Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Crime Fiction: Private Dicks, Armchair Detectives, and Cops on the Job

For our next writer roundtable, let's talk about crime fiction and mystery fiction. 

Which "slice" of this genre do you prefer to write, detectives solving mysteries (or cops solving a procedural) or a more general telling of the crime and folks involved? Why?

Danielle Procter Piper: I prefer to tell the story of the investigator. It's tricky, though, because sometimes it's difficult to stay one step ahead of a very intelligent character. You have to keep tossing obstacles at him or her just to keep the story going. It's also fun to pair him or her with a partner who keeps veering things off course, just to add to the struggle and fun. 

Paul Storrie: Hard-boiled detective fiction. As Chandler put it, "Down these mean streets a man must go who is himself not mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." (Okay, these days I don't object to a bit of tarnish and, of course, the "man" might be a woman or nonbinary. ) Though I have enjoyed some procedurals, I prefer the private investigator. The underdog. Not part of the system, but striving for some kind of justice nonetheless.

Van Allen Plexico: "Get caught"?! Dude--spoilers, but my criminals get away with it! 😅 I mean, things never go the way they expect, but they at least get away with something!

And so far, I've come up with the objective first, after a lot of historical research, and then puzzled out what they're trying to do and how they go about doing it. Then, once I'm telling the tale, I allow it to grow in whatever useful and interesting directions it wants to go.

Aaron Rosenberg: I definitely write "someone solving a mystery", I'm not entirely sure how you'd do a mystery otherwise. 🙂

Sean Taylor: I vastly prefer to write a mystery. For me, I dig a good P.I. tale, and often the more hard-boiled or at least hard-boiled inspired the better. That's my preference when writing AND reading. I don't think I could ever want to write a cozy or an armchair type of detective. I want grit and action and disillusionment. I also enjoy writing something with a more noir approach, where an everyperson ends up in the middle of some mess and must figure their way out of it, and often that mess involves crime and criminals. 

Bobby Nash: I like following characters as they solve a mystery or chase down a bad guy. For me, the characters are where it starts. The mystery, procedural elements, or even the chase all work in service to the characters. Not every character handles a situation the same way. How Snow approaches a problem is different than how Sheriff Myers approaches it. These character traits inform how the story unfolds. My stories tend to involve solving a case or mystery, but I try to spend time with both the protagonists and antagonists. Still, it all starts with the characters.

Snow is much more of an action/thriller. There are mysteries in the Snow stories, but not all Snow stories are mysteries. As with everything I do, I try to make sure it starts with the characters. Everything that happens in a Snow book does so through Snow-covered glasses. How do the things in the story impact Abraham Snow? How does he react to events? From there, the crime builds around Snow.

The same is true of my other characters as well. At least I hope so. As you mentioned, they have vastly different approaches. I could drop Abraham Snow, Tom Myers, Harold Palmer, Catherine Jackson, and John Bartlett, all investigators and law enforcement in their own right, into the same plot and I would come away with five different stories because of how these characters handle the plot would be different and therefore take the story in a different direction. Tom Myers investigates differently than John Bartlett or Catherine Jackson. Their personalities are different. They have different skill sets. Those attributes help define how these characters solve their mysteries/cases.

Jason Bullock: I have to say I'm drawn to writing mysteries that deal with seasoned investigators encountering the improbable only to find it was the most reasonable explanation at the time. I love a cliffhanger!

HC Playa: I have written a grand total of one mystery short story which I totally winged. Was that the best approach? No, not at all. My story for "The Dragon Wore a Badge" (an anthology that is not yet out), falls in the solve the mystery category, although the person who was the crime victim centers more in this story. So perhaps a bit of both mystery/crime telling for that one. Did I wing that one as well? Why yes, yes I did. 😂

Now, technically book two for Of the Other series that I am working on features a kidnapping that our MCs have to solve....so I guess I write "person(s) solving a mystery."

Ian Totten: I do crime fiction. There’s something about writing grittiness, and an honest portrayal of this that appeals to my mind. It depends on the story, but I rarely give the reader an idea of who the antagonist is.

When writing a mystery, whether procedural, cozy, PI, etc., how do you craft your tale and plot? Just jump in and wing it as you go? Or do you start with the crime and work backward to figure out where the criminal went wrong and what caused them to get caught? Or have a main character just putter along until that final clue or witness falls into place? 

