Writers on Writing
Writers on Writing

Advice from The Crime Fiction Academy

It has been such a privilege to host these beloved crime fiction writers as part of our Crime Fiction Academy. We've compiled a few of our favorite writing tips from these mystery and thriller authors. You can view our full video archive here



Joyce Carol Oates: On Immersing the Reader in the Crime

"Basically my intention is always the same: it's to immerse the reader in the event, not to talk about it from the outside...Non-fiction crime writing usually begins after the crime is solved, and there is a little distance there. But the kind of writing that I would like to do is eye-level, where you're actually in the consciousness of one of the characters to whom the event is happening. Therefore, you don't know more than the character knows. It's like you're in this rushing river as the...protagonist. And the experiences that people have, at the extreme of what they can bear, are astonishing, because many people discover that they're very courageous. They discover that in an emergency that they will do something that they didn't think they would ever do. That's why one is lead to write about literature of extremes because it shows people not as they in an indolent way, you know, at home, just in their own ordinary life, but some an extraordinary, well-lit arena where they're dramatize the potentialities of the human sphere." 




Mary Higgins Clark: On "Suppose and What If"
"What I have done with many, and most, of my books, is take a true crime, and take the DNA of it, and reverse it...[the professor of my first writing class] assigned us to write a short story, and we were all dismayed. He said, 'I see the look on your faces, you don't know what to write, I'm telling you what to write. Is there a family story, a family secret that you only hear about in whispers? Is it something that happened to your friend's family? Is it something you read in the newspaper? ...you take that true case, you ask yourself two questions: Suppose and What If, and turn that case into fiction." 




Elmore Leonard: On Dialogue

"[A line]...might take weeks. Forget weeks, just leave a blank there for his last line. It's that easy...I end scenes with my main character saying something, and it might take me weeks, and I go back and fill it in. I'm glad he thinks like that, he thinks so quickly. But this is writing, it's writing, it is 78,000 words on paper. And to me it's always been fun...I write always from a point of view, whether it's the main character or a supporting character...and I never intrude. I never inject myself into the story...the whole book. I'm nowhere to be found. I never use a word that my characters wouldn't use." 


Christian Jungersen and Megan Abbott:
On the Usage of Crime in Fiction
"I don't write primarily to figure out who did it...the crime is the spine of the body and all the other stuff needs to be there. I use [crime] to bring forward all these philosophical issues: when are we really resposible for anything? Which of course, is the theory of crime fiction." –Christian Jungersen
"[Crime] is really there to put characters under pressure...I really write from character, and it's a way of...tearing back the curtain and seeing what's really there. My book has a family...where all the sort of mysteries and strangenesses of the family become revealed by of this high pressure, this intensity, everybody's put to the edge. [To call it] a device would be to diminish it, it's not really a device, it's a method, I would say." –Megan Abbott


Duane Swiercynzski: On Writing in First Person
"Every writer goes through every possible version of their novel...At the end of this thing, I came up with a hybrid, of a first person to third person, back and forth, praying it would work...The plot still came together, oddly enough, it's just sort of where you put your camera, is the way I see it. When you're in (Sarie's) world, she has a first person camera on her shoulder, you're hearing her thoughts, you're kind of in her head. With Wildey, I can actually move the camera around...it gave me freedom...that to me it gave me a justification for how I wrote it."  




Ruth Rendell: On Getting into the Mind of a Character
"[I] never [base my characters on people I have known]...I always say that, because I don't consciously pick on somebody I know, and yet, when I say 'No, it's not based on anybody,' then what is it? It must have some connection to real people. And I think probably, the truth is, I take bits of people that I have known and put them with other people, and make a character that way."




Dennis Lehane: On Fact versus Fiction
"When in doubt, when you have to choose between the fact and the fiction, you choose the fiction every time...the pivotal event that caused the police strike was the death of the police commissioner...I needed to get that fact in, that there was once hope, and then it died. Now, I lost months of my life trying to work the book around the events that happened in December, when he died...I had all these other things to get to, and it wasn't fitting that he died there. And then one day, this wonderous voice in my head, said 'Who gives a sh** when he died? Put in when you need him to die. Put in what's dramatically interesting'...and that was a great moment...The fact is that his death caused the Boston police strike. The specific details of his death are irrelevant. I had to choose between drama and between fact, and I chose drama."



Michael Connelly: On Writing Contemporeanously
"I have this misinformed idea that I don't need to put anything down on paper, that if it's good enough, I won't forget it, and I know I've forgotten a lot of really good stuff. But I don't do any kind of notes or anything, the only thing I write is the book itself...But I think about stuff all the time. I just don't think too far ahead...I think it's because of [my] newspaper [background], you know, newspapers are very contemporeanous...It doesn't serve me to think about, you know, two books from now, this is what I'm going to do, because the world's going to be different. And hopefully these books are coming out of the world, of what's happening in the world, or a story I've heard."