Getting Started in Crime Fiction

Guest post by Rachel Abbott.

People often ask me why I decided to write thrillers, and I’m never sure what the right answer is. I have always loved reading thrillers – not so much traditional crime fiction, but more the psychological, slightly twisted, tales that chill a person to the bone. But that’s not the only type of fiction that I enjoy. I’ll happily read just about any book, so why did I choose to write crime?

I would argue that my books aren’t really about crime. The underlying story is about people – how they behave towards each other, treat each other, and abuse their power. But as there is always a crime committed as a result of this behaviour, it becomes necessary to have a police presence. Without a doubt, though, I would say my books are more about the ‘why’ than the ‘who, what, where’ of a traditional crime novel.

It had never really occurred to me that I might write a book. I had always had a more than full time job running an interactive media company and I worked ridiculous hours. And then I saw a programme on the television about a woman murderer, and the thought crept into my head “what set of circumstances could be so bad that a woman would have no choice but to murder a man?”. More to the point, I wondered what would be so bad that I would murder a man. This usually causes great hilarity when I say this to groups of women, who all shout, “I can think of several perfectly good reasons”. But we all know they don’t mean it. In fact, very few murders are committed by women.

I wanted my murder to be a genuine case of a woman who had absolutely no other choice. It had to be a situation in which the perpetrator couldn’t go to the police, or tell a friend, or do anything but murder this man. And more to the point, I wanted her to at least stand a chance of getting away with it.

Over the last few years of my working life, the idea grew in my head. Driving to work and back each day it became my way of relaxing – of forgetting the client that I had to call because they couldn’t make their mind up about some aspect of their project, or thinking about the board report I had to write. Instead, I dreamt up scenarios for murder.

Gradually the whole idea of my future life, away from the daily grind of driving to an office and dealing with everything from personnel issues to cash flow forecasts, became increasingly attractive.

In reality, even though I sold my business in 2000 it was several years before I was able to start writing. I carried on working for the company for another five years, and we renovated a couple of houses in Italy too – so I was always occupied. But then came a gap that I had no idea how to fill. The houses were finished, it was winter and too cold to do much outside, and suddenly I had space. And that’s the thing with writing thrillers, crime fiction – probably any type of fiction. You need headspace because there is a lot of detail to work out.

The fact that I’d had years of plotting gave me a real head start – but I still didn’t see my story as crime fiction. It was a novel about abuse, control, evil. The more I thought about it, though, the more it became clear that the murder had to happen at the start of the book, and the reader had to spend the rest of the book not necessarily guessing who committed the murder, but working out why. Of course, if you kill somebody off that quickly, you need a policeman: enter DCI Tom Douglas.

Tom was supposed to be a one-off, invented for the first book Only the Innocent and never intended to reappear. But the readers loved him, and so did I. I feel that in each book we get to know him a little better – especially in Stranger Child where he has to deal with some very difficult personal issues.

Keeping Tom in the books has very slightly changed my perspective. Not much, but I’ve needed to tweak my ideas a little to accommodate him. I see the books as being about the victims and the perpetrators, and that is not how most crime novels work. They start with a crime, and then the story is managed mainly from the viewpoint of the police. In my books, the point of view moves between three or four key players – of which Tom is only one. The vast majority of the story is told from the point of view of either the victim or the perpetrator of the crime. It is his or her head that I want the reader to be in – understanding the fear they are subjected to and recognising the threats, the distress and the dilemmas they have to face.

There is no doubt that I started down the road of writing thrillers because of one female murderer. The sad thing is, I can’t even remember her name.

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