This week we have a slight variation to one of our regular themed articles as Crime Cymru member Graham Miller tells us not only how he writes, but why he writes (and reads for that matter).
If you think about it dispassionately I have the strangest job in the world. I make up stories that have never happened about people who’ve never existed. And, even more weirdly, people then pay to read those stories. It doesn’t seem to make sense, yet it’s the basis of a multi-billion pound industry. (Actually, if you extend it out, stories are at the heart of films, TV and even computer games, so the industry is vast.)
What’s going on? Well, there’s been some fascinating research into this. Humans have told each other stories for as long as we’ve been human. I would argue that, along with creating art, telling stories is one of the things that make us human. Some of the earliest writing is the recording of tales that have been handed down orally from being told around the campfire. That they’ve survived so long, and in so many formats, shows that there’s something important about a story. The current thinking is that stories allow us to experience things we wouldn’t usually be able to and in a way that’s safe. Early in our history, this was probably a survival thing, where we could learn how to hunt and where the danger was without taking a risk.
There’s even research that the brain has structures devoted to stories. They’ve done brain imaging studies which show that reading a story about events actually triggers the same activity as doing when you’re actively involved in the events. Now, they are a vital escape from the pressures of the world.
Given that stories are so old, they have developed into certain formats. Like rivers carving through the landscape, there are certain patterns that evolve over and over again. I love Joseph Campbell’s work into the universal story and the template that all good stories seem to follow. He postulated that there are certain steps that the hero can follow as he makes his way through the story. And there are archetypal figures that always feature in stories. For example, look at the similarities between Tolkein’s Gandalf, Obi Wan from Star Wars and Dumbledore from Harry Potter. In fact, all three owe a debt to mythic figures like the Hermit in the Tarot and Odin from Norse Myth.
Being a crime writer, I tend to take this structure and apply it to the genre. It lends itself really well to the structure – we always have a hero, who’s investigating the crime whether they be a police officer or a nosey amateur in a cosy mystery. They will go through various trials, making allies and enemies along the way before there’s a big showdown. In the tradition of Agatha Christie manor house mysteries, this is the drawing room scene where all the players are gathered together to reveal the killer.
So, to come back to my original question, why do I keep writing them and why do we keep reading them? Well, I think the structure, the universal story, provides a framework. Think of it like music, if there’s a particular genre you like, it’ll have rules, certain scales, keys, even themes for the lyrics. Yet within those, you have artists who have a feel, a certain style and skill they can express, while staying within the structure.
I feel the same about my writing. Yes, there will be a murder and someone to solve it. There’ll be a killer who must be caught, and a big, spectacular ending. But within that you can have all sorts of variations. You can go cozy, or gritty. There can be a twisty plot, full of psychological trauma or something that makes you laugh. The story can be set in the present, or the past, or even in space. The variety is limitless. Even within my sub-genre of police-procedurals there is a lot of variety in terms of tone, location and feel.
I talk to a lot of writers and about half of them (maybe more) don’t like the idea of plotting out their stories. They’re discovery writers, they start with an idea and some characters and see where it leads them. Whereas, I find I write far better with an outline, an idea of the steps that are taken to get to a certain point. (In fact, I often write the ending quite early on in the first draft stage of a project.) I also like reading books and seeing how that writer has negotiated their way through the standard structure. I think most discovery writers have a natural feel for a good story and either during the writing, or the edits they subconsciously craft a satisfying tale.
The real joy of reading a book is that it gives you two contrasting emotions at once. You get the familiarity of reading within a genre, and if you’re deep into a series, you get to know the characters as well. But offset against that is the novelty, the sense of newness. Every case will be different from the last. There will be some trepidation, it’s quite common for secondary characters to be killed off or leave the story. The real joy comes from the comfort of the familiar, and the novelty of seeing how the writer does it, how they choose to tell their story. When I first started writing crime novels I tried to figure out obscure crimes, weird ways that murder could be carried out and things like that. Then I realised that the real stars of crime series are the detectives and the really good book series show that character developing and growing from one book to the next.
And of course, once you recognise and understand the rules, then you’re free to break them. A lot of successful books break some of the rules of a good story. But they do it in such a way that it’s obvious they know the rules and know what they’re doing.
So, that’s how I write stories and also why I write and read.
Graham H Miller has been writing since his teenage years when he had a scenario printed in a role playing magazine. Since then he’s written articles, guest posts, unpublished novels and a book on Pagan subjects.
Born in Surrey, he lived in Kent for over 20 years before settling in South Wales. His brain is always at work, with more ideas than time. He is a house-husband proudly perpetuating the stereotype by writing books while his three boys are at school.
He has two blogs that are erratically updated – one about life as father to three special boys and the other covering his thoughts on writing and the publishing process. He is fascinated by everything including prehistory, classic cars, anything Viking and learning Welsh. He is older than he thinks he is! He can be contacted through his website, Facebook or Twitter.