Five tips on embarking into the dark heart of crime fiction

By Mary Paulson-Ellis

Mary Paulson-Ellis is the award-winning author of The Other Mrs Walker (Waterstones Scottish Book of the Year), The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing and Emily Noble’s Disgrace.

Ahead of her Festival workshop on using history and memory in your fiction, she has provided five top tips on embarking into the dark heart of crime fiction.

Write your story, your way

Crime is an elastic genre, it takes all comers, from Patricia Highsmith to Alexander McCall Smith, from Daphne du Maurier to Barbara Vine. So rather than putting yourself in a box before you begin – be that police procedural, cosy crime, domestic noir or any other of an ever-expanding milieu – concentrate instead on exploring whatever crimes and misdemeanours spark your imagination in your own distinctive way. Once your work is done, like Cinderella you can fit your foot to the appropriate shoe. Or make a new one if it doesn’t fit at all.

Strive for complexity

We’ve all heard the acronym, KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid. But while simplicity can be your friend when writing – stripped down prose for example, or a neatly executed plot – sometimes it is also the enemy of the long form. Crime in real life is never black and white, so it shouldn’t be on the page either. Whether it’s complexity of theme, of character motivation, or even dialogue (where everything that really matters lies beneath the words actually being spoken), take courage and embrace the grey.

Fear is your friend

Most of us have the luxury of writing from a place of safety, be that a kitchen table or a favourite coffee shop. But inside, our heads teem with worst-case scenarios. The loss of a loved one, perhaps, or the horror of a violent death, even the terror of the blank page. Imagine placing all that fear and its resultant anxieties into the hands of your protagonist? Suddenly the dark abyss becomes a font of possibilities. Stand with them on the edge and look down. Now give them a push, see how far they might fall.

The past is never dead…

William Faulkner’s famous saying, ‘The past is never dead. It isn’t even past’, is the perfect key to writing rich, authentic crime fiction. Your characters might try to hide from their past, or struggle to overcome it, but like the darkest shadows of the imagination, it will always be there. Whether it’s about atoning for past wrong deeds, or grappling with the shifts in law, investigative practices and social attitudes that open new opportunities for justice, the past is a weapon and you can wield it to considerable effect.

Keep peeling the onion

A great premise can be electrifying, getting the reader to turn those pages fast. But ultimately it is a hollow experience if the characters playing it out are subservient to the plot. The Queen of Crime, Val McDermid says that writing crime fiction is like constructing a three-legged stool: it requires plot, setting and character to work. Take one away and the rest fall. But the best plots begin and end with character. And the richest most authentic settings are characters in their own right. So think of your protagonist as an onion and begin to peel away their layers. Once you get to the sliver of silver at their core, then your writing will fly.

Don’t miss…


Sunday 12 September, 10am – 12noon or 2 – 4pm BST, Online, £35

Times bestselling novelist Mary Paulson-Ellis is known for her dark, atmospheric dual-timeline detective novels set in Edinburgh. Join her for an informal, interactive online workshop exploring the ways that memory and history can be used to haunt the present in your crime story.

A brilliant opportunity for insight and advice from the award-winning author of The Other Mrs Walker (Waterstones Scottish Book of the Year), The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing and Emily Noble’s Disgrace.

This online workshop will take place online via Zoom. Instructions will be sent to you a few days in advance.

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National Centre for Writing

National Centre for Writing