John French: My first ever published story was a detective story for which I had a great closing line and then wrote the story to get there. Generally, I start with a situation or what I want to happen then choose the detective best suited for it. How it goes from there varies, sometimes I know what's going to happen, and sometimes the story or characters take over. But it's always an investigator - police detective, PI (licensed or not), or someone else who would naturally investigate or punish crime.

Bobby Nash: I start with the inciting incident. With In The Wind, Sheriff Tom Myers’ first standalone novella, the idea of the safe house being hit was what I came up with first. I then built the story from there. The first step was getting to know the guy in protective custody. Who is he? Why is he there? What kind of criminal is he? What will he do when the safe house is attacked? Once I had that in place, I started figuring out the rest. Who’s after him? Why? Where does he go? What parts of Sommersville do we need to visit in this story? We’re worldbuilding as we work the investigation. Then I start layering in the pieces until we get to the end.

In Such A Night, I started with the murder and worked outward from there. In the upcoming Standing on the Shadows, we start with a small-engine plane crash. That uncovers a long-buried secret. Then, I build the crime off of that beginning. In Snow Falls, it was with our main character getting shot and left for dead. Evil Ways started with an action scene designed to introduce the characters and also lay the groundwork for the sequel, Evil Intent. Deadly Games! started with a flashback to introduce the characters and their relationships before time jumping to the present situation.

I usually have an idea of the ending when I start, but there have been instances where the ending changed as a result of the story unfolding organically. I don’t do detailed outlines. I know certain plot points to hit, what clues need to be there, that sort of thing, but I leave the story open enough to make discoveries along the way. Some of my better twists resulted in trusting the characters. In one instance, the villain of the story was not who I, the writer, thought it would be. I was at the end of the story, a short piece, and realized that who I thought was the bad guy was not the actual bad guy at all. The twist was great so I went back to insert the appropriate clues so the readers could have the chance to deduce the bad guy’s identity. I like to play fair and have all of the clues appear in the story. To my surprise, the clues were already there. This is further proof that my characters are way smarter than I am.

Writing clues can be nerve-wracking. To me, because I know it’s a clue, they seem so blatantly obvious that there should be a neon sign pointing at them, flashing the words THIS IS A CLUE!  With Evil Ways, I was pleasantly surprised that some of the clues to the killer’s identity were not caught by readers on the first read-through. When I pointed them out in conversation with readers, I could see the dots start to connect. That made me happy.

Paul Storrie: I've got to map it out ahead of time. That way I know the clues and have a rough idea when it makes sense for them to be found. I also need a solid idea of how the story wraps. (I've never quite bought into the idea that if the writer is surprised, the reader will be too.)

Danielle Procter Piper: I'll get a basic idea in my head: For instance, in Venus In Heat, I knew I wanted to write a story about the concept of "obligate carnivores" or "obligate herbivores" and prove such things don't actually exist. Because of the thriller/mystery element, I went with a real fear—people getting eaten. To amp it up, I decided they'd be small children. So, that was the exciting part, the part that makes the reader squirm and wonder what's going on. Next, I chose my main characters and decided to go with ones I was very familiar with: An almost goody-two-shoes retired veterinarian, and a shady streetwise para-policing agent...so there's the combo I mentioned earlier with the intelligent investigator partnered with a near opposite who keeps throwing the case sideways. After that, I took the beginning of an older idea that never went anywhere and made it the start of an entirely new, wild story. It was author Tim Dorsey who told me he writes by just letting the story and characters drag him along, no plotting or planning, and I find that's the most fun for me, too. I'll see logical plot points manifesting in the future and write toward them, then drift along that stream until another starts to appear. Winging it, most people call it. 

HC Playa: In my hybrid planning/seat of the pants approach I know who did the thing, but they aren't the big bad, and why they did it and where, but it's the laying down the breadcrumb trail to my big bad that's tricky. I come up with the next two or three plot beats and then have to stop as I figure out how to keep the trail going and possibly send them on a goose chase. I haven't written that particular style story before, so it's a bit slower than just going, "Ooh, and now there's an explosion" 😁

Jason Bullock: I have to admit that I start my task by exploring an event, a crime, or a problem that could be currently being experienced by my protagonist. I then settle that character into the thick if things. Skipping to a major theme plot element catches readers right out of the gate holds them by the frontal lobe till I'm ready to go back to the beginning of the scene where it began before the main character was involved in the time stream.

