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Learn how to write good crime fiction

Learn how to write good crime fiction
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First Published: Sat, Jul 25 2009. 12 30 AM IST

 Primer: The ABC of crime fiction.
Primer: The ABC of crime fiction.
Updated: Mon, Jul 27 2009. 09 17 AM IST
So you think your office would be a good scene for a murder and the boss a perfect victim? Or perhaps you have a shady neighbour who might fit in a spy story? Maybe there is a conflict in your family which could develop into…well, there we go.
Primer: The ABC of crime fiction.
That writing detective novels is a worthy job option or, at the very least, a great hobby, is indicated by how many handbooks there are for it. When I say handbooks, I don’t mean those that are indispensable to any professional crime writer—forensic encyclopaedias, police-work manuals, handgun guides and back issues of Crime & Detective Magazine. No, I mean handbooks to writing mystery novels.
Go to any bookshop and you’re likely to find in the extremely practical Teach Yourself series Writing Crime Fiction by Lesley Grant-Adamson for Rs225, or the Writer’s Handbook series Guide to Crime Writing, edited by Barry Turner, costing about twice as much. Whereas the former is a hands-on type of guide with all the necessary guidance a wannabe writer might need, the latter isn’t as detailed, though it contains top tips from genre masters such as Val McDermid, Ian Rankin and Minette Walters on how to churn out best-sellers.
A couple of senior writers have also written their own guides for the novice, and these differ in the sense that they are more personal. H.R.F. Keating’s Writing Crime Fiction is an old title recently made available in an Indian edition at a very reasonable Rs160, and although a little dated it is full of opinionated advice. More recent is Write Away by Elizabeth George, in which she combines memoir with writing tips. However, the most fascinating pick of the lot is Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, an extremely brief (read it in 10 minutes) but beautifully crafted book containing exactly what it claims: 10 rules. Mind you, these are razor-sharp and anybody who wants to write a good thriller ought to memorize them.
Raymond Chandler’s polemical essay The Simple Art of Murder—available in one of those wonderful Vintage editions—is another instructive piece. Further advice is collected in Writing Mysteries, edited by Sue Grafton and containing essays on all the different aspects of the job by pros such as Sara Paretsky, Jonathan Kellerman and others of the sort you’d usually come across at the airport bookstalls. A curious sub-genre is made up of books that analyse how things are actually done in thrillers; these are handy when I need to find answers to questions like how to survive getting shot, crash through a window, beat a lie detector, pilot a space shuttle (in case the astronaut has been sucked out via the hatch and pureed by gravitational forces), or just something more normal like how to create a disguise. Among my favourites are The Action Hero’s Handbook by David and Joe Borgenicht, The Spy’s Handbook by Herbie Brennan and, last but not least, ABC of Espionage, which I bought for Rs35 off a pavement, somewhat tattered, but a genuine 1966 TV by-product based on the hit serial The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (which also spawned a couple of forgettable feature-length movies from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer).
Although the last-mentioned books are spoofing the mystery and thriller industry, they are indispensable whenever you need to create a Cold War-type situation: What sort of equipment did they use? What know-how should your protagonist have? Simply good to have around the house if for some reason your home-made hero needs to outdo James Bond. Seasoned writers can often be heard saying that writing handbooks are useless. Either you are a writer, or not, and there’s no way a handbook can turn you into one. So they might think me an idiot, but I’d argue that good advice can help you avoid unnecessary pitfalls, which sooner or later come in the way of every writer. For instance, Elmore Leonard says: “Leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
Which is why I’m ending this column here, although I had planned a few pages of flowery and elaborate descriptions of my inner life, because I know the discerning readers of a column like this would skip that part anyway.
Zac O’Yeah is a Bangalore-based Swedish writer of crime fiction. Write to him at criminalmind@livemint.com
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First Published: Sat, Jul 25 2009. 12 30 AM IST