Why romance writers turn to crime…

Changing genre to crime

Cover of Murder Among the Roses by Liz FieldingSince I made the major step to turn to crime writing (with just a touch of romance) I’ve noticed how many other romance authors have decided to turn to crime.

In my case, the story that became Murder Among the Roses (which is out in audio later this month) had been at the back of my mind for years. I had written a few thousand words, but had never had time to take a serious look at it. But it never let go. It was always there, a little voice nagging at me to get on with it.

It was lockdown, combined with the end of a publishing contract that did it. I realised that if I didn’t write it then, I never would. That gave me the push to take six months away from romance and go for it.

Crime needs more Characters

Cover of Murder Under the MistletoeIt was a sharp learning curve. Writing crime is a lot more complex than romance, no matter how many twists and turns it takes to get to the happy ending.

You need a lot more characters for one thing or, as I quickly discovered, the murderer is going to be obvious from about chapter two!

And some advice to anyone thinking of starting a series. You need to keep a very clear bible of who they all are, as they appear, and all the places you mention.

But, with the publication of the second of my Maybridge Murder Mysteries – Murder Under the Mistletoe – this week, I decided to ask a few other authors why they had been drawn to the crime genre.

Kate Hardy

Cover of The Body at Rookery Barn Kate HardyMy first call was to Kate Hardy. Kate has written more than a hundred romances, but her latest heroine, Georgina Drake, has just found a body in her barn.

Kate, who is deaf, has drawn on her own experience for her main character.

“After I got hearing aids,” she explained when I talked to her, “the author in me wondered: what if I could hear things that other people couldn’t? I knew the idea wouldn’t fit in my romance novels, so I filed it in the back of my head (so far so familiar) where it somehow connected with the fact that I grew up in a haunted house (that is different!) where it marinated a bit, and then insisted on being heard. That’s how I started writing the first Georgina Drake story.”

Stories that won’t go away

There are stories that insist on being written. Clearly this is another of those. I set my own series in the small town of Maybridge – inspired by Bradford on Avon – not too far from Bath. Kate set her series in her home county of Norfolk and, if you love the countryside (I loved it!) this one is for you.

Two spaniels There’s not just one mystery to solve, there’s a cold case as well as the current one involving the body in the barn. It’s also about learning to move on, about friendship, history and community. And because this is a Kate Hardy novel you should expect cake, Shakespeare, music and a spaniel. Her editpawial assistants, Archie and Dexter, insist on a walk-on part!

Kate’s first Georgina Drake Mystery, The Body in Rookery Barn has just been published by Storm.

Katy Watson

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Katy Watson’s move into crime has been quite spectacular. Her first “Dahlia” book was the Waterstone’s Thriller of the Month and is included in their books of the year.

But like Kate Hardy, Katy has been writing romance as Sophie Pembroke for a long time.

When I asked her what had prompted the switch, she explained that although she had always been a huge fan of crime fiction, when she started writing professionally she hadn’t felt ready to tackle a whodunnit.

She wrote romance and women’s fiction as Sophie Pembroke, YA and children’s books as Katy Cannon. Crime always felt as if it was on another level.

Lockdown again

Image showing The Three Dahlias, Waterstone Best Papers of 2023That changed, as it did for so many of us, during lockdown.

Home schooling her children and on deadline for a romance duet for Mills and Boon, she needed an escape. When her agent suggested working on the crime novel she’d always wanted to write – without the pressure of a deadline – she thought it might be fun.

(Home schooling, deadlines and she still had the energy to write something for fun? Excuse me while I go and lie down for a moment.)

The rest is history and the publication of the first in her golden-age style mysteries, The Three Dahlias, has changed her life. (Yes, I saw the pictures of her being feted by fans at a book signing in Paris last month!)

The second Dahlia mystery, A Very Lively Murder is out now in hardback. digital and audio. She is still writing romance as Sophie Pembroke, but has just signed a contract for three more Dahlias.

Helena Dixon

Cover of Blue Remembered Heels I remember Helena Dixon, at The Savoy, being presented with the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s short romance prize a few years ago and, later, reading her first book for Little Black Dress, Blue Remembered Heels.

She has long left romance for crime fiction set in the 1930s. But when I asked her why she turned to crime, she explained that when she first started writing what is now the first book in the Miss Underhay series, she wasn’t sure which way it was going to go.

A romance or a mystery?

Cover of Murder at the Highland Castle Helena Dixon“I had the start of the book for a couple of years but kept opening and closing the file,” she told me. (Is this getting to sound familiar?) Then, one day when she was talking to Elizabeth Hanbury, a fellow romance author, it hit her. “It was a crime book and it needed to be set in the 1930’s.” (And she has the most beautiful period covers.) “I rewrote the whole thing,” she told me and she’s just finished the fifteenth book in the series.

They’re all standalones, I’m assured, but like all series, it’s best to at least start with the first one (Murder at the Dolphin Hotel) so that you get that first character set up. The latest, Murder at the Highland Castle, released on November 17th is set in a majestic castle by a Scottish loch at Hogmanay. Expect a glass of whisky by a roaring fire, and bloody murder.

Jan Jones

Cover of Mystery on the Princess Line Jan JonesJan Jones’s first published novel was Stage by Stage, set around the preparations for a Christmas panto. One line in the book, involving a rubber glove, has stayed with me ever since!

