Secrets of Writing Crime Fiction

A competitive but immensely popular fictional genre, crime writing explores the darker side of human nature. But with hundreds of crime novels published every year, where does the crime writer begin to make a mark?
The Crime Fiction Author
The crime writer does not have to have a background in the prosecution service or the police to
write about crime fiction, although it might help. But proper research into the workings of criminal law is essential to any crime story, particularly when writing a detective novel. Researching for a crime novel is pretty in-depth, so I have dedicated a separate article to it.
Click on image to purchase my new crime novel.

To start with, the crime novelist may be made aware of the crime novel subgenres to help get an idea of the story’s slant, which could be:

  • Murder mystery thrillers
  • Classic whodunit
  • Detective novels
  • Historical crime novels
  • Police fiction
  • Court cases
  • Mystery thrillers
  • Private eye
  • Crime fantasy
What Makes a Great Murder Mystery?
All this being well, a crime novel is only as good as the central plot, the characterisation and the narrative style, as the most meticulously-researched background into the criminal world could count for nothing without these vital elements. This means:
  1. Making the central characters compelling via an intricate understanding of their motives, desires and fears.
  2. A tight plot, where each event propels the reader though the book without knowing how the story is going to resolve.
  3. Tight, compelling and convincing dialogue.
  4. Active writing. No flabby purple prose allowed.
  5. Some unexpected plot twists will never go amiss. The writer may ask a trusted friend to read the story to establish whether the twists are really unexpected and whether some tweaking might be in order.

Reading great crime novelists such as Karin Slaughter, Ian Rankin and Mark Billingham will give the aspiring writer a clue on what to aim for, but forging an individual style is essential to getting noticed in the world of crime fiction publishing. The following advice on crime writing may help:

Getting a Crime Novel Published
Avoid writing a particular type of crime novel just because it is popular at the moment, as trends change like the wind. Retaining individuality and honesty throughout will show through the writing. This may mean not reading a crime novel whilst writing one, to ensure the writing style remains pure.
  • Avoid stereotypes like the plague. The alcoholic divorced copper, the sadistic pimp and the boffin forensic must go.
  • Make the villain human, not just evil. This will simply alienate the character from the reader. Introducing human aspects the reader can identify with will make the villain more disturbing.
  • In the same way, give the hero faults. Few readers will sympathise or care about a smugly perfect “goodie.”
  • Inject the unexpected into the crime novel. Think about the reader and reasons why he or she might want to keep turning the pages.
  • Retain accuracy in the background research.
Finally, consider the differing viewpoints of those affected by a crime situation: the criminal, the victim, the families of both parties, witnesses and those investigating the case. Speculate on the emotional journey of all concerned from beginning to resolution. This will help bring into focus how the motives of each will cause the story to unfold.
Breaking into the Crime Writing Publishing World
Getting a crime novel published is tough, but publishers are constantly on the lookout for new crime fiction talent for its insatiable market. It is therefore vital that the crime author conducts proper research into the background of criminal law, and to create characters the reader will care about, which means binning stereotypes. A tight plot with unexpected twists will help increase the crime novel’s chance of getting noticed.
Since writing this article, I have completed my first crime novel, which is available on Kindle, but soon in print, entitled the Shuttered Room, ready for download for a very reasonable price.
Links and Resources for the Crime Writer

Books on how to write crime novels

The Crime Writer’s Association

Publishers of Crime Fiction Novels

Books on Writing Novels

UK bookshop on how to write novels

US bookshop on how to write novels

UK software for novel writers


© Rachel Shirley 2010