Crime fiction is one of the most popular genres amongst readers in the West. What makes it so addictive and what does it take to be a successful crime fiction writer? I recently heard from a panel of four crime fiction writers from the UK, who shared their thoughts on writing, reading and living through a pandemic. Souwie Buis finds out more . . .

Perhaps unsurprisingly, life under lockdown has caused a boom in fiction reading including e-books and audio books. So called ‘pandem lit’ has seen a rise in popularity but thrillers and crime fiction still dominate the bestseller lists. As Emily Koch, journalist turned crime fiction novelist maintains that crime fiction lovers are not necessarily “dark people”, either as writers or as readers. But as a writer she enjoys creating and solving mysteries. She suspects that this is what her readers enjoy too. Crime fiction presents us with an intricate web of problems based on the real world but, unlike real life, it provides answers and some sort of resolution to those problems. Emily has recently released her second novel, Keep Him Close which she describes as a dark domestic drama centring on the friendship that develops between two women one whose son is killed and the other whose son is in prison for murder.

‘Endings are usually divisive’ – Phoebe Morgan

All four writers agree that ending a crime novel can be a challenge. How does one know when it’s ended and how many loose ends should one tie up? Award-winning British author, Lucy Atkins, recently released her fourth novel, Magpie Lane, which she describes as a ‘claustrophobic’ literary thriller set in a ‘spooky, 400 year old house’ in an Oxford college. Atkins prefers ambiguous endings but agrees that many readers like resolution so the trick is to find a balance. Bestselling author and editorial director for Harper Collins, Phoebe Morgan, agrees that endings are usually divisive. Her soon-to-be-released thriller, The Babysitter, is set in Suffolk and the South of France and follows the events that unravel when a  woman babysits her friend’s child for the evening only to be found dead and the child gone when the parents return.

AA Abbott, who’s real name is Helen Blenkinsop, has just released the 5th and final book of her Trail series, The Final Trail. Helen admits she is a sucker for happy endings but had to ensure that she left enough loose ends in her Trail series to enable her to continue with the story of the ‘fabulously wealthy young heiress to a vodka fortune’.  Initially something of an antiheroine, the protagonist develops over the course of the 5 novels into someone who readers later warm to. This Birmingham writer admits that she is also a fan of beta readers. These are family, friends and other volunteers who agree to read the first draft of one of her novels and then complete a 30 point questionnaire on what they liked and didn’t like. If, for example, a popular character has been killed off early in the novel, feedback from these readers may cause Abbott to reconsider.

‘One has to pick and choose the things one is ready to fight for – you can’t say no to everything.’ – Emily Koch

This brings the discussion around to the question of reviews. Who reads their reviews and who prefers simply to write on in blissful ignorance? Lucy Atkins tells us that she prefer to ‘disengage from the critical reception of her work’ fearing that it might inhibit her. But Emily Koch and Phoebe Morgan both agree they cannot resist reading the responses to  their work. Editors also provide much needed critical response to initial drafts. All four writers agree that without an editor whom one trusts, the writing process would be very difficult indeed. Even so, Emily and Phoebe admit that extensive structural edits on one’s first draft are hard to handle. Phoebe usually gives herself a day or so to absorb the news before beginning to tackle the changes because one’s initial reaction is almost always negative. Emily tells us that as an author ‘one has to pick and choose the things one is ready to fight for’ in that first draft because ‘you can’t say no to everything.’

For those of you who have had thoughts of trying your hand at crime fiction writing, the panel had some tips. All four overwhelmingly agreed on one thing above all else, in a word; perseverance. Lucy Atkins quoted a professor of hers – ‘the trick to writing is applying the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair’. While Phoebe Morgan entreats those whose first book doesn’t get published not to give up. As an editor, she has come across writers who were only published after completing their third or even their fourth novel! Helen Blenkinsop admits that her writing group provided invaluable feedback for her in the writing process. While Emily Koch suggests simply finishing a first draft greatly improves ones chances of getting published. What are you waiting for?    Souwie Buis