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.
It’s hard to give up that up just because you’ve had a story in your head for a very long time that refuses to go away.
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
The problem that came up and hit me in the face was that by chapter two anyone who had ever read a crime novel would think they’d worked it all out.
(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.
Liz’s first Maybridge Mysteries book, Murder Among the Roses, will be published by Joffe Books on 18 April 2023 at a launch price of 99p. Pre-order here!
Congrats, Liz. Exciting times. Definitely a learning curve, changing genres. I found much the same sort of problem when I started mystery writing. It gets more familiar, thank goodness. Will be grabbing yours soon as it’s out.
Great to see you can post here again, Liz. Welcome back 😉
Thanks so much, Elizabeth. Reassuring to know I’m not alone!
Great post, Liz, but we need part 2 – what happened next? And I must say – you are so much more organised than I am. One day I’ll learn to use a spreadsheet. Congratulations!
Thank you, Lesley. More news coming very soon! And I have to be organised – I frequently forget character names so I need the backup of my spreadsheet!
Brilliant news, Liz. That’s not easy to change genres, well done for taking on the challenge and embracing it.
Thanks, Claire. I have to admit that it was a steep learning curve and I’m still learning. It’s that thing about doing something that scares you… 🙂
Looking forward to the new book. Well done for taking the plunge.
Thanks so much, Yvonne. It was that if not now, when, moment. I didn’t want to be left at the end of the day with the feeling of something unfulfilled. I have to say I’m enjoying the new challenge. The second book is with my editor and I’ve started on the third. Fingers firmly crossed that crime really does pay!
I am SO looking forward to buying this book but it will have to be the paperback version (not at 99p, sadly) because I plan to cherish it (and get it signed by the Illustrious author in due course). Brilliantly done, Liz, and I hope it sells in shedloads. Do put a note on your post as soon as it’s available for pre-order. It’ll be “can’t wait” for so many of your fans.
Thanks so much, Joanna. And for all the support from you and the other members of the LIberta hive as I’ve got to grips with this new genre. And yes, as soon as I have a live link, I’ll put it on the post.
Congratulations, Liz. Welcome to the crime and thriller world!
This is so true! I’m more of a pantser, myself. But the moment you kill someone you drag the rest of the world into your story. It only adds to the pain if you killed someone in 1805 and have to find out what the process was back then. And worse? It’s not sufficient to just kill the poor wight. You have to know up front WHO killed him and WHY? You have to do a whole lot of research to come up with a convincing political reason to off a bookseller. It’s so damned unreasonable! Congratulations, Liz. I’m really looking forward to reading this.
Yes, to all of this, Elizabeth. I’ll always be a pantster at heart, feeling my way through the story. I can’t begin to think about the additional problems of doing it all at two centuries distance. The research must be hugely time-consuming, although no doubt fascinating. So easy to fall down those rabbit-holes even writing about the 21st century. And thank you so much for wanting to read the book.