Hannah Stevenson is the editor of the Official Inspector Morse Society’s newsletter, as well as an expert on Henning Mankell. She also has an MA in English Lit and a passion for reading crime fiction. Her blog contains many author interviews and reviews of crime books. It’s worth checking out!
I’m a huge fan of Nordic Noir books, TV series and films, which is why I couldn’t resist writing a crime story for Norwegian American, a weekly English-language newspaper with a readership of over 20,000 subscribers.
Many of the stories in my collection Edge of Crime could be called Nordic Noir-ish, so I enjoyed writing a new story called Honeymoon Period. That story appeared in the October 7 issue of Norwegian American. It’s also published on their website, along with other short stories that are either set in Norway or have crime as the genre. I hope you will check out my story on their website if you like reading short stories.
The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper Stories
My short story The Ripper Legacy is in a new anthology published by Robinson/Little Brown on November 12. The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper Stories, edited by Maxim Jacubowski, includes stories by M. Christian, Carol Anne Davis, Stephen Dedman, Martin Edwards, Peter Gutteridge, Barbara Nadel, Nicky Peacock, Vanessa de Sade, Sarah Morrison, Betsy van Die, Alvaro Zinos-Almaro, Sarah Spedding, Steve Rasnic Tem, and many others. It is out now in the UK and available to pre-order in the US, where it will be published in December.
Ten Rules For Writing a Traditional Murder Mystery
1) There must be a murder. (Suicides and accidents won’t do.)
2) A detective – amateur or pro – must solve it.
3) The detective can’t be the killer.
4) The murderer can’t be a total stranger.
5) There must be only one killer – with perhaps an assistant helping out with an alibi.
6) The reader should be able to guess the killer’s identity if they spot the clues.
7) The identity of the killer is revealed only at the end of the story.
8) The detective solves the case with little help from anyone else.
9) The murderer must have a strong motive.
10) The murderer conveniently confesses when faced with the evidence, making a conviction guaranteed.
A large number of very good stories have been written by obeying these ‘rules’, but the danger of sticking to the rules is you can produce formulaic fiction.
I loved reading Agatha Christie novels when I was at school, but I lost interest once I started solving them too quickly. After reading about thirty novels, I just knew the character with the unshakeable alibi was the killer. And I just knew the character with no motive had one hidden. It started to feel like I was reading the same book over and over.
Agatha Christie’s most memorable stories were the ones where she broke her own readers’ expectations by making the murderer the detective or the narrator or a character supposedly killed earlier in the story. Everyone remembers The Murder on the Orient Express for its unique resolution – while other more formulaic novels are forgotten.
A writing formula can be a useful tool if used as a framework for a solid plot – but if it is too strictly followed nothing new will be produced and readers will become bored.
I’ve never understood why a writer would want to write the same story again and again. If you want to do that, you might as well just change the names in a book and republish that. It’s the literary equivalent of remaking a successful movie.
Writing should be like a science experiment. Try something different each time to see what works best for you. A new formula might result in a breakthrough.
You might have some failures along the way – but at least you will not repeat yourself.
There should only be one unbreakable rule for writing.
Never write the same story twice.
How do you feel about doing research for your writing?
Do you like it or loathe it?
I’ll be honest. I don’t like doing research for stories. It feels too much like homework, which I hated at school. I prefer to make up things and fill in the things I don’t know later. Unfortunately, research is a necessary evil for any subject I don’t know well – so I do it, reluctantly, with my teeth gritted.
I often start out with a bit of Googling, some downloading from Wikipedia, a visit to my local library, and then I buy a few non-fiction books on the subject written for laypersons, like the books for writers by Writers’ Digest and the easy-to-understand Dorling Kindersley reference books.
Then, if I still don’t feel like I know the subject, I’ll buy some more books written by experts for experts, the kind of books that have a million pages of appendices and footnotes so dense the pages look black with tiny writing.
I also want to know enough to be confident, when I do finally write a story, that I don’t rehash old material – so I also buy a load of fiction, which is the one part of research that I do like. I love reading fiction. But nothing I do ever makes me feel truly ready. There is always something else to learn. Research becomes obsessional and addictive. Eventually I often spend more money than I will ever earn from selling the completed story.
It seems like madness to work this way – but I don’t regret doing the research once it is done. I always learn something new and frequently discover a new area of interest. I might not use the research for that project (or the next one) – but it can be useful for another one, later on. I feel it is better to know something and not use it than to never know it.
A few years ago I wanted to write a book set in America, specifically on an island somewhere remote, where the inhabitants would all know each other. I had just read Snow Falling on Cedars and wanted to write something similar – setting a moody mystery crime drama on an island. I liked the TV show Providence – so I chose Rhode Island for the setting.
I didn’t know much about Rhode Island, but I researched it by buying several guidebooks of New England. I discovered east of Providence several islands exist perfect for setting a crime story. The residents are a mix of rich and poor, all living together far from the mainland, isolated for many months when the ferries do not operate because the weather is too rough. It was ideal for my novel Acting Dead. I didn’t use a real island for the crimes committed in my mystery story – but my fictional island, Cape Mistral, would not have felt real to me if I had not gritted my teeth and done the research.
I’d love to know what you think about research. How much do you do? Do you love it or hate it? What resources do you use?
Choosing the Best Time to Set a Novel
In early January I rediscovered a crime novel that I started writing over a decade ago. The first 100,000-word draft was completed in 2000 – but it wasn’t ready to be submitted so I left it to be revised later. I busied myself with other projects. And I completely forgot about it until I was doing a search through my old computer files. (I don’t know how I forgot writing an entire book – but I did!) Re-reading it, I realised it is now horribly out of date.
The main characters in my book – American high-school students – did not use smartphones, Facebook, Twitter and Google. The cars had CD players. The modern music references had become retro classics. Several of the famous people my main character admired have died recently – or committed serious crimes, making them very bad role models.
I decided to update the references to make the book contemporary – but I soon realised it was not going to be a simple case of changing a few technology terms. An important section of the story required the main character to have no mobile phone – which was believable when I started writing the story, but highly unlikely today. If he had owned a phone, he could have used it to call his friends or the police when he’s attacked. Scenarios that had seemed plausible in a story set in 2000 were no longer credible. The main character could just Google things instead of going to a library. He could locate his friends by text when they get separated. The cops trying to solve the murders could use CCTV footage because there are far more security cameras everywhere. Effectively, the story doesn’t work if it is changed to be in the present.
That made me think about the time I had set it in a little more closely. The 1990s and 2000s are only recent history – but things have changed dramatically since then. Social media is ubiquitous – so any novel that doesn’t have characters tweeting and checking their Facebook status looks a little old-fashioned. If I updated my first draft to be in 2015, it wouldn’t be the novel I wanted to write. Even if I did update it, those modern references would look out of date in only a few years. My book will always be set in a historical time unless I turn it into science fiction or remove all references to popular culture, making it effectively timeless.
For the moment, I have abandoned my idea to make the book contemporary. It will not work without making some drastic alterations to the plot.
However, I am considering turning back the clock a few decades.
I like the idea of setting it in the 1960s or 1970s.
I will have to do some research first, though.