Monday, 26 January 2015

Crime Writing and Romance

Crime Writing and Romance (originally posted on 26 October 2012)
If you're planning to write a romance novel with a crime or intrigue element, the important thing to remember is that you still need to have a relationship at the heart of it. The crime must impact in some way on the hero and heroine, even if they're only investigating. As I said on my Conflict post on the Pocketeers blog, they need a vested interest in the outcome.

That said, you'll still be working in the normal conventions of crime writing. Here are some tips to get you going. Most are aimed at murder mysteries, but the conventions are pretty much the same, even if you're you're writing about a non-violent crime.

Choose your sleuth

One of the most important people in a crime related novel is going to be the sleuth. This is the person that the reader is going to spend most of their time with. The reader will want to feel some connection with them, even if they don't particularly like them. So are you writing a police procedural, such as Morse or Jane Tennyson (of Prime Suspect)? Are they a professional detective, such as Sherlock Holmes? Or are they a small town sleuth, such as Miss Marple or Agatha Raisin?  I tend towards the latter, and leave the police working quietly in the background.  It could be that your crime novel is really a psychological thriller, where the focus is not so much on solving the crime, but on your characters dealing with the actions of a criminal. For example, your heroine may be being stalked, or threatened in some other way.

If you write a police procedural, you really have to know about police procedure, and you can't get it off the telly, because they don't always get it right. They cut corners for reasons of time and/or dramatic effect. For example, in the CSI series, DNA always wins the day, but in real life it needs a bit more than that to convict a killer. Finding someone's DNA at the scene of the crime is not proof that they killed the victim. It just proves they were there at some point. On the other hand, don't let the facts get in the way of a good story. If whatever you write is plausible enough, most readers will accept it, even if you don't have the procedure exactly right.

Is your sleuth going to have a sidekick? This is where a romance is ideal, as the hero and heroine can be each other's sidekick. A sidekick, even if it's just a pal, is handy for your sleuth to bounce ideas off, thereby informing the reader of what they're thinking at regular intervals.

It helps to introduce your sleuth as quickly as possible, even if it isn't immediately apparent they are going to be the sleuth.

Your sleuth will generally be morally sound, even if they have flaws and foibles.

Choose your victim(s)

Your first victim is going to be the second most important person in your crime related novel. There will be a reason that they were murdered. Either they were universally disliked, or they had found out a secret about the murderer, or they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Either way, finding out who killed them is going to take up a large part of your novel.

Like the sleuth, the victim needs to be introduced quickly.  They also need to be dispensed with relatively quickly in the novel. I've read somewhere that most crime fans expect a murder in the first chapter. That's the hook that keeps them reading on. Anything the reader then finds out about the victim is in hindsight.

Your murder does not have to have taken place when the story begins. It can have happened sometime in the past, but something brings it back into the spotlight (another murder is always handy for that!). If it's not a murder, then it could be some other crime that's taken place, either in the past or present.

Choose your suspects

Note that I don't say 'killer/criminal' here. Your suspects, even those who turn out to be innocent, are the ones who are going to keep your readers guessing. They need to be fairly distinguishable, so it's wise to choose them from all age groups, and class, gender, ethnicity etc and give them distinctive personalities. It also helps if you introduce them gradually, as too many names all at once can be confusing for a reader. In a 50k novella, you're not going to want more than about five or six suspects. And don't forget that your hero or heroine can also be suspects, even though they may turn out to be innocent.

You'll choose your criminal from these suspects. The conventions of crime are that the perpetrator is the person you least suspect. They may be shadowy figures. Or they may be (or seem) really nice and sympathetic, making it hard for the reader to believe they could do such a thing. Or they may be everyone on the train!

I've heard crime writers say that they sometimes don't know who the killer is until the end. This has happened to me and it does help to keep everyone as a suspect. It can be difficult not to drop too many clues when you know who the killer is. So don't worry if you haven't decided on your killer straight away. As long as it's plausible that they could be the killer by the end, you'll be okay.

