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 pretty long. Although I’m English I work in Ireland, and I know O’Loughlin is a great name in Ireland, but it doesn’t translate over the world. When I’m in England people don’t really know how to pronounce 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, because there is a theory that men don’t like reading books written by women.
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 TV as well. They’re often more expert in forensics and that sort of thing than you are as a writer, so it’s vital you get that kind of thing right.
If you’re Googling stuff 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 is in special branch – well, retired now – who is amazing. He goes over everything to make sure the Garda stuff is right, as well as the forensics. Stuff like that is vital.
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 – So, 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 crime you’re always looking for it to be very high stakes, so you want a lot to be happening, and you need to make sure that it’s pacy enough 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 think outside the box – what’s going to interest your reader, and what can they relate to?
The key is, with character, is that they are empathetic, and that the reader want 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 leaves – that’s something that happens in literary fiction, as there’s space there to do that. 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 – discovering the bones of a baby 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 in both Ireland and the UK. That is about what happens when Cat’s best friend, Sarah-Jane Hansen, goes missing. At the end of Little Bones there’s a very big ending, and we’re left not knowing what’s going to happen, so we come into In Deep Water and discover what happened. Then we take Cathy through her next ordeal.
Little Bones is set over a couple of months, but In Deep Water is set over a very short period of time – it’s four days in Cat’s life.
The third book, which I have a title for but it’s not been confirmed, brings Cathy’s story on even 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!