This is Number One of a Series of Three About Creating a Crime Series
Psst! Do you want a few tips on how to commit the perfect murder?
You do? Okay. But before I advise you on planning the dispatch of your mother-in-law, you’ll want to know why I can help you avoid having your collar felt.
I’ve had twenty-one crime novels published. Sixteen traditionally (Macmillan; St Martin’s Press (US); Worldwide (US / P/B); Severn House), and the rest Indie.
I come from an Irish Catholic working-class background. I suppose you could say I was one of life’s late developers in the area of personal ambition.
I certainly had no idea what a criminal direction I would end up in. Killing people – and getting away with it – was far in the future.
When I took the 11+ examination — which would decide my educational future, I confess, I was far more interested in winning Jimmy Smith’s prize 4-er marble than I was in taking tests.
From Wikepedia Creative Commons
What can I say? I was young for my age. Still very much a kid. Unlike eleven-year-old’s in 2020!
Darlings – I won the marble – but failed the 11+ examination.
So it was off to secondary modern for me.
For those who don’t know, secondary-modern schools existed to teach people the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. Then send them out into the world at fifteen or sixteen to have jobs rather than careers.
So you could say it wasn’t the best start in life.
Unsurprisingly, after I left school at 16, a long list of dead-end jobs followed. I won’t bore you with a litany of them.
Ambition Found Me
But somehow, somewhere, along the way, I found ambition. I realised that i wanted to do something with my life, rather than fritter it away.
I’d always been a keen reader. So trying to become a published writer seemed a natural step on the road. Fortunately, I was too ignorant to know any better!
Oh Boy! Was I in for a Shock!
I first started writing in my early/mid twenties. But I was an amateur. A rank amateur. I knew nothing about research. Nothing about creating characters or plot. I hadn’t a clue, basically. I was a dilettante, and never finished anything.
One of Those Age Milestones
But hitting the age of thirty concentrated my mind. I determined to finish a novel, rather than just play about at the edges. And gradually I learned how to write novels—and how to finish them.
From the age of thirty, I wrote a book a year for six years before I achieved publication.
That book was a Romantic Novel called Land of Dreams. It was set in The Canadian Arctic (trying to be the same, but different, from what had been published before).
After that brief brush with publication, Robert Hale rejected my next Romantic Novel. It was back to Rejection Alley.
Angry and Dejected
By then i was pretty fed up. Nobody likes being repeatedly rejected. My ‘stuff you’ mentality came into play. I felt like murdering someone. So I did.
I turned to Crime
Remarkably, my very first crime novel was taken from Macmillan’s slush pile, and published. It was also published by St Martin’s Press in the USA, and Worldwide in P/B.
I’ve done them all. Stabbings, poisonings, smotherings, bludgeonings. You name it and I’ve done it. I’ve even hanged someone, but that was after they were dead.
So, How Do You Start Creating a Crime Series?
By thinking, long and hard. The first book in a crime series is, I believe, the most difficult and demanding. You have to master the problems of plotting, clue laying, and red-herring scattering. You also have to learn about police and forensic procedures. And at the same time, somehow, create a cast of characters who are capable of supporting a series.
A Tall Order!
A pretty tall order for a first effort in a genre I think you’ll agree.
There must be many neophyte writers who have fallen by the wayside in attempting to write crime novels. I might have been one of them if I hadn’t decided to do my own thing rather than follow the crowd.
Maybe the word originality explains why so many fail. That single word strikes terror into the hearts of a lot of new crime writers. I know it did mine.
After a writing history of five rejected romantic novels followed by the publication of the sixth. And then more rejection. As well as the publication of various articles. The writing of a crime novel seemed much more demanding than anything I’d tackled before. It was also extremely intimidating.
I admit I was scared by the crime writers who are regularly praised for their devilish ingenuity, god-like intellect and masterly characterisation. It was enough to have more ordinary mortals, like me, quaking in their boots at the thought of trying to emulate them.
