By Jayne Barnard
What do fish-gutting, trap-lines, and cross-country skiing have to do with crime-writing?
They’re all ways to think structurally when creating good stories.
A good crime story is, first and foremost, a good story. One of the above is specific to crime writing. During The Crime Writer’s Toolkit workshop on October 3, we’ll talk about all of them, and how they interact for the best possible story dynamics.
Consider how many stories you read that are driven by the pursuit of something—an answer, an object, a person—pulling you through with the gradual revelation of long-kept secrets, or luring you into expecting one ending and then switching it up in the final paragraph. Would you keep reading if there was nothing you wanted to find out? Those are all standard tropes of crime writing, even in the hands of authors who aren’t writing what you might think of as a typical crime novel.
First, for those whose exposure to crime writing begins and ends with Poirot on Netflix, some background on what crime fiction is:
Crime fiction embraces a wide field. It encompasses mystery, suspense, and thriller sub-genres, each with their own sub-genres such as cosy, hard-boiled, political, police-procedural, or slasher/serial killer. Each sub-genre (except the last) might be written for any age group. There might be paranormal elements or a science-fiction setting. It’s a big tent, even without considering another very popular arena of crime writing: true crime, which may be biographical or auto-biographical, strictly factual or verging into creative non-fiction. My quarter-century of published crime writing—and all my awards—are for crime fiction; I’ll be leaving discussions of crime non-fiction to those more skilled in that sub-genre.
Like any other genre, crime fiction has its conventions, the concepts that devoted readers expect to find and will feel cheated if those aren’t presented, or are presented poorly. These conventions include clear victims, villains, and sleuths, the Hook, clues and red herrings, turning points, black moments, and more. Fair Play is the Prime Directive: the reader should be able to arrive at the answer to the central story question through a close reading of the text, and if they are surprised by the solution, they should be able to spot all the well-buried clues on a re-read.
Romantic suspense might fall under crime writing or under romance, depending on which tropes carry more of the story. Romance readers will overlook a lot of improbable crime solving if the journey toward true love is holding their interest, while readers of crime fiction will throw a book across the room if the police detective prematurely reveals the progress of an investigation to the adorable love interest. Crime readers may lose patience with the ‘kissing bits’ and want to get on with the mystery. The romantics may baulk at a convoluted plot that makes the crime reader’s heart sing. Getting the balance right is very much a matter of becoming familiar with the conventions of both genres and then choosing which of those to include, ignore, or turn on their heads.
Unlike in pure romance and much of romantic suspense where the central story question is always the same (How will the two protagonists end up together?), the story questions in crime fiction vary by their sub-genre and spread across the full spectrum from frivolous to deadly. Mystery questions might be anything from “Where’s the missing pet?’ through “Who stole the queen’s jewels?” to “Who killed Mr. (or Ms.) Boddy and why?” In a suspense novel, the question is often “Who is behind this peril to me and those I hold dear?” In a thriller we often know who the villain is and the question has become “Can our protagonist evade this clear danger and outwit the villain?” Elements of all three might be combined in a single piece of crime writing.
The elements of mystery are everywhere, almost invisibly underpinning fiction and non-fiction alike. Learning what they are and how to use them effectively allows you to not only write crime fiction, but to shape any piece of writing for maximum reader engagement.
In the October 3rd workshop we’ll develop the main components of a joint crime plot, using easy-to-recall diagrams to shape our story like we’d prepare a fresh-caught fish for the pan, stringing out our clues and red herrings like traps on a line to ensure Fair Play, and pacing the reader’s journey through our story as if they were on a cross-country ski over the knolls and gullies around Thunder Bay.
Join Jayne Barnard on October 3rd, 7–9:00p.m. at the Mary J.L. Black Library in Thunder Bay for The Crime Writer’s Toolkit, a free NOWW workshop.
JE Barnard is a Calgary-based crime writer with 25 years of award-winning short fiction and children’s literature behind her. Author of the popular Maddie Hatter Adventures, she has won the Dundurn Unhanged Arthur, the Bony Pete, and the SWG Award for Children’s Literature. Her works have been shortlisted for the Prix Aurora, the Debut Dagger, the Book Publishing in Alberta Award, and three Great Canadian Story prizes.
Jayne attended high school first on a NATO base in Germany and then in Kapuskasing, Ontario, where her Air Force father was posted next. Her childhood of camping, boating and fishing fostered a love for the wilderness and a passionate respect for the environment. When the Flood Falls, the novel that won the Unhanged in 2016, will be released by Dundurn Press on July 14, 2018. Two more titles in The Falls Mysteries are scheduled for the following years, each rooted in the society, politics, and geography of Alberta’s Eastern Slopes. Jayne is a past VP of Crime Writers of Canada, a founder of Calgary Crime Writers, and a member of Sisters In Crime. She is represented by Olga Filina of The Rights Agency.
