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‘Ice-pick-sharp, packed with intrigue, action and spine-chilling suspense. Devour will keep you gripped from the very first page’ Kathryn Fox

Larkin's Latest

Welcome to my blog, Larkin’s Latest. News on thriller authors and great books to read, the writing process and festivals, incredible people I interview and exciting story locations, courses I run, and things that make me laugh!

To plot or not to plot? That old chestnut

March 26, 2014

I’m preparing my notes for a crime fiction workshop I’ll be running at the NSW Writers’ Centre in May – The Criminal Element. The focus is on writing detective fiction, and, coincidentally, I have just completed the first book in my new fantasy crime fiction series and sent it to my agent. So did I plot? You bet I did. But as I began writing, I let it take its own course and develop organically, no matter if it took me away from my original plan.

In her book Talking about Detective Fiction P.D. James says a detective story is:

‘… differentiated both from mainstream fiction and from the generality of crime novels by a highly organised structure and recognised conventions.’

James goes on to clarify:

‘There must be a central mystery, and one by the end of the book is solved satisfactorily and logically … by intelligent deduction from clues honestly if deceptively presented.’

Of course, some present day detective fiction authors might challenge the simplicity of this, but crime fiction is all about the reader’s enjoyment of solving the puzzle and watching the detective work through the process. The necessray plot twists, clues and red herrings require some planning, whether it is simply in the author’s head or a detailed documented process.

Australian crime fiction author, Gary Disher, plans his novels in minute detail. He ‘interrogates’ his characters to establish their motivations and ensure they are credible, and then ‘investigates’ police procedures and locations (his research).

He is from the James Ellroy school of plotting. Ellroy is famous for his very detailed synopses, which are sometimes two hundred pages long.

Stuart MacBride, Scottish author of a detective series set in Aberdeen, says: ‘I plot using mind-maps, so I never have a linear plan of what’s going to happen, just a bunch of ideas and some scribbly diagrams. Most of the twisty stuff comes to me while I’m writing.’
Whereas, a fellow Scot, Ian Rankin, lets his story develop organically. It’s a ‘process of investigation’ for the author just as it is for the central character.
Some authors work backwards from the revelation at the end of the book, so that they ensure the right clues are there in the plot. Others use Post It Notes and stick them on the wall. I know authors who use a writers’ software program called Scrivener to help them. How do I do it?
First of all, I have a broad idea for a story. A theme. Something that fascinates me. Then I focus on characters. When I hear readers talk about novels the love, they tend not to focus on plot, rather on great characters: Jack Reacher, Inspector Rebus, Kay Scarpatta, Sherlock Holmes. A reader must want to follow the central character on his or her journey as they solve the crime. They need to be engaging and believable: someone a reader can cheer for and want to spend time with. Their complexity and flaws make them human. Setting is another important decision for an author as the detective will have a very close relationship with the story’s location, just as Rebus has with Edinburgh.
Then I plot. I have tried various approaches, ranging from very little plotting and letting the story unfold as I write to the use of a spreadsheet charting time, location, action, mystery and point of view. I used this system for THIRST, my Antarctic thriller, because it spans three time zones and because the countdown to the catastrophe needed planning down to the very last minute. I tend to like working in a linear structure but that doesn’t work for everyone.
However, for my new thriller, I am using the somewhat old-fashioned approach of index cards. I decided to do this because this new thriller is the most complex I have written, and I wanted to be able to easily shift the cards around on my dining table. I have really enjoyed the process and found it helpful to see all of the novel’s scenes laid out in bullet points in front of me.
In my experience, the most important aspect of plotting is not to be a slave to it. It simply is a guide so you don’t get lost on the way. It ensures that you have considered the key turning points in your story, there is plenty of mystery and conflict, the stakes are high and your lead character is increasingly in danger (if you are writing a thriller). Once I begin writing, the story and characters take on a life of their own. The story goes off in directions I hadn’t thought of, and characters say things that often stun me.  And every time my sub-conscious takes over, the result is far better than the scenes I had planned. So my advice to an aspiring author of crime fiction is to plot, then, as you write, let it develop organically. Let go of the steering wheel and see where you end up!
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Cli-Fi: can fiction save the planet?

February 26, 2014

In the Climate Spectator of 25 January the author, David Holmes, asks the following question: Cli-Fi: could a literary genre save the planet?

