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Writing crime fiction


So you want to be a crime writer?

This is probably a good choice. Crime writing has long been popular with readers across the English-speaking world but it had a real resurgence a few years ago. Although publishers have reined back from the subsequent tendency towards over- production, there is still a solid market for good crime writing and many bestselling writers, such as Richard Osman, write in this category.

As well as being a long term publishing staple in the main English-speaking markets, the US and UK, crime novels are much in demand in translation, especially in Europe. Increasingly the best crime writers from all over the world are translated into English, but translated work still only provides a small proportion of the titles published in English. A good number of the crime titles published in the States turn up in the UK, although it probably works less consistently the other way round.

Crime fiction is divided into a number of sub-categories. ‘Cosies’, as they are known in the American market, are very traditional murder mysteries often set in a quiet backwater, such as a village. There’s not much violent action in these and often the focus is more on the characters than the crime.

Private eye novels have been an ongoing sub-category ever since Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, with Sara Paretsky’s stories a modern equivalent. Featuring laconic heroes and heroines, these are often told in the first person.

There’s been a big surge of interest in historical crime novels, a fashion which it seems Steven Saylor’s Roman novels started. Now, however, there are crime novels published in every period you can think of, from ancient Egypt to Tudor England, from Japan to Tibet. Of course these do place an extra burden of historical accuracy on the author, although it’s fair to say that some have more fully realised settings than others. It may be unwise to attempt an exotic historical setting unless you know quite a bit about it.

Police procedurals or cop novels have long been popular, with Peter James and Elizabeth George currently providing highly successful and quite different spins on this sub-category.

There has been a tendency towards ever more violent crime novels and books from authors like Mo Hayder and Tess Gerritsen pack a powerful punch.

There’s still a place for what used to be called ‘woman in jeopardy’ novels, such as those written by the husband and wife team Nicci French. These also tend to involve a first person narrative and can be very scary, even though the suspense is often in the mind rather than provided by violent action.

The other big change in the crime-writing market is that crime is now a staple of tv series and there's a keen market for good crime novels which can be turned into successful tv series. Interesting and memorable characters, as well as meaty plots, make for a good series and can lead to lucrative further outings for the series, with all the accompanying surge in book sales as well. In the UK the tv-watching audience has become keen on 'Scandi Noir' - distinctive, often character-driven and quite upmarket series made in Scandinavia or Germany for the international market.

So, if you’re thinking about writing a crime novel, how should you go about it? Firstly, research the market as much as you can by reading a wide range of novels in this genre. Then, choose a type of crime writing which you feel comfortable with and get writing. If you’ve already reached this stage, then bear in mind that publishers are looking for originality, so try not to write something which is very similar to the work of a writer who is already successful.

Continuing series characters, such as Matthew Shardlake in C J Sansom’s Tudor novels or Vera Stanhope in Ann Cleeves's series, can provide a compelling reason for a reader to reach for the next book, so it’s worth considering whether you could write a series. If you decide to go for this you will need to pitch your work that way to agents and publishers, with synopses of future books in the series.

Don’t forget that crime fiction sells on the author’s name, by and large, so it’s really worth trying to work out how you might build a readership. Once hooked, your readers may prove a loyal audience. Plotting is really important in a crime novel, and so is the capacity to create suspense and make the plot zip along, holding the reader’s attention. If you can do all this and create memorable characters as well, then get writing - and good luck!

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© Chris HolifieldManaging director of WritersServices; spent working life in publishing,employed by everything from global corporations to start-ups; track record includes: editorial director of Sphere Books, publishing director of The Bodley Head, publishing director for start-up of upmarket book club, The Softback Preview, editorial director of Britain’s biggest book club group, BCA, and, most recently, deputy MD and publisher of Cassell & Co. She is also currently the Director of the Poetry Book Society; During all of this time aware of problems faced by writers, as publishing changed from idiosyncratic cottage industry, 'occupation for gentlemen', into corporate business of today. Writers encountered increasing difficulty in getting books edited or published. Authors create the books which are the raw material for the whole business. She believes it is time to bring them back to centre stage. 2008