04 June 2012

How Do You Write a Crime Novel?

Jan GrapeAt the recent book signing I did at The Book Spot in Round Rock, TX I asked the usual question first myself, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’ll give you my answer at little later in this article. But I want share some cool information about writing that I just read today. There’s a group blog, much like ours except this one is specifically written by Maine Crime Writers. I asked my friend Kate Flora who is one of the bloggers for that group if I could “steal” some of the info and she gave me permission as long as I credit it and send her a link to my blog. I readily agreed.

The first is by Kaitlyn Dunnet who starts a new group topic and the others in their group respond.

Kaitlyn: “Writers often compare writing a novel to something non-writers can more easily understand. The analogy I used to use when talking to school children was baking a cake. You mix together basic ingredients. In the case of a cake these are flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, shortening, milk, vanilla, and eggs.
With a mystery novel you have plot, setting, a crime, a protagonist (sleuth), a villain, secondary characters (suspects and sidekicks), conflict (which includes suspense), and a subplot. After you put all these things together, you put them in a pan and bake them. When the timer dings, you take a look and see what you’ve got. If the cake fell, you may have to start over. Even if it looks okay, it still has to pass the taste test. And even if it tastes okay, you still need to ice the cake to make it special. That’s the revision process, during which you expand, find perfect details to add, and so on.”

Back to Jan: What a wonderful analogy. I read this and was duly impressed. She goes on to compare writing also with putting together a puzzle. And now more from these talented writers.

Lea Wait: “One of your analogies is also mine, Kaitlyn : the enormous picture puzzle. In my case I say the author has to make up all the pieces: the characters, the time, the place, even the weather, the year, the costumes, the clues … and that sometimes, even though a whole group of puzzle pieces fit together just right … they don’t fit with the other pieces, so the author has to be brutal, and push the whole group off the table and let the dog (or the baby sister) chew on them, and start again. I think that’s especially important with historicals, since so much research goes into the planning stages, but even in contemporary mysteries, backstories, forensics, time of year, current events — all have to fit together to have the puzzle (= novel) work. Since I’m the sort of writer who plans 80% of her mystery ahead of time, that all makes sense. I suspect those writers who don’t plan further than a chapter ahead would have very different analogies in explaining how they write!”

Kate Flora: “I have to confess that I have never tried to explain the process in the ways that you ladies have. When readers ask me how I plot, I tell them how the book often begins with a character in a situation, and having to face the challenge of understanding who they are and why they are in that particular situation. Then I go on to talk about the prewriting phase of the book, what I call the “cooking” phase, where I carry the story around in my head, working it the way you’d knead dough, until I understand the major pieces of my plot: who was killed, where they were killed, how they were killed, why they were killed, who did it, who might have done it or might have wanted to do it, who will be the holders/divulgers of essential information, and how my protagonist is the right person to solve that crime.
When I’m writing about my cops solving a crime, I very often use the analogy of putting together the puzzle–finding all the pieces, building the frame, and finally finding a way to put all of those pieces together. I also use the image of the old paint-by-number set. (I don’t know if they have those anymore.) The detective will fill in dabs of this color and that, and gradually, a picture of what really happens will emerge. This one is good because it ties into something quite essential about detective work–that it requires the detective to use his or her imagination, along with the gathered facts and knowledge of the parties, to come to an understanding of what probably happened.”

Barb Ross: “I use E. L. Doctorow’s quote all the time, ‘Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ Because that’s how writing feels to ME.
When I’m trying to describe it to other people, I used to go with the whole pottery metaphor. First you make the clay (first draft) and then you make the pot. But lately, watching my sister-in-law who works in a high-end knitting store, I’ve gone much more with the first draft being like spinning the yarn and the rest being like knitting. I remember as a child watching my mother knitting argyle socks, with all the little spools of color. Somehow, it has to come out with both a pattern AND a shape. And, sometimes you have to rip out rows and rows to get back to the mistake and knit that part over.”

Kate Flora: (once again)…“I often use a different knitting analogy which also brings in my legal background–that writing a mystery, like writing a brief, is like knitting a complex pattern with several colors of yarn, and having to carry one strand in the back while you work on a different part of the pattern, then bringing it forward again. I’m awful at knitting. Was reasonably good at writing briefs, and am grateful that the ripping out and rewrite doesn’t involve actual stitches.”

