Write Advice – author Sam Blake discusses her planning process
As one of the most popular and enduring literary genres, crime fiction readers demand accuracy as well as entertainment from their novels. Here, our Writing Crime Fiction students speak to crime author Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin – who writes as Sam Blake – about how she plans her novels, getting her facts right and the future of the 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
Q – Hi Vanessa, and thank for joining us. To start, do you plot your novels, and if so, what techniques do you use?
Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin (Sam Blake) – Glad to be here! I find that a bit of structure is always a bonus. I’m a plotter at heart, but once a book gets going anything can happen and it’s good to be able to follow your character’s lead.
I plot by hand to start with, creating mind maps and lots of scribbles, and then I transfer everything to a column-based chart system I developed from one my friend Alex Barclay uses. I also find flashcards really useful – I use them when editing to work out what I’ve got chapter by chapter, and I can move them around and see how the story flows if I changed the chapter order – and I use Scrivener (badly) to try and organise everything.
Q – Before you started writing Little Bones, did you know that Cat Connolly was going to feature in a series?
VFO – Honestly, I had no idea Cat would be a series. I had the idea about the bones first, and then Zoe and her grandmother came. Then I realised someone had to find the bones, and Cat literally walked in. She’s an amalgam of people I know – guards and my friends, all the best bits.
The author Joseph O’Connor spoke at an Irish PEN event about characters sort of floating around in the ether above us, waiting to find a writer to connect with, and it seems that’s what happened with me and Cat.
Q – What are your thoughts on writing crime fiction set a few decades ago, with no mobile phones or internet?
VFO – I like the idea of there being no internet as it can give the characters more hurdles to jump and more plot-based twists and turns. However, I think every story has its own time. Remember that women aged 25–45 are literature’s biggest market, and not many people can remember a time pre-internet!
Think about your story and who your characters are – character is king – and they will guide you. If you try and shoehorn a story into a time that doesn’t suit it, you’ll know very quickly that it doesn’t work. However, if you feel it fits, go ahead!
I find each story has its own POV. I feel most comfortable in third person for long fiction but often use first person in short stories – it’s so immediate.
Q – How do you choose what point of view to use in your work?
VFO – I find each story has its own POV. I feel most comfortable in third person for long fiction but often use first person in short stories – it’s so immediate. If you’re not sure at the start, try writing 500 words from each point of view and see what feels right. But there are no rules. You can mix first and third between chapters
The key is to stay in one character’s point of view for each chapter, and not to head hop – it’s very tempting, but it’s confusing for the reader
All writers head hop at the start of their writing careers, and tell loads instead of showing. I still cringe at a line from one of my first books that was brought up in a report: ‘the retired secretary crossed the road.’ That never got published, with good reason.
Q – When writing crime fiction, how can you get in touch with the police or investigators to make sure what you’re telling is authentic?
VFO – I’m meticulous when it comes to detail – I want a police officer or a pathologist to read my book and not be jerked out of the story by a silly mistake. It can be tricky, but try and find someone you know to ask – if you are in UK there is a lovely writer called Graham Bartlett. He’s a cop who runs a company to help writers get those details right.
Otherwise, just ask around. You’ll find someone who knows someone. Fortunately for me, I’m married to a cop so that helps a bit, although he usually says he doesn’t know and to just use Google!
On that note, Google is handy but the law is very different in other parts of the world – interview procedure varies a lot – so make sure you check..
It’s often good to write first and add questions later, as you’ll only ever use about 15% of your research, and there’s always a temptation to share the really interesting bits and unload all of your research where it might not actually be needed.
I think crime fiction will always sell. Trends come and go, but everyone loves that willing suspension of disbelief. There’s a reason the top-selling books are always crime!
Q – How did you find your agent?
VFO – I scouted for my agent before he knew I was a writer and it came up in conversation one day. I’d forgotten to mention it. I met my previous agent at a dinner event – networking at events is incredibly useful, so make sure to get yourself out there.
Q – Do you think it’s necessary to have an agent to approach a publisher?
VFO – I think that ideally you want an agent. They help you with the book and they know who to send it to, and then they’ll help with contract too.
However, you can approach a lot of publishers directly now, so all is not lost if you can’t find an agent. There are plenty of reasons an agent might not take on a book that have nothing to do with the writing. You can have a great book that clashes with something they already have, or perhaps it just isn’t for them – it’s a very subjective business. The key is to just keep writing.
Q – What do you think about the future of crime fiction?
VFO – I think crime fiction will always sell. Trends come and go, but everyone loves that willing suspension of disbelief. There’s a reason the top-selling books are always crime!
Women’s fiction changed from chick lit to grip lit, became very dark, and now it’s moving back to light, but good crime with a great plot always sells. The great thing about it is that it’s such a wide-reaching genre that could cover anything. Crime novels explore all areas of life, but also include subgenres from spy fiction to romance via the supernatural to psychological thrillers – it’s a huge area. The Martian was actually sold as crime in space, as sci-fi is perceived as such a niche genre.
You have the luxury of time before you sign a contract – once you’ve got deadlines being a writer can get a bit stressful!
Q – What books would you recommend to budding crime authors?
VFO – Well, I hope you’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing. That’s an essential. Stephen King will teach you about voice, that’s what publishers are looking for – a unique voice. When you stop worrying about the words and focus on story, then you know you’ve found yours and it all flows much better.
Recently I’ve loved Roz Watkins and Jane Casey – I love a pacy, intelligent plot. I’ve just read Jeffery Deaver’s The Never Game. He’s a master, and he’s created a brilliant new protagonist.
Q – Do you work on multiple books at the same time, or do you have to finish one before starting to think about the next one?
VFO – In the series I could be writing one and editing another, but it’s much better to write one – then you can immerse yourself in it. I’ve just written a standalone novel which will be my next book out and it was a joy to have some space!
You have the luxury of time before you sign a contract. Once you’ve got deadlines it can get a bit stressful! I think the third Cat Connolly book is my best, but I had to write it really quickly and I totally changed the end between drafts and edits. I’m not sure how it worked at all!
I’ve got a whole new cast in book four, so I had to go back to the drawing board and do tons of research on characters. Understanding their motivation is key, and they need to change as a result of the story to be truly engaging and three-dimensional.
Q – Vanessa, this has been fantastic. Thank you.
VFO – Thank you, and good luck!