- 23 Jan 20
Crime fiction is one of the most popular literary genres – and for good reason. After all, almost everybody likes a good ‘whodunnit?’. But how do you approach the task of creating a fictional world that’s believable? What are the most important factors in developing a character? And what, in the end, makes a crime novel really work? We talk to Paul Charles to find out.
Paul Charles is a master of his craft. Over the past two decades, the Northern Irish-born, London-based author has been spinning acclaimed crime tales in his series on DI Christy Kennedy – ten in all. Indeed, when the Inspector Starrett series and the McCusker mysteries are added, he has 15 crime novels to his credit. And there’s five more stand-alone novels, which takes him up to 20 overall. And that’s just his fiction.
Actually, make that twenty-one. Departing Shadows, the most recent addition to the Christy Kennedy series (it’s No.11, fact fiends!), was released last month. So, how does this marvellously prolific writer go about his business? How does he prepare? And what is the key advice that he’d give to aspiring crime writers?
That he has a day job as well, as a leading music agent – he has worked closely with the likes of Tom Waits, The Waterboys, Jackson Browne, Van Morrison, Christy Moore, Tanita Tikaram, Ani di Franco, The Blue Nile and The Kinks, among many more – only makes his achievements all the more impressive. But we are here today to talk about the fine art of spinning a good yarn – and how you might prepare yourself for a life of crime (writing)!
Paul Charles’ top tips for Crime Writers
1. Read Wisely and Well
It may seem obvious, but before you even pick up a pen, or sit down at a keyboard, Paul Charles recommends avid reading. Everything you learn is likely to go down on the page sooner or later! In particular, one should be well-versed in crime literature, in true crime and, ideally, in at least basic forensics: the inevitable, ‘how did they figure that out?’ bit. “I devour true crime stories,” Paul says. But that’s just the start of it. Charles also recommends reading broadly: about pigeon racing, the tarot, drugs, music, science, bingo! Having in-depth knowledge in your back pocket on other topics, which can add layers to a story, is a great advantage, and – well used! – makes for a far more engaging read.
2. Imagine The Perfect Crime
A crime story isn’t going to work without a crime that needs to be solved. It’s one of the key elements of any good crime novel, and often times that means you need a more-or-less perfect dastardly deed to keep readers guessing. “In each Kennedy story, I incorporate one unique method of murder,” Paul reveals. “My books are not as simple as someone just getting shot or ending up with a knife in the back.” Ideally, my dear friends, there should be more to the murder than that! The thing is that it is up to every writer to dream up their own special form of gore. It’s important to note that Paul’s murders may be unique, but they’re never far-fetched. “I’ve done a lot of experiments and fine-tuning to make sure the murders come across as real,” he confesses.
3. Choose The Right Setting
Most of the Kennedy stories are set in Camden Town, a neighbourhood of London with which Paul Charles is intimately familiar. Having been based there for years, Charles knows every nook and cranny of the district, which is by turns gritty and genteel depending on the streets you’re walking. Thus, his writing takes on a feeling of immediacy and authenticity, with vivid descriptions and references to real locations. “Camden is as vital to my books as New York is to Woody Allen’s films,” he says. Basically, when choosing your setting, it helps if it is a place you know like the back of your hand. And if it is somewhere else, you’re really going to have to travel there and learn what makes the place tick.
4. Give Readers A Likeable Hero
This is a principle that would not be universally accepted within the crime-writing fraternity. Often crime writers enjoy exploring the trope of a decidedly unlikeable protagonist or hero. Historically, detectives are frequently portrayed as bad or at the very least troubled guys – typically too fond of the booze and, sometimes, abusive to their partners. In the Kennedy series in particular, Charles breaks from that tainted tradition. DI Christy Kennedy may be flawed – who isn’t? – but he’s a stand-up man with considerable mental fortitude. “You want your protagonist to be likeable – or at least I do,” Paul laughs. “They should be someone you’d want to spend time with. After all, you’re asking readers to spend a whole book in this character’s head.”
5. Create Other Interesting Characters
While the main character is vital, it is important not to take your minor characters for granted. They’re also crucial to the story. “You have to make your characters stand-out,” he observes. “The aim is to make sure that they breathe, that they’re three dimensional, and that they come right off the page.” Creating convincing characters demands a study in human behaviour, right down to the smallest details. Imagining his characters, Paul Charles will give them little ticks and distinct movements, so that the reader can develop a mental picture. Just like people in real life, characters can be inconsistent, moody and full of quirks. The message is: don’t be afraid to embrace idiosyncrasy!
6. Ask Yourself The Right Questions
For a crime writer, three fundamental questions should be running through your mind at every twist and turn of the story. 1. Who did it? 2. Why did they do it? 3. How did they do it? The way Paul Charles looks at it, “If you’re able to answer those questions, you’ve got your story. But you have to be prepared to give yourself up to that story and serve it. Be confident with what you bring to the desk, and then let the narrative take on its own momentum.” And finally…
7. Make Sure to Keep It Real
Ultimately, to be convincing, a crime story needs to be effectively grounded in reality. At every stage of our conversation, Paul Charles’ advice circles back to the believability of the story. That is fundamental. “The reader must feel that they’re reading a real story with real people,” he states. “I try to write fiction that reads like a true-crime story. My nightmare is someone reading one of my stories and thinking: that could never happen.”
Departing Shadows (Dufour Editions) by Paul Charles is out now. It’s available on Amazon, IndieBound and Barnes & Noble.