Modern crime writing

A lot of crime writers bemoan the modern era of smart phones, Google, Facebook and everything else that conspires to change the face of crime and detection. Some even go so far as to write retro-crime setting their books in a past period.

The changing face of crime

This link shows how much technology is changing criminal behaviour. To summarise, in about twenty years, the number of bank robberies in the UK dropped by around 90%. From better CCTV to screens that rise in under a second to smart water, the advantage has swung firmly towards the banks. If you add in the rise of internet banking meaning that there are fewer branches carrying less cash, you can see why the traditional bank hold-up is consigned to history.

Of course, criminals have never stopped wanting to separate people from their money. Much crime now is moving online. The last successful bank robbery I read about involved distracting a bank worker and attaching hardware to their computer terminal. This then interrupted network traffic and diverted money away from the rightful owners to the criminals’ accounts. Obviously this is a far cry from a traditional robbery and needed a lot of technical skill.

I’m catching up on a series (DI Tom Thorne by Mark Billingham) so currently I’m reading a book written in 2004. To me that doesn’t feel very long ago, but already we’ve had a video rental store owner talking about Blockbuster and complaining that no-one rewinds their rental tapes!

The only advice I think I’ve got is that you have to pick a date, write in that date and stick to your guns. If it appears dated later on, well you’d have to be thankful that people are still reading it and also just say that it adds authentic feeling to the piece!

The changing face of detection

The other side of the coin, the police service, is always changing too. I had a realisation the other day – the time when a lone Detective Inspector could solve a crime has passed. The image of an Inspector Morse figure driving around a classic car, listening to opera and solving crimes is as outdated as a bank robbery by men with stockings over their faces and sawn off shotguns!

Murders, especially serial killings, are now solved by Major Investigation Teams. There will be a senior officer at the helm, but he or she will be aided by a large team of both police and civilian helpers. Some TV programs (like Scott and Bailey) focus really well on the personal stories of a small number of protagonists, while still keeping the ensemble feel of a modern investigation.

In my Jonah Greene series, without realising I was doing it, I’ve found my own way around this problem so far. In the first book the death is not treated as suspicious, so a full MIT is not called together, leaving the protagonist to work on his own.

Now I’ve seen the problem, I am working on other ways to keep writing in the modern world but to keep the focus tight on a few major characters. But, for the minute, I’d like to keep my powder dry on those!

What do you think? Do you prefer really authentic modern crime novels? Or are you happier to delve into the past where it’s all more understandable?

Where do you get your ideas from?

This must be one of the most common questions that writers get asked, so I thought I’d have a go at answering it.

Training Inspiration

I believe the brain is capable of being trained even in something as nebulous as creativity. I can’t find the quote now, but someone said “I write whenever my muse strikes, and I make sure that happens at nine every morning.” Let me explain a bit. I write crime mysteries. So, I pay attention the news. I scan the headlines. If I see something that piques my interest, I record it or buy the newspaper. I see what’s going on the world of the police, how real crimes unfold. I started off making it a conscious process, now it’s become second nature. It also helps that I have an enquiring nature and tend to look up and check anything I find interesting in case it comes in useful later.

A bit here and a bit there

Secondly, I don’t think I’ve ever had a flash of divine inspiration that allows for a whole book to be written. Instead I think of ideas. Sometimes it’s characters. I have had what I call a Harry Potter moment where a complete character arrives in my head. Other times, I indulge in playing “What if?”. My main interest in writing is asking “what happens next?”. If I read a book or watch a film, my brain keeps running another fifteen or twenty years past the end to imagine what would happen to those characters. It’s probably why a lot of my books feature the “what happened 20 or 25 or 30 years ago” style of plots.

I do keep notes (probably not as well as I could) about all these ideas. At the moment I’ve got a character that I’ve matched up with a crime for them to solve. I also have a really gruesome series of murders that would make a fantastic book, but at the moment I haven’t got a detective in mind to solve them! And I’m aware, because of the idea, it would be quite a departure from my usual style, so I don’t (at the moment) want to make it one of my current series. So, that idea is parked for now. I’m sure I’ll come back to it.

The same applies to characters. I collect traits of both appearance and personality (and sometimes phobias) – some are observed in people, others just come to mind. Then I combine them together in (hopefully) interesting ways that people can’t recognise in my friends(!)

Actually writing the book

As I’ve said before, I’m a great believer in planning. Partly that’s because I have a very busy life and with a solid plan, I can drop in and out of a draft. I can actually write as little as a few hundred words every day without losing track of what’s going on.

When I have a decent main character matched up with an interesting crime, I try to put it into a plot. I need at least two crisis points, some major setbacks and some breakthroughs. I check I’ve got a decent antagonist who the reader can understand if not agree with. Also needed at this stage is a strong cast of supporting actors and some good locations too. Plus a something extra to make it stand out from the crowd!

So, that’s where my ideas come from. I think I’m very fortunate in that I seem to have too many ideas. Well, fortunate in some ways – it is also very tiring! But at least I can skip over those courses and blog posts that suggest ways of generating ideas. For me it’s more a case of marshalling and herding the ideas into sensible patterns that make good books.

I know I have writer friends who read this blog. How do you get your ideas?

A blog post about blogging

So, once I got a publishing contract, I thought I’d better sort out my social media presence. What that means is blogging and tweeting on a regular schedule so that when my launch date rolls around (about six months give or take) I’d have some people to launch to.

