How to Write Crime Fiction - Part Seven: Tips for Better Writing
by Kelvin Jones
Using Maps and Sketches for Better Writing
Sketches of key locations and interiors are a safeguard against mistakes and sometimes suggest plot developments. When you write that Fred escaped through the bathroom window at the rear of the manor house and ran to the village without meeting a soul, your reader might recall that Mrs Greenfinger's vegetable garden adjoined the path he took, and that Mr Snoop was prone to lurk by her hedge in the hope of glimpsing her frisky niece. A sketch map would remind you that Fred must detour to escape unseen.
Calmer scenes present pitfalls, too. When Mrs Scribbler settles down to write a letter, her desk had better be in the same room as the last time she used it or a lot of puzzled readers are going to wonder why. Mistakes of this nature aren't peculiar to the novice: a celebrated author of detective stories moved an important piece of furniture from one room to another without mention of removals men. But with a few sketches pinned to your wall and a Record at your elbow, you can skirt trouble.
Know your Facts when Writing Historical Crime
In recent decades, there has been something of an avalanche of historical crime fiction. Perhaps the most memorable of these is the late Ellis Peters' Cadfael novels, which depict a twelfth century monk and ex-soldier of the Holy Lands who has turned to growing herbs and solving crime in the Benedictine Abbey at Shrewsbury. The Cadfael novels are among the best of this genre and are essentially whodunits set against a meticulously researched historical background. The Victorian age is also much loved by historical crime writers and one of the best proponents of this tradition is Peter Lovesey, who invented the Victorian detective, Sergeant Cribb. The novice writer should be warned that for this type of novel to succeed, it must not only tell a first rate story but the historical facts must be accurate in every detail! My own Sherlock Holmes pastiches are rooted in historical detail of the 1880s but are much more graphic than the original Conan Doyle stories.
Examples: Ellis Peters: The Potter's Field
Peter Lovesey: The Detective Wore Silk Drawers
Kelvin I Jones: Sherlock Holmes & The Plagues of London
Start Writing the Book
All the preparatory work has been done, and the synopsis is ready. The time has arrived to get down to the business of writing the book. As a physical task, it is demanding. A great deal of effort is required to produce a typescript of 60,000 words or more, no matter what mechanical aid is to hand. A blank page with nothing but `Page 1, Chapter 1' at the top is a daunting sight, and the sheer number of words waiting to be written can seem depressing. Such thoughts have to be put aside and a start made.
Tips to Developing a Good Writing Style
The basis of good writing is knowledge of language. All craftsmen have tools, and need to learn how to use them and how to keep them in good condition.
Language is the writer's tool. To use it, you must have a grounding in syntax and punctuation, and a wide vocabulary. Keeping the tool in good condition is a matter of practice in using words to convey your ideas, learning by trial and error what is readable and what is not, and the ruthless application of cutting.
Every writer develops their own style, suitable to the sort of book they write. Essentially, this has to be a personal style of writing, not a copy of someone else's style. Write as the words come naturally to you.
Try to develop a simple, clear style: keep sentences short; and never use a long word where a short one will do.
The Need to Cut out Scenes
All fledgling writers are so happy to find that they have the ability to string words together that they wallow in it. The result is a terrifying prolixity. The first thing is to learn how to cut, to shape the prose so that the words form a pattern that is a pleasure to read. Good writing is pared to the bone and polished so that exactly the right word is used.
Better Writing and Repetition of Words
The too-frequent use of a word makes prose boring. A well-worn but still useful tip is not to use a word more than once in any five lines. Obviously, this does not refer to the ands and buts, nor to the parts of verbs which form the structure of a sentence, but to nouns, adjectives, and descriptive verbs. For example: There was nothing we could do. The entrance was blocked. No way in, and, for us, no way out, until the entrance was cleared.
The repetition of the word `entrance' jars. There is no good reason why the word should be used twice. `Gateway', `passage' or `exit' would fit in equally well, and would not disturb the flow of the prose.
However, repetition of a word or phrase can be used to create dramatic effect. For example: `It was a pretty little lane, with a pretty little house at the end of it, which should have been full of pretty little people.'
Here the repetition is used deliberately to build up to a climax, almost certainly nasty, with something in the house which is distinctly neither pretty nor little.
Keep in Mind the Following while Writing
- The "engine" of your story needs to be turned on as close to the beginning as possible. The "engine" is the point at which a story involves the reader, the place at which the reader -can't stop reading.
- Keep the action visible on stage as much as you can.
- Don't mark time; move the story relentlessly.
- Is your hero or heroine actively doing something rather than being done to?
- Substitute concrete detail for abstractions and generalizations.
- Use surprise such as an unexpected obstacle to create suspense.
- In dialogue, change perfectly formed sentences.
- Break up long speeches.
- Make exchanges of dialogue provocative, argumentative, combative.
- Characterize through speech. Give different characters different speech patterns.
- Have something visual on every page.
- Don't tell us how your characters feel. Let the reader draw his conclusions from what each character says or does.
- Don't resolve problems too quickly. It kills suspense.
- Are you working on the emotions of the reader?
- Are the obstacles facing the protagonist getting tougher as the story progresses?
- Have you put your characters under stress?
- Is their dialogue more revealing under stress?
- Are you sticking to a consistent point of view?
See the rest of Kelvin’s Blog post on how to write crime fiction here.
Kelvin I. Jones has been a prolific UK crime and supernatural fantasy writer for over a quarter of a century. Born in Kent in 1948, he is equally at home writing poetry, plays and novels. He has published six books about Sherlock Holmes and the only definitive study of Conan Doyle’s interest in spiritualism, as well as numerous articles about the Victorian detective (see R De Waal's Universal Sherlock Holmes, online edition, 2000). Ed Hoch, the renowned American crime writer, has said of his Sherlockian work: “Kelvin I Jones reveals a sensibility and knowledge of 19th Century literature that extends far beyond the world of Sherlock Holmes.' He is the author of the Stone Dead series, featuring the intrepid Cornish detective, John Bottrell, and the Inspector Ketch stories, which are set in Norfolk.
Recent publications: Sherlock Holmes: The Plagues of London, Sherlock Holmes: The Baskerville Papers, A Dogged Detective (DCI Ketch), A Grave For The Goddess (John Bottrell).
Kelvin Jones has a new book coming out called Headbanger, an Inspector Ketch Murder Mystery
A controversial, graphic and often disturbing account of how Sherlock Holmes, the archetypal detective, discovered the identity of Jack The Ripper, the killer who stalked Whitechapel in 1888. Based on newly discovered journals of his intimate friend, Doctor Watson, confidential Scotland Yard files, plus the intimate and revealing diaries of Dr Watson's second wife, the novel shows a view of Victorian London which peels away the layers of respectability and reveals society just as violent, exploitative and prurient as our own.