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Dana View All →

Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

1. Begin with the murder.

7 Tips for Writing Crime Fiction (written for Writer’s Digest) by Dana Stabenow I only wish I’d had this list when I began writing, but thirty-seven novels later I do have a few things figured out. I don’t follow all these rules slavishly. I say begin with the murder but…often I don’t. Every writer does…

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[repurposed from 2021]

I confess, I did not love Instruments of Darkness, the first of the Imogen Robertson Georgian murdery mystery series. The writing was fine, but I couldn't warm up to the characters.

But. Now I have read Anatomy of Murder, the second in the series, and I want to go back and reread the first one because obviously my literary taste buds were malfunctioning for a while there.

It's London, 1781. A body is discovered floating in the Thames, and spymaster Palmer suspects the dead man was carrying British secrets to the French. To discover what he was doing and who he was working with, Palmer enlists the aid of gentlewoman Harriet Westerman and reclusive anatomist Gabriel Crowther, who made themselves notorious the year before when they unraveled the case of the missing heir of Thornleigh Hall.

The setting is every bit as much the star of this show as the plot and the characters, as in

London rolled over in its bed and yawned at the approaching morning, then cursed it. In the churches, old men turned large keys in the doors and shoved them cautiously open, letting the darkness out before the first worshipers found their way in. Those who had got enough pennies together to drink the night before, flinched at the dawn and their empty pockets. In the better houses, young girls, their hands already worn red with work and cold water, cleaned the grates and set the fires, dreaming of the narrow beds they had just left. In the rookeries the day began with angry growls and hands grasping for what comfort they could find in the dark. Another day to live through.

Robertson has chosen to tell part of the story through the eyes of two characters who live near the bottom of society, and not since Dickens has poverty been rendered with more immediacy. I was hungry and cold a lot, and I kept wanting to put Sam in a bathtub and scrub him down.

Harriet's husband has suffered a head injury at sea that has left him dangerous to those he loves. At present he is confined under a doctor's care, so Harriet, with time on her hands and in spite of the disapproval of her family, accepts Palmer's commission.

That was the last moment when it occurred to Harriet that she still had time to withdraw. She could picture the scene upstairs--Lady Susan entertaining the younger children with Rachel, and Mrs. Service at their side--and wondered to herself if she might join them, might be free and easy, and foul neither her mind nor her reputation with further association with violent death. Then she thought of her husband and felt, with a sensation like sand running through her hands, that her days of ease were perhaps in any case over. She might join the party upstairs, but at present she would only bring darkness with her...Let Palmer make use of her, then.

Crowther does, too, in spite of

When Crowther arrived to accompany Mrs. Westerman to their assignation with Mr. Palmer, he walked in on such a scene of domestic harmony and goodwill that he felt as if someone had doused him with a pail full with the milk of human kindness.

Crowther is a misanthrope of epic proportions, due to a past that reveals itself slowly over the course of the novel. The ensemble cast is equally good, from the determined Mr. Palmer, the deplorable Lord Carmichael and the suave Lord Sandwich, to the tarot-card reading witch Jocasta, the lost boy Sam, and the patriotic crook Malloy. There is opera, though Harriet and Crowther both be tone deaf to it, and a galloping ventre a terre denouement that will first thrill you and then break your heart.

I might pick a few nits over the too-neat tying up of several plots lines and the, no, that would give too much away so never mind. And never mind anyway. I really enjoyed this one.

# Permanent link to Dickens would have felt right at home.

[repurposed from November 2010]

How about a little shameless self-promotion for today, featuring author interview with Les Wanner of TheCrimeofitAll.com.

Len Wanner: Should crime fiction get more critical attention?

Dana Stabenow: No, I think it gets plenty nowadays, both online and off.

LW: Have you read any Scottish crime fiction?

DS: Scottish crime fiction isn’t separated out as a separate subgenre on Amazon or at Barnes and Noble, so I don’t know.

LW: What are the merits of crime fiction for you?

