Author Helen Fields talks modern vs historical crime writing

Category: Author Post

We’re thrilled to welcome author Helen Fields to team Killer Reads!

Helen spent thirteen years working as a criminal barrister before making the move to become a producer and writer of PERFECT REMAINS, the first in a nail-shredding new crime series from Avon, out January 26Read Helen’s piece on the difference between modern and historical crime writing below.

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One of the things no one tells you when you’re making the decision to become a criminal barrister is that you will also have to wear a number of other hats, and to wear them convincingly.  You will have to be able to cross-examine psychiatrists and challenge their assessments.  You’ll need to ask intelligent questions of the forensic pathologist in that murder case.  There is no limit to the diverse subjects you will have, for a short time, to be able to convince a jury you know about sufficiently to cast doubt on an expert’s opinion.  Fires, engines, insects, blood spatters, DNA, facial mapping, filming and photography.  It never ends.  And this need for expertise carries over into writing modern crime.  When I wrote Perfect Remains, I was aware that I had to be able to write knowledgeably about destroying DNA traces from bones, about forensic odontology (dentistry), amateur dentistry *shudders* and the evidence required for a rape charge.  On top of that, I had to be able to conceal my antagonist’s tracks for most of the book.  Easier said than done in an age of CCTV, email, internet use and mobile phones.  It’s tough.  Science and technology have changed the world immeasurably and made writing crime thrillers infinitely harder.

That’s why writing historical thrillers, which is what I do when my creative brain’s not in modern day Scotland, is in many ways vastly easier.  The first historical novel I wrote is set in Edwardian England.  It’s a fascinating period of history because it’s the precise point modern day forensics were blossoming.  The first English case was solved using a fingerprint.  Information was being organised into what we now think of as databases. Special investigative police squads were being formed.  But as a writer, your character can still bite someone’s ear off without worrying about leaving DNA in saliva.  You can assassinate someone on a train without pesky cameras recording the deed.  That boot mark in the mud will not be identifiable by its designer tread, sold only at two stores in London who can trace the credit card details for purchasers.  Ah yes, life was simpler then.  More recently I’ve been writing a World War II novel about a serial killer with Angel of Death syndrome.  By that date science and technology had advanced considerably, but it’s set on Malta amidst the crisis of constant bombings, starvation and disease.  No one was worrying too hard about cause of death when soldiers were already in hospital.  Men and women died, sometimes it wasn’t obvious how.  Subsequent investigation was thin on the ground.  The confusion, fear and lack of resources were the ideal space for me to let loose a deeply deranged serial killer.

Modern day crime writing has become a very specialised discipline.  I’ve lost count of the evenings spent watching crime dramas wondering why there’s no CCTV,  how there are no fingerprints when no one wears gloves, why the case isn’t solved within hours given that the killer/burglar/kidnapper drives away at speed and goes straight home.  I can suspend my disbelief to an extent, but writers have to be realists.  Our stories have to fit and function effectively within the confines of a modern day high tech world.  You can be bold and free writing historical crime.  Modern crime requires the writer to wear all those many hats I was talking about earlier.  Because the reader knows.  They may not know exactly how DNA testing works, but they feel it when you cheat.  This is why dramas like Sherlock can be so much more daring.  Shots can be fired on the street in daylight with only a dark hat casting a shadow over the eyes of the aggressor.  Try getting away with that now and you’ll need full body cover, a balaclava, gloves and a camera free escape route.
But at the heart of it all – modern or historical – is that good old fashioned fight between good and evil, blurring the lines often enough to tantalise, and finding endings that shock and satisfy in equal measure.  There is never a lack of characters, though.  Not enough years will ever pass that humans will not be endlessly flawed and endlessly fascinating.

You can contact Helen via Twitter @Helen_Fields. 

Perfect Remains is available on Amazon from 26th January #FeelingBrave?

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First he takes them. Then he breaks them. #FeelingBrave? You should be.

Writing Dos and Don’ts | Killer Reads Open Submissions

Category: Featured

Lucy Dauman, who will be acquiring authors for the KillerReads list, shares her top tips for aspiring writers…

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DO write characters we can believe in. They don’t have to be nice (in fact, we often prefer it if they’re not) but they have to be engaging. If I’m reading from the perspective of a psychopath, I want to really believe I’m in their head, because there’s nothing more terrifying. I want to empathize with the victims, the detectives and, yes, even the killers. Because if I don’t, I won’t care what happens to them, and that’s one of your biggest hooks gone.

