Author Tim Relf's top tips for crime writers

Tim Relf
30 November 2017
Article uploaded by
Mo Harber-Lamond

Crime fiction is one of the most popular fiction genres, and as a result it’s also one of the most crowded marketplaces in literature. Author of What She Left Tim Relf – who writes as T. R. Richmond – gives us a rundown of his top tips for making your novel stand out from the crowd.

  • 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

As one of the most popular and bestselling genres of fiction, it’s understandable many writers would like to dip their toes into crime writing. For those who are looking to explore the genre, here are my top tips for crime writers.


Inspiration is everywhere

Watching television, on the bus, talking to friends on the phone… If you keep a keen eye and ear out, you’ll soon find that stories-to-be are everywhere.

For example, What She Left was inspired by something I saw on Twitter. Someone was talking about what music they wanted played at their funeral – a slightly macabre thing to tweet, admittedly – and it got me thinking about what else could I learn about this person from their Twitter account. That eventually took me to the idea of creating a suspense story from a woman’s digital paper trail.

I also remember Jennifer Egan saying how, before she wrote A Visit from the Goon Squad, she saw a wallet left in a public bathroom. That got her thinking about someone taking it, and everything rolled from there.

No matter how small an incident or idea, if it strikes you, consider it a story to be written.

Never underestimate the power of one-to-one research – an anecdote could even spark an idea to use in your novel.

Tim Relf

Do your research

Doing your research is essential in any genre, but it’s especially important to be accurate in crime fiction. Your readers will be on the ball, well-read and keen to pick holes in any aspect of your writing, so make sure all your facts are watertight.

Read up on various areas that are important to your story, and also talk to people who might have experience of the themes and events explored in your book. Never underestimate the power of one-to-one research – an anecdote could even spark an idea to use in your novel.

When researching What She Left, I studied a number of anthropology books to get into the head of the Professor, and also asked plenty of my 20-something friends about music and social media – quite an important area, considering my subject matter!

Thinking about research more widely, people-watching is a great thing to do, too. The more you know about how humans interact, the more believable your fictional interactions will be. A useful thing I was once told is that, ‘a writer has two big ears, and one small mouth’.

On the other hand, don’t let your research become a displacement activity for writing. It’s very easy to head to Google with the intention of finding out a single fact, and an hour later find yourself lost in the depths of Wikipedia, with 15 tabs open.

When you think you’re comfortable with your subject matter, don’t hesitate to get words on the page. Even if you end up with some wooly parts, you can always head back and retrofit the necessary information. The most important thing is that you have a story in the works.

Although they’re experts on the business side of things, agents are more than just contact lists.

Tim Relf

Understand agents

When pursuing a professional writing career, it’s hard to overstate how important having a good agent is. People often think they might simply be an intermediary between author and publishing house, but although they’re experts on the business side of things, they’re also more than just a contact list.

My agent helped hugely with the whole process, and basically, the book wouldn’t have happened without her skill and support. She asked questions of the story like ‘where are the twists?’, or ‘do you need this character?’, and she also lent a hand with some copyediting as well. Unfortunately, not every agent will give such deep assistance, and I’ve been lucky to find mine, but any good agent should work with you to improve your novel and your chances of publication.

If you’re in the market for an agent, read the acknowledgments in your favourite books, and also browse the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. It’s also worth attending events and festivals, as you’ll often see talks with – or panels of – agents. At these events  lots of very useful information is given out. Finally, don’t forget about social media. Many agents are active on Twitter and other platforms, and will chat informally there.

Make sure to write every day, even if it’s just for a few minutes, to keep the ball rolling.

Tim Relf

Explore alternative publishing routes

Many writers strive for the prestige of being picked up by a traditional publishing house (and my publishers, Penguin, were amazing to work with), but more and more are seeing the benefits of self-publishing.

I recently attended Salisbury Literary Festival, and there was a fascinating talk by Mark Dawson, a self-published thriller writer. His sales numbers are nothing to be sniffed at, and prove how effective self-publishing can be. He also runs online courses – Self-Publishing Formula – in which he outlines certain techniques he’s perfected to find success as a self-published author.

Another bonus of self-publishing is that writers often get picked up by bigger, traditional publishers as a result if they do well. If you’re willing to put in the extra legwork self-publishing, it can pay off in all sorts of ways.


Manage your time

I’ve got two final pieces of advice, regarding your writing routine.

Firstly, make sure to write every day. Even if it’s just for a few minutes, make sure you keep the ball rolling. Letting a brilliant idea become stagnant because you never found to time to develop it is a terrible feeling.

Secondly, fill your time with other activities wholly unrelated to reading and writing. It’s easy to overwork yourself and lose inspiration, and your characters need time to ferment in your subconscious.

Good luck with your writing!

Tim Relf

Tim Relf writes fiction as T.R. Richmond and his most recent novel, What She Left, was published by Penguin in 2015. It has been sold to publishers in 21 countries and was turned into an audiobook starring Emilia Clarke and Charles Dance from Game of Thrones.

His journalism has been published by everyone from The Independent and GQ to The Big Issue and The Bookseller.

After many years of juggling fiction with a career in the media, he left his day-job in 2017 to concentrate on the former, which he now does in tandem with freelance journalism and training.

Writing Crime Fiction

Begins: 5 November 2018