Paul Doiron: “’Writing a crime novel is like playing a piece of music written for the cello.’ So says Yo-Yo Ma. I know absolutely nothing about classical music and cannot even carry a tune, but I’m reading a book called Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer, and I was taken by his chapter on Yo-Yo Ma’s creative process. ‘Perfection is not very communicative,’ says Ma. ‘If you are only worried about not making a mistake, then you will communicate nothing. You will have missed the point of making music, which is to make people feel something.’
Ma then describes how the search for emotion shapes his performance. ‘I always look at a piece of music like a detective novel,’ he says. ‘Maybe the novel is about a murder. Well, who committed the murder? Why did he do it? My job is to retrace the story so that the audience feels the suspense. So that when the climax comes, they’re right there with me, listening to my beautiful detective story. It’s all about making people care what happens next.’
“Of course, all of us on the MCW blog actually write detective stories, but it’s intriguing to think of ourselves in the reverse way. Aren’t we all musicians, too? When we write, aren’t we’re on stage, performing, trying to connect? We want our audience to feel something. I love Ma’s line about not worrying making a mistake. I, too, try to cultivate a certain recklessness in my work because I want my readers to feel emotions when they immerse themselves in my novels. I’d rather take big chances and fail than write neat little books that are safely structured, carefully conceived from beginning to end—and instantly forgotten as soon as the reader finishes the last page.”

Okay, Jan again: Wow, did I learn a lot here, sharper minds than mine have created some fantastic visuals to explain what we do. I’ve never really been able to explain it myself. I do know that most of the time, I “hear people in my head talking,” and somehow that translates into something I think is going to be a story or a book. Often it’s one or two or three people arguing about something and I have to find out who or why and how come? I also know that I can’t outline a book before I start. If I do, then I lose the “flavor or juice” and it becomes boring. I do sometimes sort of think about and write notes about upcoming chapters after I get about halfway into the book. But not always.

And back to my opening of where do I get ideas: On Friday night before my signing on Saturday, I was sitting on my sofa watching television. Suddenly I heard a very loud report that sounded to me like a gunshot. I don’t know much about guns but this had that deep-throated ka-pow like a heavy caliber weapon. I checked the time, 10:55. After about a 10 second debate with the cats, I called 911 and reported what I heard. The shot sounded like it came west of my house, maybe a block or less away. County Sheriff’s dispatch said they’d check it out and did I want to officer to report to me. I said, only if necessary.

I didn’t want some bad guy finding out where I lived if the officer came to my house. Nothing happened until shortly after midnight. There were four or five more shots, sounding a lot like a gun battle or something. I turned off the TV, living room lights, got the cats, went back to my bedroom, turned off that lamp and dialed 911 again. Dispatch said, it’s not gun fire, ma’am, it’s fireworks. I said, are you sure? And she said, yes ma’am. My officer is on the scene and she says it’s fireworks.

Okay, it was the Friday before Memorial Day and you’re not supposed to set off fireworks inside city limits. And honestly this did not sound like fireworks, but if you think this won’t wind up in a story or a book, then think again. Picture a little ol’ lady huddled in her bedroom, with two cats counting gunshots and dialing 911. And as my daughter said when I told her the story, yeah, and the killer disguised his gunshots with the noise of the fireworks.

And people wonder where we get ideas. They are all around us, everywhere. When you need one just pull one out of the air.

My gratitude to Maine Crime Writers for the use of their material


  1. My gratitude to both the Maine crime writers and the SleuthSayers crime writers.

  2. I'm with Barb Ross and E. L. Doctorow: driving at night in a fog. That's my style.
    Another analogy I've used to myself is making a sculpture (my husband's a sculptor). First you do the armature, then you slap on the clay, then you finish off the clay, and then you send it off to the foundry.

  3. An excellent discussion! Much here that I agree with.


    Jacqueline Seewald
    DEATH LEGACY--recent novel from Five Star/Gale

  4. Jan, I fully expect to see those fireworks in a story.

    I enjoyed the differing expressions and styles. I grinned in admiration at Barb Ross' Doctorow’s approach, although I'm more the GPS and map kind of guy– I like to know where I'm going before I take off.

  5. I enjoyed your post, Jan. Very thought provoking - thanks for sharing!

    fellow Five Star author

  6. Thanks for comments everyone. I've got an unlovely ear infection so this is the first chance I've had to get back online to read comments. And NOW my AC is running hot. This is new house and new A/C so have no idea. It's only 95 degrees today, but humidity is high...so hope the repair guy cometh soon.


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