How to become a bestselling crime writer

Crime is now the most popular fiction genre, with new female writers breaking through 
every month. Charlotte Philby, whose debut spy novel is published later this year, asked 
some of the most established names for their tips on how to pen a killer thriller

Val McDermid

‘The best crime novels are like a three-legged stool – they depend on character, story and setting. You have to create characters that your readers think are plausible; they don’t have to love them but they have to care about their fate. Don’t underestimate the power of setting, too. Everybody knows murders are not solved the way we write about them in books. If we wrote about the reality it would be boring, so we have to persuade the reader to come with us on a journey of suspension of disbelief. If you write about place in a way that for someone who knows that place, they’re absolutely there with you, then they trust you with everything else you’re telling them.’

Sophie Hannah

‘For me, a great crime novel starts with an irresistible hook – not simply a dead body, with the mystery being who killed them. I like something more mysterious, where the reader can’t think of any possible explanation. I also love opening scenarios that appear impossible. Unpredictability is crucial to a good thriller. If the reader can second-guess the author, he or she is likely to be disappointed. Originality is vital to feel you’re reading a unique story. Often, this comes down to narrative ambition – going to places that no one else in the genre has gone to before. Finally, the crime novels that offer the most narrative satisfaction are the ones readers love most, whether that comes from an amazing twist or simply that feeling of “that was the perfect ending”.’

Stella Duffy OBE

‘Write what interests you. All too many will-be writers are more interested in the idea of being a writer than in the actual long slog of writing a novel. Most writers take anything from many months to several years to write a book, so the content has to interest you. Don’t try to second-guess the market. What is a trend now will be long gone by the time you finish, edit, sell and publish your book. Just try to write as well as you can. The real work is in the edit. That first draft that you enjoyed writing so much? That’s only the beginning. In the edit you can tighten gaps, get rid of the lovely long passages of elegant prose you’re so fond of that do nothing to move the story forward. Make sure your work is the very best it can be.’

Charlotte Philby’s novel The Most Difficult Thing is published by HarperCollins on 11 July. Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival runs from 18-21 July in Harrogate, Yorkshire (harrogateinternationalfestivals.com/crime-writing-festival)

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