Jan has written both contemporary and historical romance. When I asked why she had been drawn into writing crime, she said, “It was a combination of factors. I’d just finished the four linked Furze House Regency books which had taken me two years. I had immersed myself in the 19th century to fill my head with that period. Then personal circumstances meant I had become a full-time carer and I needed something new to challenge my brain.

Accepting the crime challenge

“Having always loved reading Golden Age detective novels. I thought I might try my hand at one. Inventing a large, complex village was very therapeutic during lockdown when I couldn’t actually go anywhere.”

But those weren’t her first crime novels. What happened?

“I enjoyed writing the first two books in what is now the Fencross Parva series,” she explained, “but I wasn’t completely happy with them, so put them aside to cook. I had, however, proved to myself that I could successfully introduce a crime element but the brain was demanding more action.

“A few years previously, I’d visited the V&A Ocean Liners exhibition (with Liberta’s Sophie Weston) and had been captivated. I’d had a vague idea to set a romance in that world. Now I decided to jump into the 1920s with a vengeance. It was a brand new time period for me, brand new research, brand new mystery, brand new characters. Take that, brain!

Cover of A Body in the Library Jan JonesMystery on the Princess Line was one of those rare books where the words simply spilled out. A particular twist meant the writing was even trickier than I’d expected and I revelled in it. I don’t think I will ever write a book half as clever again.

“By the time I’d finished, I’d succumbed to the crime-bug. I wrote two more 1920s mysteries with the same central characters (with stunning art deco covers) and then returned to my Fencross Parva books to rework them. The first, A Body in the Library, is out now and hopefully there are a lot more books in both series to come.”

I hope so, too, Jan.

And finally

Cover of Beach Hut Surprise And finally, Liberta’s own Joanna Maitland, having created the wonderful vampire, Theo, for a novella in the Beach Hut Surprise anthology has, for the moment, abandoned historical romance.

She is in the process of writing a crime series featuring Theo, and his long lost love, Lucinda, as a pair of slightly scary but very glamorous sleuths. And as those who enjoyed her vampire novella will already know, Theo is not your run-of-the-mill, blood-and-sex-fixated vampire…

Watch this space!

 

Liz

21 thoughts on “Why romance writers turn to crime…

  1. Kate Johnson

    Ha! I wrote crime by accident. I was trying to write a nice cute seaside romance novel, but clearly that’s not my forte, because a body turned up in chapter three. So then I had a nice cute seaside crime novel… with a very large side order of romance!

  2. lesley2cats

    Thank you for a great post, Liz. And I’m very pleased to welcome you all to the dark side.

    1. Joanna

      Well, I’m not quite here yet, Lesley and Liz, but Theo is getting antsy so I’m hoping it will be soon. I got into crime because I fell in love with Theo (don’t tell him!) while I was writing the novella for Beach Hut Surprise and it was the only way I could think of to keep writing him. Besides, he insisted (and when a vampire insists, it’s a good idea to agree).

      1. Liz Post author

        You know we’re all very excited to see Theo and Lucinda back out in the world again – even if it is after dark!

  3. Sarah

    That is so interesting, Liz, thank you – I already have Kate Hardy’s book and I read Helena’s, but there are now a few more books now to add to my reading list! I really enjoy a bit of romance in with the crime.

  4. Sophie

    I’ve been reading crime fiction all my life but I admit that I’ve rather turned away from it in recent years. So much of it was starting to give me nightmares. (In fact just the word “psychological” in the blurb was enough to make me shudder and move swiftly on.)

    So it is a great relief to see some of my favourite authors – who do great characters and terrific world building, but stay away from the Noir – turn their talents to the genre.

    And I can absolutely endorse what Jan says about Mystery on the Princess Line — thoroughly satisfying and steeped in 1930s Great Liner Life, and oh yes a wonderful life-enhancing twist that I absolutely didn’t see coming but is so right, it makes you want to shout for joy.

    The V&A exhibition was a great experience, too. Very glam and romantic. Just goes to prove that museums can do world building as well as novelists do!

    1. Liz Post author

      I’d have loved to have seen than exhibition, Sophie. I went to their Art Deco one a few years ago and it was wonderful. I like you I tend to veer away from psychological in a book blurb. I seem to have got rather more squeamish over the years.

  5. Yvonne

    Hi loved this article. It’s fun to read how authors’ minds work when an idea is forming and then “the plot unfolds.” I admire the hardwork that is put into creating a book for our entertainment.

    1. Liz Post author

      Thank you, Yvonne. We all love hearing how other authors work, and what inspires them. It can be such a small thing that sets the mind down the story rabbit hole!

  6. Elizabeth Bailey

    I’m another who turned from romance to crime, though I stuck with the same historical period. Don’t blame me. It’s all down to Joanna of this parish, not to mention Louise Allen and Nicola Cornick. When I mentioned I was thinking about doing the switch, that lot twisted my arm and held me to the ground until I agreed to have a go. I’d like to publicly thank them, actually, because crime has proven a far more successful genre for me. It took two publishers to make it work and a few years in between, but Lady Fan is still going strong, thank goodness.

    1. Liz Post author

      They are three ladies who will not be moved – and brilliant supporters. I love Lady Fan, Elizabeth, long may she continue to solve difficult crimes without the aid of SOCO!

    1. Liz Post author

      It was fun talking to everyone and hearing their stories and of course I’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg.

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