When writing a novel and even more so if you intend to make it into a series, you need to know the character as well as you know yourself. If not better.

Crime writer Sheila Bugler and I worked together on developing a list of questions to dig deeper than hair colour and speech tics to fully flesh out our main characters. (Note: there are hundreds of character questionnaires out there, lots of which may well be more pertinent to your own writing.)

However, Sheila and I were both embarking on a crime series, so we fine-tuned the questions to glean the maximum from our very different female detectives. When we’d finished, we sat down and answered in character. It was probably the most useful exercise I’ve ever done.

Later I began to realise how other characters see my MC doesn’t always reflect her true personality. Logical – none of us is consistent or 100% honest. So I developed a second exercise which helped me place her in any given environment. I found these two exercises so beneficial to my work, I thought I’d share them with you.

Have a lovely weekend.

Exercise A: From the Inside

  1. Are you typically (insert nationality)?
  2. What makes you easy/hard to get along with?
  3. Describe your earliest memory.
  4. Where do you get your information from? Be specific – TV? Which channel? Gossip? Whose word do you trust?
  5. Who or what is the love of your life?
  6. Who is your hero?
  7. Last book you read – struggle or pleasure?
  8. What do you usually have for breakfast?
  9. In what ways are you like your parents?
  10. If you were an animal, what would you be?
  11. Give an example of one of your rituals.
  12. What are you most afraid of and why?
  13. What is the last thing you do before you go to sleep?
  14. Are you normal?
  15. What would be your desert island disc and why?
  16. What would you change about your appearance?
  17. When was the last time you indulged yourself? How?
  18. What prejudices do you have, if any?
  19. What makes you laugh?
  20. Do you have any scars? Where did they come from?
  21. What is your most precious possession?
  22. What keeps you awake?
  23. Why do you/don’t you have children?
  24. Who is your best friend?
  25. When did you last lose your temper? Why?
  26. Which items do you always carry with you?
  27. What is your idea of a perfect evening?
  28. What is your greatest regret?
  29. Which characteristics do you look for in a friend?
  30. Describe your most recent achievement.
    (With thanks to Sheila Bugler)

Exercise B: From the Outside

Looking at your character from the outside is like trying to see yourself as others see you. It’s not easy so here’s a way in.

On the left hand side of a piece of paper, write down five of your character’s key values. What are the things they hold dear? Think conceptually, eg, truth, loyalty, persistence, kindness, etc

Now on the right, write down how those characteristics could be perceived by someone who doesn’t know/is prejudiced against/hates your character. Eg, truth can be seen as rudeness, loyalty as blind devotion, persistence as pig-headedness, kindness as being a sap, etc.

Earlier this year, an article in The Spectator investigated a death. The death of murder. Crime rates are dropping, not just in Britain, but all over the world. A good thing, surely? Yet as Andrew Taylor says, pity the poor crime writers.

But the article got me thinking about the difficulties of crime writing in a world of forensics & DNA, cameras & mobile phones, political correctness and terrorism. Has writing crime got harder? I rounded up some of the usual suspects for interrogation. This is the third in the series of female crime writers on contemporary crime-writing.

Meet Sheila Bugler

Modern technology undoubtedly makes it easier to catch criminals. But does it help or hinder the crime writer? (If you can give an example from your work, that’d be favourite.)

It hinders the sort of writing I like to do. There are two reasons for this. First, I’m not the sort of writer who enjoys research. I have a story in my head and I just want to crack on with it. Second (and possibly related to the first point), the police procedural side of crime fiction doesn’t interest me very much. I am more interested in the psychology and motivation of the characters I’m writing about.

Sheila All Things

Which areas of police procedure or criminal use of technology have you needed to research? And how did that influence the plot?

Having said I’m not interested in the police procedural type of things, I have written a police procedural series! So, I have to do some research. However, this mainly focuses on the hierarchies and structures within the police force rather than the procedural side of things, which I tend to brush over as lightly as I can get away with.

If I do need to do some ‘technical’ research, there are plenty of great resources (including TV crime series).

Today’s world of school shootings and suicide bombers seems a long way from country house killers and dastardly butlers. All of you write contemporary crime – would you ever consider writing historical crime, ie, before fingerprinting and DNA?

 I would love to but – again – I suspect my dislike of research would make it tricky for me to get that right. I have a vague idea for a novels set in the 80s (my wild teenage years). I may get around to that some day.

TheWaitingGame

In the majority of crime novels, the culprit must be brought to justice. It’s rare to see one get away, which is the opposite of reality. Are we tied to the formula of a ‘happy’ ending?

