Writing Crime

Readers are so familiar now with law enforcement that crime writers have to find ways to surprise them.
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It's no surprise that bestselling crime writers Karin Slaughter, Lisa Unger, and Alafair Burke are friends. They share a love of books, an obsession with crime, and a belief that, when it comes to writing, no subject is off limits. For this joint interview, they went directly to readers and asked them what they'd like to know.

Reader Jennifer Zervas: What do you find is the biggest challenge in portraying the procedures of police-work?

KARIN: The problem is that there is a lot of misinformation out there. No crime lab in the world looks like the CSI ones, because there's simply not the money for all those fancy machines. Even the GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) crime lab, which is well-funded (though could use more), doesn't have everything, and there is a tremendous backlog to examine the evidence sent in. Consequently, nothing happens quickly, so when I'm explaining in a novel that DNA was found or that there's a clue to be sent to the lab, I have to make sure the reader knows this isn't going to come back in 42 minutes.

ALAFAIR: That's true. Readers are so familiar now with law enforcement, whether through news coverage or fictional portrays on television, that crime writers do have to anticipate readers' assumptions and find ways to surprise them. A separate challenge I face as a criminal law professor is resisting the temptation to go into teaching mode, showing off some aspect of the law that is fascinating to me, but which few readers would actually enjoy. When I go back and look at my very early work, I realize there were a few times that I probably overdid it on process.

LISA: Police procedure and the technical aspects of a criminal investigation play a pretty small part in most of my novels. But the challenges are similar to those involved with any type of research. It's impossible to do too much research, to know too much about your subject matter. But it is possible, as Alafair mentions, to put too much of that research into your novel. A long-winded explanation about anything - procedure, body disposal, taxidermy, whatever - will grind your plot to a halt. It's tempting to go on and on about something that interests you. But character is king. And it's the lives, actions, and conflicts of those characters that fascinate. It's important to be accurate, but it is not important, in fiction, to give a dissertation on any particular topic.

Readers Linda Napikoski & Jalena Mietzner: The highs and lows: what's the best thing and what's the worst thing about being a writer?

KARIN: There aren't many people in the world who can say that they are doing the job they've wanted to do since childhood, so in that regard, I feel incredibly fortunate. There are some bad parts to it, like hanging out in airports and being away from home, but it seems petty to complain. Sort of like whining about winning the lottery.

ALAFAIR: Oh, but Karin, I feel so sorry for those lottery winners who complain that they don't know how to spend the money! The best part is being done, believing I've told a great story, and (fortunately) knowing I have readers waiting for that story. The biggest downside for me (as a control freak) is the lack of control. I can try my best, all day long, but I don't necessary go to sleep that night knowing I've achieved anything. It's only after a year of those days that I'm able to see the end result and feel good about it.

LISA: Like Karin, I have never wanted to be anything else or to do anything else, so I am grateful every day. That said, I don't think it's like winning the lottery. There is not a successful writer I know who doesn't work extremely hard. Sure, it beats laying bricks. But we all invest a great deal of time, energy, passion, sweat and tears into this work. The good news is that most of us love what we're doing, so it's not a chore to go to work every day. It's a blessing. The best thing about being a writer? Writing. The worst thing: I had a hard time with the appearances at first. I was honestly a bundle of nerves before every event. I'm better now, but I still have some anxiety. But I guess that makes sense. I'm a writer, a natural introvert.

Reader Jenny Gross: As all the characters continue to evolve, do you have one that's become your favorite and least favorite to write? Why?

ALAFAIR: Interesting. In terms of actually writing the character, I probably have the most fun writing Jess Hatcher, Ellie's brother. He's that guy everyone loves, who knows his place in the world and does absolutely nothing to try to steer destiny. The trickiest part in writing him is that he's much, much funnier than I am, so I have to take every humorous, irreverent thought I have in a year to write a few Jess scenes.

KARIN: It goes back and forth, and I tend to be in love with the character who's in my head at that moment. Right now, I've been thinking a lot about Sara and what she's been through--and will be going through in the next book, so I'm feeling really close to her. I don't really have a least favorite, because the bad ones are more challenging to write. Angie gets up to some crazy things in CRIMINAL, my next one, but that's what makes it fun.

LISA: I always think of characters as people that I meet, rather than creations of my imagination. Even though I know that they are from me and of me, they always seem so independent and separate. I enjoy getting to know each of them on the page. And I have a special love and attachment, a deep compassion for each of them, even the most heinous and twisted among them. In life, we meet people every day, and some of them become our good friends. The relationship grows, evolves and deepens - so it is with certain characters. That has been true most recently for Eloise Montgomery and Jones Cooper. I have so enjoyed spending time with them and think about them quite a lot. When they show up, I am always happy and excited. But I can't think of anyone that doesn't interest me or intrigue me in some way. I don't suppose they'd show up at all if they weren't, in some sense, invited.

Reader Kathleen O'Brien Blair: What's your least favorite word?

ALAFAIR: The c-word is pretty reprehensible. Moist. Ointment. Nipple. Slacks. Classy. I have an entire compartment in my brain for words that bug me.

