Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Few Things I've Learned from Some Crime Fiction Authors...

It’s no secret that crime fiction authors learn from one another, and are inspired by each other. In fact, some of the most common questions that authors are asked have to do with other authors whose work has inspired them. Crime fiction novels have plenty of references, too, to other crime fiction novels. We see that, for instance, in Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear’s Anasazi series, which takes place in the Sonora Desert of New Mexico. In The Visitant, the first novel in that series, archeologist William “Dusty” Stewart and forensic anthropologist Dr. Maureen Cole investigate a set of ancient remains. There doesn’t seem to be a normal explanation for the way the remains were buried and the place they were found, and it appears that the victims died violently. So the two sleuths and their team examine the evidence, some of which suggests witchcraft. Cole, who’s not familiar with the American Southwest, hasn’t heard of the kind of witchcraft that may be involved, so Stewart says,

“Don’t you read Tony Hillerman? You know, Jim Chee and Leaphorn.”

As it turns out, Cole hasn’t read Hillerman, so Stewart and one of the other team members explain the local beliefs about witchcraft that might have led to these killings. In the end, the deaths prove to have quite a different cause.

There are several references to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in Agatha Christie’s novels. Hercule Poirot mentions more than once that, unlike Holmes, he does not look for physical evidence such as cigarette butts and shoe prints. Rather, he uses “the little grey cells” of his mind. There’s an interesting reference to Holmes in Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), in which Poirot agrees to find out what’s behind a mysterious series of thefts at a hostel for students. He’s debating whether to take the case when he murmurs something about

“…the parsley sinking into the butter on a hot day.”

That’s a reference to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, in which Holmes solves a case of some unusual vandalism.

I’ve learned a lot from crime fiction authors, myself, so today, I thought I’d share some of the important lessons I’ve been learning about crime fiction from a few of those who write it.

Start with an absorbing plot and strong characters.

At the core of every well-written crime fiction novel is an engaging plot and well-drawn characters. I’ve learned this lesson from Martin Edwards, whose Lake District series features fascinating and complex characters, as well as engaging plots with some surprising twists. This series features Oxford historian Daniel Kind and DCI Hannah Scarlett, who first work together in The Coffin Trail, in which they investigate the “cold case” deaths of Gabrielle Anders and Barrie Gilpin in the village of Brackdale. Years ago, Anders was found brutally murdered; shortly afterwards, Gilpin died, too, in a tragic fall. Everyone assumed that Gilpin was responsible. Scarlett, who worked that case with her former partner Ben Kind (Daniel Kind’s father) was never convinced of Gilpin’s guilt. Neither was Kind, who actually knew Gilpin. So when Scarlett is named to lead a Cold Case Review team, the case gets re-opened. In the end, Scarlett and Kind find out that all is not as it seems in Brackdale, and that the two deaths are related to several local, long-hidden secrets. The Coffin Trail and the other books in this series make use of believable characters and well-crafted plots. As the series moves on, those characters develop over time, too, so that they stay strong and well-drawn. This, so I’ve learned, is crucial to a solid mystery.

Show, Don’t Tell.

This is a lesson that I’ve learned from Elizabeth Spann Craig. She’s the author of a mystery series featuring retired school teacher Myrtle Clover. She’s also the author of a new series, the Memphis Barbecue series, scheduled to launch in July (2010) with the release of Delicious and Suspicious. Craig’s Myrtle Clover stories take place in and near the small town of Bradley, North Carolina, where Myrtle Clover lives and where her son, Red, is the local police chief. In A Dyeing Shame: Death at the Beauty Box, Myrtle Clover investigates the murder of her hairdresser, Tami Smith. And, in Pretty is as Pretty Dies, she finds out who murdered real estate developer Parke Stockard. Rather than using a lot of narrative to describe the characters and the setting, Craig shows the reader. For instance, in Pretty is as Pretty Dies, Myrtle is furious with her son for signing her up to join the United Methodist Women’s group. Here’s how Craig describes how angry Myrtle is on her trip to her first meeting with the women:

[Myrtle] was already stomping her way to church for the United Methodist Women’s duties he’d gotten her into. Myrtle’s cane thumped emphatically on the pavement in front of her, the robustness of the sound giving her a sense of satisfaction.”

One of the criticisms of some longer murder mysteries is that there’s too much narrative and too many details; I’m sure we could all think of examples. Craig has avoided this trap by strong visual imagery and effective dialogue to show the reader what’s going on. There are other authors, too, of course, who’ve mastered the art of “showing, not telling.” Those authors keep the reader turning pages in part because they don’t use a lot of prose to send a message. They let the imagery, character descriptions and dialogue speak for themselves.

Don’t set off the “hooey alarm.”

