I’ve been a published romance writer for more than thirty years now. That’s seventy books for Harlequin Mills and Boon and a few more for other publishers.
I was in a groove – some people might call it a comfortable rut – but I was producing books that enough people loved to keep me in contract and an advance and royalties coming in.
When you’ve had that security for thirty years, to write a book in a totally different genre — crime — on spec, with no publisher, no advance or promise of publication is like stepping off a cliff.
Sink or swim?
Maybe it was lockdown, the sense that life was out of control and might never be the same again. The sense that if I didn’t do it now, then when? That if I didn’t take the risk, would I go to my grave regretting that I didn’t have the courage, or the self-belief that had the “do it now” bells ringing.
I’d delivered the last of the books on my current contract. I could take six months out for a passion project – I knew the story – inspired by a documentary I’d seen. I had my victim, I had my murderer, I had my “sleuth”.
I’d lived with them in my head for a long time. I could give them six months of my life.
The beginning was easy. I’d already written it several times and I had the essential throat grabbing opening scene. (I wrote about that at length in my Little Book of Writing Romance but it applies to every kind of popular fiction.)
I was halfway into chapter two when I realised I had a problem. A really big problem.
I’m pretty much a seat of the pants writer. Give me two characters, a location and that moment when they meet and I’m off and running. I’ve wound them up and I’m basically hanging onto their coat tails while they deal with the situation.
Crime, I very quickly discovered, is different.
Characters. Lots of Characters
(I’d never got beyond that opening scene before.)
Obviously, they’d be wrong, but what I needed were a lot more characters. Potential suspects, of course, all with the motive, means and opportunity to commit murder.
And my sleuth needed a life, friends, neighbours, and a sleuthing buddy – essential for talking through motives and suspects. I was still writing by the seat of my pants – I am never going to make a plotter – but I was beginning to get to grips with this new genre.
Characters Need Names
There are a limited number of people you can fit into a 50,000 word romance. The fewer the better. Once you’ve named your hero and heroine (and I’m not saying that’s easy) you can pluck the rest out of thin air because you’re probably not going to need them again. Although be very careful with names of anyone who looks as if they’re developing into a character who might need a book of their own.
A crime novel, by its very nature, needs a whole heap more people than a romance.
It’s not just the main characters, the victim(s) and the suspects. There are the people in uniform – paramedics, police, forensics – and even the local press. Names that, to avoid confusing the reader, should begin with a different letter. Age relevant names.
Thank goodness for internet sites that list popular names by year.
Forget what I said earlier about picking them out of the air as you write. At one point I realised that I had three minor characters called Steve. I’m not going to mention the Polly, Molly and Olly debacle…
Location, Location, Location
By now I was seriously thinking “series”. That means a community. Neighbours, a local shop, a place to meet for coffee. A town with amenities, a river (so useful for disposing of bodies), a quarry (ditto).
I spent a long time on the name of my town. It should be easy. I see so many great names in other people’s books. Believe me, it isn’t. Anyway, I finally hit on the perfect name. Maybridge. It took me more time than I care to admit before I realised that was the name of a town where I’d set a load of books. It seemed like fate, so The Maybridge Mysteries became a thing.
I now have spreadsheets for each book with character names, place names, pubs, cafes. I also have a plotting chart with columns for victims, methods, suspects, motives, murder sites and time lines.
Lesson learned. I can write romance by flying into the mist (it does sometimes feel like crawling into the fog) seeing only as far as my headlights. But like the perfect murder, the crime novel needs some careful planning, although even then the characters will surprise you. Which is just how it should be.