Category Archives: Crime Writing

A Good News Story

From today’s Guardian, a story to encourage us all:

Adrian McKinty deserves his success. What depresses me about his story, is how, despite winning numerous writing awards, he was neglected by publishers.

Image result for author Adrian McKinty

It sometimes seems to me that book companies detest their clients, failing to promote their books on the basis that they haven’t made enough money—and why should they do anything to rectify the situation?

Shane Salerno, the agent who turned McKinty’s life around, is a real powerhouse:

Imagine taking a phone call from such an influential figure!

Dating a Writer

A while ago, I posted about how Frequent Readers Make The Best Lovers, but I’ve been thinking about what it means to be involved with a writer.

My ruminations are partly inspired by running ideas through my mind for my sixth Cornish Detective novel, which I’ll begin writing in a month. My MC Neil Kettle has been a widower for nine years, not dating in that time, but corresponding with an American witness from Book 1. She unexpectedly turns up on his doorstep in Book 5 and they become lovers. Not on the doorstep!

Although my protagonist has an artistic side, his new lover is a talented professional photographer who makes multi-media art pieces, runs several blogs and writes hardboiled crime novels. She’s hinted at a wild past, including involvement with biker gangs, but Neil is disturbed when he does the one thing he shouldn’t have done, by reading her latest manuscript. The details of a 1980s bank robbery contain details of a real heist, hinting that she may have been involved—two people died—she could be a fugitive from justice.

Reading a WIP without permission is one of the things mentioned in this all too true article:

I haven’t dated in a decade, which is down to choice, as I made a deliberate decision to focus on my writing career. At times, I miss not being in a relationship, but being honest, I know that I’d resent interference with my freedom to do what I want, when I want—whether it be writing a new chapter, editing old material or going nuts as I attempt to understand the complexity of my WordPress blog and website.

Perhaps the ideal relationship for a writer is with another writer. There have been many famous literary couples:

Being alone, without anyone to share setbacks and little victories can be draining on the soul. Last night, after several days seeking solutions, I finally cracked a frustrating issue to do with hyperlinked chapter headings disappearing when converted to other formats. I gave a little cheer, realising that no one in the world cared but me. Such is the loneliness of the long-distance writer. I didn’t feel sorry for myself for more than a few seconds, simply glad that I can move ahead today editing my crime novels for publication on Amazon.

At present, I don’t have the time or inclination to date…and, anyway, I’m too damned weird!

What are you like to date or to be married to as a writer?

Do your partner and family understand your funny little ways?

Have you ever dated a writer?

Interviewing your Protagonist

One way to establish the character of the main players in your story is to interview them.

Whether you’re a pantser or a planner, it’s wise to make notes about your recurring characters, to help establish a world that feels realistic. This is especially true if writing a series. Not just their physical characteristics, but likes and dislikes, including phobias, and basic stuff like their birth dates. I was four books into my Cornish Detective series when I realised I hadn’t given my MC a birthday! Fortunately, there was a gap in the timeline of the plots to have him celebrate, albeit alone, on October 4th.

Detective Chief Inspector Neil Kettle is a widower. I’d written about his grieving and depression, but missed out an obvious detail—did he still wear his wedding ring? I re-edited the first three novels to put it on his finger, having him store it in a drawer in the fourth book when he’s rebuilding his personal life in a new house.

I might have avoided these omissions, had I interviewed him.

Taking the first question from the HuffPost article What do you do and are you good at it? Neil Kettle would respond:

“I’m a detective leading a murder investigation team. I joined the force when I was twenty-years-old, following the unexpected deaths of my parents. They wanted me to take over their sheep farm, but it wasn’t for me. Growing up there, surrounded by tranquillity made me appreciate the need for calm and order, which is what I try to restore to society as a policeman. Being a farmer’s son gave me patience and resourcefulness. I’m a grinder, never giving up until I get my suspect.”

That answer gives some idea of his background and brooding watchfulness. Also, he’s a modest man, preferring to get the job done, rather than boast about it.

Image result for detective interview suspect

Immersed in plotting, punctuation, grammar, formatting and editing, it’s very easy to lose track of who your characters are as people. I’ve read some exciting crime novels which moved at quite a pace, with intriguing clues, but the hero was two-dimensional. Readers need to bond with the goodies and the villains if they’re going to read on and search out more of your stories.

It can be strangely intimidating to imagine sitting down opposite someone you’ve created, but who’s taken on an all too real identity in your mind, haunting your waking and sleeping hours.

