Writing crime fiction: tips from Sam Blake
Crime fiction author Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin – who writes as Sam Blake – talks about how to research a novel, how to write pacy scenes and how to get yourself out of plot corners you’ve written yourself into.
- Broaden your palette of techniques
- Master suspense and add intrigue to your plotlines and characterisation
- Explore a new genre and assess your potential
Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin is the founder of writing.ie and a literary scout. She also writes crime fiction as Sam Blake and is a guest tutor on our Writing Crime Fiction course. Here she talks to Lizzie Strasser about how authors can get started with a crime novel or thriller – and how to keep the momentum going.
LS – Let’s say you’ve been a big fan of detective fiction, thrillers – any kind of crime fiction you can get your hands on – and now you want to start writing your own. Have you got any advice on how to get started and where to begin?
V – Well, firstly you need to think about an idea, and reading is a fantastic way of finding ideas. Every new writer needs to get a notebook and start to gather ideas – they might be overheard conversations or things you’ve read in the newspaper – and start thinking about how those stories can develop.
Ask ‘why?’ and ‘what if?’, and if it’s something like a newspaper story and a particular thing has happened – say, a traffic accident – start thinking about who was in the car. Why were they in the car? Where were they going? Why were they speeding? That’ll help start building a story. It’s also important to start thinking about character, who those characters are and how to get into those characters.
But, absolutely the best thing you should do if you want to start writing is literally just start writing. The first things you write will be complete nonsense, but it’s key to just get going, get into that groove and think about writing.
The key is not to get sucked down that rabbit hole of research, because it really is fascinating.
LS – How much should you rely on research for your brand-new murder-mystery?
V – Research in crime fiction is really important, but most writers say – and I agree – that you actually only use about 15% of the research that you do. The key is not to get sucked down that rabbit hole of research, because it really is fascinating. You want to do it, but you don’t want to do too much and find out that you’re so interested you feel the need to dollop it into the story to tell the reader.
Some people will write a first draft with no research, and once they’ve got that written they know what they need to go back on and find out. Others like to do it first and see how it guides the story.
Certainly, in crime fiction it’s necessary to do a certain amount and have a feel of how the forensics work or whatever your subject might be, because your story will turn on the investigative stuff. You could end up writing a whole book in the wrong direction if you’ve made a mistake about DNA right at the start or forgotten that you can triangulate the location of a phone call.
Your reader’s going to know that immediately and wonder ‘why didn’t they recognise that address right at the start?’, and then you’ve got a problem! So, yes, I’d say to do a bit to start off with.
Writer’s block is your subconscious saying, ‘you were going great, but now you’ve gone somewhere silly and you need to stop because you’ll waste your time.’ So, you need to go back to where it was working and find where that mistake is.
LS – Have you got any advice on how to find your way out if you’ve written yourself into a corner?
V – This will affect everybody at some point, and I’m a great believer that you have to go back to where it was working, and usually what’s happened is that you’ve made a mistake. Perhaps someone’s said something out of character, or you’ve written something in that you’ve contradicted elsewhere.
I think that the corners you get stuck in, or what we call ‘writer’s block’, is actually your subconscious mind putting the brakes on. It’s your subconscious saying, ‘you were going great, but now you’ve gone somewhere silly and you need to stop because you’ll waste your time.’ So, you need to go back to where it was working and find where that mistake is.
In my second book I got completely stuck and I went back and found I had made a mistake. Then, though, I went back further and found I’d made another mistake. So, the second mistake had been a result of the first one. I think it was a character saying something that was completely out of character, and that had sent me off in totally the wrong direction and I got stuck. I was able to go back and fix it, though!
LS – How do you keep up the pace in a gripping crime novel?
V – There are lots of techniques for writing in tension. You can end your chapters on cliff-hangers, and often short chapters work well as they tend to be very pacy. Short sentences increase the pace as well. At the same time, though, you don’t want the whole book to be at break-neck pace because your reader’s going to be exhausted reading it.
So, it’s a case of balancing and having pieces of description and parts where it’s slower, where people are thinking or speaking to one another. Then, you mix that in with the parts where stuff happens quickly.
Crime writing festivals are fantastic for learning about things like technique – probably things you already know but aren’t actioning – or it might be that you listen to somebody speak and a piece of your plot will fall into place.
LS – Would you recommend going to crime writing festivals?
V – I’ve been running workshops and going to festivals since I started writing – I started writing in 1999, so that’s a long time ago! I also run loads of events, festivals and workshops, and every time I go to something I learn something new – every time. You need to keep building as a writer. Every time you meet someone – on a plane or going to Tesco – it’s like research for your book.
You need to have your antennae wagging and be gathering information. I think crime writing festivals are fantastic for learning about things like technique – probably things you already know but aren’t actioning – or it might be that you’re listening to somebody and a piece of plot will fall into place. They might have done something with their book, and if you do that with yours it could make it so much better.
You never stop learning as a writer. People do say they’re going to take a year off work and write, and they lock themselves away and write, but you’re not getting that stimulation if you do that. Making sure you’re in touch with the writing world is really important.
LS – What do enjoy most about writing crime fiction?
V – I love the characters and getting into character. I’m writing a new book at the moment and it’s a standalone, so it’s completely different to the series – Cat Connelly’s not in this one at all – and I’m absolutely loving writing it. I’m loving that the story’s evolving and that I don’t completely know what happens next.
I know where I want to go with it, but new bits are coming through. Just being in character is great, listening to them and putting them in situations. It’s fun!
LS – Thank you very much, Vanessa!