I’m not sure we are tied to the formula of a ‘happy ending’, especially when you look at the more noir end of the crime fiction spectrum. Without wanting to give too much away, neither of my last two novels (The Waiting Game and All Things Nice) have happy endings. I am currently writing a stand-alone crime novel and am playing around the idea of a seriously dark and unhappy ending for this one too.

I am a huge fan of female American crime writers like Gillian Flynn, Megan Abbott and – most recently – Robin Wasserman. None of these authors write novels with traditional happy endings.

Ian Rankin observed how Scandinavian noir is politically engaged and makes a comment on society at large. Do you think British crime is more focused on the individual?

No, especially if ‘British’ includes fiction from the all the UK nations (ie, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as Scotland and England). Crime fiction from Northern Ireland, for example, is very often interwoven with that country’s difficult history. I have just read A Savage Hunger by Claire Macgowan and the book is as much a commentary on the Troubles and its after-effects as it is a crime novel. Likewise, writers such as Anthony Quinn, Adrian McKinty and many other Northern Irish crime writers write novels that are very politically engaged.

HuntingShadows

In our lifetimes, there’s been a major shift on what we can and cannot say. Certain terms are taboo and using stereotypical clichés of race, gender and sexuality can result in a critical backlash. How far do you ‘police’ what you write so as not of offend?

I apply the same rules to my writing as I do in life. I would never deliberately try to offend someone. On the other hand, I am not particularly prudish and I do have a bit of a sweary mouth – I’m sure some of that comes through in my writing. If it does, that’s because I believe there are times when a swear word is the only possible option!

Finally, writing a series featuring the same main character, would you ever do a Reichenbach Falls and kill off your hero? Or are you afraid of the Annie Wilkes effect?

I write a series of crime novels featuring second-generation Irish detective, Ellen Kelly. I’ve grown very fond of Ellen as the series has progressed and it would certainly make me sad to kill her off. But I would do it, if I thought it made sense.

As for the Annie Wilkes effect… well, if I ever reach Stephen King’s levels of fame I’ll worry about that then.

 

Find out more about Sheila’s books on her website.

And read the Bookmuse review of All Things Nice here

 

 

 

 

 

pierWherever I live in the world, I seek writers.

Regardless of genre or experience, I always learn from encounters with other word-wielders.

That can be critiques of my work, critiques on theirs, appreciation of distinctive skill or recognition of differences.

I’ve passed through half a dozen peer review sites and despite battling egos, trolls, princesses and carbon copies, I’ve taken something valuable from each.  I have three real life groups, two writer friends and an opinionated (but usually right) relative. All this input makes my work better.

Talented writers and readers add something crucial, usually to one of three areas of my work:

  • Structure
  • Style
  • Sentence

Nowadays, I tend to lean on my superbly talented Triskele counterparts for the grunt-work of knocking my work into readability. But I hereby tip my hat to nine individuals who’ve changed the way I write.

(I’ll divide this into three parts, as it’s Sunday and you have awards ceremonies/period drama to watch.)

Here are the first three precious stones.

Structure: Sheila Bugler

Sheila Bugler picAn online critique partner for years, Sheila has an expert eye for crime plotting. Her early analyses of my work were 70% enthusiasm and 30% criticism, which mattered a lot in my under-confident days. Then she took the gloves off.

Every plant must be resolved, each choice driven by character, and nothing can ever turn out as the reader expected. Pace is driven to meet audience expectations of the three act tempo. Stand back and assess your handiwork and if you see saggy bits, get stitching

Sheila’s brilliant debut, Hunting Shadows, is a masterclass in crime writing

Style: Max Orkis

Max-OrkisPart of a real-life, meet-in-person writing group here in Zürich, Max appreciated style better than most. He spoke his mind and insisted I did too. He pushed me to tell the truth in my writing and demonstrated how to get braver. No euphemisms, but tangible, meaningful nouns, verbs and culturally loaded imagery. Max wrote as he talked. Fearlessly. And regardless of personal original standpoint, he showed (and told) how to use any voice with conviction.

I miss him.

I don’t know why I’m using the past tense. He’s not dead, just gone back to San Francisco.

His short story, In Passing, published in The Milo Review is available online. Enjoy.

darren-guestSentence: Darren J Guest

I’ve never met Darren in person, but via online debates, discussions and right-down-to-the-bone knife fights over writing, we know each other pretty well.

Darren administers the harsh slap to Gerund Addiction: “Slipping off her shoes, Sophie sighed and relaxed. Sipping the gin and tonic restored her good mood. Pressing the answerphone, she stretched, sighed and smiled silkily.”*

And then gives you a good thrashing for alliteration and adverbials to boot.

(*I never wrote that – it was an example, honest.)

Darren’s Dark Heart is scary, smart, weird and brilliant. Just what good literature should be.

Three more great writers and their top tips next week.