Are you one of the elect?
Dr. Helen Hope is a lecturer in eschatology – the study of death, judgement, and the destiny of humankind. She is also a Calvinist nun, her life devoted to atoning for a secret crime. When a body is found crucified on a Liverpool beach, she forms an unlikely alliance with suspect Mikko Kristensen, lead guitarist in death metal band Total Depravity. Together, they go on the trail of a rogue geneticist who they believe holds the key – not just to the murder, but to something much darker. Also on the trail is cynical Scouse detective Darren Swift. In his first murder case, he must confront his own lack of faith as a series of horrific crimes drag the city of two cathedrals to the gates of hell. Science meets religious belief in this gripping murder mystery.
I am happy to share this guest post about ‘What a writer should and shouldn’t do when writing crime novels’. Enjoy!
This post has been written exclusively for B For Bookreview. Thank you very much for the opportunity!
I have been asked to write a post about ‘What a writer should and shouldn’t do when writing crime novels’. And I must admit I feel a bit of a fraud, since Reprobation is my first crime novel. But hopefully it will be the first of many, and perhaps I still have something to offer from a newcomer’s perspective. So here is what I have learnt so far!
1. Do write the book you want to write
Genre is important; for readers so they know what to expect, and for publishers so they can market your book to a target. But I strongly believe it is important for a writer not to feel too constrained by genre, and I was very lucky to find an independent publisher with the vision to see beyond the fact that my book is not a straight police procedural, or cosy crime, or domestic noir, or psychological thriller. There’s no law that says your book has to fit into any particular category; Reprobation is a ‘supernatural crime thriller with hints of romance and horror’, which is not really a thing. Much more important than genre is the quality of writing and storytelling, and if you write to fit a category that isn’t fully you, the lack of passion will show. If you write to fit in with a trend, you can bet that trend will be over by the time your book is published. I didn’t initially set out to write a crime novel; I wanted to write a story about the religious doctrine of predestination, and a detective thriller turned out to be the most effective medium for doing this. It’s the book I wanted to write, and the book I would want to read.
2. Do your research
Crime fiction, above all other literary genres (apart from perhaps historical fiction), depends on good research. The police procedural details simply must be believable. When I was younger I wanted to be a forensic scientist, and I have always devoured crime fiction of all types. I’ve watched countless detective movies and television series – but so has everybody else, and that is not enough to qualify anyone to write a crime novel. I read a few books of ‘advice for crime writers’, but then decided to go straight to primary sources and pored through several UK police and detective manuals. I studied a couple of police discussion forums as well when I was trying to write believable dialogue for the incident room. I also benefitted greatly from having my manuscript assessed in its early stages by a police
consultant, Rebecca Bradley. Her comments and advice really tightened up the believability of the police procedures.
Of course, crime fiction isn’t just about police, and in my book the detectives take a back seat to the other characters. Reprobation is about Calvinism, genetics, heavy metal and Liverpool. My knowledge of the latter two of these was already pretty solid, but I had to do a lot of research on the first two, and I absolutely loved the process.
3. But don’t do too much research.
Some of the most disappointing novels I have read, including a few by famous, award-winning writers, are those where the author has a desperate need to show how much research he or she has done. Too much technical detail on the page distracts from the story and loses the reader. It’s also not necessary; your reader has already agreed to suspend disbelief by choosing a work of fiction, so allow them to stay in their world of make-believe – don’t remind them that you’re behind it and you spent ages in libraries and interviewing experts. It’s not reality, it’s your story, and since the real world is full of crazy, unprecedented happenings, why shouldn’t some of them happen in your book? Reprobation is about Calvinist nuns, who are almost (but not completely) unheard of in the real world. Use your research to enhance the story, not overtake it. A real murder investigation would have so many staff members and administrative minutiae that it would be boring to read; you need to distil the important aspects for the reader.
Furthermore, from a writer’s perspective, research is hugely time-consuming and never-ending. There will always be another book or academic paper to read. For a while I got bogged down in the genetics aspect of Reprobation, and I had to cut down some of my scientific explanations because they were, frankly, a bit tedious and had a ‘cut and paste’ feel. It’s very easy to disappear down a research wormhole for months, and it’s also very easy to use research as an excuse not to get some story down on the page. It’s a great tool for procrastination!
4. Do have a sense of place.
Lots of characters pass through the book; some fall by the wayside or die; lots of detectives are brooding and mysterious, hard to picture. So the reader needs to be grounded in place to give them something concrete to cling to. My favourite books are the ones where
the setting comes through so vividly as to be almost a character in itself. These are the books I remember, because I have such a clear vision of them in my mind. Within crime fiction I would cite Dennis Lehane, Val McDermid and Ian Rankin as masters of place. I grew up in Liverpool; it’s a city I love, it’s the city where I came up with the book’s concept, and it’s a city that’s perfect for crime fiction. In fact there are already some great Liverpudlian crime writers such as David Jackson and Luca Veste. My detective series will add a supernatural twist to this subgenre. I hope that Liverpudlian readers will recognise their culture and surroundings in the book, and I hope that readers who don’t know the city will get a good sense of it.
5. Don’t give up.
I was very lucky; I chose the right publisher at the right time, and my manuscript was picked up quickly. However, at the same time as I submitted to Crooked Cat (my eventual publisher), I also submitted my book to one of those manuscript assessment agencies, for a considerable fee. I received the assessment only a few days after my acceptance from Crooked Cat, and thank goodness, because if it had arrived before I probably would have thrown the whole thing in the bin and given up. There were some useful suggestions, but the general tone of the assessment was patronising and sometimes rude; the basic assumption being that I was not a serious writer and would have to go back to square one. I felt utterly despondent, and my publisher had to convince me that my book was good. Now of course, I need to have a thicker skin than this, and I shouldn’t have taken it personally. It’s essential for a writer to accept criticism. But believe in yourself and your book; not everyone will love it, some people will hate it, and some people won’t care. But you never know when that lucky break will come.
Thank you, Catherine Fearns and RachelsRandomResources.
About the author
Catherine Fearns is a writer from Liverpool, UK. Her first novel, a crime thriller called ‘Reprobation’, will be published by Crooked Cat Books in October 2018. As a music journalist Catherine is a regular contributor to Pure Grain Audio, and she has also published numerous pieces of short fiction and non-fiction.Catherine has a degree from Oxford University and a Masters from the London School of Economics. She began her career as a financial analyst, but after having four children she retrained as a breastfeeding counsellor. Having lived in several countries, she recently moved to Switzerland, where she discovered her love of writing and is a member of the Geneva Writers’ Group. She plays the piano very well but prefers to play the guitar very badly. Oh, and she likes metal music. A lot.
Social Media Links – Twitter: @metalmamawrites Facebook: Catherine Fearns