So How Do You Set About Creating an Original Crime Series?
All I can tell you is how I went about it.
I suppose you could describe the Rafferty and Llewellyn mystery novels, which form my first series, as Inspector Frost meets Del Boy Trotter and family.
For those who don’t watch British TV, Inspector Frost is something of a bumbler who’s anti-authority, but he’s smart enough to get his man.
And Del Boy Trotter is a market trader (market stall not the stock market), who’s into buying dodgy gear. He’s working-class and a bit of a ducker and diver, but witty with it.
So if you’re looking for the intellectual, Sherlock Holmes, type of crime novel – steer well clear! Though, having said that, I had one reviewer who likened me to Holmes(!).
In short, the Rafferty family has more than their share of ‘Del Boy Trotter types’. Their leisure-time activities are far from Adam Dalgliesh and his poetry writing. Or Morse and his Wagner.
The Rafferty family pursuits are nothing so refined. They’re into back-of-a-lorry bargains and other diversions of equally questionable legality.
And Rafferty’s ma, Kitty Rafferty, often leads the field in such pursuits. She uses emotional blackmail to make Rafferty feel guilty when he upbraids her.
Having far more than her share of Blarney Stone baloney, she always wins these little arguments.
Don’t Restrict Yourself
Given the above, don’t restrict yourself to what you think are the usual sort of police characters. Like middle-aged men in suits. If something else would come more naturally to you, go for it.
Like me with Detective Inspector Joseph Rafferty and his back of a lorry-bargain family – try to find the main character that’s right for you.
The Tricky Business of Originality
To get back to this business of originality for a moment, I think we can all agree that being original is a tricky business.
A book that one person considers a true original might be thought of as over the top by another.
While a third person might consider your hard won originality is nothing more than a poor copy of a well-known writer’s style that’s been given a bit of a twist.
So, originality’s a pretty movable feast.
What Publishers Want
Who knows?! Publishers themselves are often pretty vague when they try to define what they’re looking for.
But, even if they can’t tell you what they want, they find it easier to tell you what they don’t want.
No editor is going to be impressed by a writer who’s a copycat. For one thing, it’ll put the publisher in danger of being sued. So—no second rate plagiarism.
Ask Yourself Some Questions
Okay, so where do you start? You start by asking yourself a few pertinent questions. About yourself, your background, your family, warts and all. And then maybe oomph it up a bit.
Maybe, like ex-British Prime Minister John Major, your family has a circus or funfair background?
Maybe you could have a sort of Gypsy Rose Lee type in there somewhere? A travelling crook detector with her crystal ball ever at the ready!
Outlandish, perhaps, but then wacky might be just your thing.
Or maybe your working background’s a little more conservative? In insurance, for instance.
An insurance investigator could get to look into a lot of suspicious deaths. And he doesn’t have to be your average stereotypical insurance worker. Whatever that is.
Maybe he desperately wants to get out of the insurance business and into the world of entertainment. An insurance investigator as comedian, given to cracking tasteless jokes at the crime scene.
A man who’s learned to judge the witnesses as he would judge an audience.
They’re just a couple of ideas to get you thinking. Feel free to use them. Or not!
Bit of a Scruff
To get back to me, and the choices I made when I was creating my crime series. I decided on the surname Rafferty because I wanted his name to suggest someone who was a bit of a scruff – a rough Rafferty, in fact.
I chose the name Llewellyn for his sidekick because I wanted to give the suggestion of royalty.
Dead Before Morning #1
Alongside the main story runs a humorous sub-plot, in which Rafferty is ensnared in the first of the series’ many family-induced problems.
I’ve just started #19 in the Rafferty series. I know–I should have started it months ago. My excuse is that a modern writer can no longer just concern him or herself with the story. I wish. I had it easy starting before the invention of the internet. Or Social Media / Websites / Photoshop / WordPress / Social Networking / Marketing / Categories / Niches / and a whole host of their brothers and sisters.
