Writing crime fiction – The characters, the audience and knowing who did it

We asked Writing Crime Fiction tutors R.W.R. McDonald and Katherine Kovacic how they got into crime fiction in the first place.

FWA: How did you get started writing crime fiction? Were there particular aspects of the genre that attracted you or a combination of factors that drew you into the field?

Rob: I had a trio of amateur detectives taking up space in my head for close to a decade by the time I came to Faber Writing Academy and met Katherine. After writing for myself for years, and doing some short writing courses and screen writing courses I wanted to write a mystery novel. Faber gave me the guiderails and tools to do that.

What draws me to crime fiction genre is the scope and umbrella to tell all kinds of stories, to layer them with social issues, historical issues, and to pursue themes such as truth and justice. Plus I always want to know who the murderer is.

Katherine: I had a crime story buzzing in the back of my brain, demanding to be written. While I’d done quite a lot of academic and non-fiction writing, I wasn’t confident launching into crime fiction and so enrolled in Faber Writing Academy’s Writing A Novel course. It was where Rob and I met!

That original story drew me into the genre, but complex characters, twisty plots and the push to keep readers turning pages long into the night means I’m hooked on writing crime.

FWA: What do you find the most challenging aspect/s of writing crime fiction and how do you tackle them in the course?

Katherine: The challenge is different for every writer. Some are brilliant at creating complex characters, for others their strength is plotting, pace or some other aspect of the craft. Research is often an area that’s overlooked, but it’s so crucial to get those little details right.

In the course, we discuss these and other challenges, break them down, and push students to face them through in-class writing exercises and homework (just a little!) and we also provide some suggested reading every now and then.

Rob: 100% with what Katherine has said. In crime fiction you have such a cast of characters, each subset with various stereotypes and tropes that you need to give something fresh to. Above all you have some of the savviest readers that you need to engage, delight and enthral.

FWA: You offer constructive feedback on student’s individual work, and we know from feedback that students particularly value that. How does that work in class?

Katherine: In class, we begin each session by checking in with everyone about their progress during the previous week. Students can share as much or as little of that as they like (we all know that sometimes life gets in the way of writing)! Often this is quite general, but if anyone has hit a problem or has a new idea or just a question, this is a great opportunity to run it past the group for advice and brainstorming.

Then, at the end of the entire course, students are invited to submit a section of their work in progress directly to us (tutors only) for more specific, detailed feedback. Both of us read each piece and provide individual feedback, so students get two perspectives!

Rob: During the course it is great to hear from the students each week how their stories are progressing and to witness their break throughs during writing exercises is a real privilege. By the end of the course, as Katherine says, getting to read their work after hearing about it is fantastic and we have that additional background knowledge about their story and characters.

FWA: You have an impressive line up of guest authors. Tell us a little about how they contribute to the program.

Katherine: Each of our guest presenters brings something different to class. We initially get them to speak a bit first about their style of crime writing (for example, police procedural, historical crime) and their writing process. Then we throw it open to questions! This is such an incredible chance to learn from some powerhouse crime writers and students can ask anything. It can be about plotting, something to do with their own WIP, path to publication, research… anything to do with crime writing or writing in general. 

Rob: They are all so incredibly generous with their time and knowledge, it is such a great opportunity!

FWA: Name one recent crime fiction work that you’d like everyone to read and tell us why.

Katherine: So many to choose from, but I have to nominate Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead. It’s cleverly plotted crime, but it’s also a family saga. The prose is beautiful and the evocation of Harlem in the 1960s makes this an absolute must read.

Rob: Seven Sisters by Katherine Kovacic, fast paced, with a cast of engaging characters you root for, and a story that makes you question your own morals – excellent read.

Writing Crime Fiction
with R.W.R. McDonald and Katherine Kovacic
Guests: Chris Hammer, Malla Nunn and Craig Sisterson
19 July – 13 September 2023