Ruth Rendell gave a class on crime writing, at Somerset House.

Top Tips:

  • The writer of fiction writes or longs to write. The writer of fiction needs to be well-read. Not a reader exclusively of crime fiction, not necessarily one who ever reads crime fiction, though to read the best is a good idea. The writer of fiction needs to read biography, history, science – well, popular science – politics, fiction and more fiction, classical as it is called, always to have a book on hand and a book carried with them, an e-book or audio-book if you must. It needs to be the best. Why waste your time with light escapist trash? You are a writer of good fiction and you must continue to learn from the best.
  • You must have suspense in your fiction. It is what makes your reader turn the page, long yet dread to reach the end and when reaching it to be shocked by it. All fiction needs an element of suspense. It is achieved by withholding. Poor fiction gives everything away in the first chapter. The skilful writer with a story to tell and a plot will withhold facts, events and characteristics, gradually revealing these mysterious elements until one only remains to be divulged and that in the last chapter or even on the last page. Even in a small way this can be done.
  • Remember that lost people are always interesting. Missing people, that is. A woman, a child, a man. Missing characters in fiction are seldom men. Is this because the police are generally not interested in looking for young men thought to be missing? But what opening of a novel, crime or not, could be more compelling than, for instance, “When he hadn’t come back after two hours and it got to ten-thirty, she began to worry…
  • I am often asked, as all writers of fiction are, if I ever get writers’ block or if I ever sit down down to write and have no idea how to fill that blank page – or now that blank screen – in front of me. No, never. Because I always know what I am going to write or at any rate how I am going to start what I am going to write. I will have thought it through already and thought it in words. Not perhaps the words I shall ultimately use but something very like what they will be. They have been written and re-written in my mind as I go for a walk or before I go to sleep at night. [Here is the second helpful hint.] Walking is a marvellous exercise for a writer, the best medium (if that is the word) for thinking of the next bit of one’s novel, honing its prose and listening to the words in one’s head, their resonance and their rhythm.
  • Writing good dialogue is not easy. When you have written a short conversation between two or three characters you should repeat it in your head and listen to it. Does it ring true? Is it what you might hear in the tube or in a pub or restaurant or bus queue? Are the words what your particular character would use? People’s ages influence enormously the way they speak.
  • Like most of my other helpful hints, this one applies to all writing of fiction. It’s often necessary to make your readers like or love a character. How to do it? How to make a reader care for (or care what happens to) a murderer? Have him or her love someone. I spoke earlier of having a pet animal in your fiction. A character’s love for that animal is enough to make your reader care.
  • Good people in your fiction? It’s notoriously more difficult to write about bad people than good ones. Cheer up your good boring people by making them love someone or something. Give them an interesting occupation. Good looks will help as will suffering at the hands of one of your bad people.

Reading list:

The books I have suggested are each of them a guide to you to show what fiction should be. Not all are suspenseful but all have an element of suspense in them.

Josephine Tey The Franchise Affair
Henry James Washington Square
John Banville Ancient Light
Fyodor Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment
Samuel Butler The Way of All Flesh
Dorothy L. Sayers The Nine Tailors
Sarah Waters Fingersmith
Jane Austen Emma
Patricia Highsmith Strangers on a Train
Joseph Conrad The Secret Agent


Further reading:

Graham Greene Travels with my Aunt
Charles Williams Many Dimensions
Iain Pears Stone’s Fall