KARIN: I always thought Alafair was pretty laid back, but now I understand why she never thanked me for that moist nipple ointment I sent when her dog was chaffed. I thought it was pretty classy, but what do I know? Words that bug me--nothing, really. I think a well-placed c-word tells you a lot about the speaker. I'm over the word "like" in conversation, and "you know" seems to be the placeholder of choice, but when I'm writing dialogue, I tend to use those phrases because that's how people talk.

LISA: I am a word freak. The word has so much power. It's all we have to share our hearts, ourselves with each other. I love the nuance of language, the layers of meaning possible in every word we chose. Karin really hit it on the head - the words someone chooses communicates everything about them. Words can be weapons - they can hurt. They can bring joy, peace, and comfort. I can't think of a word I don't like or wouldn't use. Even hateful words are so interesting to me - like the c-word or the n-word. How did they gain so much power? Why do they make us cringe or feel ashamed? It's just a word, a few letters on a page or in the air. And yet words like that pack a wallop. Language fascinates me, almost as much as human nature does. And the two are wound inextricably together in novel writing. I feel like I spend my whole life contemplating those things. I used to spend a lot of time wondering why Alafair never complimented me on my classy slacks. At least we have that cleared up.

ALAFAIR: So now you two have me wondering what my word annoyances say about me!

KARIN: Slacks.

Readers Wendy Brown & Chuck Palmer: Has a character or the direction of a story ever "taken over" and surprised you?

LISA: I am surprised all the time by my characters and the direction of my story. It's part of the joy and the magic of writing. So when I sit down to write, I usually have a voice in my head, and general sense of the story (but nothing specific, just a vibe). I have no idea who is going to show up day to day, what they are going to, what might be going on in their lives. I write for the same reason that I read, because I want to understand these people in my head and find out what is going to happen to them.

KARIN: This is always an interesting question to me, because at the end of the day, the writer is the creative force behind the character. So, if a character does something surprising or egregious, then that's all coming from the same place that has a character doing something that's been planned all along. I do find myself saying, "oh!" sometimes, but those are the inspiration moments when my brain kicks out something groovy. Sarah Waters said something interesting a while back--that writing is ten minutes of sheer exhilaration: the part where you're saying, "she's going to do this, and then this, and then this happens and--!!!" The rest is just plain work. Sitting down in the chair and figuring out all the nuts and bolts that have to be turned before the plot clicks into place.

ALAFAIR: I find myself nodding to both Lisa and Karin's responses. What I'll add is that sometimes there's a symbiotic relationship between the magic of writing and the work of figuring out the nuts and bolts. Too much advance thought to plot sometimes gets in the way of good storytelling. I've had moments at my desk, when I'm supposedly all set to write the next chapter, but something just feels wrong. Invariably, that feeling comes if I've decided a hundred pages earlier that some event is supposed to occur to advance plot, but that decision is no longer consistent with characters who have continued to live and grow in the meantime. I have learned to trust the characters and what Lisa called the vibe of a book to help drive the plot, and that's where the surprises come in. I've had characters up and die on me when I'd planned for them to live. In one book, I was past the halfway point when I realized that a character I truly trusted had to be a killer.

Readers Arline Chase & Clinton Reed: Did you ever create a really negative character based upon someone you truly dislike? Or any other acts of "literary revenge"?

LISA: Writers are first and foremost observers. So I'm constantly taking in details about people - gestures, speech patterns, quirks and -isms. So in a sense every character probably has some root deep in my subconscious, my memories, or may be in part drawn from someone I know. But it's true that these people just kind of show up for me, seemingly fully formed. And I feel as though I'm getting to know them on the page, rather than putting them there (even though I know, logically, that they are formed in my imagination). So, I'm always surprised when people see themselves in my work - which has happened. (Generally, they're not too happy about it.) It's not intentional. And I always secretly think it's a little arrogant that people believe they might influence my work in such a significant way. I mean, come on. It's all about me.

KARIN: I'm with Lisa, except it's really about me. I've never purposefully based a character on any one person I know, but I'm certain there are amalgamations that exist. I read a lot of autopsy and police reports, and while I am careful not to lift an entire case off the page and transport it into a novel (that's not just cheating; it's also exploiting someone's misery for what, at the end of the day, is entertainment), that being said, I sometimes pick interesting little phrases or disparate pieces of evidence to incorporate into the stories. There are some tics or habits I've used, or crazy things I've seen in public. Why, for instance, do people drag their pillows through the airport? Actually, a lot of the annoying or shocking acts I choose to write about come from watching people in airports or on airplanes. I don't know what it is about air travel, but it turns some people into entitled assholes. You are about to get into a tiny silver tube and travel a thousand miles in a few hours. Would it really kill you to empty all the change out of your pockets before going through security?

ALAFAIR: Wait, Lisa, you mean not every character in your books is based on me? Karin, on the other hand, has confirmed what I've always suspected: Don't annoy her or she will either mock or maim you on paper. I have never consciously engaged in literary revenge, but I do have a t-shirt that says "Careful or You'll End Up in My Novel."

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