Writing Crime Fiction with Mark Billingham’s TipsJun 21, 2020
If anyone knows about writing crime fiction, it’s Mark Billingham. One of the UK’s most acclaimed and popular crime novelists, Mark’s series featuring DI Tom Thorne has twice won the Crime Novel of the Year Award and his debut novel, Sleepyhead, was chosen by the Sunday Times as one of the 100 books that shaped the decade.
A television series based on the Thorne novels starred David Morrissey as Tom Thorne and a series based on In The Dark and Time Of Death was broadcast on the BBC in 2017. His latest novel is Their Little Secret.
Here are Mark Billingham’s top tips for crime writers.
Ten tips for writing crime novels
(Some more serious than others.)
Write the kind of crime novel you would like to read
Know what the rules are before completely ignoring them
The key to creating suspense in crime stories is character
Don’t be a ‘Chubby Checker’
Go easy on the research before you write your crime novel
Make your location a character
Don’t use victims as plot devices
Don’t use bad language and don’t hurt animals
I know this sounds blindingly obvious, but I’m constantly amazed by the number of people I meet who tell me they are writing something, then stare at me blankly when I ask them what kind of stuff they enjoy reading.
Every writer I respect is a reader first and foremost. To try and write without reading widely is simply nonsensical. It’s like wanting to be a chef without eating food. If you want to write crime stories, you must read crime novels! You won’t find any mystery writers who don’t.
2. Write the kind of crime novel you would like to read
Another obvious one, but it’s worth stressing.
You’re on a hiding to nothing if you try and look for a gap in the market when you start to write crime fiction.
Granted, maybe there isn’t a bestselling crime fiction series out there about a blind veterinary surgeon in fourteenth-century London who solves critter-related crimes with the help of a tame leopard. There’s probably a very good reason why not and, trust me, you shouldn’t be the one to try and fill that gap. Not unless that’s exactly the book you’ve been waiting your whole life to read and, if that’s the case, there is almost certainly counselling available.
Instead, think about the crime novels you’ve really enjoyed, the ones that made you fall in love with the mystery genre. Maybe you’re particularly intrigued by organized crime. Maybe it’s the nuanced description of the crime scene. You could have a thing for the locked room mystery or psychological thrillers or detective stories.
The point is, crime fiction encompasses all kinds of subgenres, tones, techniques... Look at other crime writers and see what you admire and enjoy about them. That’s one of the most important tips for writing crime.
Think about the crime novels you’ve really enjoyed, the ones that made you fall in love with the mystery genre. Maybe you’re particularly intrigued by organized crime. Maybe it’s the nuanced description of the crime scene. You could have a thing for the locked room mystery or psychological thrillers or detective stories... Look at other crime writers and see what you admire and enjoy about them.
3. Know what the rules are before completely ignoring them
From Ronald Knox (‘no Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them’) through G.K. Chesterton (‘the criminal must be in the foreground’) to Elmore Leonard (‘never open a book with weather’) many other crime writers have attempted to lay down rules and tips for writing crime novels and short stories.
Some have not aged well and now appear ridiculous. Others were never intended to be taken seriously in the first place. They’re certainly worth looking at though, if only for a good laugh.
And in fact, many of the great Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing crime fiction should be pinned above the desk of every writer, especially: ‘try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.’
Of course, the only rules that matter are the ones you lay down for yourself, and these tend to be determined by your tastes as a reader. (SEE TIP 1)
4. The key to creating suspense in crime stories is character
When you’re writing crime fiction, remember the reader knows what they are in for.
Give your readers characters they genuinely care about, that have the power to move them, and you will have suspense from page one.
Yes, there may be redemption and resolution of a sort, but there will also be suffering and pain, grief and dreadful loss. The reader knows it’s coming, but not when or to whom. The tension is real and terrible because they care.
So, by all means, throw in cliff-hangers and plot twists now and again, and time those ‘reveals’ to perfection to give your reader a punchline they will remember. But give your readers characters they genuinely care about, that have the power to move them, and you will have suspense from page one.
Interesting characters are at the heart of any crime story. Trust me, mystery writers can’t do without them. Whether it’s complex criminals or an amateur detective, a great main character will be at the heart of your crime novel.
In fact, a single character can spawn a whole series of addictive books in the crime genre: just ask Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
5. Don’t be a ‘Chubby Checker’
The ‘twist’ is, of course, a vital weapon in the mystery writer’s armoury; a button that a writer has to push every so often.
But plot twists can be overdone. There are many writers of crime fiction who try and throw as many curveballs at the reader as possible. To twist and twist again.
While I admire the craft, I do think it can sometimes work against the creation of genuine suspense. Put simply, I find it hard to engage with any book that is no more than a demonstration of technique. Plot twists are all well and good, but compelling characters and a good story are the key to building suspense and keeping readers guessing.
And above all, please ensure every plot twist makes sense and isn’t just a fun scene or notable event to include as a stand alone.
6. Go easy on the research before writing crime fiction
Obviously, there will be stuff you need to know about. But then there will inevitably be the temptation to crowbar in everything you’ve found out at the expense of the story.
Why not be counter-intuitive and do your research afterwards? That way you don’t decide early to become an expert in weaponry or nineteenth-century police departments. Instead, you only find out the things you really need to know. You’ll avoid falling into the trap of showing off without creating pesky plot holes.
Why not be counter-intuitive and do your research afterwards?
Don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re writing crime fiction, not a documentary. Don’t worry about annoying the handful of readers who might actually know this stuff in detail and take great pleasure in letting you know where you went wrong.
We all get the occasional ‘I hope you don’t mind me pointing out…’ letter, and they’re fun to read out at events. Truth is not always the same as fact… Especially these days.
7. Make your location a character
The way your main character interacts with the city or (God forbid) the countryside around them is hugely important. Whether it’s where the good guys do their detective work, or where the bad guy gets up to no good, thriller plots are often brought to life by a great setting.
Think about where your favourite mystery novel is set: does the world feel tangible, active? Aim to do the same in your crime story!
8. Don’t use victims as plot devices
The best crime writers have always written about what violence does to people; how a murder impacts those left behind.
The crime genre is not just about a cat-and-mouse game between detective and killer. It’s hard to keep us hooked through the whole story if you have a conveyor belt of endless victims who we never really engage with, just thrown in to move the story along.
I know that whenever Raymond Chandler was unsure where a crime story was going, he would just have someone walk into a room with a gun, but simply tossing another body into the mix is really not the same thing.
9. Don’t use bad language and don’t hurt animals
The odd angry letter (SEE TIP 6) can be fun, but some readers can get very worked up if a fictional character swears or a fictional dog/cat/pot-bellied pig gets hurt.
These are people who like reading crime fiction, who don’t appear to have any problem with murder, rape, child abuse etc, so go figure. And remember, you can do any damn thing you like to human beings, as long as nobody curses while it’s happening.
Of course, you might be the type who likes to annoy certain people, so how’s this for an opening? He held the gun to the cat’s head and grinned. “How the fuck do you like THAT, Mr Tibbles?”
8. Be lucky
Along with every other writer of crime novels I’ve mentioned, luck has played its part in my career. A manuscript crossing the desk of some agent or editor at just the right time.
Yes, hard work is important and it helps if you can at least string a sentence together, but the publishing business is a fickle one, so you will certainly need your share of good luck. And if it comes along, grab it…
Enjoy two crime fiction writing masterclasses with Mark Billingham in our Catch Up TV area when you sign up for the coaching, classes and community with an online creative writing course at The Novelry.