On Writing Crime

Why is crime so popular? Perhaps it's because crime novels give us a clear representation of goodies vs baddies, with the certainty that the truth will be revealed and justice will be done. They help to reinforce our sense of stability and order in an increasingly uncertain world. Perhaps it's also because crime novels are usually good page-turning reads, with an interesting plot, clearly defined characters, and lots of twists to keep the reader guessing until the end. Certainly, the plethora of crime novels in bookshops and crime programmes on television indicate the lasting popularity of crime both with readers and viewers.

Public attention to the crime novel began with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and the writing of Edgar Allen Poe, and its popularity continued to grow with other English crime writers such as Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. Crime-writing today comprises many subgenres: modern, historic, 'cosy' or malice domestic, forensic, police procedural, psychological, romantic suspense. Protagonists include the amateur detective, police, the FBI, private investigators, even a cat or dog! Settings also vary widely, from the race track, sporting arena and 'mean streets' to legal chambers, hospitals, academe and the worlds of governments and spies.

Crime non-fiction is also extremely popular. Numerous accounts of landmark criminal and/or unsolved cases have been published, including Truman Capote's In Cold Blood which was recently made into a film, and the brilliant Joe Cinque's Consolation by Helen Garner. The criminal mind is always fascinating, and a crime novel or account of a true crime is the perfect way to find out why people act as they do.

My love affair with crime began at an early age when I started reading the novels of Agatha Christie. I've read crime fiction all my life, and have had some success with my crime short stories for adults, most notably winning the inaugural Queen of Crime award in 1999. But mostly I write for children and teenagers, exploring history, fantasy and legend in my timeslip novels Ghost Boy and the Shalott trilogy. In the Shalott trilogy, five Australian teenagers go back to the court of King Arthur to try to rewrite the fate of the Lady of Shalott (Elaine of Astolat in Arthurian legend) and save Camelot from doom. While they're actually creating a part of the legend as we know it, at the same time they are also rewriting their own future. This was my first experience of writing medieval time and I loved it, to the extent that after I'd finished the trilogy and was looking about for some new aspect of Australian history to explore (as I did in Ghost Boy) I discovered that I was 'stuck' in the middle ages. What's more, I had a new character in my head, talking to me, insisting that I tell her story. And so The Janna Mysteries* was born, this time combining my love of crime with medieval history.

Briefly, The Janna Mysteries chart Janna's quest to find her unknown father and, with his help, bring her mother's killer to justice. The daughter of a wortwyf (herbwife) Janna lives on the margins of society, but she empowers herself through learning, be it herbal healing, how to defend herself, how to survive in the wild, how to read and write. As she acquires knowledge, so she moves from forest to farm to abbey, town and castle, unravelling the truth about her father and her mother as well as solving crimes and other mysteries along her journey.

A question I'm often asked is: why would Australian teenagers want to read about someone living in the middle ages? My answer is that, while society and mores might change, human nature does not. Janna's journey to self-discovery is the same journey that teenagers today are still making. Her search for identity and understanding is one of the major themes of the novels, along with empowering herself through knowledge, showing courage in the face of adversity, being able to tell the difference between appearance and reality, taking responsibility for her actions and learning independence, working out what she believes, who she loves (and who is worthy of her love) and how she should live her life. Teenagers today still struggle with these big questions on their path to maturity.

I recently heard a talk by a leading Australian crime writer, Gabrielle Lord, who is known for her close attention to detail and her meticulous research. She explained some of the things she had done in the course of writing her novels: attending a SCAN course (scientific content analysis of speech plus body language) and finding out about DNA testing and polygraphs (used in lie detection) and so on, and she commented on how much easier it was for historical crime writers who didn't have to come to grips with modern technology.

This made me smile. Instead of modern technology, all we historical authors have to do is learn about the history and society of the period, what people wore, what they ate, what they believed, what laws they lived under, how their society operated. Not only that, but we have to get the setting right – somewhat tricky when you're writing medieval England while living in Australia!

Setting up interesting and convincing crimes for medieval time is a challenge for the author; so is solving them. A modern sleuth can rely on fingerprinting, DNA, bugged telephones and other whizzbang gizmos to help him/her solve the crime. Medieval sleuths have to rely on observation, curiosity, knowledge, courage and ingenuity, and their conclusions must be convincing.

I write what I call 'conventional' crime, which means that I follow the basic precepts of crime writing and answer all the questions inherent in this genre. The first question is: WHO? Who is the perpetrator, the victim, the sleuth, the red herrings and attendant cast of characters? Yes, by all means, keep the reader guessing 'whodunnit' but the characters' roles and their motivation should be quite clear by the end. In The Janna Mysteries, the cast of characters changes as she follows the trail of her unknown father. There is plenty of action and adventure in my novels, but they are also a serious appraisal of how people lived in medieval time, be they poor peasants out in the fields, pilgrims or jongleurs, nuns, lords and ladies, bishops or kings. There is also a thread of romance through the novels, as Janna tries to sort out her feelings for the villein Godric, who loves her, and the handsome nobleman, Hugh, who is attracted to Janna but who needs a rich wife.

