Skip to main content

Want #WritingTips from a Bestselling Author and #Writing Guru?

By 06/04/2018June 8th, 2022guest post, writing
Interview: David Corbett Writing Advice

David Corbett writing adviceHere on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my absolute pleasure today to welcome David Corbett, bestselling author of several books of crime fiction, and writing teacher extraordinaire.

His book on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character, has been called “a writer’s bible,” and it will soon appear in translation in both Spanish and Mandarin.

More in the extended biography at the end of the post. For now, I’ll invite you to read his responses with some sterling writing advice, some of which I’ve highlighted in blue.


writing advice1. What are your preoccupations as a writer?

Interesting word choice – “preoccupation.” Better than “obsession,” I suppose, though perhaps not as accurate.

I would say all my stories deal with the struggle for dignity and decency – and love – in a world that prizes deceit, power, self-interest, and blame. And almost all my stories deal with one or more character becoming a bit more brave, honest, and caring.

I suppose I’m also always looking for some way to find meaning in life in the face of certain death. I lost both my brother and my first wife at far too young an age to horrible illnesses. I had to come up with a reason for sticking around. That continues to inform my writing.

2. You have a background in criminal investigation. How has that informed your writing in terms of both plot and character?

My background is as a private investigator, which is a bit different than “criminal investigation,” which suggests law enforcement. If I worked on a criminal case, I typically worked for the defense, meaning I was in an adversarial role to law enforcement, though ostensibly we were both trying to establish the truth (he says wryly).

One learns a great deal about power in the so-called justice system. I saw how cancerous ambition could be. I saw how seemingly convenient – and easy – it is to lie your way out of a problem. I learned that money buys justice, and how, in the courtroom, the rules of gravity no longer apply. I saw how similar our legal and political systems are—both are far too often maddeningly unaccountable for the horrible consequences they create. And yet, for all that, I also saw a great deal of personal integrity, commitment, and humility.

Incidentally, I get asked often if women can be PIs. I respond that some of the very best private investigators I’ve ever met are women. Know why? Women listen.

I’m currently teaching creative writing to prison inmates, and my background in criminal defense has helped immeasurably. I know how easy it is to find oneself on the wrong side of the law. And it’s reminded me of something I always tell my students, and which I’m reminded of every time I step into that prison: “Justify, don’t judge your characters.”

writing advice quote3. Could you recommend five novels that you think all aspiring crime writers should read?

If I had to name just five they would probably be:

The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler: Established the crime novel as worthy of literary regard. I think of it as more akin to The Day of the Locust than a crime novel.

Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain: One of the few books I picked up and didn’t put down until I was finished. Tight prose, exquisite plotting.

Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris: I’m not one for serial killer stories (I still think The Collector is my favorite), but this is considered by many the absolute best. Well-researched, with one of the most compelling villains ever created.

Clockers, by Richard Price: Raised the bar for all crime writers. Puts the criminal and the cop on equal moral footing. Hugely influential—Pelecanos, Lehane, etc.

Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson: Once again, the crime novel as literature, with possibly the most admirable private investigator ever created. But just trying to narrow the list down to five made me feel as though I was being unfair to a great many others.

Writing advice4. Is there a work of crime fiction that you wish you’d written, and why?

Any of the five I just mentioned would qualify. I also think Dennis Lehane’s work is particularly strong. His focus is always on place and community, not just cops and robbers, something I think he’d admit he learned from his own mentor, Richard Price, who once said that if you want to convey a certain place and time, put a dead body in it and cut a detective loose.

5. What writing advice would you give to someone outlining their novel?

  • First and foremost: Never forget that characters create the story. Until you have a basic understanding of your characters, any story you try to create risks becoming formulaic. You also risk turning your characters into “plot puppets.”
  • The other problem with outlines is that one tends to think in terms of: This happened, then this happened, then this… And that can create a story that reads like “one darn thing after another.
  • Stories aren’t about what happens. They’re about what goes wrong—and then making that problem progressively worse.
  • So if you’re outlining, don’t think in terms of what is likely to happen. Create a problem, then build a sequence of follow-up scenes through cause-and-effect that intensify that problem.

However, once again, you can’t neglect your characters, for they’re the ones creating the incidents that make up your story. Force the characters to move the action forward by looking deep within themselves in solving those ever-worsening problems you devise.

6. What makes a character real and interesting? What questions does a writer need to answer in order to get readers invested in their characters?

writing adviceWell, I wrote an entire book on this, and am working on a follow-up. It’s a bit hard to provide a quick or pithy answer.