How long have you been a member of NOWW? Describe your experience serving on the NOWW board.
I’ve been a NOWW member since 2000, the same time I joined the Thunder Bay Writers Guild. I was a board member of NOWW for two years then served as president for three years. I will continue to serve next year as a non-intrusive and hopefully helpful past president. The experience as president came at a perfect time for me because I’d just retired after a 34-year career at Lakehead University and I wanted to do volunteer work. When the NOWW executive asked me to become president, it was an easy decision. NOWW has given me the opportunity to connect with many intelligent and wonderful people both inside and outside of the organization. The board members’ and member volunteers’ willingness to get involved has been exceptional. Had I not joined the Writers Guild and NOWW, I would not have made the friendships that I value so much.
What do you normally write?
That’s a loaded question because right now I consider myself a Jane of all trades and a master of none. My favourite genre to write is creative non-fiction incorporating humour. I also dabble in fiction, i.e., short stories. I have written three novels but they all need work and so if I get the courage, I may rewrite them. This year I decided to enter a play in the local 10X10 contest. My play Golf Lessons (I have a love/hate relationship with golf) was selected for the 2017 Showcase and the actors and director did a terrific job staging it. Ironically, I may be best known in Thunder Bay for the poem I wrote that is etched in granite at the Spirit Garden at the Marina although I don’t consider myself a poet.
Do you have a favourite book or favourite author?
Just one? My favourite book is Stone Diaries by the late Carol Shields set in my favourite city, Ottawa. Years ago I read almost everything James Herriot wrote and even named my last dog, Alfie, after him (Herriot’s real name was Alf Wight). When I lived in England I read everything Angela Huth wrote and had the opportunity to bring her to Exeter to our writers circle to do a workshop. I love to read the work of authors whom I personally know including Charlie Wilkins, Elizabeth Hay, John Pringle and more recently, Jean E. Pendziwol.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you found your way to writing:
Thirty or so years ago I read a book by Robert Fulghum called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. That book inspired me to want to write personal essays about every day things. I moved to England for four years and while there took a fiction writing course at Oxford University. When I returned to Thunder Bay I joined the Thunder Bay Writers Guild and the feedback I’ve received from the members has been second to none. Guilders are truly a talented, generous and insightful group of writers. They seem to enjoy my creative non-fiction pieces the most and I enjoy writing them to make people laugh. Before becoming president, I entered the NOWW Writing Contest and in 2012 placed 1st and 3rd in the fiction category. I’ve published stories in local anthologies such as Twenty Years on Snowshoes, Fuel and Fireflies and some literary journals based in England. I often set stories in places I’ve lived such as Ireland or Arizona. Writing is what I do when I’m not being NOWW president, at my exercise class, golfing, connecting with friends or cutting the grass.
Tell us a bit about your writing:
The past three years, my writing has amounted to a piece every four months for the Writers Guild. My last personal essay was entitled The Idiot Box about my life history with television and I had loads of fun writing this piece. A short story I recently wrote was set in Ireland about a Catholic girl who wants to join a Orange Order, i.e., Protestant, marching band. My partner is from Northern Ireland and so I am quite familiar with the relationship and history between the Catholics and Protestants. When I write fiction or non-fiction pieces I always do research, usually via the Internet.
Who has inspired and impacted your writing?
Recently, I’ve read the work of David Sedaris and love how he writes a humorous story about every day happenings. I also enjoy the humour column on the last page of the UK’s edition of Good Housekeeping magazine by Sandy Toksvig who again, writes about everyday things. Because the state of the world right now is not so funny, if what I write makes someone smile or even laugh, I feel as if I am doing a good thing.
Will we see you at any upcoming NOWW events?
I attended the launch of Twenty Years on Snowshoes on September 5th. Also, I will be organizing and attending the upcoming memoir workshop with Joe Fiorito on November 4th. I participated in his workshop years ago at the Sleeping Giant Writers Festival and it was terrific. I enjoy his writing and if you haven’t read, The Closer We are To Dying, I highly recommend it.
Where can we learn more about you and your writing?
I have a story in the NOWW anthology, Twenty Years on Snowshoes. I am not particularly savvy when it comes to having a platform, i.e., website or Twitter and my Facebook page is more personal than writing-related. Every year I attend the Tucson Festival of Books and all the presenters keep stating that to make it in the world of writing you must have a platform. Not there yet. Maybe this year as I segue from president to past president.
And to end things off, tell us something surprising about yourself!
In 1997 I attended the Queen’s Garden Party at Buckingham Palace and in 1998, ran the London Marathon. That is two. Never been very good with numbers and that is why I’m a writer. J