I am thrilled to be bringing you a guest post from the lovely and very talented Fiona Leitch. Have you ever wanted to pen a great murder mystery? If you answered yes, then read on. I recently finished reading her heartwarming romance titled 'Falling in Louvre' and loved it. A full review will be coming to the blog next month.
Fiona Leitch is a writer with a chequered past. She’s written for football and motoring mag-azines, DJ’ed at illegal raves and was a stalwart of the low budget TV commercial, even appearing as the Australasian face of a cleaning product called ‘Sod Off’. Her romantic cosy mystery series, The Nosey Parker Mysteries, is published by One More Chap-ter/HarperCollins, while her debut novel, ‘Dead in Venice’, was published by Audible as one of their Crime Grant finalists.
After living in London, Hastings and Cornwall she’s finally settled in sunny New Zealand, where she enjoys scaring her cats by trying out dialogue on them. She spends her days dreaming of retiring to a crumbling Venetian palazzo, walking on the volcanic sand beaches of West Auckland, and writing funny, flawed but awesome female characters.
HOW TO GET AWAY WITH (WRITING) MURDER
So you’ve decided to kill someone (on paper)! Congratulations! Welcome to the Crime Writers Club. But whoa there! Before you get started, there’s a few things you’ll need to consider.
Crime, yes, I know. But there’s a whole list of sub-genres to consider (and sub-genres of sub-gen-res - and probably sub-genres of sub-genres of sub-genres, too) to think about first. Where does your murder fit in?
There are some pretty strict (but unwritten) guidelines about the level of gore you’re going for. No one picks up a Miss Marple expecting to find themselves up to the elbows in intestines and decapi-tations, and anyone looking for a nice, gentle, bloodless murder mystery is going to be completely traumatised by American Psycho - so you need to make sure you’re sticking to what people are looking for from the sub-genre (or the sub-genre of the sub-genre). Are you going to get into the murderer’s head, and force your helpless (but willing) readers to watch as they brutally pummel the victim to death, pausing only to wipe the blood off their spectacles before they dismember the body and bury it in a shallow grave? Is your victim the target of a cold blooded assassin, the cause of death a single, calculated, nothing-personal bullet to the head? Or is the annual church fete going to be the scene of a poisoning, the victim discovered draped across a headstone, the remnants of a slice of arsenic-laced fruit cake still in their hands?
And then there’s the matter of the detective. Are they a world-weary NYC cop, a loner with a badge and a bad attitude who’s only one drink away from self-destruction? Are they a by-the-book, up-tight British police officer, who needs to think outside the box on this case? A private detective, someone who got thrown off the force, or for whatever reasons never made it onto it in the first place, but who has a thirst for justice? Or a complete amateur - someone who stumbles over clues, or who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time and is forced to take action, or who has to get in-volved to help a friend?
You may think the victim isn’t that important - after all, they get bumped off, and once that’s hap-pened they don’t have much to do other than just stay dead. But who they WERE can also play a part in what area of the Crime/Murder Mystery genre spectrum your work lands in. Were they an innocent - a child, maybe? Were they a victim of domestic abuse, downtrodden, overlooked, never listened to? Were they a millionaire businessman who upset the wrong person with their under-hand tactics? Or were they just a downright bad egg who everyone wanted dead and who, let’s face it, probably deserved it?
This is another surprisingly big one, but actually it’s a good one if you want to play around and push the boundaries of the genre a bit. A big city setting, be it London, New York, Berlin, or wher-ever, would normally suggest a gritty, serious crime story; think mob hits in Hell’s Kitchen, or a war among the drug dealers at Gorlitzer Park, or maybe a terrorist plot in Knightsbridge. But what about if you turned it on its head? A modern day Miss Marple in central London - ladies who lunch at Fortnum and Mason, solving murders over their Earl Grey? Or the Russian mafia organising a hit in sleepy Devon? Worth thinking about. To me, the best murder mysteries are the ones that give you a real sense of place, the ones where you can smell the exhaust fumes and hear the con-stant roar of traffic as you watch the detective head home, alone, after solving another terrible mur-der that makes him question humanity. Or where you can hear the seagulls and the waves crash-ing as the amateur busybody shuts up her pasty shop for the day, having once again held her own against the local constabulary.