DS: The merits of good crime writing are the same merits of any good writing: The better I tell a story, the more engaged the reader will be.

LW: Did you choose this genre because it gives a voice to those we rarely listen to?

DS: If I wanted to bang the drum for a cause I’d write non-fiction. I do believe evil exists in human form, however, and the snake always has the best lines.

LW: How do you see yourself as a writer?

DS: I’m an entertainer. I’m the one sitting around the fire, spinning tales, hoping to get a few coins in my bowl before turning in for the night. If I don’t deliver, no coins, and no supper.

LW: Would you say that crime fiction is becoming ever more popular because it offers ersatz justice?

DS: Yes. Most of the time in crime fiction justice prevails. If we can’t have the reality of social justice, at least we can escape to it in fiction.

LW: Can the genre be too heavy-handed on questions of corrective measures?

DS: Only by accident, if the writer is doing their job properly.

LW: Does the genre afford us an opportunity to identify with a person driven to crime?

DS: Some people are just plain mad, bad and dangerous to know. No crime fiction writer can afford to underestimate the human propensity for evil. But no crime fiction reader should forget they are reading fiction.

LW: What makes a hero?

DS: All the best crime fiction heroes share at bottom the core characteristic of decency and many of them a willingness to sacrifice for their code or an individual or the common good. That’s what makes them heroes, they are better than you and me.

LW: Is the crime novel read as the new social novel – to identify with people in distress, to feel that we are not alone in our fears and uncertainties?

DS: The social novel has disappeared? Wait, I don’t even know what a “social” novel is. This could apply to any novel in any genre.

LW: Would you agree that crime fiction is read with a view to sounding out one’s own lived experience through the contrast between idealized patriarchy and how things actually work?

DS: Judging by my fan mail, some do. Some just read for the thrill.

LW: Do you write crime fiction because this genre doesn’t hesitate when it comes to the extremes that human beings are capable of?

DS: Crime fiction is a very versatile genre. There is nothing you can’t do in crime fiction and make it work. So yes.

LW: Who does it best?

DS: Reading is a wholly subjective exercise, and every book has a different effect on each individual reader. You’re casting a pretty wide net here. I will simply say that lately I’ve been enjoying Ariana Franklin, Craig Johnson, Barbara Cleverly, PD James and Reginald Hill.

# Permanent link to #thiswritinglife

Kamala Khan is a normal sixteen-year old teenage girl in Jersey City who happens to be Muslim and, you know, a superhero

Kamala Khan is a normal sixteen-year old teenage girl in Jersey City who happens to be Muslim and, you know, a superhero, and in fact an Inhuman, like Skye/Daisy on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The first book begins with her latent superpowers being activated by the Terrigen Cloud or Mist or whatever it is (It’s a…

Read more Kamala Khan is a normal sixteen-year old teenage girl in Jersey City who happens to be Muslim and, you know, a superhero

#thiswritinglife

Note: On occasion on #thiswritinglife posts I include reviews of books on the craft of writing. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is the book I recommend most often to aspiring authors. I reread it myself cover to cover every few years. Notenote: For aspiring Alaska authors I also recommend The Associated Press Stylebook…

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#thiswritinglife

Long ago and far away I taught a class on “The Business of Writing” at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. One of the segments was how to write a query letter, and included a sample query letter I wrote to give my students an idea of how to get their toe in the door. From…

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The blast cut off her words; the Stone trembled and threw herself outward bound, toward Saturn. In her train followed hundreds and thousands and hundreds of thousands of thousands of restless rolling Stones...to Saturn...to Uranus, to Pluto...rolling on out to the stars...outward bound to the ends of the Universe.