DON’T try to imitate. It’s impossible not to be influenced by other writers and I wouldn’t suggest otherwise. Some of the best crime novels in the last few years have been homages to the classics. But whatever you’re writing, always make sure the voice is your own, because that’s the only way it will feel genuine. Don’t write what you think we want to hear – be confident, distinctive and original, and it’ll pay off.

DO think of a twist if you can. It’s not essential, but I do love a great twist. No big deal – it just has to be genuinely shocking while still plausible and something no one’s done before. Easy, right? If you’re not about a killer twist, fair enough, but do make sure you’ve got a compelling premise to hook your readers in before they’ve even started.

DON’T use violence gratuitously. If you edit crime and thrillers, it stands to reason you’re going to read some pretty disturbing subject matter. That’s absolutely fine, but only if it’s relevant to the plot. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the more shocking the crime, the better the book – I am more likely to be affected by an affinity felt with your characters than by contextless acts of violence.

DO be consistent. One of an editor’s favourite axioms is ‘consistency is king’. Minor inconsistencies are to be expected and can be fixed at copyedit stage. However, huge plot holes can be seriously disruptive and are harder to fix down the line than avoiding them in the first place. Everyone approaches plotting in different ways; some writers spend ages mapping it out, others find too much planning obstructive – it’s whatever works for you. Just remember, if you get in a bind, switch off, make a cup of tea, and revisit in an hour or so.

DON’T info dump. While naturally you want your reader to understand what’s going on, try not to over-explain everything. Not only does this disrupt the pace, it also can make your readers feel patronized. We should be able to pick up on details through your characters’ actions and dialogue without needing everything spelt out for us. In short: show, don’t tell.

And, most importantly, just enjoy it! Writing is hard work but it should also be great fun. Get to know your characters and go on a journey with them, and it will it shine through in your writing.

Killer Reads are currently holding open submissions. Click here for full details.

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Crime bloggers recommended reading list #KillerFest

Category: Featured

We asked 15 different crime bloggers and reviewers to pick 5 crime books they would recommend to any reader.

With thanks to Crime Book Club, A Crime Reader’s Blog, Miss Chapter’s Reviews, Killing Time Crime, Keith B Walters, Our Book Reviews, Shotsmag Confidential, Laura’s Little Book Blog, Books and Reviews, Dark Readers, Reading Room with a View, Gymkhana Club, House of Crime and Mystery and The Welsh Librarian.

Here’s their list:
** denotes recommended multiple times

A House of Knives by William Shaw

A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell

A Scandal in Bohemia by Arthur Conan Doyle

A Song from Dead Lips by William Shaw

Angel’s Flight by Michael Connelly

Bird Box  by Josh Malerman

Black and Blue by Ian Rankin

Bloodstream  by Tess Gerritson

Broadchurch by Erin Kelly

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson **

Cut Dead by Mark Sennen.

Cut Short by Leigh Russell

Dead Man Walking by Paul Finch

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie **

Disclaimer by Renee Knight

Dissolution by C J Sansom

Drive by James Sallis

Every Dead Thing by John Connolly

Farewell my Lovely by Raymond Chandler

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn **

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

Hard Revolution by George Pelecanos

Helen Grace series by MJ Arlidge

I Let You Go by Claire Mackintosh

Keep Your Friends Close by Paula Daly

Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Misery by Stephen King

Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie **

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

One for the Money – Janet Evanovich

Postmortem – Patricia Cornwall**

Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer

Shatter The Bones by Stuart Macbride

Silent Scream by Angela Marsons

Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham

Someone Else’s Skin by Sarah Hilary

The Abomination by Jonathan Holt

The Accident by C.L. Taylor

The Bat by Jo Nesbo

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler **

The Black Echo by Michael Connolly

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith**

The Coroner by M.R. Hall

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown **

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson **

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins **

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle **

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

The Last Witness by Denzil Meyrick

The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg

The Long Fall by Julia Crouch

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

The Murder Bag by Tony Parsons

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

The Redeemer by Jo Nesbo

The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

The Three by Sarah Lotz

The Unquiet Grave by Steven Dunne

The White Trilogy by Ken Bruen

The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood

Thirteen Steps Down by Ruth Rendell

An Unsuitable Job For A Woman by P D James

Want to Play by P.J Tracy

Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback

Any Sherlock Holmes Story

Anything by Agatha Christie but I love The Sitafford Mystery