So what are these sub-genres? There are so many. Psychological thrillers (which may or may not include murder), police procedurals, and cosy mysteries just for a start. I normally write on the co-sier side of things, and just within that sub-genre there are even more sub-genres - cosy culinary mysteries (a lot of the protagonists combine detecting with running their own bakery or something), cosy craft mysteries (detectives with knitting needles), cosy animal mysteries (ably assisted by a cute dog or cat), and even witch and wizard cosy mysteries, which is pretty much self-explanatory, I think. So have a look at books which you think closest match what you want to write, and see what tropes they employ, because readers of those genres will expect some or all of them.
If you’re a writer you’ll no doubt already have heard the question, are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you plan everything out to within an inch of its life, or do you fly by the seat of your pants and make it up as you go along?
If you’re writing a crime novel, you HAVE to plan. Here’s why.
Crime and mystery readers want to play detective. They all want to work out whodunnit, but - here’s the thing - they don’t ACTUALLY want to work it out, or at least not until right at the end. Make it too easy for them to work out who did the evil deed, and they’ll be disappointed. No one really wants to know the end of the book, until the end of the book.
In real life, a lot of murders are actually not that hard to solve (prosecuting them can be an entirely different matter). A surprisingly high number of victims know their murderers. They’re partners, ex-husbands or wives, jilted boyfriends, often with a history of abuse that automatically makes them the number one suspect. The murders are quite often crimes of passion (which makes them sound far less tragic and sordid than they actually are) - a sudden rush of blood to the head, a moment of insane rage, that leads to the attack. There’s no planning, not much attempt to avoid leaving evi-dence at the scene (even if they attempt to clear up afterwards). It’s obvious almost from the start who the murderer is.
This is NOT the sort of murder you want. Or if it is, you have to be able to write it in such a way that the obvious suspect doesn’t look obvious. Maybe they have a watertight alibi? Maybe the vic-tim never told anyone about the years of abuse the murderer had put them through?
Or maybe it’s one of the cases that police really hate - a random attack. Someone who has no con-nection at all with the victim. There’s no evidence to prove anything, until out of the blue some CCTV footage turns up, or the footprint found next to the body, initially dismissed by the police, turns out at the end to be something far more significant?
You probably don’t want that kind of murder either. One of the accusations levelled at some crime writers (even those as famous as Agatha Christie) is that they hold back vital bits of information from the reader until right at the end, where the detective does the big reveal. Or the information is so ridiculously obscure (I’m looking at you, Sherlock Holmes!) that no reader could possibly work it out. Readers might not want to actually work out whodunnit, but they want to feel like they COULD. There need to be clues dotted throughout your work that may not add up to anything on first read, but once the murderer’s identity is revealed, readers can go back and look at them and suddenly, the whole thing is obvious.
That’s why you need to plan. I’m not talking about a 10,000 word fully fleshed-out synopsis (unless you want to - I actually HAVE done that on a book, when the plot was particularly twisty). It can be whatever you find works for you. I’ve used exploded diagrams, bullet points, even a roadmap - this is where I start, this is who’s driving the plot, this is where the murder happens, this is where we end up. It doesn’t mean you have to stick rigidly to it, either - I still make stuff up on the fly - but it means you never get really stuck, because you know where you’re going. And because you know from the beginning who the murderer is and why, you can pepper those clues in as you write. You CAN go back and add them in after you finish, but honestly, that technique can make them feel like they’ve been shoehorned in.
A bonus tip: NEVER FORGET THE RED HERRINGS! A red herring is a clue or even a suspect that seems legit, but is just there to put the reader off the scent. If you look at TV cop shows - let’s take Castle as an example, because it’s cheesy and I love it - there’s always an immediate suspect who looks so guilty and has such a strong motive. In real life, it would probably be them. But in the world of Castle and all murder mysteries, we’re only five minutes in so we know it can’t be them. And it’s not, of course. There’ll be at least two more suspects before we get to the killer, but they all have motive, they all look like they had opportunity. And they send the detectives off down the completely wrong path, until something happens which turns the whole case around.
READERS LOVE RED HERRINGS! So make sure you include a few, in amongst the legitimate clues.
Still want to murder someone? That’s great! Follow these rules and I promise, they’ll never catch you - I mean readers will love you for it !
Thank you to Fiona for sharing her insights with us. The latest book in her 'Nosey Parker Cosy Mystery' series is now available, titled 'A Cornish Christmas Murder'. If you would like to check out Fiona's work, click on the links below.