips for writers looking to explore the genre.

  • Broaden your palette of techniques
  • Master suspense and add intrigue to your plotlines and characterisation
  • Explore a new genre and assess your potential
Writing Crime Fiction

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the writing advice available, and it can be difficult to know where to start. To make things a little simpler I’ve put together my top four tips for crime writers, and explained why they’re essential for creating successful stories.


Know your characters

Much of my process for creating characters is informed by my theatre devising background, where I would work with actors to create fully rounded pictures of the characters they would then take into improvisation. Every writer benefits from having this sort of solid understanding of who they are dealing with for their novel or story. I often cast my characters, too, and while that might sound a little shallow, it helps me see them as an actual person rather than simply an idea.

Once you have a basic understanding of your characters, let them loose in your scenes and see how they get on. What you come up with at the beginning won’t be set in stone: there are bound to be plenty of adjustments to be made, and you must never shy away from letting your characters grow and change. But this preparation ensures you have a good foundation to build upon, and the better you know these people, the easier and more intuitive it will be for you to write them.

Characters don’t have to be likeable – sometimes a reader’s interest can be sustained by their internal criticism of the character’s actions.

Julia Crouch

Keep the reader engaged

It might seem simple, but it’s absolutely essential. There are many ways to go about hooking your reader, but again, the key is character development. Interesting characters keep the reader on their feet, and while they shouldn’t act out of character for no reason, it’s useful have them act unexpectedly. No one likes to read about someone who’s boringly predictable (interestingly predictable, now that’s another thing…).

This is not to say that the characters have to be likeable. Sometimes a reader’s interest can be sustained by their internal criticism of the character’s actions, and finding ways to change the reader’s perception of characters is a great way to engage them.

Also, for every event in your novel, each scene has to be full of tension, either by what it’s adding to the narrative or by what it contains – or, ideally, both.

Even if you don’t manage to hit your targets every day, the most important thing is simply to write.

Julia Crouch

Develop a writing routine

For me and many other writers, having a routine is essential for getting anything done. Deadlines – be they self-imposed or not – are also very useful for keeping up momentum.

Some people suggest trying to write up to 2000 words a day, but that’s often not sustainable over the long term unless writing is your day job. It’s far better to set yourself an attainable target of, say, 500 words a day, every day. At that rate, six or seven months down the line you’ll have 100,000 words, and that’s easily a novel.

That may sound daunting, but whenever a word count looms before me, Stephen King’s wonderful Great Wall of China quote springs to mind.

Even if you don’t manage to hit your targets every day – life has a habit of getting in the way – the most important thing is simply to write. When I started out, I spent so much time thinking about writing, reading about writing, reading as a writer and talking about writing that I didn’t ever take the time or find the confidence to actually write. Like any other skill, you’ll only improve as a writer through practice.

As you develop as a writer, things that worked for you as a beginner may start to be less effective.

Julia Crouch

Prepare for change

This is something I’ve learnt from experience. I wrote my first book Cuckoo with no intention of publication. Originally it was a NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) project, and afterwards I just edited and worked on it until I was happy. Then I sent it to an agent to see if I could get anyone interested. It was a pretty leisurely affair, and something I did for enjoyment.

Then I got a three-book deal, gave up my day job and my income was related to my writing. Suddenly the pressure was on. I started out writing by the seat of my pants, but for the past couple of novels I’ve been more of a plotter – not least because an increasingly cautious publishing industry needs to know what they are buying in advance.

As you develop as a writer, things that worked for you as a beginner may start to be less effective – and they might even hold you back. Don’t be afraid of changing your process, style or routine. As writers we’re always growing, so our practices should reflect that.

Another area we should all be prepared for change in is the publishing industry. Self-publishing is now a viable route. It’s by no means an easy way out, though. You have to be your own publisher and marketer, as well as still writing brilliant books, and to do it properly you need to buy in professional editing and design services. Even I would pay a designer for a self-published book cover, and I worked as a graphic designer for fifteen years.

Good luck with your writing, and I hope my tips have helped!

Julia has been a theatre director, playwright, drama teacher, publicist, graphic/website designer and illustrator. It was while she was doing an MA in Sequential Illustration that she realised what she really loved was writing. She took some online creative writing courses and wrote two NaNoWriMo novels. The second of these went on to become her debut novel, Cuckoo (Headline), which was followed by Every Vow You Break, Tarnished, The Long Fall and Her Husband's Lover. Her novels have been translated into six languages. She now works full time as a writer, but also really enjoys teaching. She has taught and mentored on MA courses and at festivals and workshops throughout the UK.

Writing Crime Fiction

Begins: 5 November 2018