Workshop One: Know the genre

Workshop One: Know the genre


· Understand the market
· Understand where your work fits into this

Crime fiction is an extraordinarily broad genre that, typically, is categorised into a number of sub-genres. These include:

  • classic ‘whodunnits’ (writers like Agatha Christie, , Dorothy L Sayers and PD James)
  • police procedurals (eg, Ian Rankin, Peter James, Tania Carver, Jo Nesbo)
  • historical crime fiction (eg, Laura Wilson, Phillip Kerr, Anna Dean)
  • noir fiction (or hard-boiled crime), which can be broken down even further into American noir (Raymond Chandler, Gill Brewer, Christa Faust, Megan Abbott), UK noir (Robert Edric, Cathi Unsworth, Derek Raymond) and Irish noir (eg, Ken Bruen, Declan Hughes)
  • psychological thrillers (Ruth Rendall, Nicci French, SJ Watson, Gillian Flynn)

There’s more, of course, and the categories aren’t clear-cut. Ian Rankin, for example, is also often categorised as part of the ‘Tartan noir’ group of Scottish writers, Ken Bruen’s DS Brant novels are police procedurals, and so on. Oh, and did I mention Euro crime and Scandi crime?

I could go on but I hope you get the point – it’s a broad genre already full of great writers producing gripping works of fiction. If you’re serious about writing a crime novel, you need to understand the market you’re writing for and where your work fits within that. Most importantly, you need to know what you bring to this genre that is different from what’s already out there.
When I started out, I thought I understood the genre and where my own work fitted into it. As a fan of Harlen Coben, I had a vague idea that I would become ‘the female Harlen’. Or maybe the ‘Irish Harlen’. Or something…

Thanks to my mentor, Martyn Waites, I was introduced to a whole new world of crime fiction. I immersed myself in the world of American hard-boiled fiction: writers like Gill Brewer, Dashiel Hammett, Christa Faust and Megan Abbott. I read George Pellicanos, Cathi Unsworth, Louise Welch and Gillian Flynn. I discovered a whole swathe of Scottish crime writers apart from Val McDermid and Ian Rankin; writers like Stuart McBride, Peter May, Caro Ramsey and Allan Guthrie.

Reading these diverse writers did two things. First, and most importantly, it made me realise what I was up against. The sheer scale and talent already out there was scary. If I was to make it in this arena I’d better produce something damn good. Secondly, it helped me clarify where, within that broad genre, my own work fitted.

I’m not Harlen Coben and never will be. I have an agent now. And a publisher. According to both of them, I write commercial women’s crime fiction. Ah, that’s another genre I forgot to mention earlier. This puts me alongside writers like Tana French, Minette Walters, Gillian Flynn, Laura Lippman and Attica Locke, to name but a few. Now that’s something I can be rightly proud of.

To do:

  • Consider the different sorts of crime novels you’ve read. Do you favour one particular sort of crime fiction or not? If you do, why? If you don’t, why? How would you categorise the crime novels you’ve read to date?
  • Go to the crime section of your local bookstore (or browse online). Choose four crime novels by authors you’ve never heard of. Read the novels and think about where they fit within the genre. Hard-boiled, mainstream, psychological thriller or something else entirely?
  • Keep up with current trends. Who are the emerging names in crime fiction? What is it about their work that makes it stand out?
  • Think about your own writing. Where does it fit within the genre? What authors would you compare yourself to? Why?

At the end of this exercise, you should have a clear idea of the sort of crime fiction you want to write and where it fits in today’s market. Well done. The next workshop will look at getting started – thinking about what you want to say, finding time to write and getting those first, precious words down on paper. Stay with me. At the end of the twenty sessions you’ll have written a crime novel.

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