Part of this plan was to publish a parenting blog post every Tuesday lunchtime and a writing post every Thursday lunchtime. Obviously, it’s now Friday morning and I’m still writing yesterday’s post.

Mind you, this is not all bad news. Now that I realise that people actually want to read what I write, my self-confidence has improved. I went back to Scrivener (a bit like MS Word but designed by authors to write books in) and found, to my surprise, that the sequel to the list actually had a structure and a few thousand words. I’d actually started in on it, before I got disheartened by the rejections, then forgot totally that I’d done it!

Anyway, the point I was trying to come around to is that my blog always suffers when I’m writing. And this week is no exception. I’ve whipped the outline for the List sequel into shape and now have a writing plan laid out.

The bad news is, I’m late with this blog. The good news is that the sequel has already grown by over 3,500 words since Monday.

I’m also learning about marketing as I go through the process to publication. One of the (more obvious) conclusions is that my digital output (Facebook, Twitter, here, etc.) should all have the aim of attracting and engaging readers. Now, the thing is that I love the process of writing, of plotting, of telling a story. That’s pretty much what this blog has been about so far.

So, I’m going to experiment. I’ll try steering more towards talking about the content of my books, the settings and characters. If I come across interesting facts in my research, I’ll use those for a blog post. Basically, gently move it in a more reader focused direction.

And, of course, comments are always very welcome, let me know what you’d like to see!

Anatomy of a Near Miss

The life of a writer is a weird one. I plot out in advance of actually writing. I’ve never recorded my time, but I’d guess that staring at a blank page, typing fresh words is probably only 20-30% of the time I dedicate to creating a book.

What do I do the rest of the time? It is split between planning it out before the first draft and editing and polishing it afterwards.

If you read my other blog, The Penguin’s Knee, you’ll know that I’m also a house-husband. This involves housework, shopping, driving and other tasks that don’t engage a lot of my brain. So I daydream. This is where my plots and characters come from. The journeys which feature me thinking, what if? (My boys are all school age, so a lot of my time is my own. I don’t day-dream when I’m with the children.) What if you had a character like this? How would they react if this happened to them? On and on.

Anyway, I’m currently finalising the plan for my sequel to The List. This is a police based crime novel set in South Wales. The protagonist, DS Jonah Greene works in Cardiff. But for this novel I wanted to branch out and decided to set it up in the Brecon Beacons. I was at the stage of having more than 30 scenes plotted out, and a good idea of the ending.

When the thought struck me. Are the Brecons in South Wales Police area? Thankfully, I now work in the age of Google. Unfortunately I was right – most of the Brecon Beacons fall under the auspices of Dyfed Powys Police. But, because I had an outline, not a first draft, I was able to catch it. And add a new layer of complexity with inter-force co-operation and all the conflict that implies!

So, that’s what put my schedule back by a week, but (hopefully) made the book a bit better!

That being said, I ought to go back to polishing the plan ready to start writing new words next week.

 

 

Crafting a story

I’m a firm believer that writing is a craft. IMHO it has skills that can not only be learnt, but also honed through practice. The analogy I use most often is that writing is a bit like carpentry. I refer to my early books as “slightly wonky tables” as I was practising when I wrote them. Actually the later ones are more like perfectly functional tables that work but aren’t sufficiently accomplished or special for publication.

Anyway, one thing that arises from this is a source of friction between me and The Wife. I tend to watch a film or read a book and consciously notice the salient points. Like who the protagonist is, where they meet their conflicts in the story, how the writer avoids it all being formulaic. For me this is like looking at a cabinet, and not only admiring it, but also looking at the quality of the joints, the choice of woods and appreciating how it was made. But I’ve learned not to point any of this out to The Wife while we’re in the middle of a film!

I mention films a lot because the books that I’ve found most useful on story structure come from the world of screen-writing. They are quite easy to translate into novel format because they work with the basics of story telling that have been true for thousands of years.

As an example, I went to see Logan last night. I won’t review it here as it’s only just out and I’ll try to avoid spoilers! But, I noticed straight away that it was very nicely written. We got straight to the protagonist, established what his life was like, and within the first 25% of the film we were sure what his objective was and who the bad guy was. What I liked was that the writers gave Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart plenty of time to be their characters. When we were between action sequences (it is a superhero film) they could just do what they do best with a good script. Even the side plots were all neatly dovetailed in together by the end.

One reason it avoided being formulaic was by breaking the mould of a strict structure. For example was that there was one consistent bad guy, and antagonist. But throughout the film, he gained depth. He brought in new associates and his boss turned up as well. It wasn’t just Wolverine vs Bad Guy for two hours – his adversaries, while maintaining a clarity of purpose, changed and evolved.

So that’s an example of how I view a film. Of course, I enjoy it very much. I love being told a good story and seeing actors work their craft in concert with everyone else, directors, writers, producers, etc. But I also like to see behind the scenes, watch the cogs turn and learn what I can.

Being a house husband I (sometimes) have my days free. Recently I’ve been making more of an effort to switch off Facebook and go through the DVD collection and actively watch a film to study how it was written.

How do you approach this subject? Do you just get an idea and write or do you plot? How actively do you watch films and/or read books? Please comment below – I’d love to know what my readers think!