One-to-one with bestselling crime fiction author Sam Blake
Writing crime fiction is something that takes hard work, detailed plotting and, most of all, practice. Professional Writing Academy’s Lizzie Strasser interviewed bestselling author Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin – who writes as Sam Blake – about her writing process, characterisation and the importance of research in crime fiction.
- Broaden your palette of techniques
- Master suspense and add intrigue to your plotlines and characterisation
- Explore a new genre and assess your potential
Lizzie Strasser – Hi, Vanessa, it’s great to have the chance to talk to you! So, to begin, why did you choose to write using a pen name?
Vanessa (Sam Blake) – My full name is Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin, which is quite long! Although I’m English, I live and work in Ireland, and while O’Loughlin is a great name there, it doesn’t translate across the world. When I’m in England people really don’t know how to pronounce it and that means that they’re going to have problems remembering it. When I sat down with my agent to work out what name to use on the book, we decided we’d better come up with a pen name, because the other thing is that ‘Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin’ is enormously long, and doesn’t really fit on a cover!
We came up with ‘Sam Blake’. It’s a name that people can remember easily and sits well on the bookshelf. It’s also one of those androgynous names, so people don’t really know if I’m male or female. I haven’t found any research to prove it but there’s a theory that men don’t like reading books written by women, so many female crime writers are cunningly disguised with pen names, or behind initials.
LS – Have you got any advice on how to start out in terms of research when you’re writing crime fiction?
V – I think research is really important in crime fiction, because crime readers are very bright people. They’re the type of people that like doing crossword puzzles, read a huge amount and watch a lot of crime dramas on TV. They’re often more expert in forensics and police procedure than you might be as a writer, so it’s vital you get that kind of thing right.
As a writer, if you’re Googling you need to double-check your sources, and you really need to talk to people who are in a particular job. I write police procedurals about the Gardaí (Irish police force), and I’m blessed that I have friends who are in the Gardaí. I have one particular guy who was in the special branch – he’s retired now – who is amazing. He goes over everything to make sure the Garda elements are right, as well as the forensics. It’s vital to get it right – if you don’t, your reader will be jerked out of the story.
You always need to think outside the box – what’s going to interest your reader, and what can they relate to?Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin
LS – What’s your process, and how do you start out? Do you have an idea for a crime scene first, or do you see the murder first?
V – Often I start with character. I write police procedurals about a girl called Cat Connolly. She’s about 24, a kickboxer, and she’s Garda level, which means she’s ordinary PC level in Britain. Basically, I come up with a character – Cat Connolly – and then I think of a crime. With any crime novel there needs to be high stakes – peril for the characters, and you want a lot to be happening. It needs to be pacey and constantly moving along. So yes, I think about the character, and I think about the crime.
Quite often I come up with the last scene in the book, and I’ve got a very clear idea of that last scene. Then I have to get everyone there – which can be harder than you think.
LS – I can imagine! Are there any crime fiction cliches you’d recommend budding writers avoid?
V – Well, I think there are an awful lot of slightly older, overweight detectives with alcohol problems. There are some fantastic authors whose books are very well written doing that, so perhaps leave that to them. I think people need to be thinking outside the box, but that goes for all fiction, really. You always need to be original – think about what’s going to interest your reader, and what they can relate to.
The key with character is that they are empathetic. It’s important that the reader wants to know what their story is. All characters need to be flawed, but they don’t all need to be flawed with alcohol or weight issues! You want characters that are going to be interesting, and like real people.
The key with crime fiction is that it’s pacy and there’s a lot happening, and that it’s quite stripped back in terms of description.Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin
LS – Would you say that, compared to other genres, you have write your characters differently for crime fiction?
V – I think with crime, the key is that it’s pacy and there’s a lot happening, and that it’s quite stripped back in terms of description. You don’t have time and space for a mass of description about small details – that’s something that there’s room for in literary fiction, but not in crime. So, from that perspective, crime has to be pacy, have a lot happening and have higher stakes for characters that you care about. It’s an exciting genre to write, as you never know what’s going to happen!
LS – That’s some really useful advice. To wrap up, could you tell us a little about your own books?
V – Of course! The Cat Connolly series is a trilogy. The first one is called Little Bones, and it starts off with Cat – our 24 year old detective – attending what she thinks is a routine break, but she discovers a baby’s bones that have been hidden in the hem of a wedding dress. It’s a multigenerational book, there’s lots of intrigue and there’s quite a lot of multiple storylines running through it, so it’s a complex book from that perspective. But, basically, it’s the story of how the bones got there, and how Cat discovers who did it.
The second book in that series is called In Deep Water, and that’s recently come out both in Ireland and the UK. Cat’s best friend, Sarah-Jane Hansen, goes missing and Cat discovers a trail that leads her to an international human trafficking ring. There’s a big ending to Little Bones and we’re left not knowing what’s going to happen, so we come into In Deep Water and pick up Cat’s story. Little Bones is set over a couple of months, but In Deep Water is set over a very short period of time – it’s an action packed four days in Cat’s life.
The third book, No Turning Back, is out in Ireland in May and the UK in 2019, and delves into the Dark Web. Two students from Trinity College are killed in very different circumstances – in what appears to be a hit-and-run and a suicide – but there’s a lot going on below the surface. It also takes Cat’s own story and her relationship with her DI a step further.
LS – Thank you very much, Vanessa! It’s been fantastic to get an insight to your writing process, and you’ve given us some great advice.
V – Thank you!