On Wednesday 29th July, I shall be giving tips on how to write crime fiction to a small (I am under no illusion) group in Shrewsbury Library. With only a few days to go I am beginning to feel slightly anxious as to a) whether I have any tips to give b) whether the manna I bestow will be in any way helpful, accurate or relevant and c) whether anyone will turn up. This last concern is one shared by a handful of authors, led by myself, who have overheard cleaning staff and passersby being bribed or threatened into sitting quietly during one of my talks. They are generally distinguished by their glazed expressions and speed of exit when I ask for ‘Any questions?’
I have, over the past year, put together a sort of mental ‘How I do it’ guide, which is modified and expanded for each book I write and talk I give. My ideas, like most ideas are built on the work and experiences of others, in particular the master of the genre, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observe.”
Sherlock Holmes ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’
There is very little on the writing of crime fiction, that can’t be gleaned from the writing of Arthur Conan Doyle and his advice on learning how to observe the commonplace, is a great maxim. So, where to start? I began several years ago by trying to identify and observe the life of an individual wild animal. I suspect that I have conjured in your mind an image of a self-satisfied old tabby, crawling through the Shropshire undergrowth, dressed like Bear Grylls. But disguise is not required, unless, that is, it really floats your boat. Then choose a species of animal that exhibit behaviour you can register on a daily, occasional or yearly basis. Subjects can include, postal workers, cats, house martins and ‘For Sale’ signs in an elected area. I would suggest neighbours but only attempt this when you have perfected the art of insouciance.
For the past year I have studied the behaviour of a carrion crow, which was easily distinguished from the rest by a drooping primary feather. Its territory covered a small patch of land near to a busy roundabout. I tended to be in the vicinity at regular times of the day for school pick-ups and always stuck in traffic, which enabled me to check out whether the crow was around and what he/she was doing. I became rather attached to the animal, as it strutted up and down the roadside, looking for road kill, litter and food scraps from a nearby food trailer. It disappeared last summer, to be instantly replaced by another bird. Although I kept a tag on it through the spring, I didn’t see it with a partner, so I had to surmise that either it was bullied out of the spot by the present incumbent or died.
My observations are not restricted to the birdlife. A large female garden orb web spider has, for the past month, set up her kill zone across one of our smaller upstairs windows. The web catches the light and dust particles during the day but there is no sign of the beautiful creature until after sunset. Why? No birds to reverse the tables. Every evening I watch her, as she sits head down in the center of her web…waiting.
By 5am, she’s long since departed. But why does any of this matter? How does it relate to the 90,000 words that make up the average (I refer only to the numbers, not the quality) thriller? If you can establish, through observation, the usual pattern of behaviour of any simple or complex organism, then any changes or anomalies will lead to suppositions, investigation and then conclusion.