Crime Fiction: Tips and Pet Peeves

By Hallie Ephron

(Hallie Ephron is the author of Never Tell a Lie. She is also a writing teacher and reviews crime fiction for the Boston Globe. Her Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock ”˜em Dead with Style was nominated for Edgar and Anthony awards.

See our review of Never Tell a Lie

I’d had one mystery novel published when I taught my first mystery-writing class at a small conference. I felt like a fraud “teaching” others what I’d barely figured out how to do myself. But I’d been a teacher for decades longer than I’d been a writer, and not knowing how to do something had never stopped me before. I’d long ago discovered that a great way to really learn how to do something is to have to teach it to someone else.

A few months later, an editor from Writers Digest Books asked if I’d consider writing a how-to-write book. By then I’d finished my second novel and had taken over the Boston Globe’s “On Crime” monthly book review column. I’d been reviewing cozies, thrillers, historicals, psychological suspense, police procedurals, and so on, and I’d begun to appreciate the wide range of books that fit into the genre of “crime fiction.” I’d also developed my own ideas about how to write, not to mention dozens of pet peeves. I was looked forward to sharing my thoughts with other writers.

When I started to write my first stand-alone novel, Never Tell a Lie, I confess that I ignored virtually all the advice I’d so sagely laid out in my own book. That’s why that book took three years to write. It might also have had something to do with the fact that I didn’t have a contract. A deadline is a wonderful thing.

Based on my own writing experience and all the reading I’ve done, here are deadly dozen tips and gotchas for crime fiction writers. (I’m using the term “crime fiction” to encompass the big tent under which you find mysteries and all its subgenres plus thrillers plus capers plus suspense.)


Tip # 1 – On making the crime matter to the sleuth

Whether the crime is big and threatens the future of humanity, or small and threatens a person’s good reputation, it has to matter personally to the sleuth.

Tip # 2: On coming up with ideas

I used to think that I couldn’t write fiction because I wasn’t good at making things up. Turns out you don’t have to be, because intriguing ideas are all around you. Learn to tune in, and pay attention when your brain says: Oh, that’s interesting.

Tip #3: On your sleuth’s dark past

When your sleuth has a dark past, it raises the stakes. Each time out, the sleuth not only solves a crime, but also takes a personal journey and gets a chance to get it right this time.

Tip #4: On secrets that fuel your plot

In a mystery novel, everyone has secrets, and it’s the revelation of those secrets that propels the story forward.

Tip #5: On basing your story on real people and events

A real person or an actual event can make an excellent jumping-off point for a mystery novel. But some real events are too bizarre for fiction.

Tip #6: On moving your character past cliché

Interesting characters surprise the reader. Create a disconnect between your character’s physical presence and true capabilities. Then mine the gap. Through plot and action, reveal who your character really is.

Pet Peeves

Pet Peeve #1: On headhopping

Jane Austen wrote omniscient, slipping in and out of different characters’ heads throughout a scene. But for the most part omniscience, fiction left omniscience behind in the nineteenth century. For each scene, pick a character whose viewpoint you’re going to write from and stay in that head until the scene ends. Sliding viewpoint confuses–and confusion makes people stop reading.

Pet Peeve #2: On profligate adverbs

“Oh, goody,” Mary said enthusiastically as she smiled brightly.
Clunky, clunky, clunky. Get rid of as many of those –ly words and replace them with really good descriptions of what the character does. It’s the old SHOW DON’T TELL.
(Better: “Oh goody.” Mary rubbed her hands together and beamed me a smile.”)

Pet Peeve #3: On least-likely villain

Yes, you want to surprise the reader. But the surprise has to be credible.

Pet Peeve #4: On baroque attribution

Avoid having your characters proclaim, churble, ululate”¦and virtually every other variation of “said” or “asked.” Put the emotion into the dialogue itself or in your character’s demeanor or action. (See Pet Peeve 2)

Pet Peeve #5: On coincidence

If some major part of your plot hinges on a coincidence, readers will cry foul. Sure, there are coincidences in real life, but your fictional world is far more demanding. (See Tip #5)

Pet Peeve #6: On “We get it already!”

Trust your readers. If you show something, you don’t have to hammer the point by going on to explain it. (If you say: “Her face fell.” You don’t need to add, “She looked so disappointed.”)

Okay, got that? Now for the good news. You can slide your viewpoint and hop heads, write omniscient, load your plot up with coincidence, and get away with all the rest of it, too, if you write a good enough novel.

Like Agatha Christie when she wrote The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. She blithely broke the number one rule for murder mystery writers in the Golden Age–Play Fair with the Reader—and laughed all the way to the bank.

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