My thanks to Alan Orloff for this lesson. In order for a story to be engrossing, it’s got to make sense. That is, there have to be believable motives for a murder, and the events of the story have to be logical, and have to fall out naturally. Orloff achieves this in his newly-released Diamonds for the Dead, in which Josh Handleman travels from San Francisco back to Virginia when his elderly father, Abe, suddenly dies from a fall down the stairs of the family home. At first, his death is said to be an accident. Then, Abe Handleman’s best friend, Lev Yurishenko, tells Josh that his father was murdered. Lev has a suspect in mind, too – Abe’s boarder, Yassian. At first, Josh doesn’t believe Lev, but soon enough, he learns some surprising things about his father. One of them is that Abe Handleman collected diamonds, and was far wealthier than anyone suspected. Another is that the diamonds are now missing. Josh decides to search for the diamonds and find out the truth about his father’s death. I confess, I haven’t finished this novel yet (I’m getting there : ) ), but what I’ve read rings true. It’s authentic.

For instance, there’s not a trumped-up reason that Handleman visits the family home; it’s perfectly natural for an adult child to return to a family home for his father’s funeral. Also, the Handleman family has a Russian Jewish background. So, the fact that Abe Handleman’s best friend is a Russian immigrant makes sense. It’s a believable part of the plot. So is Yurishenko’s mistrust of Yassian. There are other aspects of the plot that also make sense and don’t stretch the limits of credibility. Also, Orloff’s plot doesn’t make use of a lot of coincidences that may move the plot along, but don’t serve to make it more believable.

In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder), Poirot says,

“I am always prepared to admit one coincidence.”

That’s a good rule to follow to avoid the “hooey alarm.”

Don’t Forget to Laugh.

Murder is tragic, and crime fiction often focuses on the sadness that accompanies it. That’s as it should be. However, there’s no reason that a crime fiction novel needs to be relentlessly dark. Of course, some very talented authors prefer writing dark stories, and there are crime fiction fans who prefer that kind of story. On the other hand, a touch of lightness can be refreshing, and humor can be very engaging. I’m learning this important lesson from a few authors, chief among them Elspeth Antonelli, Marshall Karp and Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen.

Elspeth’s informative and funny blog gives us all an honest look at writing. Here is an example of how funny it can be. Elspeth, I look forward to your novel being released! Marshall Karp’s series featuring L.A.P.D. detectives Mike Lomax and Terry Biggs is full of humor, albeit dark humor at times. In The Rabbit Factory, for instance, they’re investigating the murder of Eddie Elkins, an actor who wears the costume of Rambunctious Rabbit, the mascot of Familyland, a popular amusement park. One day, Eddie is strangled to death, and the detectives begin to look into his background. They’re shocked to find out that Eddie Elkins is the alias adopted by Edward Ellison, a convicted child molester. As they investigate, Lomax and Biggs find out that there was more to Ellison’s death than just revenge for a horrendous crime. Instead, his death is just the first in a series of deaths intended to ruin the network responsible for creating Familyland. Although some of the themes in the novel are dark, Karp writes with a lot of humor, too. For instance, here’s the scene in which Biggs picks Lomax up for the drive to Familyland to begin their investigation:

“I [Lomax] got into the Lexus ES250, which I love to remind Terry is actually a Toyota Camry with a wood-paneled dash and a few other non-essentials to jack up the price. ‘Good morning, Detective,’ I said. ‘Are you looking for the guy who slapped the Lexus logo on the front of your Camry?’”

Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen keeps an informative, thoughtful and very often funny crime fiction blog, Dj’s Krimiblog, in which she sometimes shares her excellent flash fiction. To give you a taste of her humor, here’s the end of a Christmas story that she wrote, in which we learn quite a lot about St. Nicholas:

“After a perfunctory investigation Constable Archibald Prewitt gave up solving the murder of St Nicholas. He did the next-best thing by selling the whole story to BBC, CNN and the Danish prime minister who was grateful that now the press would run off to Longburied Parsley instead of harping on his none-too successful climate conference.”

I’m grateful to have learned as much as I have from all of the terrific crime fiction writers I’m privileged to know. If you write crime fiction, what lessons have you learned? If you’re a crime fiction fan, do you have any suggestions for lessons that writers should learn?


  1. These are all excellent rules Margot. If I could beg one additional thing of crime fiction authors it would be to go for quality not quantity. These days it seems like people are getting paid by the pound to produce giant tomes that would be far better stories if they were stripped back and edited properly. Less is More!

  2. Bernadette - I agree with you completely! Telling a good story doesn't require hundreds and hundreds of pages. If the story is well-written and the characters strong, then readers should be drawn in and not want the story to end. That's just not as likely to happen if a story is really long.

  3. I enjoy it when an author brings up another author in their work. It makes the characters more realistic because we can relate to what they (the characters) are reading. Very interesting post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. Mason - Thanks : ). I agree with you. It really does add a touch of realism, doesn't it, when we find out what characters are reading, especially if they refer to authors that we read, too. It also helps the reader connect to the characters, I think.

  5. Thanks so much for including me in your list of writers you've learned from, Margot! I've learned so much, too, from the writers you've mentioned. And...I've learned how useful it is to study the crime novels of the past (and present), analyze their components, and look for ways to translate that approach to our own writing...from you!


