How to Write a Crime Novel - Notes from a Published Author

In this authonomy writing tips article author Stuart Macbride gives his advice on how to write a crime novel. For more writing tips and advice on how to get published check out our writing tips section.

Stuart MacBride is the bestselling author of a series of crime novels featuring DS Logan McRae and set in Aberdeen. He won the International Thriller Writers best debut novel award, and has been shortlisted for the Barry Award, and twice for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award. In 2007 he won the Dagger in the Library, awarded for a body of work and in 2008 he won the ITV3 Crime Thriller Award for Breakthrough Author.

Stuart lives in north-east Scotland with his wife Fiona, cat Grendel, and a vegetable plot full of weeds.

A lot of series crime is set in a distinctive location which becomes almost as strong a character as the detective or villain. (You set your novels in Aberdeen). How do you bring a city to life without falling into over-descriptive paragraphs?

Edit. Always, always edit. And when you’re editing write the following words onto a Post-it note in big red letters and stick it on your monitor: “Who Cares?”. If something has no bearing on the story, leave it out.

With any descriptive paragraph, I think getting the feel of the place is more important than telling the reader exactly what everything looks like. No one cares when Aberdeen was founded, or who the last Lord Provost was, or what colour every last chunk of granite in the Music Hall is (grey, in case you’re wondering). If I want a history lesson, I’ll pick up a history book. When I read crime fiction I want a story. And the quicker you can sum up a place, the quicker we can get on with the story.

How important is it to set stories in real life locations?

Most of the locations in my own the Logan books are real, because I’m writing about a real city. There are other stories I want to write that’ll be set in not-so-real places.

It all depends on the story you want to tell, and what you can and can’t get away with legally. These days you have to be very careful what you say… But there is a huge plus to writing about a real place – if you want to evoke the sense of place, the atmosphere, the smells, the sounds, you can just go there and stand for a bit. Until the police move you on.

How long did it take you to get published?

Cold Granite was the first of my books to be published, but was actually the fifth one I’d written. Book 1 was terrible. Book 2 was a bit better and got an agent. Book 3 got me a much better agent and interest from HarperCollins. Book 4 disappeared into a black hole, never to be seen again. And Book 5 got published. Basically, it takes as long as it takes. No one expects to sit down with a cello and be able to play perfectly first time, so why do they think their first attempts at writing will be perfect and publishable? Like anything else, you need to practice, and you do that by writing.

I had four practice books before I got there, and I’m glad I did. I was very proud of the first book when I wrote it, but looking back it’s a steaming sack of horse jobbies.

How long do you spend planning the twists and turns/ plot of your novels?

Minutes. Sometimes less than that. I plot using mind-maps, so I never have a linear plan of what’s going to happen, just a bunch of ideas and some scribbly diagrams. Most of the twisty stuff comes to me while I’m writing. Because I don’t have that linear plan I can happily skip off in any direction when the mood takes me, and just knock up another mind-map to see what happens.

Be warned though, this technique doesn’t work for everyone...

Why do you call yourself a write-ist and not a writer?

I always think ‘Author’ sounds very precious and arty. It speaks of smoking jackets and pages of text that look like a thesaurus just vomited on them. ‘Novelist’ is just another word for ‘Toss-Pot’. And ‘Writer’ sounds very worthy and meaningful, and professional. ‘Write-ist’ implies someone who doesn’t really know what they’re doing, but is going to have a bloody good go at bullshitting their way through it.

Have you always wanted to be a write-ist?

Nope. When I was in my mid-twenties I had a couple of friends who were writing novels as a hobby. They said it was fun and I should give it a go. So it was peer pressure, simple as that. Either I started writing, or smoking behind the bike sheds.

Can you recommend a literary inspiration?

That has to be R.D. Wingfield, a brilliant writer who never really got the recognition his work deserved when he was alive. Wonderful characters, densely layered plots, frenetic pace, and a joy to read. If you haven’t tried him, you’re missing something special.

What about writing from the villain’s point-of-view? Can it work?

To be honest, it’s no different to writing from any other character’s POV. Everyone in the book thinks they’re the hero of their own story, even the bit characters that only drift in and out of a scene in the background. Once you accept that, you can move away from the 2D cardboard people and really get some depth into your villains.

Look at it this way: who really wakes up one morning and thinks, ‘I know, today I’m going to be a monster!’ They don’t. People only do things if they can justify their actions to themselves. Doesn’t matter how screwy that justification looks to the outside world, but it has to make sense to them.

Just treat your villain like any other character (with hopes and dreams and disappointments and reasons for doing what they do) and writing from their POV won’t be a problem.

How much research did you do into the actual world of crime fighting?

I routinely put my underpants on over my tights then leap tall buildings in a single bound...

To be honest, it depends on how important the thing-I-know-sod-all-about is to the story. If something’s going to take centre stage in the book, you better get the research right, because if you don’t, people are going to spot it and whinge. Because some people just like to whinge, and there’s no point making an easy target of yourself.

The difficulty comes in knowing when to stop researching, and how to keep 95% of your research out of what actually goes down on the page. I hate books where it’s clear the author’s done a lot of research, and is determined to make you read about every last bit of it.

And a lot of the time you can get away with making things up, as long as you sound plausible. It is fiction after all.

How can I evoke a sense of mystery into my work?

There’s a very, very simple trick to this: don’t tell the reader everything.

Now I don’t mean lie to them, or keep information from them that the characters know (I really hate that in a book as well), just make sure you don’t lump everything on the page at once. Give the reader some space to work things out for themselves, and if you can get them to draw the wrong conclusions – perfect, it’ll make the twists a lot sweeter when they come. Readers want to feel smart, but they also want to be surprised.

Mystery is easy, it’s suspense that separates the sheep from the weasels.

Which tense works best in crime writing?

Whichever one works best for the story. My novels are predominantly close third-person past, but my short stories and novellas are usually first-person present. It depends very much on what kind of feel you want to give the book. Experiment and see what fits your voice best.

Traditionally though, past tense is much more common (and successful) in crime fiction.

Oh, and when I say, ‘experiment’ for God’s sake don’t take that as permission to write the whole bloody book in future tense. Or people will be perfectly within their rights to drag you outside and set fire to your genitals.