It may be that you don’t like them very much, that they’re aggressive or annoying to be around. I based DCI Neil Kettle on various farmers and coppers I’ve known. There are aspects of him that I share, such as his liking of art, music, reading, cats, motorcycling and nature, but I’d find him too judgemental and reserved to be a friend.

Detectives have a saying, “Believe no one”. Neil Kettle has that caution and analytical way of observing people, which would be unsettling to experience, making me feel like I’d been up to no good from the way he looked at me! 

Which of your characters would you interview?

What would they say?

Are any of your antagonists too scary to be near?

What about the sexy ones?

Apart from your own characters, which famous fictional character would you like to interview and why?

I’d like to have a chinwag with Winnie The Pooh, who’s got his priorities right, but Ewan McGregor beat me to it, thanks to making Christopher Robin.

Self-Promotion & Self-Publishing for Beginners

A revealing article penned by indie author Alastair Crombie describes how he attempted self-marketing as an unknown writer.

He concludes:

Unfortunately, I’ve not found any other methods that work reliably for newbies. I’m not sure there are any. The cold truth of the matter is that instant success belongs in the fiction we write and not in the facts we live.

“And the final lesson I learnt: living with disappointment. I know most authors recognize the feeling.”

This year, I’ve been navigating the self-promotion trail, which is something I wish I’d began six years ago, before writing my first Cornish Detective novel. If you’re new to writing, I earnestly recommend beginning a blog (with a newsletter) and posting regularly on social media. The trick is to get your name known and also to collect email addresses of subscribers who may, one day, buy your book.

Remember, whether you self-publish online or you publish traditionally through a book company, you’ll be expected to have an author platform, so best start now!

When I returned to creative writing in 2013, I knew it would take at least five years to get anywhere and so it has proved. It helps that I’m stoical (and bloody-minded!). I had some experience of publishing and being a writer from selling short stories and magazine articles in the 1970s and 1980s, realising that you were only as good as your last published piece—and that it needed lots of luck to get that into print.

I’m glad that one of the first writing guides I read was How Not To Write A Novel: Confessions of a Midlist Author by David Armstrong. Originally published in 2002, what he says about surviving as a non-bestselling author is even truer today. The hardships and ignominy are worse. There are affordable copies available on Amazon and eBay and Kindle:

Armstrong confirms that it’s a long, hard slog to get anywhere as a writer. Wannabee authors might well be put off starting.

At present, I’m wrestling with the hydra of converting my books to other formats, those most commonly used by e-reading devices, which are PDF, MOBI and EPUB. This is to make my manuscript flowable, able to automatically fit different-sized screens. Previously, I’ve self-published on Amazon and via Smashwords, which rather spoilt me, for they have meatgrinder software which does the conversion for you.

I should have used Smashwords again, even though I’ve unpublished my 45 titles on their site, to promote them via Draft2Digital. Instead, out of some daft sense of behaving honourably, I attempted to do the job by using Calibre, checking what the converted story looked like with Adobe Digital Editions

The main problem has been that the formatting I’ve used sometimes gets removed by Calibre, resulting in unwanted spacing between sentences and paragraphs. Trying to establish my own house style, I’d used Celtic symbols as section breaks, like this:

Calibre didn’t like that at all, substituting a capital ‘O’ for the key I’d pressed to insert the Celtic Knot. Smashwords meatgrinder did the same thing. This meant I had to remove them all, which took several hours…as did adding them last week. Note to self: stop being a clever dick!

After cleaning the manuscript of extraneous design flourishes, I put it through Smashwords meatgrinder again, which gave me a clean-looking story, complete with an attached book cover. There are still problems with the MOBI conversion done by Smashwords, which is the format used by Amazon for their Kindles.

Smashwords and Amazon don’t play well together, each insisting that any manuscript submitted doesn’t mention their rival. I’d listed my 45 previously published titles at the end of the book, linking them to Amazon, which gave Smashwords an epileptic fit! Removing them improved the MOBI reformatting results, but Amazon’s own meatgrinder will probably do a better job.

Of course, if I had the money, I could pay someone to run a campaign promoting me and my books and to convert my books to other formats, placing advertising strategically, but I don’t, so I’m doing everything myself. Paying for services is no guarantee of success. I’ve read some horror stories of people investing their life savings to promote themselves as writers, selling very few books and facing penury.

I’m 80% towards completing what I planned with blogging, having an author website, designing book covers, reformatting my five crime novels and posting on social media. I’m going to put in a couple of weeks of 12-hour days, to ready things for launching the first two stories in mid-July.