Aaron Rosenberg: Oh, I have to know the details of the mystery--who, how, when, where, and why--before I ever start writing. Then I can see what clues got left behind, what hints there are, what trails--and what red herrings, as well. Trying to wing it would result in a ridiculous amount of backfill as you finally figure everything out.

Sean Taylor: I generally have an outline when I work. Yes, I'm not typically a pantser. I'm a notorious plotter. Because of that, I know the ins and outs of the crime, but I still like that surprise when something I didn't even think was important becomes a major clue like the watch in Rick Ruby's "A Tree Falls in a Forest." That started as a throwaway clue, then became more and more important as the story progressed. Rick is an odd blend of capable detective and putterer, working all the angles until he gets the right bite on the line. Then he's smart enough to know that's his new direction to focus on. 

Is it more important that the reader be in the dark along with the MC or should the reader have access to stuff the "detective" doesn't? Which ratchets up the tension best for you?

Aaron Rosenberg: I do mysteries from either first-person or limited third-person POVs, meaning they see what the main characters see, nothing more. I don't believe in hiding details from my reader, having the main characters figure something out or see something and not share it in order to dazzle the reader at the end, but I also don't believe in giving the reader more information than the main character. It's a shared journey, everyone has the same information at the same time.

Jason Bullock: I often times do the reveal of what's important when the MC is encountering the event. Disguising that key clue amidst a bevy of red herrings which are laid out for them to take a whiff at is a great way a murder, robbery, kidnapping, etc. The hidden clue in plain sight is what makes the reveal even better by the main character. "Tweak a strand on the web and the Spider will show itself."- Douglas Aldridge, (protagonist from my novella ENOCH Initiative ©2023)

Paul Storrie: I tend to go with the traditional hard-boiled, private eye, first-person narrative, so the reader gets the clues when the detective does. Haven't yet written a mystery where the reader has more info than the detective.

Danielle Procter Piper: I like to follow the hero precisely, allowing the reader to try and guess what's happening. Showing them how the character thinks and why, explaining how motivations and past experience play into his or her worldview but will take a side trip to write stuff the hero doesn't know if it's necessary to add clarity for the reader. If the reader knows just about everything already and is simply following the hero's path to resolution then I feel the story is not about solving anything or encouraging new ways of thinking and seeing things, but about caring for the characters instead. Either can work. I prefer to write stories of discovery instead of stories about emotions.

Bobby Nash: I prefer to play fair with my readers. All of the clues the detective uses to solve the case need to be in the book. I hate it when detectives use a piece of information or clue to solve a case that the audience did not see. That’s not fair to the readers. I like for readers to be able to try and solve things along with the characters in the book. Plus, if they didn’t figure it out, after the reveal, they can go back and see the clues. That said, I do spend time with the antagonists. In those instances, the protagonists will not have that information. It’s a bit of the best of both worlds, though can be tricky. In my novels, Evil Ways and Suicide Bomb, we follow the killer in each, seeing events through his eyes, hearing his thoughts, but I still keep the identity secret until the hero characters discover it. That can be tough. You have to be careful with how you write those scenes.

Sean Taylor: One of the reasons why I specified crime fiction not just mystery fiction for this roundtable is they are different animals but the same genus, so to speak. In a mystery, someone is trying to find clues and solve the crime. In thriller crime fiction (like Die Hard for a movie example) the villain is already known to the MC, and the only mystery is how the hero is gonna save the day. In a thriller, the reader is usually more knowledgeable than the MC since the POV will bounce from head to head as needed to keep a more "cinematic" pacing and plotting. In mysteries, as most have said before, clues come a little at a time, drizzle by drizzle, and often are packaged with red herrings or rabbit trails. Personally, with Rick Ruby, I like to see him do his due diligence as a capable detective, but sort of stumble into the final piece based on something he did intentionally earlier in the act of investigation, something that he doesn't know he knows yet, but the bad guys may think he knows so they make their move. 

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