R.N.Morris is an old writer-friend of mine, and ever since his debut, A Gentle Axe, starring Dostoevsky's Porfiry Petrovitch, the examining magistrate from Crime and Punishment, I've known his work for pulling no punches but also being subtle, complex and thought-provoking. Has a superb sense of setting and period and (which isn't the case with every good writer) he's also good at articulating what he does. I'm not a crime-writer, though I love the detective/mystery end of the genre particularly, and am awed by anyone who can fit all the bits together and simultaneously make one care, shiver, and stay up late to find out whodunnit. So when I heard Roger had a new book out, I thought it would be a good moment to ask him to unpick a little of his personal how/what/why in writing fiction, for the Itch.
Let’s face it, writing novels is a strange occupation for a grown-up. (It’s just making up stories, after all.) But if that’s the case, then writing crime novels is even stranger. After all, as crime writers, we spend a lot of our time trying to work out how one person might kill another and get away with it. I mean to say, is that normal? Is it healthy?
Friends and family do tend to look at you in a different way once they’ve read one of your books. As if you’re not quite the person they thought you were, and you might actually be capable of the things you’ve written about. The former will almost certainly be true – the latter? Well, isn’t that the point of crime fiction, to suggest that we might all be capable of more than we care to admit?
Where does all that darkness come from? you can almost hear them thinking. It’s a question that’s worth pondering.
The wellsprings for dark stories are the same as those for any story, I believe. Fundamentally, it’s to do with characters. Characters who want things and need things. In crime novels, some of these characters are prepared to do all sorts of unspeakable acts to get what they desire. It’s about motivation, in other words.
It’s about conflict too. Crimes often come about because one character is frustrated in achieving what they desire. And the obstacle that is blocking them is another character’s contrary wishes. In a non-crime novel, this conflict might be resolved in any number of ways. A third character might act as a catalyst to bring the two antagonists together. Or neither character might end up getting what they want, but somehow, inadvertently, they might help each other get what they need – and through that come to a greater understanding of themselves.
But we’re talking about crime novels here. In a crime novel – the kind of crime novel I write – conflict is usually resolved through violence. Violence that often results in death.
The mental funnel. The process of how you get to the specific idea – the crime – that is at the core of your book probably varies from writer to writer. For me, it starts with a mental funnel into which I pour all sorts of things. I write a particular kind of crime fiction, historical mysteries, so a lot of what I put into that funnel is to do with the period and place that my stories are set.
I then watch to see what drips out of the funnel, one detail at a time. Inevitably, something will catch my attention. The germ of an idea that will grow into a story.
Sometimes it can be quite abstract. My Silas Quinn series of novels is set in London on the eve of the First World War. My idea was to pack into a relatively short period of time a set of horrific crimes that would serve somehow as a harbinger of the wholesale carnage to come. In the first of those novels, Summon Up The Blood, I also wanted to explore the theme of sacrifice and also acknowledge the shadow cast by the Jack the Ripper murders. So I came up with a serial killer who preyed on male prostitutes. Attitudes to homosexuality at the time, as well as the history of male prostitution, were some of the things that I fed into my mental funnel. It’s probably fair to say that in this case I already had the idea – in the form of a theme – I just needed to find a way to make it concrete.
Sometimes it can start with a single image. For example, in my novel A Gentle Axe, it was a body found hanging from a tree in a snowy St Petersburg park, with a second body in a suitcase on the ground nearby.
Whodunit, howdidtheydunit, whydidtheydunit? That image set me a puzzle which I then spent the rest of the novel unpacking. Who was the body hanging from the rope? Had he committed suicide? If so, why? What was the connection between the first dead body and the second? The first part of the plotting process was to ask myself as many questions as possible and work out the answers to them. Some of the questions required quite ingenious – and even devious – answers. But I think I got to them by the simple, if not brutal, exercise of logic.
Logic can be a heartless method, as we know from Sherlock. When I was dealing with the lives – and deaths – of my characters I had to lay my pity to one side. That would come later. That was for the reader to bring to the story. But of course, for that to happen, there had to be enough in the story for the reader to respond to. So paradoxically – and clandestinely - I had to maintain my empathy at all times. Deep down, I had to know that I was treating my characters appallingly, all the while that I was doing it. It’s another aspect of the splinter of ice in the heart that Graham Greene considered an essential part of the writer’s armoury.
The first task of a storyteller is to keep readers reading. And one of the great ways of doing that is through suspense. You reveal as little as possible and keep the reader guessing. The question and answer formula comes in handy here too. I actually use it as a system for constructing my stories – to think of the story as a series of questions. Except every question is answered by… another question. Until you get to the denouement. And even then, perhaps, some questions have to go unanswered. Though it helps if you have the big one, whodunit, already worked out!
R.N.Morris is the author of eight historical crime novels which have been nominated for both Historical and Gold Daggers at the Crime Writers Association. After the Porfiry Petrovich series he moved from 1860s Moscow to London on the eve of the First World War, and began the Silas Quinn series: the latest, The Red Hand of Fury is just out. He is also the author of a standalone contemporary novel, Taking Comfort, and an opera libretto, When the Flame Dies (that's a great trailer, by the way!). Roger studied Classics at Cambridge, and on the days he isn't writing novels, he works as a copywriter.