The article begins as follows:
‘More than 10 years ago, in an issue of Granta, environmentalist Bill McKibben lamented the fact climate change has not been able to capture the literary imagination in the same way as the nuclear and political pathologies of the last century:
“Global warming has still to produce an Orwell or a Huxley, a Verne or a Wells, a Nineteen Eighty-Four or a War of the Worlds, or in film any equivalent of On the Beach or Doctor Strangelove.”
The need for a narrative form that can communicate the seriousness of climate change to a broad public is more urgent than ever, but one impediment has been been in its way. This situation is about to change, with the imminent rise of cli-fi, a new genre of climate fiction.’
As my readers know, Thirst, my Cli-Fi thriller, published in 2012, has been described as ‘The best Antarctic thriller since Ice Station.’ But it’s more than a pulse-pounding action thriller. It is the story of an ordinary, and flawed, man working on a remote station in Antarctica who must risk his life to prevent a global catastrophe, deliberately triggered. The story can be seen as an allegory for accelerated climate change. It raises some scary questions, but cocooned in a fictional world. Fiction is less confronting that non-fiction, but it can be just as powerful, possibly more so, because it engage the readers’ emotions. Thrillers especially do this, as they take the reader on a roller-coaster ride of emotions from despair to hope, from terror to relief, from joy to grief and so on.
Thirst is going to be released in Asia by Readers’ Digest and I was interviewed by the magazine. I was asked for my thoughts on the biggest issue of our time. I said it is climate change, which is also the most side-stepped issue of our time, especially in my home country, Australia. Too big, too costly, someone else’s problem. But what fiction can do is take you into a world where people’s lives and happiness are being impacted by it. For this imaginary world to mean something, the characters must be well-rounded and credible. Characters we can identify with and understand, and that goes for the villain as well as the hero. The character who triggers the disaster in Thirst believes he is doing the right thing. Because in very tiny ways we are all a little bit of the villain. We all waste energy or run the tap too long. We don’t always use sustainable building practices and we drive the car when we could just as easily walk or catch the bus. I’m as guilty as anyone.
So I am delighted to hear that Cli-Fi as a sub-genre is taking off. If you would like to read more of The Climate Spectator article, please CLICK HERE.
Dan Bloom, who is interviewed, has a great blog, CLICK HERE, on all things Cli-Fi. Well worth looking at.
PHOTO: taken by Dan Bloom in Foyles Bookshop, London, displaying Cli-Fi Fiction, Aug 2013.
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On Capturing Mood

August 27, 2013

This article on Capturing Mood appeared in WQ Magazine’s August 2013 edition.

‘My task, which I am trying to achieve, is by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, above all, to make you see.’ Joseph Conrad.

