Dream up a cast of interesting characters, shovel plenty of adversity at them, and how they cope makes for the bones of a story. This was my mind-set around seven years ago, when I made my first serious attempt at writing a novel. Despite being a Northerner, I chose London as the backdrop, partly due to me spending a lot of time working down there at the time.
What I failed to appreciate at the time though, was just how important the choice of setting can be. It’s one thing to simply state to your reader where events are taking place. It’s another entirely to make that place come alive, complete with the sights, scents and sounds that drop a reader smack bang in the middle of your scene. I’d done enough to attract the attention of a few agents with my first draft, but looking back now, I realise that my characters were playing their parts against a bland backdrop. One of the key changes I believe made the difference for me, and helped me find an agent, was making the setting pop off the page like a character in its own right. It makes everything more vivid, more three-dimensional. You need to view your setting through all of your character’s senses, not just their eyes. There are some great examples around at the moment, like Ian Rankin with his Rebus novels set in Edinburgh, or Ann Cleeves and her Shetland series. and hopefully I’ve used my experience of working on London to capture enough of its character and spirit in my own writing.
Nowadays, I like to visit the places my characters do wherever possible, and walk in their footsteps, but thanks to tools like Google street view, you can even bluff your way through it to an extent. However you do it though, never underestimate the role that setting can play. Whether it’s set in a big city, tucked away somewhere rural, bounces from one country to the next, or even set on another planet, learn from my mistakes, choose carefully, and give it as much thought and TLC as you would one of your characters. You’ll not regret it.
Is there such a thing as the “perfect crime”, and how would you get away with it? Confession time – personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for an ending where not everyone necessarily gets their comeuppance. Books like Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, or You by Caroline Kepnes are some of my favourite examples of how effectively this works when done well. As readers, we’re conditioned to expect that most things will be tied up in a neat package, but sometimes that can come about a little too conveniently. Sometimes we even find ourselves rooting for someone on the wrong side of the law, and wouldn’t begrudge them if they got away with it. Maybe they’re actually a decent sort at heart, but got caught up in terrible circumstances. Either way, some people will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid being caught.
In my opinion, the perfect crime is one of two things. Either nobody even knows one has even been committed and it stays undiscovered, or it’s covered up so well, that it’s impossible to unravel what happened, and who is responsible. Admittedly the former might not work too well as a novel. That got me thinking though, nowadays, so much of our lives are open to scrutiny, from our social media posts, to the dozens of CCTV cameras we go past every day. In theory, it should be getting harder to get away with anything, without leaving a trace, either digital or physical. But what if the crime had been committed so long ago, that none of this was of any use? This was the train of thought that led me to the idea for What Falls Between the Cracks, and provides the opening of the book. A thirty-year-old crime scene, a girl who was never reported missing, not even by her own family or friends. What happened to her? With no body at the scene, did she run, or did she meet an unfortunate end?
There could be, and probably are, hundreds of crimes that go undiscovered or unpunished. I’m fascinated by the idea that even people we think we know, could have secrets they don’t want airing, and the lengths they might go to, to keep it that way. In fact, I’m sure we all have our secrets, some more damaging than others. The beauty of this notion from a writers point of view, is that it can play out equally as well in a domestic setting, as it does in a high-octane thriller, and gives us so much room and material to work with. By definition, the crime in my book isn’t perfect then, as it does come to light right at the start. Whether it gets solved or not, I guess you’ll have to read it and find out.