Skip to main content

How to Write Crime Novels and Thrillers: Tips from Top Authors

By 28/02/2022April 11th, 2022Featured
Top tips for writing crime novels

Crime novels have been a fascinating part of my reading life for the past decade or more. When I moved out of my own country and began to live in Malaysia and Singapore, I found myself imagining new things that could go wrong. India was a familiar landscape, with all its bounties and perils, but in a new land, I worried I might step into dangers I knew nothing about.

My engagement with crime fiction began with watching crime documentaries, and then reading one of the best-written true crime accounts of all time: In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote. It read like a crime novel, and I was entranced. I considered crime novels a quick snack, and in some ways, thrillers and crime fiction provide that escape into the whodunit. But the why, the motive that drives crime novels soon became more important to me as a reader and writer of crime fiction.

I liked writing crime fiction where the characters of the culprit and the victim were more important than the commission of the crime, and soon began to read crime novels with interest. Over the years, I have interviewed and hosted crime authors on Daily (w)rite, and taking a trip down the memory lane, I’m sharing a  few here:

Author JJ Marsh on Writing Crime Novels in a Series:

“I’ve written twelve crime novels. They feature the same protagonist with many of the same secondary or recurring characters. I plotted a series of six, but decided to commit to another half dozen when I found an eager audience.

When planning the original six books I kept one key element in mind. The main character (MC) must have a trajectory, an arc over all six novels. She can’t stagnate or make the same mistakes over and over again. Even against the worst opponent – her mental health – she must progress. From the first in the series, Behind Closed Doors, I knew where she was going. Equally important, where she’d come from.

The people I hadn’t considered were the supporting cast. Secondary characters need their own journeys, or will become cardboard cut-outs the reader can predict. While writing book 3, I found myself flicking back and forth through the paperbacks, trying to remember how old a child was, where a friend lived or if the MC’s best friend was a vegetarian.

That’s when I started the spreadsheet. I have an Excel file of characters, quirks, description and development per novel. This started as a technical way of maintaining consistency, but soon grew into something more useful. This sheet has proved invaluable not only for character arcs but also as a shortcut. One feature of my books is that certain characters from previous novels occasionally have a cameo role. Rather than rereading an entire book, I can check the guest star’s full name, physical appearance, relationship to main character, key lines and personal history.”

Read the rest of the post, HERE.

——

Author Tom Benjamin on Writing Your First Crime Novel:

  • Invest some time in studying the basics – structure, plot, characterisation, etc – you don’t have to do a course, there are plenty of ‘how to’ books about. We might all think we have a novel in us, but writing is a skill as much as say, playing the guitar, and getting the basics right can save you hours, days and years of false starts and dead ends.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help – ask friends for feedback, take writing advice join writers groups, etc. Even consider paying for feedback from a legitimate literary consultancy (one that doesn’t over-promise) – Cornerstones really helped me whip my debut in to shape.
  • Each of us has our own approach to writing, so I am suspicious of these ‘what you need to do is write 500 words then go for a walk, then 500 more’ kinds of writing advice. But what I would say – examine your own habits and try and develop a way to write that suits you, because (cliché alert) a novel is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. A mental marathon, remember that. Personally, as I begin book three, I am starting with a little light training (I should be writing today, but am doing this, for example) then, as my deadline nears, will get more serious and try to achieve around 1500 words a day. But that’s just me.
  • Write about what you are interested in, is my last piece of writing advice, so you can maintain your interest and that of the reader across 80,000 words. But plainly, not everyone is likely to be interested in the mating habits of goldfish (although come to think of it, that does sounds like the title to a potential domestic drama) so you also need to be realistic about what you are setting out to achieve. For example, if a goldfish dealer were to be found drowned in his own aquarium and the solution rests with a prize goldfish being trafficked by ruthless criminals, this might sell more than a book on… the mating habits of goldfish. Unless it is that aforementioned drama! Remember – agents and publishers have to pay the rent/ mortgage, too.

Read the rest of the post, HERE.


Author Barbara Copperthwaite on Creating Tension in Crime Novels:

“The recipe for a successful psychological thriller includes many ingredients, but a key one has to be tension. That ever-present sense of unease, which builds with each chapter – each turn of the page – is what keeps readers thinking ‘just one more’ until they realise they’ve devoured the book in one sitting. So how does a writer go about building tension? Here are my ten top tips….

  1. Start Small

At the beginning, it’s often best to start small and build the sense of unease gradually through the book.
In The Girl In The Missing Poster, my main character is a canine behaviourist, and her dogs were useful in creating this sense of the world looking the same but being tilted slightly so that the reader’s sense of equilibrium is disturbed. How? Through tiny details such as all three of them lifting their heads at once, as if hearing a sound she herself couldn’t. Getting home from a walk and them giving a small growl even though there’s no one there, and nothing out of place. From those tiniest of beginnings the tension can than increase slowly.