What is your killer's motive?

This is another important point. What is your killer's motive? Why did they kill the first victim? Was it to keep them silent? Was it a crime of passion? Was it an accident? Will they kill again to protect themselves? Most killers in crime novels do kill again, as this adds to the tension.

Your killer may not have a motive. They may just be a psychopath. This is fine, but be careful not to give clichéd reasons for their psychopathy. As I've said before, not all abused or deprived children grow up to be serial killers. One example I gave to one of my workshop participants recently was Ted Bundy. He was born in a home for unmarried mothers during the fifties, when such things were frowned upon. This is often cited as a possible reason for his behaviour. I don't know how many other children were born in that same home - probably thousands - but I do know that only one of them grew up to be Ted Bundy, rapist and serial killer. If more from the same home had been serial killers, you can bet we'd have heard about it! It was something within Ted Bundy that made him the way he was. A fatal flaw, if you like.

But you could just let your killer be a psychopath and not explain it. They're just made that way.

Remember the clues and Red Herrings

As you write, you'll be leaving a trail of clues and red herrings. These clues can be physical, as in things left at the scene of the crime, or documents that shed light on what's happened. Or they could be verbal; based on the things people say (or don't say). Your clues and red herrings could also be suggested by the way people behave. Remember that even the innocent suspects may lie for some reason, because they're hiding something else that's happening in their life; an affair, a shady business deal, another lesser crime that has nothing to do with the murder.

Readers like to be in on these clues, and to follow them, so sprinkle them liberally, but remember to have an explanation for them all by the end!

Beware of giving the solution too soon

Your reveal - that is who the killer is - should be as near to the end of your novel as possible. As you're writing a romance too, you can have the reveal come just before the couple declare their feelings for each other, or just after. It's up to you. But both need to happen within the last 5000 words, and it can be difficult to juggle them if you are writing a story that has two genres. You could have a false ending, where the reader thinks it's all sorted, then the killer comes out of nowhere. This is great, but beware ending fatigue. Your killer can only come out of the shadows to attack your sleuth once. More than that and it becomes a bit tedious.

If you're writing a police procedural, then the clues will probably lead to an arrest. This won't happen with an amateur sleuth, though the murderer may well be arrested at the end, and then give a handy confession. One favoured way for the denouement is to have everyone in a room together and the sleuth go around them all saying why they could or couldn't be the killer.  Usually at that point, the killer does something to prove they are guilty (so everyone knows your sleuth got it right), and then the police come in. Or you could have the killer realise your sleuth is getting close to a conclusion and then try to pre-empt this by attacking your sleuth (of course there'll be someone on hand to save them). It is important that, for the purposes of the pocket novels, that the killer or other criminal is brought to justice.

Remember the romance!

The romance is still is an important part of your plot. The DC Thomson editors still wants a relationship in the novels, because they're aimed at women. So do remember, whilst you're killing people off and setting clues, that your hero and heroine need to fall in love. You can do this by making sure the crime brings them together for some reason and maybe even tears them apart if one of them is a suspect. Your heroine may distrust the hero, or vice versa, but at the same time they're starting to like each other and fall in love.

You will need some 'getting to know you' time, and the same elements (pivotal moment, black moment) as you find in most traditional romances. Again, you can use the crime to do this. For example if your hero and heroine are locked in a house together, hiding from a crazed psycho killer, it's a great way to bring them together! Or they could decide to solve the crime together. In my novella, True Love Ways, I had my hero and heroine as rival sleuths, until they decided to pool their resources. In another of my novellas, I had the heroine working to clear the hero's name.  In a police procedural, it could be that the detective is attracted to the main suspect, which brings its own problems.

As long as you remember that as the crime solving progresses, the relationship has to progress too. And that does work better if you link them together in some way, so that they're part of the same story and not two separate stories that just happen to be taking place in the same novel.

I've written all this off the top of my head, so if you have any questions that I haven't yet answered, please do ask and I'll do my best to give you the answers.

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