When I submitted the fourth draft of my first novel Cuckoo to agents back in (oh God was it really?) 2009, I was certain that I had written a piece of literary fiction. On our first meeting, the agent-who-took-me-on told me that in fact I had the bare bones of a psychological thriller.
‘What, like in crime fiction?’ I asked.
‘Yes, like in crime fiction,’ he replied.
This caused me some consternation. I had no idea of how the publishing industry worked, and how useful genres are in marketing and selling books. Instead, my reading tastes were nurtured during some very traditional A’Level book choices at my sixth form college – Bleak House, Mill on the Floss, Wuthering Heights – and I had gone on to develop a penchant for the literary in modern fiction. In short, I was a bit sniffy as far as genre was concerned. Yes, I would always fall upon and devour the Aggies whenever we rented a holiday cottage, but I regarded that as a guilty pleasure, to rank alongside chocolate hobnobs and scampi flavoured Nik Naks.
However, as I laboured on the fifth, sixth and seventh draft under my agent’s supervision, turning it into even more of a psychological thriller – more plot, more darkness, more twists, a gun – I started reading around the genre, and my eyes were well and truly opened. I read Sophie Hannah, John Fowles’ The Collector, Barbara Vine, Patricia Highsmith, Lionel Shriver, Nicci French, and many more, and I discovered that writing great crime fiction requires great skill. Not only does the author have to create a believable world and lifelike characters, but they also have to weave a convincing plot, build tension, keep the pages turning, work with pace AND reach a satisfying conclusion. Additionally, my particular sub genre – which I have called Domestic Noir, a term that seems to have caught on – has its own tropes: unreliable narrators, psychological disorders, domestic settings, the fallout of romance, the terrible things that happen behind closed doors, all of which are what fascinate me in real life and the fictional worlds I both create and read.
I am now a die-hard fan (I also love the Bruce Willis movies, but that’s not what I mean), and I am proud to be included in a crime writing community that is generous, convivial and slightly alcoholic (viz the Bristol Marriot’s alarming yearly Crimefest spike in bar profits). The community of readers is just as stong, and their passion, commitment and ability to devour books is awe-inspiring.
So, when I wrote Cuckoo, why was my unconscious inclination towards the dark? Firstly, the root of all drama is tension, which is bred most effectively in crime fiction. You create a character, give them a hard time, then make things worse. Romance writers have to make a satisfying story about good things happening to people. How on earth do they do that? I am in total awe. The other thing is that I am a real scaredy-cat: the dark horrifies me; my idea of hell is a night spent on my own in a house in the middle of a dense wood; I will walk the long way round rather than take the little track that runs down the back of the houses; I move train carriages if my only other travelling companion is a lone stranger who looks in any way sinister (ie, not a nun or a schoolchild). By writing my fears, I go some way to mastering them. There is no way, however, you’d get me in that house in the woods. But that’s where I put my poor characters, and then I introduce a sinister stranger. In the dark. Approaching from a back lane.
So thank you, agent-who-took-me-on, for pointing me in the right direction. I’m on the first draft of book six now, and I’ve got a list of dark and twisty future story ideas that will keep me busy until my mid-list reaches its end. Contemporary crime fiction rocks.
This post is brought to you by Julia Crouch.