Article from Writing Crime Fiction

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Author Janet Laurence Price £12.99 €13.99 $13.99 Format Paperback, 215 x 135mm, 160pp
Second Edition 978-1-84285-248-4

Cover for Writing Crime Fiction
Writing Crime Fiction: Making Crime Pay

Plotting & Ideas

In talking about plot, the great crime writer, H R F Keating, once said that E M Forster defines a story as a narrative of events with the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died and then queen died of grief’ is a plot. But: ‘The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king’ that is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development.

There you have it, in the judgement of Forster, one of the most respected of English novelists; plots with mysteries in them are capable of high development.

What is a good mystery plot? One that keeps readers guessing. One that involves strong emotions and motives: jealousy, greed, redemptive love, revenge, sacrifice. One that has characters that involve the reader. One in which the reader can recognize conflicts and settings.

The elements of a plot, though, are not enough to make a successful book.

Reginald Hill says, plotting is not the story you want to tell, it is finding the best way of telling that story’.

Before, though, we look at ways of getting a plot down on the page, let’s see where we go for the ideas that will, eventually, lead to a plot.

Many people ask authors, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ It’s almost as though they think there’s a shop that offers them for sale, its location known only to writers. It’s a nice thought. How much, I wonder, would such ideas cost?

In fact, ideas are free, they are everywhere; you just have to open your mind to them.

Dealing with the question where ideas come from, Jessica Mann says, ‘There are as many answers as there are writers. Some have an endless stream of notions popping into their heads. Mine come more slowly, usually appearing when I’m not looking for them, so between books I worry that there will never be another. Then something begins to niggle.’

Plot ideas sometimes arrive fully formed. Wonderful if that happens. More often, though, plots are put together like a jigsaw puzzle: a bit here, a piece there, all gradually built up until there is a workable whole. Maybe a character or a set of characters starts the process off, or it may be a setting. Perhaps it’s an idea for a crime, or an alibi. Or an incident you read about, or something that happens to you.

Peter  Lovesey says his  initial  idea  ‘can  come  from anywhere. Sometimes it’s background, a character, a theme, but usually the plot. For instance the inspiration for Rough Cider came from a non-fiction book on cider making. I read that they hung a joint of meat inside the barrel of cider to assist fermentation. That got my criminal mind working, and I thought, instead of a leg of lamb in there, suppose it was a skull that turned up?’

A good way to start plotting is to ask questions. Like any successful novel, a crime story will constantly pose questions. What has happened? Who is that person and why are they behaving in that way? The readers keep turning the pages to find out answers. In a crime novel there are two different sorts of questions:

a)  Firstly, there are the questions that have to be asked as part of an investigation: What was the crime, where did it happen, when did it happen, how was it done, who did it and why? Your plot has to take all of these questions into consideration and the answers need to be fed out gradually, with misunderstandings, wrong conclusions and alternative solutions offered along the way, together with clues and evidence that can point first one way and then another, until the final denouement is reached.

b) Then there are the questions that may or may not be relevant to the investigation but will make the reader want to know more – and so keep turning the pages. Why does the sultry Mrs Brown keep disappearing every Wednesday night? Why has nervous Miss Smith moved somewhere else when she said she was so happy where she was? Why does the unbearably pompous Mr Johnson always avoid meeting high-flying Miss Jones? Why is shy Mrs Thomas, married to a leading Councillor, so badly bruised?

Exercise

Write  down  six questions  that  an  investigator, whether official or  unofficial, might  ask in the  early pages of a crime novel dealing with the death of Mary, a forty-year old woman, found lying in her sitting room, dead from a blow to the head. Look beyond the actual facts of the death and think of simple situations that would raise questions that could develop the plot.

There are no right or wrong answers to the exercises set in this book; they are to get you thinking and working along the lines needed for a successful crime novel.

A word of caution here, do not throw away your exercises. You may need to refer back to them later in this book, or you may find that, as you work through the various chapters, that at least some of your answers can be used in a full-length story.

When I was starting out I attended a creative writing course. My first book, A Deepe Coffyn, included a number of exercises I produced during this course. As I worked on them, I was soon inspired to think of writing a crime novel. Ideas for the basic plot, the background and some of the characters came to me. So I used each of the tasks we were set: first page, description, dialogue, and so on, to explore possibilities for the book I had dreamed up. Most of what I wrote, suitably tailored, ended up in A Deepe Coffyn.

So whether you are writing by hand, using a typewriter, or working on a computer, keep everything you write. Creative work should never be thrown away. It may well come in use later.

Let us look at the exercise you were set.

The questions  that  could  be raised by the  imaginary situation given above are only limited by your imagination.

Here is a possible set that the investigator in a crime novel could be faced with:

1) Why had the neighbour who discovered the body gone into the house?

2) What were Mary and her adopted daughter arguing so bitterly about when  they were overheard  by another neighbour?

3) Why has Mary’s husband left her?

4) What has happened to Mary’s priceless Ming vase?

5) Who was the mysterious man seen knocking on Mary’s door the evening she died?

6) Why the week before her death did Mary buy a one-way ticket to San Francisco, dated for the day after she died?

These are the sorts of questions that can send the investigator – and the reader – off in a number of different directions. The answers to them can reveal a number of different reasons for Mary’s death and identify a range of suspects.

Possible answers to the above include:

1) The neighbour might have been given a key to the house by Mary so that her plants could be kept watered while she is away. The neighbour has agreed to take on this task because she believes that Mary is having an affair with her husband and she wants to see if she can find some evidence in the house. When she entered, she thought Mary had already left for San Francisco.

2) Mary and her daughter may have been arguing because the daughter is adopted, she has never got on with Mary, who loves her deeply; she has sought out her birth mother and has decided to move in with her.

3) Mary’s husband may have left her because he has come to the point where he cannot handle her gambling addiction any longer. He believes they will soon be facing bankruptcy.

4) The Ming vase could have been sold to buy the ticket to San Francisco and a start to her new life there.

5) The mysterious man  could be a debt collector whom Mary attacks when he demands repayment of a loan.

6) Mary sees going to San Francisco, where she has an old boyfriend, as the only way out of the mess that her life has become.

All these characters are frustrated  and looking for an escape from a life that has become worse than unsatisfactory. Each of them  is desperate enough to become violent to ensure that they can escape.

Mary may have been battered to death by her husband when he discovers that, to pay a gambling debt, she has sold their one last valuable possession, which he was counting on to start him off in a new life. The jealous neighbour might have found proof of an affair and challenged Mary before she was able to leave for San Francisco. Or her daughter could have attacked her because Mary bad-mouthed  her birth mother. Mary might have been by hit the debt collector in self-defence when she attacked him.

When I started writing down the questions, nothing of the above was in my mind. I plucked everything out of the air. Then I started to think about answers.

Would what I have sketched out make a book? Not as it stands but maybe it could start me wondering about the conflicts involved: the jealousy between the dead woman and her neighbour; the difficult relationships between parents and adopted children; how gambling can ruin marriages and lives; how anger can lead to violence; the dangers involved in trying to escape the consequences of one’s actions.

There could be enough there to start the process of making a plot. Choices would have to be made. Who, for instance, did actually kill Mary and why? What would be the main theme of the plot? Would any of the other suspects play a part or would it be better to keep thinking and digging into Mary and her life? What is the pull gambling has for her? Where does she gamble and whom does she meet in the process?

What questions did you put down? Have you thought about  what the answers could be? Could they start you thinking about a possible plot?

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