So you have to do some serious studying. Which is what I’ve been doing. Biting the bullet and accepting that my website needs a complete overhaul. From start (in 2010) to finish (now, midway through July 2020). Ten years worth of work. It’s enough to send a girl sobbing into her dotage.
To Return to Series Creation
And similarities. I thought if Rafferty shared class and education with me, he might as well have other elements of similarity. Why not? Other writers do.
Would a non—classical music lover have created Morse? Would someone who knows little and cares less about poetry have created the poetry writing Adam Dalgliesh?
Well, possibly, i suppose. But it’s far more sensible to make use of elements from your own life, as I presume those devilish types did.
A Character You Can Empathise With
One who was as near me as I could get. Believe me, it helps!
Even though I’m not a man, I made Rafferty male because I felt the relationship with his ma was important. I felt, rightly or wrongly, that there would be more scope for humour with a male main character.
You’ll Have Enough Trouble
In creating a plot that conceals as it reveals. With coming up with clues, red herrings, a satisfying denouement and the rest.
You won’t need to increase your difficulties by having a lead character from a totally different social background from yourself as well.
As I said, my background is Irish-Catholic working-class. So is Rafferty’s. I was educated (sic) in a Roman Catholic secondary modern. So was Rafferty. I come from a large family. So does Rafferty.
There are a few differences, of course. Apart from the differences in gender. But the basic elements of similarity are there. They all help to give the writer a ‘feel’ for a character and their background. Something I regarded as essential when I hoped to carry him through a series of novels.
Unsavoury Habits of Youth
There are a lot of working class policemen out there – just like Rafferty – who have risen up the ranks. Leaving behind them the less savoury habits of youth and family.
Often, they’ll have had to shed or at least conceal, certain aspects of their character. Prejudices of one sort or another, for instance. Or, like Rafferty, a family with a love of dubious ‘bargains’.
But just because our policeman character has found it necessary to change doesn’t mean to say his family would be so obliging as to do likewise. He would have parents, siblings, nephews, nieces and so on, all with their own ideas of what constitutes right and wrong. And all beyond the lead character’s influence or control.
Imagine such a family. They’d be only too likely to embarrass your lead character.
Think of Ex-PM
Now, i know we’re talking fictional policemen here, but just think again for a moment, of John Major and his family. Of Terry and Pat, and the trapeze-artist, gnome-loving father.
Nothing criminal there, of course. But still, what ammunition they provided his enemies – of whatever political persuasion. He must have often wished he had been an only, lonely orphan. Rafferty often wishes the same!
It doesn’t take a major (go on – groan!) Leap of the imagination to see that a policeman, in a position of authority, with the need to be seen to uphold the law can easily be embarrassed by a less than honest family. He could even have his career put at risk by them.
I was well into my stride now and decided that if Rafferty was going to be working-class like me, he might as well have other elements of ‘me’. Why not? it not only makes life easier, it also helps me relate to the main character and to the past which has helped to shape him
But in order to have a ‘past’, he’s got to have memories. And the best memories, from the point of view of believability, are one’s own memories.
Which is something else you might perhaps care to bear in mind if and when you start creating your own mystery series.
I’ll give you an example.
In Down Among The Dead Men, the second in the series, I had Rafferty reveal – just as I remember doing – that as a schoolchild he and his classmates would attend Friday afternoon Benediction at the local Catholic Church. There, they would sing Latin hymns without – as they had never been taught any Latin – having a clue what they were singing about.
Not much, perhaps, in the broad sweep of a novel, but it’s little touches like that which help to bring a character to life. Which perhaps helps a reader to identify with them, to the point of saying, ‘yes. I remember doing that.’ it helps to make it all more real.
Once i had Rafferty down on paper, i gave a lot of thought to his sidekick. But that’s for the second in my three-parter articles. So tune in next time!