2. Beat the Clock

Introduce a race against time and you’ve instantly got yourself a great tool for creating tension in your fiction. The mystery has to be solved in the next 24 hours otherwise the main character’s lover will be be executed; the protagonist will be arrested for a crime she didn’t commit if she doesn’t find the real culprit before the police find her; even love stories can benefit from a deadline: if the couple don’t get together in the next two days then the main character is moving to New York. Look at your current work and ask yourself: can I compress the timeline and so increase the stakes?”

Read the rest of the post, HERE.


Author Louise Beech on Reading like a Writer:

“I’d definitely recommend that writers read lots, and that they read a variety of genres. Read out of your comfort zone. This is where you learn the most. For example, I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as I never read sci-fi – and I adored it. Read books from all eras too, as the differences in language use are a real lesson. Jane Eyre is one of the most beautiful books of all time. Devour everything. Really, there’s no such thing as reading a bad book because everything teaches you, even if it’s what not to do.”

Read the rest of the post, HERE.


Author Jacqueline Ward on Plotting a Crime Novel (or in her case, a Psychological Thriller)

“Complex novel structures – different ways of plotting (or not plotting!) Not everyone wants or needs to keep track of their plot. But if you are writing a complex structure with plenty of strands and depth of subtext, at some point you will need to know where your story is going – and where it has been. Before I begin my novel, I take a blank plotting template and make columns for the dimensions of my story that will make up the world of my novel.

Story Arcplotting the main story : Sometimes I can use the plotting chart before I write to plot the beats or plot points of the main story. I might have a column for plot points I will populate initially with the initial ideas I have about the story, plotted against a three-act structure. This will give me an outline to work with, although I never feel that this is final, and I often change it as I write. I plot this in the chapter number column.”

Read the rest of the post, including a template for plotting psychological thrillers, HERE.


And finally,

Authors of Crime Novels Describe Spending a Day with One of their Protagonists:

One of the joys of the writing life is reading in the genre you write in—and I had the rare privilege to feature some of my favorite crime, mystery, and thriller authors as they tell us if they’d get along with the characters in their latest smash-hit books.

To each of them, I asked this question:

“Would you and your main character from your latest novel get along? If you spent a day together, what activity would it be on?“

HERE are their wonderfully honest, very personal responses.Seven Crime Thriller Authors Spend A Day With Their Book Protagonists


Do your read or write crime novels? What crime novels would you recommend? What were the top tips  that you have read or received for writing novels?


My literary crime novel, THE BLUE BAR will appear from Thomas and Mercer in October this year. I’d appreciate your support in marking it Want to Read on Goodreads.

Cover reveal soon. If you’ve read You Beneath Your Skin, and would like to pre-order THE BLUE BAR, it is available here:

If you enjoyed the post,  click on any or all of the following to stay updated on my blog and writing:

GET CURATED PUBLISHING RESOURCES  SUBSCRIBE TO BLOG   JOIN DAILY(W)RITE ON FB  FOLLOW ON BOOKBUB

Save

Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her forthcoming literary crime thriller, The Blue Bar is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency, and will be published by Thomas & Mercer on January 1, 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

8 Comments

  • hilarymb says:

    Hi Damyanti – what a wonderful post to come across … I love crime novels – which are really the only light reads I pick up. Excellent selection of ideas your selections have given us – and the books themselves … thanks – cheers Hilary

  • Denise Covey says:

    Hello Damyanti. I read more crime novels than any other genre. Will try some of the novels here. I’ve never tried to write one, but I do have a thriller partially planned out if I ever get time to write it! Thanks for the article. Very helpful.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Since you read so many, you will definitely have an easier time writing them, Denise! I’m glad the article was helpful, and if you do read any of the books here, let me know what you thought of them.

  • fenlandphil says:

    An interesting and helpful post, thank you. Alison Bruce introduced me to character spreadsheets at a writing course I attended.
    I have been asked by a great many people who have read my debut novel Killing Time in Cambridge, for a sequel, I wish I had considered a series before I started writing but have a few ideas to work with.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      All the best with the sequel! Yes spreadsheets can be helpful–though personally, I can only use them at a later stage to keep track of things once the novel has been edited a time or two.

  • You make such a good point about the difference in crime between countries. I teach a grad school class and make a point of mentioning to my students that what they think is legal here, in the US, isn’t necessarily true anywhere else. Be careful!

    Great list of posts on crime I’m going to work my way through.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Thanks, Jacqui. The posts were very helpful to me, and I learned a lot reading them. We have very low crime here in Singapore, but that definitely does not mean no crime.

%d bloggers like this: