Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Going round in circles

Are you a writer? Is there any particular way in which you like to kick-start your novels (or short stories)? I'm not sure if I always start the same way. Sometimes it's with an incident that then grows into a longer story. Sometimes it's with the victim, and sometimes I start by thinking of the perpetrator first. Certainly that's what I'm doing in my second novel, Washed in the Blood.

But I asked established crime writer, Margot Kinberg, to talk to us about her methods. Here's what she said.

Will it Go Round in Circles?*

Thanks so much for inviting me to guest-post – I’m honoured. One of the challenges writers face is taking all of those creative ideas that always seem to pop up at either 2 am, or in the middle of a traffic jam, and putting them into some kind of coherent story.  Every writer handles this differently, so I can only share the way I go about it. But here’s how the process works for me.

I write crime fiction, so in my stories, there’s invariably at least one murder, and at least one murder victim. And that’s where I always start. Who’s the victim? What is that person like?  I’ve gotten inspiration from many places for the kind of person who would make a good victim. There really is no set pattern there, at least for me. But once I decide on who the victim is, then I get to work on setting up the story.

One way to look at the way I do things is a set of circles. First, of course, there’s the smallest circle around the victim. What is her or his personality? What is that person’s background?  What about that person might drive someone to murder?  Once I know the victim a little, it’s time for the next circle: the victim’s close friends, family and so on.

In that second circle is where you often find the suspects in a murder mystery, so that’s where I start adding in people who may have something to gain by killing the victim. In one of my stories, for instance, my victim has something valuable that one suspect wants. Another suspect feels threatened by something the victim knows. Another is obsessed with the victim. Well, you get the idea. This is also the place where one can add in another circle for the people the victim comes into occasional contact with – sort of an ‘outer circle’ of people. Those are people who can give an interesting perspective on the victim and certainly could be suspects.

Then I add another circle, separate from the victim’s – the sleuth’s circle. After all, it’s hard to do a crime novel if nobody tries to solve the crime. My sleuth is Joel Williams, a former cop, now a university professor of criminal justice. He has his own circle, including his wife, his contacts at the police department, his university colleagues, his students, and so on. Those circles are important (at least to me) because my sleuth is not a cop or PI. So he doesn’t have any official reason to be investigating anything. And nobody is required to tell him anything. That means that one of his circles has to overlap with one of the victim’s circles.

Let me give an example. In one of my stories, my sleuth is working on a research project with two colleagues. In the process of that research they uncover a ‘cold case’ that leads to a not-so-cold murder. In this case, that research circle overlaps with one of the first victim’s circles. That step, as I say, is perhaps less of a critical issue for police procedurals or PI novels, where the sleuth is supposed to investigate. That’s what cops and PIs are paid to do.

Once I have my circles set up, I outline the action in the story. I add in things such as where things happen, how exactly Joel Williams gets involved, and who has critical information for the case. With that rough structure in place, it’s time for the details.

One thing I like about this approach is that it allows for flexibility. It lets the writer put in as many or as few characters as needed. The story can take place at any time, in any place, and feature just about any kind of victim. So there’s a lot of ‘wiggle room.’

I also like the way the circles encourage me to add character development and sub-plots. As I look at each circle I see opportunities to sketch in things such as people’s home lives, minor characters and the other details that make a story (hopefully!) more interesting.

Circles don’t work for everyone of course. More than anything else I believe that each writer has to find her or his own way to frame ideas and get those ideas written. But as for me? Yeah, I go around in circles. ;-)

Many thanks again for hosting me!! Please feel free to get in contact with me (margotkinberg(at)gmail(dot)com) if you want to connect.

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Billy Preston song, co-written with Bruce Fisher.

Margot Kinberg is the author of the Joel Williams mystery series. She blogs at

Monday, 16 September 2013

Historical Headaches (2) – The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction


Creating the voice of your character – Using the First Person

Using a first person narrator can create an immediate impact on the reader by establishing a clear and identifiable voice and creating empathy and/or interest.  For example, Rose Tremain in very few words, wittily conveys the essence of the character of Kirsten Munk, Consort of 17th century King Christian IV of Denmark, via her private papers.

