My desk is a complete tip so I’m trying to have a sort-out. So far I’ve uncovered stuff that’s been hidden under coffee-stained papers and books for years. Lost treasures include 20 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows CDs, a dog-eared copy of Jilly Cooper’s Polo and a fountain pen I was given during the Prince and Princess of Wales’s Middle East tour of 1986.
I’ve also found a notebook I mislaid ages ago. It contains the notes I took at Peter Guttridge’s brilliant Crime Writing Masterclass at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival back in (oh dear) April. I’ve been meaning to blog about it for ages, so here goes.
Peter is a novelist, writing teacher and former crime fiction critic of The Observer, so he knows his crime writing stuff. He grabbed the audience’s attention straight away by describing crime fiction as “a baggy genre.” Why baggy? Because there’s “the cosy stuff, the hard-boiled stuff and the dark stuff.” Crime writers need to navigate “the taste barrier” and work out how dark they want their books to be.
But whatever they decide, crime fiction must be character-led. “It’s how characters respond to people and events that drives the plot,” explained Peter. It’s important, too, to create lead characters who are convincing, but not clichéd. Readers like flawed heroes and heroines so he advised us to make our characters “slightly quirky” and to give them an intriguing back story.
He also discussed the thorny issue of “to plot or not to plot.” “If you plot too much it’s hard to bring life to a story you know so well,” he said and quoted US writer EL Doctorow’s famous lines about writing. “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Twists and turns, red herrings and cul-de-sacs that don’t lead anywhere are all crucial elements. And so is a sense of resolution at the end of the story. Peter reminded us of PD James’s view that crime fiction is about “morality” and quoted Raymond Chandler’s advice that “when in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”
“Readers have expectations about resolution,” said Peter. “On the whole they don’t want the villain to get away with it. You need to resolve things enough so readers don’t feel cheated. They want to feel that some kind of justice has been done.”