Although it’s taken thousands of hours of work to get to this point, I’m truly not expecting anything much to happen. I’m not a celebrity who’s chosen to write a book (or have it written for them), so I’ve no free promotion that way.

I’m just a nobody trying to be a somebody.

What might help raise my profile, is to do interviews with the local press and radio stations, which I’m loath to do, but needs must when the devil drives. EMOJI Cornwall Libraries have a policy of buying books by Cornish authors and those set in the county, so I’ll make some sales that way (including eBooks) as well as introduce local readers to my name.

What problems have you faced in self-promoting and self-publishing?

What worked for you?

And, what was a waste of time and money?

If anyone needs advice on what I’ve written about in this post, please contact me (before my brain melts).

I might have made the mistakes, so you don’t have to.

Book Pricing—Perceived Value

This article is worth a look, especially if you’re considering self-publishing your book:

You might well think, that the less you ask for your ebook, the more copies you’ll sell, but that isn’t necessarily so. Shoppers for all types of goods, from books to wine to cars, have pre-determined limits on what they want to spend. They equate the price with the quality of the product—they want to spend £7.99 on a paperback, which is a big saving on the £15.99 asking price of the hardback—and they’re not going to demean themselves by looking in the charity shop, where the best-selling title they’re after is available for £1.00.

Wine lovers are price-driven, however much of an expert they claim to be. I’ve known many car and motorcycle dealers who were amazed at how few buyers haggle over the price of the vehicle. They’ve saved £10,000 and that’s what they want to spend, or that’s what they’ve calculated they can afford in repayments if they’re buying on a finance plan.

I’ve attended two business start-up courses, set ten years apart, where the tutors both told the story of a baker who made a disastrous price change to his sausage rolls. His were an inch longer than his only competitor in town but priced at 25p more, so he dropped the asking price to one penny less that his rival, thinking to boost sales, in a more for less way. Sales plummeted, as customers liked paying that bit more for what they saw as a luxury product…they were treating themselves. I don’t know if this baker ever really existed, but he lives on in business studies.

I’m intending to launch my Cornish Detective series of crime novels this summer, so have been pondering pricing, while scurrying around trying to understand blogging and social media posting to create my author platform. I’ve praised James Oswald several times on this blog for his success story with crime writing. Oswald went from not selling many copies of his fantasy fiction, to writing detective stories set in Edinburgh, which he sold online, shifting 150,000 downloads in nine months. This led to Penguin offering him a six-figure advance. He’s been a best-selling author ever since.

When he started publishing online, James Oswald copied a trick from an Australian science fiction author called Simon Haynes who made the first book in the series free. James Oswald said:

The idea was that they could try it, and if they liked it they could pay me money for the rest of them.

A lot of people have asked me for information about how I did this, as they want to do it themselves. I always ask them how many books they’ve written, and it’s almost invariably just the one.

There is no point giving away your first book in a series if the next one isn’t immediately available (and ideally a few more as well).

If people like your work, they will want more, and they will want it now. By the time you’ve written and published the next book in the series, they’ll have forgotten you and moved on to the next thing.

I’m going to copy James Oswald copying of Simon Haynes, by offering my first novel Who Kills A Nudist? for free—accompanied by promotion of the rest of the series (four more books already written and ready to go) + links to my online presence on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and my blog.

Quite how attractive crime fans will find this offer, I’ve no way of predicting. I feel like a one-man band at the moment, making up tunes as I go along, about to fall off my unicycle!

Pricing books makes me think of how drug dealers and casinos get their customers hooked—give them a freebie, then jack the price up! Will anyone get addicted to my books? 

How do you decide on what to charge for your books?

Have you found a sweet spot where the asking price generates more sales?

Do you use special offers?

DNA discovery

Crime writers, in particular, will be interested in a startling discovery about DNA, which has been shown to be highly mobile, migrating between objects in previously unimagined ways. Instead of DNA being undeniable evidence that a suspect committed a crime, it could just be that skin cells and bodily fluids were transferred by touching a door handle that hundreds of others later touch.

This could potentially affect us all. Say, for example, that you sneeze while walking along a street. You can’t see it, but some of your sputum attaches itself to a lamppost, which a passerby brushes against, picking up your DNA on her dress. She is murdered that night—your DNA is on her dress. So what, you say, “I’m not a criminal, no one has my DNA on file from a previous conviction.” But unbeknownst to you, your cousin submitted a sample of their DNA to an ancestry tracing service which shares their data with law authorities, and there are enough similarities for you to be arrested! Have you got a provable alibi?

