Tentative Tips on the Craft of Writing
by Suzette A. Hill
When I was kindly invited by Killer Nashville to make a brief contribution to its next edition, I was rather diffident, because although a crime writer (and a British one at that) I had come late to the genre, and despite having lectured in English Literature had never had any desire to write a novel – of any kind. It was only in retirement, and on a whim, that I embarked on the fiction game. And since first taking up my pen at the kitchen table and writing “It was Bouncer who found the leg . . .” to my continuing surprise, I have managed to produce twelve crime novels. Actually, I think the term crime novel is a slight misnomer but that is the category my books have been assigned. I, however, see them a little differently, i.e. as social comedies into which a few corpses are strewn to give ballast and to provide a skeleton – if you will excuse the pun – on which to hang the absurd and occasionally risible narrative.
Absurd? Comedies? Risible? You may feel that these are unsuitable terms to be applied to the serious matter of murder – and you could well be right. But I think that the sinister does exert a curious pull on our imagination and we are both fascinated and frightened by it. There are those who derive an exquisite frisson in contemplating its more morbid and gruesome aspects; whereas there are many – such as myself – who, feeble spirits as we are, merely like to dip our sensitive toes in the water, paddle about a bit and then jump out pronto! For us, humour or partial humour acts as a sort of comforting safety belt. Consequently, with belt firmly fastened, my novels are light-heartedly escapist and are best read in a capacious arm chair with a mug of cocoa – though preferably a G&T or similar brew. Yes, yes, I hear you mutter impatiently, that’s all very well but what about the craft of writing? Surely there are some tips you can give an aspiring crime writer – messages of comfort and advice which he or she can apply to their own nervous efforts.
Hmm, I reply warily, there are a number of suggestions I could make but it is always dangerous to generalize; and since people’s temperaments are so diverse, what works for one may not for another. For example, an obvious tip would be to devise a good plot and plan it meticulously: construct the skeleton first and pile on the flesh afterwards. Sound advice and a method adopted by many, for not only does it produce a clear structure but will also help the author’s confidence . . . Yet alas, for this author, such sage words do not work. I cannot invent in the abstract, and thus, were I to spend time wrestling with an initial plot, none of my novels would ever get written! It is people who stir the wayward Muse, and it is through them and the worlds they inhabit that some coherent narrative will gradually emerge. I gather this is known as the “evolutionary process” – beloved by some, anathema to others!
Nevertheless, there are certain elements of the novelist’s craft which to me do seem necessary: absorption in the theme, definition of place and personality – and, vitally, care for words and their arrangement. Regarding the first, it is no use thinking vaguely “it would be nice to write a novel.” You must have a focus or interest, a specific inspiration that makes you want to grab your pen or rush to the laptop. It doesn’t matter how large or small, profound or funny, familiar or obscure, the idea must tickle your imagination and make you want to explore and convey it to others. Without that impetus your writing will lack drive and quickly pall. After all, if you are not engaged no-one else will be.
Then with theme or subject set, you need clear and distinctive characters: individuals who ring true, are palpable and not just ciphers to push the concept. Personally, I find that novels whose characters are sketchily drawn – even those intellectually challenging like a conundrum – lack conviction and fall flat. And to strengthen that conviction it is helpful to place the individuals in a firm, tangible context – whether a town, landscape, bar, bedsitter or grand palace. It doesn’t matter what, provided they do not operate in a vacuum. Our surroundings are integral to our experiences: and their evocation, however subtle, will give a sense of immediacy and sharpen the realism.
Thirdly, and what no writer of any genre can do without, is a love of language and its manipulation for maximum effect. This may sound obvious, but without that concern for the tools of your trade little will be achieved – either of a criminal nature or anything else! One’s ideas may be brilliant, but to live they need concrete form. And for this it is not only mind and eye that must be alert, but also the ear: while choice of words is paramount, sound too plays a part. Niceties of rhythm and cadence, variations in syntax, pace and stress – all of these will raise the drama and vivify the world you are aiming to create.
Oh, and one more thing! Writer’s block. When you are stuck (as you will be) there is nothing more dispiriting than staring morosely at a blank page or screen. A dry martini may sometimes palliate but its effect is transitory. Thought generates words; but words can also generate thought. So get something down – anything will do, it doesn’t matter what. Phrases, inconsequential sentences, snippets of dialogue, a colourful image, a description of a person’s walk or dress . . . it is amazing how often such random scratchings will galvanise the tortured brain and set it prancing again. This of course is not infallible but it works more often than gin. Good luck!
If of interest, I have written two genial crime series set in the 1950s. The original concerns a bumbling vicar (plus his cat and dog) who thoughtlessly murders a parishioner; the other features Rosy Gilchrist who, with a pair of mildly eccentric male companions, becomes reluctantly embroiled in murky skulduggery. The most recent novel, Deadly Primrose, is the second sequel to the first series and is available in the U.S. from June. The latest tale in the Gilchrist collection is The Cambridge Plot – absurdities in English academia. Further information can be gleaned from my website www.suzetteahill.co.uk