Research, Write, Repeat: 6 Rules for Writing Great Detective Fiction

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Editor's Note:

Susie Steiner is the author of Missing, Presumed. She was a commissioning editor for The Guardian for eleven years and prior to that worked for The Times, The Daily Telegraph, and the Evening Standard. She joins Signature to share six rules for writing compelling detective fiction.

You know the W. Somerset Maugham quote: ‘There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.’ I’m on my fourth novel and my third detective novel and still feel as though I’m driving through a forest in dense fog at night without headlamps. So let me be your guide.

Write what you know.
What? You’re not a detective, you say? You’ve never investigated a murder? And you’ve never been a victim of violent crime, ingeniously covered up by a mastermind villain? What are you doing in this genre?

I’ve never held with the write-what-you-know thing because I think writing is all about curiosity and imaginative empathy. The research is the fun part: The lives of cops are fascinating. Contact real cops, then make friends with them. I’m not even kidding. I could not write my novels without the detectives who advise me.

Newspaper clippings are your friend, as are true crime documentaries (shh, go away, I’m working on my novel while watching TV). Go where your nose takes you. Real cases, adapted into fiction and adjusted to fit your character’s life situation, are the perfect basis for crime novels.

Cut to the chase.
All novels thrive on incident but detective novels rely on a constant stream of incident to make them gripping. Don’t go describing the rain for pages on end. Have someone walk into the room with a gun instead. If you’re lacking pace, try entering your scene three paragraphs in. You’ll often find there is preamble to the action that you simply don’t need. No one cares what color the chair in the corner is; they want to hear the couple arguing about their sex life.

Juicy gossip
When I’m trying to think up plot (and I genuinely find it hard), I make an effort to hone in on the things I find juiciest in life – either to hear about in gossip or to read about in books and newspapers. Which story last made you absolutely fizz with curiosity? Did it involve sex? Infidelity? Rotten childhoods? A grisly end? Go to the marrow of what interests you, and don’t take your time getting there. See above about entering the scene mid-action.

Twist schmist
There’s a lot of pressure on writers of psychological thrillers to come up with some killer twist or high concept. Worrying about this can tie you in knots and paralyze your creativity. Forgedaboudit. Suspense can come from knowing the ‘who’ but not the ‘why.’ It can come from the gradual release of clues, which urges the reader to play detective. And it can come from your reader being ahead of your cop, realizing a danger or threat before he or she does. So like I say, twist schmist.

Structure is everything.
I truly believe novels succeed or fail because of their structure. Not caring about structure is like saying your body would be fine without your skeleton. It wouldn’t. You’d be a puddle.

I recommend Carolyn Wheat’s book How to Write Killer Fiction for advice on structure.

These days, I’m fairly instinctive about it. I’m aware that the opening three pages have to be the very best writing that you are capable of. My revisions will go over the first pages ad nauseam. I know that by a third of the way through, I instinctively want a secondary plotline to crash up against the first inciting plotline, sending waves across it and confusing just about everyone in the novel. The plot literally thickens at this point.

I’ve suffered from mushy middle in the past and am very anxious about it these days. Try to avoid this with lots of developments in the police investigation and avoid flashbacks at all costs. (Flashbacks are a recipe for mushy middle. When I read them, I feel like I can hear the author humming, ‘Dum de dum de dum, is my word count up yet?’)

Then the ending: Oh my gosh, how hard is the ending? It has to be satisfying, somewhat unexpected, yet foreshadowed sufficiently to not be out of the blue, not to mention psychologically astute. Your resolution needs to give the reader that, ‘Ahhhhhh, of course! If only I’d seen it earlier!’ moment. I try to work out the ending at the beginning of plotting, though I’m rarely successful in this.

Novels aren’t written, they’re re-written …

… as Michael Crichton once said.

I revise each manuscript upward of ten times, allowing each draft to go cold before rereading and taking apart like a cack-handed neurosurgeon. It’s okay for your first draft to be an unbridled mess. It’s okay for the plot to have more holes than a Swiss cheese. Your first draft is only your undercoat. Slap it up onto the wall and move onto the next phase. Because revising is where the fun stuff happens.

Want more on writing? Download Signature’s 2017 Ultimate Writing Guide