# Permanent link to Which Came First — Flatcats? or Tribbles?

#thiswritinglife

[from the stabenow.com archives, February 10, 2008, with present-day commentary also in bold] Okaaaaay, five days after publication of Prepared for Rage, I have received the first email wanting to know when the next Kate novel will be out. Laurie King and I were talking about this yesterday. We’re pleased and flattered that you “Just…

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How big is your town? Big enough to support it's own weekly newspaper? If not, you're missing out. As witness, from the Concrete Herald (Washington state) police blotter:

January 9 (2010): People caused a traffic hazard on State Route 20 near Marblemount because they were standing in the road, taking pictures of eagles. (That's right: IN the road). A deputy checked the area and also notified the Washington State Patrol and Darwin Award Officials.

It's a hundred entertaining pages more before we even get to the loose emus and where the name "Egnar" came from. This is one of the more delightful books I've read lately, a thorough accounting of the present state of weekly newspapers from Tennessee to Alabama to Colorado and California, written by someone who does and teaches, a professor at the Annenberg School as well as a correspondent for ABC, CBS, PBS and NPR. She knows whereof she writes, and she's a pretty good writer, too.

The conflict central to publishing a hometown newspaper is that you live next door to the people you're writing about.

One night in 1961, in the small town of Canadian, Texas, nine-year-old Laurie Ezzell awoke to the sound of a rock crashing through her bedroom window. It left a hole in the screen and shattered the glass. She was startled but not surprised. "Dad's written another editorial," she thought.

And he had, and Laurie, now succeeded to her father's job, is writing editorials of her own.

...while the mainstream media may have to worry about libel suits, they do not have to worry about living next door to the folks they cover. "I take some comfort," says Laurie, "that I have to live with the consequences of my stories. I have to look this person in the eye. I have to know I have written the right thing."

Sometimes it is small comfort, as other editors of other newspapers succeed to greater or lesser degrees in the often-mutually exclusive goals of honest reporting and getting along with their neighbors (not to mention keeping their advertising). The most enthralling, hilarious and sobering story is of the Big Horn Country News in Hardin, Montana. The city of Hardin went out on a $27-million dollar limb to build a prison, without securing a contract to house prisoners first.

And into this landscape of hidden ambushes rode Mike Dillin, the wordslinger from out of town...

Hardin, mostly white and the entity that perpetrated the contractless prison, is looking desperately for ways to fill it and the Big Horn Country News is doing everything it can to help. The Crow Tribe, just up the road, wants to take the prison over, and starts their own newspaper, the Apsaalooke Nation, to say so, among other things. In the meantime, The Original Briefs "looks like it was printed in someone's garage on 8 1/2 X 11 inch paper folded in half," contains gossip, inuendo, the police blotter and ads, is dubbed the "National Enquirer of Hardin," and has more circulation than both of the other newspapers combined.

By hidden ambushes Muller means exactly that. This is the land of Custer's Last Stand, and

Every year at the same time, the community of Hardin and the Crow Tribe stage competing reenactments of the Custer battle.

It's a wonderful metaphor. The wordslinger, Dillin, is fired three days after Muller interviews him for editing a story by the other reporter on the paper, one who has been there a lot longer than he has and who is a lot more Montanan that this johnny-come-lately big city guy from Florida who insists on reporting like a, well, professional journalist. Imagine.

In a postscript, Muller says

...the Big Horn Country News has yet another new editor..."It's a pretty exciting place," he tells me. "It feels like the Wild West. It's a place where you can use what you learned in journalism school..." Given the fate of those who have gone before, we wish him luck. This territory claims a lot of casualties.

There are great chapters on the police blotter

Oh sure, you may have to read between the lines, but these little snippets from the police dispatcher and sheriff's logs are the haikus of Main Street, USA.

the obits

When Lende finally turned in her obituary for Tom Ward, it ran two pages long, and her editor roared, "Jesus, Heather! The guy was a woodcutter, not the governor." And then he put it on the front page.

and high school sports

There is no such thing as understatement on the sports page of a small-town newspaper.

This is where the rubber of American journalism meets the road. Highly recommended.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

# Permanent link to “A deputy checked the area and also notified the Washington State Patrol and Darwin Award officials.”