Making a murder: the secret to writing chilling crime fiction
As a new festival celebrating the art of the detective novel kicks off in Dublin today, Caomhan Keane asks the experts how to create a super-sleuth
'Start writing, that's the key. Get your plot, ideas and characters down and work from there. No one's first draft is perfect, but you can't shape ideas in your head the way you can on a page."
So says Vanessa Fox O Loughlin, aka Sam Blake - and she should know. Author of five novels featuring Cathy Connolly, a kickboxing garda from Dun Laoghaire, she is also the curator of Murder One, Ireland's first crime writing festival, taking place this weekend at Smock Alley, Dublin.
With appearances from emerging, established and legendary crime writers, the festival will also feature workshops focused on how to plot (or not) and character development, as well as the Lynda La Plante sponsored CSI Murder Room, where senior investigating officers and forensic scientists will deck you out in the gear of a real-life CSI and walk you around a staged crime scene, showing you how hair, fibre and blood splatter is analysed, and foot and fingerprints are lifted.
But what makes a good crime story? We asked the cream of the crime crop how to make your sleuth rise to the top.
Location, location, location
"I always start with a location," says Andrea Carter, whose Inishowen Mysteries - about Ireland's most Northern law practice - is tipped to be our answer to Broadchurch when adapted for the small screen. "I start with an evocative place - a hidden crypt, an old house, a deserted windswept beach with brooding cliffs, and I imagine a body there."
Her character Benedicta 'Ben' O'Keeffe emerged almost as a form of catharsis for Carter, herself a lawyer working in Inishowen at the time of the conception of the book. "I was writing her at night when worried about work, so it was a way of relieving work stress. So she was sort of me, a much braver me, who said and did things I would never. But when I switched to writing her from a first person rather than a third person narrative, and she started revealing a different back-story, she unravelled from me."
Do your research
Jane Casey is the award-winning writer of the Maeve Kerrigan series about an Anglo-Irish cop raised by Irish parents in London. "Maeve's parents brought her up in the same way she would have been in Ireland, a bubble of GAA and Irish dancing. I found that idea fascinating, of how her Irish background clashes with her life in the English establishment. That sense of her not being completely at home where she was from shaped the identity of the book."
Jane has found that if you ask people in the know to speak to you, they are more than willing to speak to you. "Twitter is brilliant, you can find people who do whatever job it is that you want to research, get a relationship going, and then they understand you are not just wasting their time. It's easier to show them something you have written and get them to tell you where you went wrong, rather than have them tell you everything and you then try to figure it out.
"Leave approaching people until you have figured out the basics for yourself by reading memoirs by former police officers and pathologists which give really good insights on how a case is processed."
Understand your characters
William Ryan abandoned the bar to pen the Korolev trilogy, set amid the paranoia and propaganda of Stalin's purges in the 1930s.
"If you're writing novels set in the present, it can be difficult as its constantly changing. Your novel can become dated, quickly. That's not the case when you're writing about the long ago past. I wrote a historical crime novel set in the Soviet Union with a brilliant policeman who wants truth and justice at a time that they're flexible and political concepts. You don't have to scratch too far beneath the surface to see how those ideas are still relevant.
"It gives him a split personality where on the surface they are loyal to the state and believe everything they are told to believe, while underneath the surface, they have very different opinions. Once you spend time developing the character, you will find that the character will just take over. He will or won't do and say things you want him to say or do. If the character isn't coming to life by himself, you need to sit down and have a conversation with him, find out what traits and characteristics will help lift the book. It's important to make them slightly at odds with their surroundings and represent a strong moral position pitting them into conflict with characters around them.
"Then I try and find a photograph, as you can tell more from a photograph than from almost anything else. You see little details people don't mention in memoirs or letters. Clothes people wore and how. What they are eating. What they are doing for fun."
All the writers featured in this piece will be appearing at the Murder One Crime Festival taking place at Smock Alley Theatre from today through to Sunday. See murderone.ie for more details