- Val McDermid
- Linda LaPlante
- Colin Dexter
- Minette Walters
- Nicci French
- Mark Billingham
- Ian Rankin
- RJ Ellory
- Barbara Vine
- Robert Crais
- Harlan Coben
- Linwood Barclay
- Michael Connelly
- George Pelecanos
- Carl Hiaasen
- Sarah Paretsky
- Patricia Cornwell
- Kathy Reichs
- Elmore Leonard
Having done my reading, I started to think through what I’d read. Everything involved a crime and some kind of investigation, but that still left a million possible variations. Was the protagonist a cop or not? Was the tale first person or third? One viewpoint or many? Was romance a significant element? What about humour? How about forensic science? Morality? Was the book elegantly written or potboilerish? Was it more thriller or more crossword-puzzle style mystery? How violent?
Because I’m built that way, I created a spreadsheet and analysed my results. The spreadsheet didn’t spit out a Formula For Writing Bestsellers – and I didn’t want it to. But the exercise did help me understand what I wanted to write, and the directions I thought the Well Known Figure would be well advised to travel in. As it happened, that ghostwriting assignment never happened (or not with me anyway), so I was left with a headful of ideas and no obvious outlet for them.
Though I hadn’t previously been a crime-buff, I couldn’t get these ideas out of my head. After all, the crime tale is just a format around which to tell a story. The genre doesn’t need to be limiting – or at least, no more limiting to the artist than the sonnet-form or the iambic pentameter. And in among the stuff I read, there were some really, really good books. Some of them were inspirational in fact.
The kind of book I realised I wanted to write needed a really strong central character. A character so vibrant, so intense and mysterious, that the books would be as much about her as about the crimes themselves. (Oh, and why her? Well, I’ll talk about that in a later post, but my detective was a woman from the very first.)
Other questions soon answered themselves too:
- I wanted to avoid a crude moral approach, where every killer must be a sick bastard and where cops spend their time telling each other ‘Let’s put the sick bastard away.’
- I wanted my novels to be dark, but for that darkness to come from mood and tone, not a splatter of gore.
- I wanted my books to have a warm human heart: I wanted my central character to have some sustained, close, loving relationships – not merely be the compulsory heavy drinking loner.
- Oh, and I also decided that my detective would kick against the stereotypes. Instead of being a middle-aged, male, single, boozer, I’d have her young, female, keen to enter a relationship and a non-smoking teetotaller.
- I wanted my book to have a strong sense of place and to say something about the wider society.
- I wanted my book to be a proper crime novel: fully inhabiting its genre, unafraid to participate fully in its rules and conventions.
And I think, in a way, my experience answers that age-old question: do you write for the market or do you write the book you’re passionate about? And the answer is: Both! You have to do both! If you aren’t passionate, you’ll write a rubbish book. If you don’t have a feel for contemporary writers in your area, you’ll be missing the argument. Oh - and now that I've started reading crime again, I haven't stopped. It's where the juice is!