Well, for my thirtieth birthday, I have been given a new Looking-glass which I thought I would adore. I thought I would dote upon this new Glass of mine. But there is an error in it, an undoubted fault in its silvering, so that the wicked object makes me look fat. I have sent for a hammer

Music and Silence by Rose Tremain

   The limitations of first person narrative are well documented, the principal ones being problems of plotting, requiring imaginative ways of providing information which the narrator does not directly experience but needs to know. However, there are many examples of highly successful first person narrators in the works of accomplished writers of historical fiction. 

A first person narrator can vividly convey his/her personality, social status and attitudes. Even in the narrative sections, such as the character’s reflections, as well as in direct speech and dialogue, the writer can include a range of linguistic features such as the cadence of the speech, dialect and accent. Jane Harris in The Observations, set in 19th century Scotland, creates an immediately striking voice for Bessy, a young fugitive prostitute. Her early encounters quickly establish her as a gutsy, worldly, hardened but sympathetic character.

I have to admit there was one added factor in my desire to leave the Great Road and that was the pair of polis that was coming towards us on horseback. Big buckers by the look of them. I had spotted them in the distance five minutes back, their top hats and big buttons, and ever since I had been looking for a way off the road, one that didn’t involve me running across a field and getting mucked up to the oxters.

So I stopped walking and turned to the Jocky. ‘This is where I go off,’ I says, pointing as the sign to the castle.

‘I fwill be coming with you,’ he says. ‘Hand you can be making me dinner. Hand hafterwards fwhee can be making a baby.’

‘What a good idea,’ says I and when he stepped forward as if to kiss me I grabbed his danglers and give them a twist. ‘Make you own babies,’ I says. ‘Now away and flip yourself.’

Off I went up the lane and when he followed me I gave him a shove and a few more flips offs and stamped on his bare foot and that was the last I seen of him, for a while, anyway.

The style successfully combines standard English narrative with some dialect expressions oxters and slang mucked up; danglers; flip as well as the non-standard spelling polis to indicate Bessy’s pronunciation. In addition, the phonetic spelling of the Highland boy’s accent represents Bessy’s contempt for him. Non-standard grammar is used in give them a twist and that was the last I seen of him and the conversational he says and I says which creates a sense of her speech style and social class. Her courage and skills of self-preservation are clear in her response to the potential threats to her safety and freedom as a vagrant.

First person narratives also seem to allow smoother transitions into back story, as the main character, who is often telling the story of his/her life at a later date, can include past events. In Witch Light, Susan Fletcher captures the personality of Corrag, a wild young girl awaiting trial for witchcraft in 17th century Scotland, as in her cell she reflects on her life.

I say it – look. Witch.....And my breath clouds so the word is white, rolls out.

I have tried to not mind it. I’ve tried so hard.

I have tried to say it does not hurt, and smile. And I can reason that witch has been a gift, in its way – for look at my life.... Look at the beauty that witch has brought me to. Such pink-sky dawns, and waterfalls, and long, grey beaches with a thundering sea, and look what people I met – what people! I’ve met some sovereign lives. I’ve met wise, giving, spirited lives which I would not have done, without witch. What love it showed me, too. No witch, and I would not have met the man who made me think him, him, him - all the time. Him, who tucked a strand of my hair behind my ear. Him who said you....

The narrative intersperses the present, her breath as she speaks, clouding in the cold air of her prison cell, then moves to her inner reflections and the life of a woman shunned as a witch. Corrag’s recollections of her wild and isolated life reveal her suffering but also her resilience and the pleasures she has derived. The prose has poetic qualities: repetition of words and phrase patterns, images of colour, simple language, which create a sense of otherwordliness about her character.

Another advantage of using the first person, is the way that it enables the writer and then the reader to enter the inner world of the character, to share in his/her emotional life, to see and judge other people and events from his/her perspective. It can also convey a ‘confessional’ relationship with the reader and some writers do this explicitly when the narrator addresses the reader directly in the second person ‘you’. In some cases the use of a naive or unreliable first person narrator can create humour or tragic dramatic irony. 

