Last week Jo and I celebrated National Crime Writing Month by going to a talk on plotting the perfect murder mystery at Bloomsbury Publishers. Bedford Square is one of those architecturally-inspiring parts of London, between tacky Tottenham Court Road and the British Museum, where you can imagine Jane Austen characters lodging on their trips to town. It bristles with blue plaques and you can almost hear Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set’s bon mots echoing off the grey bricks.
Beneath No 50’s stucco-ed ceilings, we meet our panel of crime writers: James Runcie ( son of Robert, ex-Archbishop of Canterbury and looking the part), who has a new series of nostalgic, quintessentially English novels, The Grantchester Mysteries, featuring vicar/sleuth Canon Sidney Chambers; Anne Zouroudi whose detective Hermes Diaktoros solves crimes in the picturesque, myth-permeated Greek islands, and Claire McGowan, Director of the Crime Writers’ Association and author of The Fall, a thriller set in contemporary London.
It’s interesting to learn the writers’ different methodologies: James Runcie, likes to plot out his novels, chapter by chapter, using colour-coded synopsis cards for the main character’s story arc, the sub-plot, love interest and comic dog scenes. Anne Zouroudi, who gained useful access to the justice system as a Victim Support volunteer, writes her entire first draft long-hand in an inspired three month splurge, without plotting and planning, then spends a year fine-tuning and editing. Claire McGowan also favours long-hand and though she wrote her first book in three months her next took three years so don’t panic. All three emphasised that hoary old truth that writers must actually write and do so fairly regularly; they also all recommended long walks, gardening, cooking, and pretty much any handicraft as imagination-freeing remedies for blocked thoughts and tangled plots. In fact owning a dog seems to be as essential for the successful writer as owning a laptop, possibly more so.
Our writers’ top tips were reassuringly predictable: crime fiction requires a serious crime, preferably, but not necessarily, a murder, an engaging main protagonist, especially if you are planning a series, clever twists and turns if it’s a detective novel and ongoing jeopardy if it’s a thriller. It was nice to know we had not been misleading our students all these years. It was also good to know the emphasis each writer placed on rewriting and editing. But most of all it was good to have the fact confirmed that though agents tell you what’s wrong with a novel, they don’t tell you how to put it right; that’s where creative writing tutors can come into their own.
The writers warned their audience against sharing work too soon and receiving feedback that is either cripplingly negative or complacently enthusiastic (non-writing friends and relatives tend to evaluate one’s work on quantity not quality – “You wrote all that!?”). It seems to us that developing your inner editor, your critical faculties, in a class and having faith in the feedback you receive is a good way forward for writers. Knocking out 120,000 words without support can be a lonely task.
So having justified the existence of Chalk the Sun to ourselves we quit the Georgian elegance of Bloomsbury Publishers HQ, and wandered towards the West End imagining crime on the mean streets every step of the way. Has anyone done a creative writing tutor/sleuth yet? A kind of V.I. Warshawski with syntactical issues?