I would say the core question to ask is always: What does the character want, and why? The follow-up questions to that include: What is missing from the character’s life? What kind of person does he want to be? What way of life does he yearn to live? Why doesn’t he have it already? What is holding him back—a weakness? A wound? A limitation? Some kind of exterior opposition? A moral flaw? What is his external goal in the story? How does he expect to achieve it? What stands in his way? How does he intend to overcome that obstacle and get what he wants?

writing advice on characterisationI also would seek out what makes the character vulnerable—physically, emotionally, professionally, psychologically.

I would explore secrets and contradictions.

Finally, I would explore key moments in the character’s past when they were helpless, for these moments expose our character in ways we can’t predict. Moments of extreme fear, shame, guilt, betrayal, and loss. To counter-balance these, so that you also understand the character’s hope, willfulness, and confidence, explore moments of great courage, pride, forgiveness, trust, and joy or love.

Overall, remember that each character has struck a balance between pursuing the promise of life, and protecting himself from the pain of life. Your story will disrupt, challenge, and possibly even dismantle that balance.

7. An oft-quoted Vonnegut quote goes: ‘Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible’. As a crime writer, how do you decide how much to tell your reader?

Well, I’m not sure I agree with that. Anne Perry, when asked recently what technique she would advise for presenting backstory, responded, “Intravenous drip.”

And whenever a secret is key to the story, you undermine suspense by revealing it too soon.

Always remember that backstory is behavior. Whatever information you need to provide should be revealed in how your characters act and speak in the environment in which they find themselves. It should intrigue the reader, not baffle or confuse her. But as much as possible, explanations should wait until at least the middle of the story.

writing advice8. Your book, The Art Of Character seems like a wonderful amalgamation of incisive psychoanalysis and imaginative visualization techniques. What did you have in mind when you wrote it?

I wanted to write a guide to characterization that would both instruct and inspire. I drew not only on my own fiction-writing background but my years of studying theater.

9. Tell us about your work as a writing teacher. Where and when can one access your classes online and offline?

You can always learn about upcoming classes, seminars, and workshops at my website, specifically this link.

You can also check out my Facebook page here, and follow me on Twitter here.

David Corbett writing adviceDavid Corbett is the author of the following long-form works of fiction:

  • The Devil’s Redhead (nominee: Anthony and Barry Awards for Best First Novel)
  • Done for a Dime (NY Times Notable Book; Macavity Award nominee, Best Novel; named “one of the two or three best American crime novels I have ever read” by Patrick Anderson of the Washington Post)
  • Blood of Paradise (nominated for numerous awards, including the Edgar, and named both one of the Top Ten Mysteries and Thrillers of 2007 by the Washington Post and a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book; published in France in both hardcover and mass-market paperback)
  • Do They Know I’m Running? (Spinetingler Award, Best Novel—Rising Star Category (“a rich, hard-hitting epic”—PW, starred review).
  • The Mercy of the Night (“Superlative hard-boiled crime fiction” —Booklist, Starred Review)
  • The Devil Prayed and Darkness Fell (novella)
  • The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday (coming from Black Opal Books, September 2018)

 Corbett’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in journals as diverse as Mission and Tenth, The Smoking Poet, and San Francisco Noir, and his stories have twice been selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories (2009 and 2011). His story “Babylon Sister” was named one of the Top Five Stories of the Week for the two year-period 2015-2016 by Narrative Magazine, while his story “It Can Happen” was nominated for a Macavity Award and has been adapted for TV as a pilot for a Hulu series based on the anthology in which it appeared, San Francisco Noir. His story collection Thirteen Confessions was published in 2016.

He serves as co-chair for the highly regarded Book Passage Mystery Writers’ Conference, where he has served as a faculty member for over ten years. He has also taught at the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Litreactor, 826 Valencia, and numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico.

Prior to his career as a novelist, he worked as a private investigator for the firm of Palladino & Sutherland in San Francisco, and played a significant role in such headline litigations as The Peoples’ Temple Trial, the first Michael Jackson child molestation scandal, the Cotton Club Murder Case, and many others. For more, visit

Are you a reader, a writer, or both?  Do you read or write crime novels? Have you read David’s work before? What do you think of David’s writing advice? As a reader or writer, do you have questions for David Corbett?

If you liked this post, you can receive posts in your inbox, or keep updated in my writing by clicking on any or all of the following buttons:

































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 literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 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.