I had always shied away from using the first person, but decided to try it in my third novel The Conjuror’s Truth, as a way of responding to feedback on my heroines in earlier novels, which suggested that they were not characterised strongly enough, nor were they engaging the readers’ interest sufficiently. I also, perhaps unwisely, experimented with the present tense, to increase the tension and immediacy of my heroine’s situation.  

The Conjuror’s Truth

Chapter 1 Welstead, Essex, August 1698

We are three weeks wed and still he has not touched me. Mary has told me what a woman must endure to do her duty to God and to her husband, but though there is a good bedchamber upstairs and I have taken care about my person, he does not come to me. Instead he sleeps upon a couch in his study next to the parlour. I hear him sometimes at night, pacing below, his feet shuffling upon the flagstones. A light flickers at the foot of the stairs where he pauses awhile and then there is darkness again.

I do not know how I should speak to him, we being so little in each other’s company and so poorly acquainted. How can I discover my husband’s humours, his likes and dislikes or share in his thoughts and opinions? My husband? How can I even claim him as such? He is not mine in any way, save by a bond of law, which has not tied our hearts or minds nor our bodies together. God has ordained that the holy union of marriage is for the procreation of children and my husband is a godly man who does not shirk his duties. Why therefore does he deny this one? I have no one to turn to, to confide in or from whom I might seek counsel. Mary is now so far away and my husband and I are strangers in this new town. I can do nothing but bear this shameful puzzlement with patience and try what is in my power to please him.

I was faced with the challenge of sustaining interest in the character and her traumas and adventures, which I think I managed through a fairly action-packed plot. The plot is a little extreme and one reader’s feedback indicated less satisfaction with the romantic hero, though as always the responses of readers were pretty variable and sometimes contradictory.

Now, as I prepare to start my next novel, I am in a quandary and although I have plenty of ideas about the setting and some events, I have not settled on a strong or interesting enough main character and wonder whether to try first or third person. I suppose that there is no way of knowing other than by launching forth and then re-writing if the chosen approach does not work!

Writing does not become easier. The more I do it, the more I am aware of potential pitfalls and the gulf between what I aspire to achieve and the reality of what I produce! 


Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Do you need a track record?

One of the best pieces of advice I received on my MA course was to get a track record (or writing credit) before sending any work to an agent.  For me this meant taking the plunge and entering short story competitions, even though what I really needed to do was finish my novel. 

Was it worth it?  In short, yes because not only am I able to show agents that I am serious about my writing but also that my writing has been judged, on its quality, by others in the profession.  I believe it is the difference between having your submission read quickly and it ending up in the proverbial slush pile (to be read when one of the overworked staff has a moment).

Of course there is also the thrill of finding out you’ve been shortlisted for a competition.  For me this meant being able to justify the many un-paid hours I put into my writing, often stolen from family- time, and confirmation that I should start taking my writing more seriously.  

Winning of course is fantastic (and helps to justify the entry-fees) but being short-listed is no less an achievement.  Choosing a winning story from a short-list is down to the personal taste of the judge (we often chose ‘voices’ similar to our own) whereas to be part of a short-list, is a statement of quality.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Writing for different genres- how do you do it?

If you're a writer - or, for that matter, a reader - you'll have noticed that different genres have noticeably different conventions with regard to such things as writing styles, degree of pace, suspension and so on. Even use of language can differ, for instance you wouldn't expect Ian Rankin or Michael Connolly to write in the same way as Philippa Gregory or Hilary Mantel. Mind you, people like PD James and John le Carre do manage to write literary works while at the same time sitting in the crime and/or spy sections of bookshops and libraries, but they're both a bit special.

So I thought I'd ask a writer who regularly swaps between crime novels and thrillers. Do they use the same conventions? See what the experienced writer, Adrian Magson, has to say about it.

WRITING CRIME NOVELS OR THRILLERS - what's the difference?

by Adrian Magson.

As far as headings go, probably not much. They should both thrill, but to differing degrees.

