Undercover Newshounds: Why Crime Fiction Writers are Like Journalists
By Tessa WegertFebruary 19, 2020
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Regardless of characters, setting, or storyline, a single word always comes to mind when I read a Michael Connelly novel: authenticity. The details of how Harry Bosch, Mickey Haller, and Renée Ballard investigate crimes, identify suspects, and interact with their colleagues always withstand scrutiny.
In a recent review of Connelly’s newest book The Night Fire, the Los Angeles Times said the author “deploys a journalist’s approach to write fiction that crackles with veracity.” That’s probably because before he created his iconic characters, Connelly worked the crime beat for two local newspapers in Fort Lauderdale. There’s little doubt that he applies his knowledge of homicide and police investigations to his current work.
There’s even less doubt that it pays off.
According to Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, who co-wrote The Elements of Journalism, the first principle of journalism is “the disinterested pursuit of truth.” This canon appears to lock horns with the practice of mystery writing, which is largely about fiction. On the surface, the journalistic process of gathering, distilling, and distributing information seems far too rigid for a creative endeavor. No one wants to be accused of info-dumping, or of listing facts without finesse.
But fiction writers value truth more than you might think. Nothing yanks a reader out of a story faster than a false fact or impossible plot point, so writing a mystery that’s realistic is crucial to gaining reader trust and loyalty. Real-world experience and in-depth research can help writers develop their ideas, often providing inspiration for their next character or novel.
In the case of Michael Connelly, the author has been known to base characters on real-life detectives, and takes pains to make them as genuine as possible. Renée Ballard was reportedly crafted in the likeness of Mitzi Roberts, an investigator with the Los Angeles Police Department’s Robbery-Homicide Division. Connelly told the LA Times he regularly breakfasts with Roberts. “I have amazing access, and she’s a big part of it,” he said of the detective life, “so I’d be a fool not to kind of try to harness that into something that I’m writing.”
Connelly’s not the only crime fiction author with journalistic roots. Ian Fleming, Stieg Larsson, Patricia Cornwell, and Hank Phillippi Ryan all worked in the industry prior to writing thrillers and mysteries. As a former freelance writer and editor, Julia Dahl—author of Invisible City, Run You Down, and Conviction—contributed to publications like The New York Post and The Crime Report. She now teaches journalism at NYU, and her next novel is about a missing NYU student.
Then there’s Carl Hiaasen, who has written more than twenty works of fiction that include Strip Tease, Sick Puppy, and Razor Girl. Hiaasen is a veteran columnist for the Miami Herald, who years ago told The Washington Post he gets ideas for his satirical mysteries from Herald headlines.
Inspiration and authenticity aside, journalism can offer crime fiction authors practical lessons in honing their craft. Early on in my own career as a freelance journalist, I was initiated into the tradition of “The Five Ws.” Asking Who, What, When, Where, and Why not only ensures reporters address the fundamental details of a story and provide comprehensive coverage of the facts, but also helps to structure the story effectively.
Take a look at those “Five Ws” in the context of a mystery. Who conveys key details about your cast of characters. What determines the themes you want to express, and how they impact your storyline. Asking When ensures you track characters’ movements in relation to the protagonist and your murder victim, while Where establishes your setting and the role it plays in your story. Finally, there’s Why; without it, your murder victim wouldn’t have a motive. Conveniently, Why gets you thinking about what motivates your other characters, too.
There’s a sixth “W” that’s especially useful when you’re writing fiction, and that’s What If. Suffering writer’s block? Not sure where to take your plot from here? Asking What If (“What if your killer didn’t work alone?” “What if your victim wasn’t the intended target?”) can expand the scope of your story and produce some unexpected twists.
Whether you worked for a newspaper in the past or are simply eager to use time-honored strategies to your advantage, you’ll find journalism can be indispensable to your writing. Developing a synopsis for a manuscript submission is much like pitching a potential story to an editor. And what is copyediting if not fact-checking? When you interview an LA detective, a subject matter expert, or a local sheriff in small-town Upstate New York—as I did when writing Death in the Family—you’ll be tapping into your innate reporting skills to ultimately create something that’s both accurate and engaging.
In order to pilot a plot, writers need to stick a spigot into our existing tank of knowledge. We must ask and answer countless questions, all while respecting the truth. That makes crime fiction authors investigators in their own right.
In other words, behind every novelist worth their salt there’s a newshound with notebook and pencil at the ready, determined to do right by their characters and make their readers proud.
*Author Photo © Crane Song Photography
Read More: Review of Death in the Family
About Death in the Family by Tessa Wegert:
A storm-struck island. A blood-soaked bed. A missing man. In this captivating mystery that’s perfect for fans of Knives Out, Senior Investigator Shana Merchant discovers that murder is a family affair.
Thirteen months ago, former NYPD detective Shana Merchant barely survived being abducted by a serial killer. Now hoping to leave grisly murder cases behind, she’s taken a job in her fiancé’s sleepy hometown in the Thousand Islands region of Upstate New York.
But as a nor’easter bears down on her new territory, Shana and fellow investigator Tim Wellington receive a call about a man missing on a private island. Shana and Tim travel to the isolated island owned by the wealthy Sinclair family to question the witnesses. They arrive to find blood on the scene and a house full of Sinclair family and friends on edge.
While Tim guesses they’re dealing with a runaway case, Shana is convinced that they have a murder on their hands. As the gale intensifies outside, she starts conducting interviews and discovers the Sinclairs and their guests are crawling with dark and dangerous secrets.
Trapped on the island by the raging storm with only Tim whose reliability is thrown into question, the increasingly restless suspects, and her own trauma-fueled flashbacks for company, Shana will have to trust the one person her abduction destroyed her faith in—herself. But time is ticking down, because if Shana’s right, a killer is in their midst and as the pressure mounts, so do the odds that they’ll strike again.
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