It’s not as if the police are operating with a clean slate. A British forensic researcher found DNA on three-quarters of crime scene tools he tested, including cameras, measuring tapes and gloves, making evidence discovered at a crime scene highly unreliable.

I predict that there will be hundreds of appeals against convictions based on DNA evidence, as a result of this revelation.

Only the Lone Ranger had silver bullets.

The Detective as Shaman

Crime writer P.D. James reckoned that:

‘What the detective story is about is not murder but the restoration of order.’

Her observation is something that I’ve kept in the back of my mind when writing my own Cornish Detective series.

My protagonist detective is as much a healer as he is an avenger. But, he’s considerably more vengeful than his boss, the Chief Constable, who worries about the image of the force. He’s willing to cover up investigative failures if it prevents holidaymakers from being scared off from visiting Cornwall, which depends on tourism for much of its income.

I’ve been confident about the stance of my protagonist, who is an unusual character, while still fretting a bit that he’s too freaky and also that he’s a bit boring. I rationalised this, by remembering that villains, the antagonists, are always easier and more fun to write. Also, even if I’ve written a truly frightening fight scene, it’s not going to scare me as I know exactly what happens!

It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d created a protagonist who’s in good fictional company. The article is written by crime novelist Jason Webster, whose Spanish detective Max Cámara is an unorthodox character. Webster is a maverick author, at least so far as Fatal Sunset, the sixth story in his series goes, for he seemingly kills his hero on the last page—leaving a mystifying cliffhanger, which made me eager to read the next novel to see how he gets out of it. It’s a useful technique, for it made me remember the author’s name more than if all of the loose ends had been neatly tied.

Image result for webster Fatal Sunset,

Webster makes some wise observations about what function a detective serves:

If nothing else, he (and, later, she) is a problem-solver; someone who can restore order where there is chaos. Faced with the worst crime (what could be more existentially troubling than a murder?), the detective gives us answers to the most pressing and urgent questions: not only whodunit, but how and why and what it means. He does all this by taking us on a journey, discovering pieces of evidence, seeking out hints and clues. In the best examples of this game, we see everything that the detective sees, yet we are unable to solve the crime ourselves. Only the detective, in a final display of mastery, can reach the correct conclusion. We need him, with his special knowledge and abilities, to make sense of it all.

In other words, a detective is a kind of priest. Throughout history, priestly castes have boasted a unique capacity to answer the great riddles of existence….’

My detective hero is a very wealthy man, owing to an inheritance, and he’s also a son of a farmer locked into the moods of nature. His love of art, music, books and the countryside keeps him sane, but he’s definitely weird when compared to the typical drug and booze abusing detective or private investigator, who also gambles and womanises. My protagonist is left-wing or liberal, believes in a Green approach to living and is Bohemian in nature from his love of art. He doesn’t smoke, do drugs and rarely drinks alcohol. He was also celibate for eight years, following the death of his wife, though I gave him a sex life in the latest story.

I deliberately wanted to create a different type of detective, not that I dislike the hard-boiled tough guy coppers, but they’re better suited to city locations. My stories are set in Cornwall, featuring dark and dirty deeds—poisoning, cannibalism, human trafficking, BDSM, illegal abattoirs and murder as a roleplaying game—but my hero solves the crimes using his cunning and intelligence.

Inadvertently, I’ve written stories that fit into a subgenre of crime writing known as Country Noir or Rural Noirwhich is alright with me, for I’d rather create tales that scare the reader, than pen comfortable cosies they can enjoy on the beach; there’s nothing cosy about murder!

Thinking about famous fictional detectives, characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey and private investigators like Philip Marlowe and Dick Tracy, they share the trait of being recognisable by their appearance, in the same way that founts of wisdom such as Gandhi, the Buddha, Confucius, Mother Teresa, Einstein, Steve Jobs and Stephen Hawking all have an appearance that lends itself to being instantly identifiable, even in silhouette.

It’s certainly something to consider when describing the looks of your own detective protagonist.

Even rough diamonds can take on the role of priest, healer and shaman. I read a dozen Walter Mosley detective novels last year, and the heroes of his two main series of books, Easy Rawlins and Leonid McGill are both street tough brawlers, but they’re also well-educated and have a social conscience, going out of their way to help the downtrodden victims of the crimes they’re investigating. That’s not to say that they won’t take any casual sex that’s offered to them, or put a bullet in the head of a baddy, as that’s more justice than handing him over to the law.

They both remind me of the proverb quoted by Theodore Roosevelt when referring to American foreign policy: Speak softly and carry a big stick.