    Mystery Writing is Murder

  6. Elizabeth - That's so sweet of you : ) Thank you! : ). I think that's one of the things I love the most about being in a community of writers; you learn so much from what other people are doing, and what they've mastered. It's one of the reasons there's more than one of us on the planet : ).

  7. Margot -- thanks for the kind words. In real life cops, DAs, morgue attendants and almost everyone else who works in the dark world of murder get through their day by coping with humor. Yet not many crime fiction writers use it. I do, but humor has its downside. Funny is not a mystery genre, so readers, booksellers, even publishers can't quite find a niche for my books. It's like I have Mystery Writer's Tourette's Syndrome. But hey, that's what I do, so thanks for taking me seriously.

    I am currently coauthoring a standalone thriller with James Patterson, and if you want to learn from another writer, Jim is the guy.

    I’ll pass along one thing he’s taught me. Grab your reader immediately and never let go. Don’t waste time with back story and setup. That can be added in chapter 40 — way out of sequence. It’s not important to give a character’s life story up front. Think of a blind date. The fact that you grew up in a factory town or sold beeswax candles on the street with your great grandmother may have shaped who you are, but it isn’t important for your date to know immediately. You want to be charming, intriguing, dazzling. Hook your readers with over the top excitement — thrills, lust, action, whatever you’ve got. Then keep up the pace. Give them the good stuff, so that they wants to hang around for more.

    Patterson is more about great storytelling than great writing. It’s his trademark (and one of the main reasons for his success). The two of us are very different writers, but he's taught me a lot.

  8. Marshall - Thanks so much for the words of wisdom! I agree with you that starting a novel with a lot of backstory is a sure way to get the reader yawning and closing a book. Backstory can be important, and readers want characters that are well-rounded. Still, as you say, overloading a novel with a lot of backstory at once, in the wrong place, does make it "clunky."

    You make a very well-taken point, too, about the humor that those in law enforcement, emergency medicine, etc., use to get through the day. I've a close friend who's been in emergency nursing for over twenty years. From him and his wife (also a nurse), I've heard all kinds of dark humor, and it is a coping strategy. As you say, very often people don't think of humor and murder as going together, but in real life, they do. I think that's part of what makes the way you integrate humor into your work so authentic. It never seems forced.

    I wish you well with your standalone, and of course, I look forward to more from Mike (Lomax) and Terry (Biggs), too : ).

  9. Margot - Thanks for the mention! I'm honored to among such great company! I try to save all my hooey for my kids--I'm not sure they appreciate it, but it keeps me entertained. I think I need to take a few tips from you and go back and read some more of the mystery masters to learn some of their techniques. You've given me tons of recommendations!

  10. Alan - Hey, one of the perks of parenthood is giving hooey to your kids ; ). I think one of the reasons I love "the mystery masters" (love that term!) so much is that there are always important lessons to learn, and I know I've gotten some important lessons from them. So if something I've passed along helps you, too, so much the better.

  11. Oh, what a wonderful day to return to your blog and not only find one of your inspiring posts, but also a quotation by an obscure, Danish writer :D

    Thank you so much for your encouragement which means the world to me!

  12. Dorte - It is my pleasure to encourage you; you are not just a friend, but a talented writer - in more than one language - and I am happy to boast that I know you : ). It's also my pleasure to share your good writing with everyone else.

  13. I'm a big Marshall Karp fan -- I think he shows how useful humor and sarcasm can be for certain characters. I loved Myrtle Clover in Elizabeth's first mystery but haven't read the second yet -- just ordered Alan's new release...

    For some recent lessons, I'd say Craig Johnson and William Kent Krueger taught me how appealing flawed characters can be -- they're more like real people.

  14. Patricia - I agree; Karp is very talented at integrating humor and sarcasm in effective ways. I, too, am a Myrtle Clover fan and can't wait until Elizabeth's Memphis Barbecue series comes out. I think you'll like Alan's book; it's engaging, crisply written and has a solid plot and well-drawn characters.

    Thanks for mentioning Johnson and Krueger. I'm not as familiar as I would like to be with their work, but I agree with you 100% that flawed characters are interesting. They're a little more difficult to write, but they are richer and more real, as you say. That's what I like about Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole, among other characters. He's far from perfect, and that's part of his appeal.

  15. Thanks again, Margot. I'm not a writer but interested in the process and loved this one; especially, the comments from so many writers. I just recently came across PD James website where she has a section entitled "Mystery Writing Lessons" that offers similar advice to yours.

    I remembered a passage in one of Lawrence Block's Burglar Series that fits two sections of this post--references to other authors and humor. Bernie the Burglar's friend Carolyn asks him what Sue Grafton might do after she writes "Z"? Bernie says that he believes she'll go back to "A" and double-up. "I think that next book will be titled AA IS FOR DRUNKS."

  16. Bob - Thanks for mentioning that P.D. James site; I'm going to have to look for that one. I had to laugh at Bernie's idea for what Sue Grafton's AA novel might be; thanks for sharing that : ). I always think it's interesting when authors mention other authors in their writing.