The Frustrations of Plotting Crime Fiction

Guest Article by Karen Charlton
Artwork by Bradley Wind

Successful crime fiction needs the fertile imagination of a confident author who can plot with the precision of an engineer, while juggling motive, clues, suspects and conflict like a circus clown. It can be a frustrating process.

Crime fiction is essentially plot driven, which is rather annoying when you consider that it is primarily the strong character of the sleuths whom everyone remembers. From Sherlock Holmes to Miss Marple, Rebus to Morse, this truth is self-evident. No matter how well they are crafted, crime and thriller plots are easily forgotten. Yet, crime fiction demands a compelling and credible plot to sweep the reader to a satisfying dénouement.

Ideas for crime novels often come from seemingly unconnected events. Recently, I viewed a BBC program Imagine, which followed best-selling writer Ian Rankin for six months. I watched with fascination as he pulled out a battered manila folder bulging with press cuttings, scribbled notes and photographs. These unconnected events were the source of his inspiration.

The two unconnected events which led to my own novel were my desire to set readers the challenge of a locked room mystery and the chance discovery of a family will from 1770. Back then, ours was a dysfunctional family of ten half-siblings, two mothers and a mistrustful father. This damning document revealed that favouritism, injustice and cruelty were rife in that farmhouse. I began to imagine the burning resentment the will could ignite in the unbalanced mind of one of those spurned, and the murderous consequences which might follow.

A crime fiction writer who relies exclusively on real life murders for stimulation may find that their work becomes flat. Stripped of their grisly horror, real murderers are remarkably predictable and murder is one of the easiest crimes for the police to solve. Criminology reports throw up the same information time and time again. Murder victims tend to know their killer. A trio of three deadly motives, money, sex and revenge, generally lie behind the bloody act. Statistically, serial killings by fiendish monsters are a relatively rare occurrence. Women usually murder in self-defence or after years of abuse by a husband or partner, whereas men tend to kill out of sexual jealousy or as a matter of honour. 

This is where the fertile imagination of the crime fiction author needs to enrich the banal, avoid the stereotypes, switch genders and exaggerate. Have the honour killings committed by a woman. Let two Hannibal Lecters lurk in the dank alleys of your sleepy town. Blur the edges of the motives. Yes, a large inheritance is an excellent reason to kill someone but alone it can become predictable and one-dimensional. Spice up your novel by allowing your sleuth to also uncover the murderer’s deep-seated psychological need to take revenge on the dead father who always favoured his youngest child. 

Many, if not most, crime fiction writers fear readers will suss out their plot before the end of the book and be left disappointed. This fear sometimes pressures authors into the fantastical, or they create a plot with more twists and turns than a staircase in a New York skyscraper in order to stay one step ahead of the reader. These decisions can be a disaster. Crime fiction writers need self-confidence and control. Have faith in yourself and faith in the imagination of your readers. If you’ve got doubts about your plot ask for the help of a couple of honest friends to tell you how your storyline has developed. 

I was initiated into the genre of crime fiction in the bizarre world of Murder Mystery Weekends at a luxury hotel. I wrote the scripts and directed the action but quickly learned that the guests’ imaginations were more twisted than my own. What seemed obvious to me, sent them spiralling off on a tangent. I didn’t need to create red-herrings; they went fishing and happily netted plenty for themselves. This experience gave me confidence. When I wrote The Missing Heiress, I felt comfortable drip feeding clues into my story, knowing that my readers would not always spot them or understand their significance. I wrote the book I wanted to write – and so should you. 

Crime fiction writers also need supreme organisational skills and discipline. The first step is to strip the story down to its bare bones and pin point where the conflict lies. Make notes and place these sparse details onto a timeline or blank calendar which covers the timespan of your novel. This helps you keep track of everything - especially the suspects. Insert subtle clues into the plot and check your plan for pace, flow and balance. Is your sleuth’s investigation a frenzy of activity on some days, while not much happens on others? Does the conflict build gradually towards the climax of your book? 

In its initial stages any novel is fluid and gradually evolves. Nothing is sacred, and authors can reinvent and reject until they settle on something that feels right and continues to feel right. But as criminal investigations intensify one wrongly placed incident can throw the whole thing off track. 

Half way through writing The Missing Heiress, I hit a wall. I just couldn’t see the ‘big picture’ of my novel on the computer screen. So I grabbed the family noticeboard from the kitchen and divided it up into days. I scribbled down the scenes of my novel onto post-it notes and pinned them into the cork. It worked. I now had a physical representation of how my story would unfold and could shuffle everything around with ease until balance and pace were restored. On top of this, I had the added satisfaction of watching the post-it notes vanish as my novel crept towards the finish line. 

I have since learnt that Apple Mac have devised an ingenious computer program called Scrivener which provides a digital representation of a cork noticeboard. No doubt, it reduces the frustration of some authors busy plotting crime fiction. However, I wonder if it can mimic the kinaesthetic satisfaction I experienced when I ripped down those final post-it notes, rolled them into a ball and hurled them into the bin?

Karen Charlton was born in Sheffield and grew up in Leeds. She completed an English degree at Hull University and a P.G.C.E. at Durham. Her debut novel, Catching the Eagle is based on the true story of her family's notorious criminal ancestor, Jamie Charlton. Last year, the first seeds of a plot for a 'whodunit' began to germinate in her head. Before she knew it, she had a Regency mystery to solve and The Missing Heiress was born. 


Jean Gill said...

Thought-provoking and shows a great deal of experience in the genre. I'm under the impression that Western women's murder methods and motives have changed a lot in the last 50 years, so that alters possibilities in modern detective novels. Another modern development is that a hired killer (male or female)can be the hero...

Steve Robinson said...

Great article, Karen. Thanks for sharing and the very best of luck with your new book.

Karen Maitland said...

Really interesting article, Karen. It's fasinating the way crime fiction has evolved. We no longer have the big reveal in the drawing room at the end. Now it's a series of reveals throughout the second half or last third of the novel, which means you have to have a series of mysteries set up for the reader, challenging for the writer, as you say.

Karen Charlton said...

Thanks, folks. Yes, it is fascinating the way crime fiction has evolved, I'm sure that its development is worthy of a thesis or two! It's an exciting and challenging genre.

Kristin Gleeson said...

Crime fiction has so many different facets to it now which provides a myriad of ways to blend them in. Great stuff!