WHERE: the setting is equally important, so that the reader can clearly follow what action takes place where. Some writers even have plans or maps at the beginning of their novels, so you know exactly where Colonel Mustard was coming from in order to murder Miss Scarlett in the library, hospital, Swiss chalet or wherever. In my case, I quickly realised that writing medieval England would be impossible from Australia unless I could actually walk in the footsteps of my character. With the aid of maps and a copy of the Domesday Book, I found several sites before I left on my research trip, and to my great relief they fitted my scenario perfectly. Janna's journey takes her from the wild forest of Gravelinges (Grovely) to a manor farm, two abbeys (Wilton and Amesbury), Stonehenge, Winchester and Oxford. It was invaluable being able to see for myself the countryside and also the buildings I need to describe (even though many are now in ruins), and have libraries and museums available for research.
WHEN is also an important element in crime writing, particularly if your clues link up with who was where when, and therefore who could have dunnit. If you're writing an historical novel, be it Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher in Melbourne in the 1930s, or Janna back in medieval England, it's essential to capture the atmosphere as well as the geography, the society and mores of the time, so that the story is credible. The Janna Mysteries is set in the 1140s, at a time of civil war between King Stephen and his cousin and rightful heir to the throne, the Empress Matilda. As Janna gains knowledge and experience, so she moves up in society, until she becomes trapped at the very heart of the civil war, with all its treachery and betrayal. (Author notes at the end of each novel give a comprehensive account of the civil war for those readers interested in finding out more.)

WHAT HAPPENS? This is where plotting comes in and, more important in crime than in any other sort of fiction writing, you need to have a clear idea before you start writing as to who does what and what happens through the novel so that you can set up the characters, organise the timing of certain events, plant your clues carefully among the red herrings and lead the reader by the (hopefully unsuspecting) nose to the inevitable denouement. What happens varies in The Janna Mysteries as she moves from place to place, encountering crimes and mysteries along the way. In Book 1, Rosemary for Remembrance, Janna's mother dies in mysterious circumstances, her pet cat is crucified and her home is burnt down. Janna is forced to flee, going in search of her unknown father whom she hopes will bring her mother's killer to justice. In Book 2, Rue for Repentance, Janna takes refuge on a manor farm where a series of mishaps leads to the kidnapping of a child. In Book 3, Lilies for Love, the mystery of the lilies ties in with the romantic themes of the novel. A precious manuscript is slowly being destroyed, Janna's friend and would-be bedmate, Hugh, is wounded, and Hugh's best friend is found with his throat cut. Spies and treachery are involved in Book 4, Willows for Weeping, but as I've only just started to write this, things might change.

WHY? By nature, most people are fairly law-abiding, so there needs to be a good reason why someone would rob a bank, kidnap a child, kill a friend, a lover or a stranger. What motivates them: fear, greed, rage, jealousy ...? In The Janna Mysteries, as the crimes change so motives range from fear, sexual jealousy, resentment and revenge for the 'theft' of property, to family pride, avarice, and political power.

HOW is the final question: how is the crime solved? Writers of contemporary crime can call on whizzbang technology to find the culprit, but Janna has to rely on observation, her knowledge of human nature, a tendency to stick her nose in where it's not wanted, the courage to test what she knows or take a chance in order to prove it, her knowledge of herbs, and her ability to reason and deduct – even if sometimes 2 + 2 add up to 5!

The test of a good (conventional) crime writer is to keep the reader on tenterhooks and guessing. While the ending might come as a surprise, it should always make sense.

Crime writing in the past, particularly in the States, was very much a guy thing until Sara Paretsky (creator of Chicago PI, V.I. Warshawski) and several other women crime writers founded an organisation called Sisters in Crime in America in 1986. Their stated aim was to encourage and promote women crime writers, and there are now SIC branches worldwide. In Australia, Sisters in Crime was launched at the Feminist Book Festival in Melbourne in 1991; Partners in Crime Sydney followed shortly afterwards, along with SIC branches in other states. Members include both readers and writers of crime, there are regular meetings with guest speakers, and annual short story competitions. The Scarlet Stiletto competition run by SIC Melbourne includes a category for students – a great way for young writers to explore the darker side of human nature (http://home.vicnet.au/~sincoz/about.htm for details.)

The Janna Mysteries are published by Random House Australia.

© Felicity Pulman, 2006.