If you write crime stories, what kind of detective do they feature?

If you read crime novels, who are your favourite detectives?







Plot Development

I spent most of 2014 writing my first novel, called ‘The Perfect Murderer’. It’s about a serial killer, a veteran soldier who has become a player in real life role-playing game where the victims are really killed. His activities awaken the hibernating bloodlust of a psychopathic murderer, a man who is a respected member of the establishment. He would never be suspected of being homicidal, even though he’s killed once a year for forty years. The moral twist is, that the people he killed were all hardened criminals – so it could be argued that he’s been making society safer.

I started my writing with a loose and adaptable storyline. I didn’t want too rigid a plot, as I knew from previous experience that characters in a story can sometimes behave in ways that one can’t predict. I also reckoned that I’d be learning a lot about my subject matter as I went along, which might alter the narrative. The story involved a massive amount of research, including psychopathy, forensic pathology, police procedure, post-traumatic stress disorder, the conflict in Serbia and self-identity and personality.

I wasn’t sure how long the novel would be and didn’t have a specific target to reach. Mind you, it was still a milestone to pass the 100,000-word mark, though that made me wonder quite how far I had left to go! I anticipated that I’d end up at about 150,000 words. I was right, though, after the climax of the hunt for the killer, I soon realised that my story had left a lot of characters’ fates unexplained, including several undiscovered corpses.

This can be a stumbling block with murder mysteries. There are at least two unidentified bodies in ‘The Maltese Falcon’, though they were dismissed as red herrings. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to add an afterword which added another 18,000 words. This felt fitting and right, as I’ve always been a bit disappointed when a thriller simply ends as soon as the villain is dispatched.

It was more of a coda to the main part of the story, and it gives the reader some comfort about what becomes of the investigators after their harrowing experiences. It was rather discombobulating to finish, mainly because I wasn’t quite sure if the whole thing worked as a tale that would engage a reader’s attention. I’d varied the pace of the action, offering different points-of-view from the detectives and killers, thrown in a few dead ends and sprinkled several of my own red herrings around – but did it work as a crime story with psychological twists?

This was impossible for me to judge, for, after all, I knew what happened next! Although I did a lot of editing as I went along, I still devoted ten weeks to going over everything with a fine tooth comb. When one examines any piece of art in this microscopic way, it ceases to be what it is to a consumer who’s enjoying it at face value and becomes more of a tiresome obstacle course. I was appalled by what I’d missed, particularly in repeating nouns and verbs. The search function in Open Office Writer helped to identify these, though I was still uncertain about how well the plot developed and flowed.

While prowling the literary blogs recently, I came across one by Natalie M Lakosil of the Bradford Literary Agency. One of her postings on ‘Adventures In Agent Land’ is about plot development, and is well worth a look. In fact, she offers really useful practical advice for any writer.

I was pleased to see, from a graph that she included, that the storyline of my novel conformed to what is reckoned to be the approved pattern.

This find was reassuring, and her dot method of judging the ebb and flow of a story is a useful tool to use. I’m still not sure how well my novel works as a reading experience, but I have a trusted and wise first reader who is currently working her way through it, and she says that it’s “gripping.” I am grateful for her assistance, as she’s pointed out several errors that needed straightening out in grammar and punctuation.

Writing, then editing a novel really is a case of not being able to see the wood for the trees.


Writers In Their Garrets

At the risk of becoming a doom-and-gloom monger with my postings about how tough it is to be a writer, try this link for truth:

The Poor Poet by Carl Spitzweg

Unfortunately, and without exaggerating, my living circumstances are not that dissimilar to the poor poet in Carl Spitzweg’s atmospheric painting. I live in a roof space flat which has sloping walls, above a petrol-station shop and next to the flight path for an airport. It’s the noisiest and most dangerous place that I’ve lived in. To be able to concentrate on my creative writing, I wear earbuds all of the time that pipe music from 750 albums saved to the hard drive of my laptop. Listening to music, where I know what sound is coming next, is preferable to being startled by the bangs and crashes from the garage next door. I’m perverse enough to be able to do this …

I haven’t needed to resort to an umbrella to keep out the rain, but I do wear enough clothing in winter to resemble the Michelin Man, even in bed when the temperature descends to 39F/4C. Rats running in the wall was a low point….

Carl Spizweg was a romanticist painter, who came from a wealthy background. His paintings are charming, and lure the viewer into a moment in time making you wonder what happens next. I’m sure that we all feel for the precarious position of the reader in the painting ‘The Bookworm’ below, who looks to be too engrossed in what he’s reading for his own safety.