Monday, 20 July 2009

How to start writing crime and mystery (or maybe not)

The main theme of this blog is supposed to be writing and, since I’m a crime writer and give the occasional workshop and/or talk on the genre, I thought it might be interesting now and then to talk about it and maybe give some hints to would-be crime/mystery writers. I suggest this not from any conviction that I have the formula for writing a masterpiece. If I did, I'd be in the Bahamas employing a ghost writer to produce my next blockbuster. No, the idea is simply to open areas which might get you asking yourself some questions. I’m not a fan of creative writing courses and, at every opportunity, I trot out Somerset Maugham’s observation. ‘There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.’ But there are ways to get the creative juices flowing (and of avoiding clichés such as that one but I’m lazy). Here’s one.

Where do you start? Serial killer? Gang warfare? Sado-masochistic practices in a nunnery? It’s a list that easy to extend. But my suggestion would be to prefer the ordinary to the extraordinary. If you start with pools of blood and a trail of smeared footprints leading down into a crypt, it’s dramatic, scary and can be thrilling. But instead, what if it’s a park bench on a sunny day? A woman’s sitting reading a book and eating her lunch sandwiches. Children are playing, old women are feeding ducks, couples are strolling along. The woman’s bag slips from her lap. She bends to retrieve it and sees a red filament. It’s a tiny, barely noticeable trickle of blood which is oozing onto the path in front of her bench. It’s coming from a tissue which someone has wrapped around something and thrown away.

The normality of the context brings the frisson closer. Until we see the blood, it’s a familiar scene, reassuring, normal – one which carries no threat, so the intrusion of a macabre element is more sinister. The shock is greater.

So try this. Tomorrow, go through at least part but preferably all of the day thinking about what you're doing - the ordinary, routine stuff - and look for clues, plots. Rather than think from the point of view of the murderer, set yourself up as a victim. Notice how many ways you could be murdered – not by any grandiose scheming, bombs, guns, etc. (although that’s not as unlikely as it used to be) but by the normal trappings of the way you live.

For example, toothpaste is a threat. Who has access to your toothbrush? What could they put on it to get rid of you? There are some toxins of which even a tiny drop would be very effective. Who knows about any vitamins or medication you’re on? How easy is it for them to tamper with it? Who knows what foodstuffs you prefer? Or where you shop? Could anyone have found indications of medications you need in the rubbish you’ve thrown away? Who’s watching your movements in and out of the house? Are there any places on your route to work where you’re particularly vulnerable? Why is there a ladder against the neighbour’s wall? What’s in the box they’ve put out with their wheelie bin? And so it goes on through the day. Multiply all these questions by the number of people who have access to the various items and locations and you have a complex set of relationships – which generate lots of ideas. In my case, the answer to most of these questions is ‘My wife’ but fortunately she doesn’t read this blog.

So keep asking yourself these things and, each time you come up with an answer, always ask ‘But why would the person want to do that?’ Even the simplest action has reasons behind it and consequences. Ask what the reasons are and what’ll happen afterwards and you’ve got the beginnings of a story, or maybe the story itself.

See? It’s a nice game to play with yourself. And once that central departure point is set – the toothbrush, the bottle of vitamin pills, the tools in your garden shed – possibilities and consequences multiply. And you can start jigsawing together clues, red herrings, suspects and, most of all, characters. And pretty soon you’ll have the makings of a plot because, at least in my way of working, plots arise from characters, not the other way round.

Try it, and when you write the best seller as a result of using this technique, send me my cut of the profits. (Percentages to be agreed later.)


  1. Enjoyed this post, Bill. But in the interests of sanity I might minimise my practise of your suggestion. If I do make a profit from it, I'm keeping it to myself. Cue wicked pantomime laugh.

  2. Sanity Michael? What's that? And you'll need to work on that laugh a little.

  3. If you're writing modern mysteries, a good source of inspiration for exotic deaths might be the guys who've been doing for-real wet work for the Russians for the last few decades. Whoever thinks up their methods has a bizarre imagination.

  4. Indeed Gary. And let's not forget the CIA, MI6 and all those other cozy organisations which protect our liberty.

  5. Bill, thanks for sharing your mystery writing strategies with the world. I copied this most valuable post into my writing program to refer to. Just excellent.

    Now let me see where I can find the first Carston mystery.

  6. Thanks Marley. Glad it made sense to you. I hope it's useful - and even if it isn't, it's either good fun or it deepens one's paranoia.