  • MythRider says:

    I’m going to order this book from the library and read it.
    Do you host fantasy authors? I have a new book about to come out.

  • tidalscribe says:

    I found the answers to questions 1 & 2 especially interesting. We know more than ever that institutions we should be able to trust can’t be taken at face value. I like novels of all sorts, if I enjoy a crime novel it is because of the interaction of the characters.

  • aj vosse says:

    Interesting… great tips to study!
    I’m not a crime-writer but it’s good to develop the odd evil villain!

  • Damyanti, the questions asked are unique and not traditional where the author David Corbett flesh out ways to make characters come alive, thought therapy to make characters strongly nuanced. Thanks for tagging me.

  • Meenakshi says:

    Woohoo….These are like the must follow commandments for every writer. Loads of take aways for me as a blogger too.
    ‘Explore moments of joy,great courage… ” and how true.i guess, this is what adds substance to a story.
    Thanks for this interview and glad I read this!

  • I don’t think I am a strong plotter. I like the advice to create a problem, then build in event to intensify it.

  • curioushart says:

    I appreciate the article you wrote about character and hope a lot of people read it. I wish more writers paid attention to their characters. Sometimes a writer creates an unintentional character flaw which I find distracting. On the other hand, sometimes I discover a character that is better at being me than I am.

  • Thank you. I enjoyed reading the interview. I would agree with everything here about the importance of character in story, and see, as always, there is much to learn. I appreciate the debate on ‘give the reader everything as soon as possible’ in favor of ‘intravenous drip,’ so as not to undermine suspense. Great way to put it. Fascinating background.

  • Kim Watt says:

    I love ‘backstory is behaviour’. Such a good way to describe it!

  • Shilpa Garg says:

    Wow! This information is a goldmine of information and insights. Backstory should be like Intravenous drip… how wonderful and true. Thanks for the recommendations and pointers.

  • pythoroshan says:

    A wonderful interview. Picked up a lot of pointers as well as a good list of novels to read for this genre.

  • Some really great advice here. “Stories are not about what happens but what goes wrong.” How easy it is to forget that. Thank you, David!

  • Fantastic interview! The one big thing that pulls me into a story is great characterization. David offers great advice.

  • Suzy says:

    Enjoyed this interview. I enjoy detective stories but am no good at writing them. I think it’s great that you mentor prisoners. Very sorry you faced so much loss early in life.

  • Nabanita says:

    Thanks for this interview and the insights shared in it. Very helpful to aspiring authors.

  • macjam47 says:

    Thanks for this fantastic interview, Damyanti. Though I don’t read mysteries, crime novels, and such, my husband does. I’m forwarding this post to him.
    David, I am sorry for your loss.

  • lindacovella says:

    Thanks for this great interview, insights and advice! Also very cool that David teaches creative writing to prison inmates.

  • Very informative and insightful interview. Thank you for sharing.

  • jlennidorner says:

    Really great interview! I loved reading this.

  • Lovely write-up. I will be checking out the FB page.

  • Elsie says:

    Hi Damyanti. Thank you for stopping by my blog. David, I’m sorry you’ve experienced so much loss at such a young age. I can relate. You’re right, women make awesome investigators! Not only do we listen, we don’t like giving up 🙂


  • Anita says:

    Helpful advice indeed. Thanks for sharing.
    It’s tough to sketch characters…

  • franklparker says:

    Thank you, Damyanti. Useful information as always. I don’t write detective fiction but I have always loved reading it and agree with David’s choice of the best writers in the genre, especially Kate Atkinson. And, of course, his advice on creating characters the reader can believe in and engage with is invaluable whatever genre you write in. I write mostly historical fiction wherein real people are involved in real events. It is still important to understand how and why they were able to shape those events and the conflicts their beliefs and/or errors engendered.

  • pjlazos says:

    Another great interview, D, thank you. Crime novels are not my usual go-to, but sounds like I need to investigate (haha) Corbett’s work!

  • Sachin Baikar says:

    Nice interview 🙂
    Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Fantastic interview, D! David, thank you so much for sharing your insight here; I’ve added your books to my TBR list. Lehane is one of my favorites, as is his mentor, Price—and that Price quote about place and time truly struck a chord with what I have ‘in progress’ right now, so thank you for that, too.

    Much success!
    Guilie @ Life In Dogs

  • That’s great you work with prisoners wanting to be writers. Gives them a positive goal.
    Agree Red Dragon was an excellent book.

%d bloggers like this: