Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Can Crime Be Fun?

Writing it certainly can be, if you let it. Creating a crime fiction tale can be quite an enjoyable and challenging experience. With NaNoWriMo coming soon, for my own use as well as others out there, I thought I'd include a sample checklist for planning purposes. Even though NaNo is a wide-open type writing endeavor, working from a basic plan is extremely helpful to keep you going in the right direction. Having one, like the following, can be a very useful tool.

_____Title: This is what entices and grabs your reader. While you may have woven a wondrous tale of suspense and terror, it's not going to mean a thing if no one is pulled into read it. That's why your title is so important. You want to keep it simple, but not too vague. Names of characters, places, or events within your story can be used, along with a hint of the storyline. Tease the reader with promises of fear and isolation. Inject a sense of worry and apprehension before they arrive at the first paragraph, and use your title to accomplish that.

_____Location: Where's your story going to take place? This is a big decision. You have to decide before you begin if you will be utilizing a real-world location or if you're going to just make it up as you go along. Whichever way you go in this, travel with care.

Using real cities and towns carries with it the responsibility of accuracy. Unless you are really familiar with a specific area, I would recommend avoiding using it. For all you know, one of your readers was born in the town in your story and they know for sure there's no library on the corner of Fifth and Main. Once they've identified that flaw, believe me, you've lost them. Either avoid real places altogether or research them thoroughly.

If you decide to create a location, don't think the rules of accuracy don't apply. Consistency is the keyword when making up locales. Readers will pick up on errors in make believe towns too and you can lose them just as quickly as with real ones. Map out your fake town or city, note your street and business names so they don't change from chapter to chapter.

_____Time: Here's another component that can require a great deal of research. This refers to the time period your story is set in. Whatever era you choose, everything has to be considered. Your characters have to dress, behave, and speak appropriately. The vehicles, buildings and businesses all have to look and function as they did during your chosen time period. If your story is set sometime in the future, the world you create must reflect that. The technology in your story may not actually exist in the real world, but to be believable in your story, again, consistency is the key. I would suggest mapping it all out to make sure your gadgets aren't different in function and appearance on pages 4 and 14. Again, readers are sharp; they'll catch it--imaginary or not.

_____Outline: Whether or not to outline before you actually write is a personal preference. Some use the outline process for novels only and others use them for all their projects. Outlining should be done if you feel it will help you to develop your characters and storyline. The only thing I would caution you on is if you do outline, make sure you don't set it in stone. As you create, if your story takes a turn in another direction, feel free to let it go. Be flexible enough to adjust your outline if the situation warrants it. An outline is a tool--a guide. It is there to assist, not constrict.

_____Characters: Now, we're at the core. Your characters are the backbone of your story. They have to be three dimensional and as real as you can make them. Readers need to be able to identify with your characters in some way. There needs to be something about them or their lives your readers can relate to. They shouldn't just be names and physical descriptions. Take the time to give them lives. They need a past as well as a present. They need families, friends, likes, dislikes, fears and favorites. Here's where an outline, at least for the characters, might be of benefit to keep their relationships with other characters, places, events, etc., consistent. Imaginary or not, consistency is important here too. To hold the reader's interest, your characters must be feeling, thinking beings. Whether they are good, bad, or a little of both, they must appear genuine. Then, and only then, will your reader care about them and what happens to them.

_____Weapon/Crime: Last, but certainly of great importance, is your crime and your weapon of choice. This is something you generally decide early on. For instance, you may choose murder as your crime and if so, your possibilities for a weapon are endless. Depending on who your killer is, you could go with a gun, a knife, poison, or get up close and personal with strangulation. Remember though, research is of great importance here too. Weapons need to be time-appropriate. Make sure the gun your killer uses was manufactured when your story takes place. Make sure the poison used was available to that particular population and make sure your depiction of its effects is also accurate. You don't want to get too over the top. Nothing turns a reader off more quickly than an overly dramatic scene with a victim gasping and coughing all over the room, writing the name of their killer on the walls with a tube of lipstick and then falling down in a heap clutching a cufflink torn from the killer's shirt. If the reader thinks it's hokey enough, they may look up your poison and when they find out it causes an immediate unconscious state, suppresses respiration and death occurs shortly after, they've closed the book on your story and picked up the TV remote. In the future, when they see your name on a story, they'll pass it up because you've lied to them once, and they will remember and make sure you don't get the chance to do it again.

These are some points to consider when sitting down to write crime fiction. The most important one though is to enjoy the process from start to finish. Try different settings, different lengths, characters and time periods. Let your stories twist and turn and go their own way. Let them surprise even you. This will all translate into enjoyment for your readers, and don't we, as writers, owe them that?

If you are going to do NaNo again this year, or if you're going to give it a try for the first time, look for me. I'm in there as suspense2009. NaNo is a lot of work and takes up a great deal of time, but I can speak from personal experience when I say that you can end up having the time of your life. You could also end up with a marketable project at the end of it--or as in my case, a few months down the road with a lot of editing and polishing. Use it for what it is--it is a chance to just sit down and write and enjoy every minute of it, and that's what we've been talking about here today. Never forget that, regardless of what it is you are writing, enjoy the time you devote to it, the project itself, the characters you create, the events you cause to occur, the whole process. Believe me, your finished product will end up being so much the better for it.