Wednesday, 22 May 2013

My Top Ten Crime Writing Tips

 By Gillian Hamer

Gillian Hamer has published three cross-genre thriller novels via Triskele Books – The Charter, Closure and Complicit. She is now working on the third book in her Gold Detective series after the successful release of Crimson Shore and False Lights. She's a founder member of Triskele Books and an avid reader of crime novels. 

Here, Gillian imparts advice and tips she has accumulated over more than a decade writing in her favoured genre - for any writers who may be considering trying their luck in the murky world of crime and thrillers.

Knowing your market.

Read widely and varied - by that I'd suggest as many authors as possible, not necessarily as many books. If you’ve read one book by Rankin or McDermid, then move on. Find what else is out there. That means reading the classics but also being aware of current market trends too. For example, I had a meeting with an editor of a major publisher who liked my writing but thought I needed to make my style darker. ‘Read Tess Gerritsen, she said, try Kathy Reichs (both authors I’d never previously read) - those are the writers who are selling now.’ Sample everything out there and see what style suits your writing.


Not something you may expect in the top ten of my tips on the genre – but I’m a firm believer that getting the setting right and creating a backdrop that stops the reader in their tracks is as important as a strong lead character. Written well, location can become a character in its own right. And I’m not alone in my view. Think of Dick Francis who based all his books around horse racing or Colin Dexter’s use of Oxford as a fabulous backdrop or Ian Rankin’s view of Edinburgh. Try to think of somewhere original. Research or visit the area. Make the reader connect with the place if they know it – or close the book wanting to visit. Having a solid foundation for your crime novel will improve your chances of success.

Conflict, conflict, conflict.

Plot and getting it right are crucial in crime writing, central to that is the subject of conflict. Without conflict there is no crime, in fact without conflict there is no drama in any genre. Always take care to make sure your plot has enough tension and conflict to keep the reader hooked, but also enough breathing spaces to keep the story real. Getting the level of drama in the right place, at the right time, is another consideration when trying to create a plot with tension, twists and turns. You want to amaze the reader, not frustrate them.

Killer Opening.

It is more vital in crime fiction than any other genre to grab the reader's attention during the first page, first paragraph or even the first line. Readers expect shock and awe in the first chapter and they don't want to be disappointed. So, make sure you kick off the book in the means you want to continue.

Killer Ending.

It is also vital to ensure that the reader stays with you for the journey and comes to the end, not only entertained but satisfied with the summary and conclusion. If you're writing a crime series, the best way to ensure your reader reaches for the next book is to ensure you get the end of the previous one right on all counts.

Killer characters.

While plots are crucial to the novel, they can be easily forgettable, and by the nature of crime fiction can often feel very similar. Characters, on the other hand, never leave us: Poirot, Marple, Lecter, Rebus. Characterisation is crucial in crime writing – whether that’s the goodie or the baddie. There are a wealth of new UK writers who have this nailed. Ann Cleeves with Vera for example. A character who shouldn’t work, who we shouldn’t like, and is the antithesis of everything we expect – and yet Cleeves is steadily building mass market popularity. A lesson in how to be different and competent at the same time.

Research your genre.

There's a lot of emphasis on research when writing crime. Whether it be police procedure, medical terminology or historical resources - it's vital you get it right. Credibility can be a huge stumbling block. And whilst, most of us won't know how it feels to be a pathologist or a murderer, being as accurate as possible is vital in keeping the reader's attention. If you want a forensic scientist to excel in their field, for example, and baffle your reader, make sure you study the subject yourself, not simply rely on the Wikipedia. Maybe do a forensic science course as I did. Make sure you sound as much of an expert as your characters. If you don’t get it right, your readers will – and you’ll be caught out.

Pace and Style.

Getting the pace and writing style right is another crucial element. Crime thrillers need to be tightly written, no flowery language to muddy the waters, and as a general rule you can look to reduce your first draft by at least 10%. Be ruthless in your edits. If a scene doesn't move the story on, then cut it, keep the style taut and the pace tight.

Aim for Perfection.

Today, if you have any hope of getting your work noticed, published, acknowledged – it has to be Great (with a capital G!). And that is what you have to aim for no matter how many drafts it takes. Soak up advice, good or bad, and don’t disregard a single opinion until you’ve considered it carefully. Of course, it doesn’t mean every single person who comments on your work is right – but make sure they’re definitely wrong before ignoring any advice.

Practise Makes Perfect.

You learn by experience. The more you write, the better you become. Every chapter, every draft, every novel … you will improve. Think about building your skills, engaging with fellow writers, researching the industry as well as the genre, or maybe getting expert editorial advice. All those things will increase your maturity as a writer and get you one step nearer to establishing your goal. Remember, writing can be a lonely place, but you’re not alone.

And on that note, I’ve asked a few up-and-coming crime writers what their one top crime writing tip would be.

Scene Building … JJ Marsh.

I hate violence. Which is tricky to avoid as a crime writer.
So with a violent scene, I try it both ways.
I write it twice - from victim and perpetrator perspective. Sometimes, even from the POV of an observer.
When I read the whole thing back, my instinct tells me which voice should relate the incident.
It all comes down to the effect I want to have on the reader.

JJ Marsh, author of the Beatrice Stubbs series

POV … Frances di Plino

When writing your antagonist’s parts of the book, you have to inhabit his or her head to the extent that you understand why they act as they do.

Frances di Plino – author of Bad Moon Rising, Someday Never Comes, Call It Pretending and Looking for a Reason

Action … Chris Curran

When you're writing a fight scene or a physical struggle, always act it out.

Chris Curran – author of After the Darkness and Her Turn To Cry.

Background … Sheila Bugler

Read as much crime fiction as you possibly can. Understand the different sorts of crime fiction and where your work fits within the genre. Laura Wilson's regular crime round-up in Saturday's Guardian newspaper is a great way of discovering new crime fiction writers.

Sheila Bugler, author of Hunting Shadows, The Waiting Game and All Things Nice

For more ideas and tips on writing crime and thrillers, check out this post on The Writer's Workshop


  1. Very informative. thank you very much.

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