Readers like to know what they’re getting. As do agents and publishers. Call a book a crime or mystery and they know exactly where to place it, mentally and physically. Romance, sci-fi, fantasy… all those are obvious. Labels help them target books to the appropriate audience (although oddly enough, in one chain bookstore, many thrillers are found in General Fiction).

But as a writer, I have to approach them with a plan in mind. And for me that plan involves pace.

Take my Inspector Lucas Rocco (crime series). Set in rural Picardie, France, in the 1960s. It’s been called a police procedural, but I have to admit it’s light on the procedure. And that’s deliberate. The French police structure is more complex than ours, but going too deep into that would have taken up too much of the story. And Lucas Rocco is not really a rules and regulations animal; as a former gang-buster from Paris, he’ll abide by them where he has to, but solving crimes is what he’s good at and lies at the heart of each story.

Rocco, often accompanied by Claude Lamotte, the local garde champetre (rural cop), or Desmoulins, a fellow detective, is not always chasing crims in dark corners. He’s more likely to be out looking for clues, or straying off-territory to hunt down contacts and sources of information (often in Paris, his former base), or mixing with unsavoury types trying to unpick the relationship between suspects or others, all the time trying to stay below the radar of the all-embracing Ministry of the Interior.

The Ministry is vast and controls all aspects of police life. To Rocco, the men in grey suits merely get in the way, especially when so many of his cases seem to involve an arm of the government. Then there’s his immediate boss, Commissaire Massin, with whom he has history both of them would like to forget. These twin aspects of Rocco’s professional life – and his problems adjusting to life in a small village, and the quirky locals - allow me to inject conflict alongside the troubles and dangers he faces each day, whether that’s from violent criminals, would-be presidential assassins or bombs left by former Resistance members.

Rural it might be in Picardie; quiet it isn’t.

The pace here lies in the unravelling of the story as he chases down the villains, and this invariably picks up and becomes more tangible as we get into the investigation.

And then there's my protagonist Harry Tate (spy thriller series).
This has pace in its DNA. I know from the start of each book that I have to keep the story moving. This means more action, more threat – and a faster movement of characters and events.

As a former soldier and MI5 officer, who was nearly terminated by a rogue boss (‘Red Station’), Harry works as a contractor for the intelligence services and others. He’s ‘carded’ (licenced to carry a weapon), and his world is one of spies, traitors, rogue military types and foreign intelligence hit teams. He has a colleague, Rik Ferris, who provides the technical aspect of surveillance, digging out secrets and occasionally hacking into areas he shouldn’t.

Harry isn’t a super-agent type, but more a solid, effective counter-intelligence worker who gets things done. He’s ready to travel anywhere, and frequently does, so his field is international (which is also fun to research and write).

I was asked last year by the Harry Tate publishers to write another series character, and have just turned in ‘The Watchman’ (due out in February), which is still in the contemporary thriller world, but darker in tone. It was something I wanted to try, to see if I could deliver. (The publishers and my agent – and my wife, Ann, who is my beta reader – love it, so the signs so far are good). Portman, the main character, is a sort of unseen bodyguard for spies, and therefore has to be ruthless in his outlook to protect his charges. The setting is on the Somali/Kenyan border and involves terrorists and pirates.

I enjoy switching between the two genres types, and consciously wear a different mental hat for each one. Once that hat is on, I’m in the zone and ready to go.

The main thing is, I enjoy what I do, whatever the genre, and hope that comes out in the writing.


Adrian Magson -



Inspector Lucas Rocco series published by Allison & Busby

Harry Tate series published by Severn House 

Bio: Adrian Magson is the author of 15 crime/thriller novels and many short stories and articles. His latest novels are ‘Execution’ (Severn House – May 2013), 5th in the Harry Tate spy series, and ‘Death at the Clos du Lac’ (Allison &Busby), 4th in the Inspector Lucas Rocco series. A regular reviewer for Shots Magazine, he writes the ‘Beginners’ and ‘New Author’ pages for Writing Magazine, and is the author of ‘Write On! - The Writer’s Help Book’ (Accent Press).