At writers’ festivals, I am often asked about creating mood in fiction. Mood is what the reader feels when he or she reads a story. It’s an emotional response to a scene. Communicating mood is important whatever your genre. But how does an author achieve it?
Let me home in on my genre – thrillers. Thriller heroes (or heroines) are, as Dean Koontz says, characters in ‘terrible trouble’. The hero must battle an adversary and risk his or her life to stop something terrible. Readers expect high stakes, plot twists and a rewarding, dramatic climax. More often than not, good conquers evil, and the world is righted back on its axis again, even if that world may have changed.
Good thrillers are a roller-coaster ride of emotions for the reader. Moods change quickly. As James Patterson says:
‘What gives the variety of thrillers a common ground is the intensity of emotions they create, particularly those of apprehension and exhilaration, of excitement and breathlessness, all designed to generate that all-important thrill. By definition, if a thriller doesn’t thrill, it’s not doing its job.’
An ability to create mood is the ability to take the reader inside the story. I want my readers to identify with the central character and empathise with what he or she is experiencing. Ideally, I want the reader to actually feel what the hero feels. I know readers who actually break out in a sweat when their book hero is being chased by a killer!
The mood created must be credible. Because readers can relate to it, they are moved by it. I introduce the heroine of The Genesis Flaw, Serena Swift, with:
‘Turning off the ignition, she knew she was too late. In the dwindling light, the whitewashed weatherboard farmhouse resembled a sepia photograph.’
Her father has just died. The sombre mood is evoked not only by her brother, waiting patiently to break the terrible news, but by her surroundings:
‘Her bloodshot eyes squinted as the last of the sun’s tendrils released their grip on Swift Farm, her family home. The people on the verandah disappeared into darkness. The century old pear trees, heavy with ripening fruit, resembled blackened, gnarled fingers scratching at the corrugated iron roof. As long as she could remember colourful parrots had heralded the end of each day with their raucous squawking. But even their cries were muted.’
Later in this chapter we see, through dialogue and action, that Serena’s emotions shift from shock to sorrow to anger, and I hope the reader feels this too. This scene is important as it establishes why Serena will risk everything she holds dear to prove a biotech company is responsible for her father’s death.
Mood is a constant companion throughout a story – it is not just a dramatic device, to be switched on as necessary. Even in thrillers there are moments of respite from action, moments when the central character can relax, even if it is the calm before the storm. It allows time for characters to reveal themselves and learn about each other. In contrast to The Genesis Flaw, in Thirst we first meet the hero, Luke Searle, relaxed and happy and doing what he does best – in Antarctica, dangling from a rope in a crevasse, chipping away at ancient ice. The light-hearted mood of this scene is important because his world is about to be shattered. Shortly afterwards, Luke is on a search-and-rescue mission to find two lost colleagues, unaware they have been murdered. The reader has witnessed the killing. This tension between what Luke knows, and what the reader knows, creates a sense of foreboding, further reinforced by a dangerous blizzard that threatens the rescue mission:
‘As the wind grew stronger, tiny particles of ice were whipped up into the air; it was like entering a cloud of shrapnel. Luke could no longer see the sky.’
When using the environment to create mood, I need to transport the reader to a particular place. To do this I have to build the bricks of detail: evoke the senses – how it sounds, smells, what it feels like, even tastes like, not just what it looks like. And to do this effectively, it helps to really know the place. It’s the age old idiom – write what you know. Or, do your research. That’s why I went to Antarctica so I could experience some of what Luke Searle will experience in Thirst (minus the murder and mayhem, of course). As he is pursued by killers, his small boat is trapped by hardening sea ice – a symbol of his peril and isolation.
The mood of one scene can differ from the next, but as a thriller approaches the story climax, the intensity levels must rise. A sense of unease will have morphed into a much stronger emotion, such as heart-thumping terror, by the climax. There’s no time for light-hearted banter. It’s life or death. The pace speeds up, characters’ actions become more desperate, and dialogue is short and punchy. All this serves to reinforce mood.
If an author fails to evoke an emotional response from the reader, then the reader may not continue reading. Why should they, if they don’t care? But throwing a bit of purple prose into the story to liven things up, is not the answer. Purple prose is extravagant and often flowery language, and it is generally out of place. For me, the mood has to be in proportion to the event or action. Describing a raging storm outside, because a character has cut her finger with a kitchen knife, is ridiculous – unless, perhaps, we know there is a killer hidden in the house. Then the ominous storm may be justified. Excessive details, and a tapeworm of adjectives that seem to go on for ever, can actually kill the mood. This is because the author’s language has become obtrusive and is distracting from the plot.
If I am ever unsure that I have created the right mood, I read the scene out loud. I’ll hear when it is wrong. I’ll know if I need to pull it back, dial it up a notch, or even re-write.
I think one of the best examples of exceptionally well-written mood is in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The jungle is a brooding presence that becomes increasingly threatening the closer Marlow gets to finding Kurtz. The jungle is almost a living, breathing character.
In my opinion, mood is certainly at the heart of a good thriller, as it is in most fiction. In the best thrillers, you’re taken on an emotional roller-coater. You live that character’s journey. As crime fiction author, Mark Billingham, said recently in The Independent: ‘I want readers to be scared, I want them to be moved.’
In my opinion, the best thrillers should have three key, well-crafted elements: plot, characterisation and mood.
• Plot is how readers get caught up in the ‘Will he or won’t he save the day?’ question,
• Characterisation is how credible and interesting the characters are,
• But without mood, the reader doesn’t live the story. It is limp and unengaging. It lacks that necessary emotional connection.
So, imagine that writing a novel is like building a body. I see the plot as the skeleton; characterisation as the meat on the bones; and mood as the blood pumping through the body. It’s the blood that brings the story to life.
If you would like to know more about thriller writing and mood, I am running a one day workshop for the QWC on Sunday 13 October 2013.
Event Title:             Thrill and Kill
Event Type:            Thriller writing workshop
Date:                      Sunday 13 October
Time:                      10.30am – 4.30pm
Location:                QWC, Level 2, State Library of Queensland, South Brisbane.

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Hooking the reader

August 7, 2013

I spend more time on my opening chapter than any other. So does Stephen King. Follow this link to an interesting article on Stephen King in The Atlantic on the months, even years, he spends on his opening chapters.

Here are some of my favourite novel openings. These really got my attention. I was hooked and had to read on. I’d love to hear about novel openings that grabbed you.

Michael Connelly, The Poet, “Death is my beat. I make my living from it. I forge my professional reputation on it. I treat it with the passion and precision of an undertaker … I’ve always thought the secret of dealing with death was to keep it at arm’s length. That’s my rule. Don’t let it breathe in your face. But my rule didn’t protect me.”

PD James,The Children of Men, “Early this morning, 1 January 2021, three minutes after midnight, the last human being to be born on earth was killed in a pub brawl in a suburb of Buenos Aires, aged twenty five years, two months and twelve days.”

John Le Carre, A Most Wanted Man, “A Turkish heavyweight boxing champion sauntering down a Hamburg street with his mother on his arm can scarcely be blamed for failing to notice that he is being shadowed by a skinny boy in a black coat.”

Michael Robotham, The Wreckage:

‘Have you killed?’
‘Many times.’
‘Were you scared?’
‘It’s not hard to take a life when a life has been taken from you. It is not about embracing revenge or nurturing hatred. And forget about taking an eye for an eye. Equality is for the weak and stupid. It’s about pulling the trigger … simple as that. One finger, one movement …’
‘Who was the first?’
‘A schoolgirl.’

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