As some regulars here may know, I’m a big fan of the Eight Hour Writing Challenge instigated by Donald Rump of KBoards. It’s a great way to make yourself produce something publishable in a short period of time and increase your catalogue.
The stories I have written for past Eight Hour Challenges have included fantasy (Old Mommark’s Tale) and science fiction (The Iron Border), but my main challenge story genre so far has been mystery and crime fiction. I produced a whopping five mystery and crime stories for this challenge (six actually, since Seeing Red is a two-pack containing two short stories). I have also inadvertedly created a new series, the Helen Shepherd Mysteries.
Some of my earliest attempts at writing were crime fiction, largely because there was a thriving (well, sort of) market for short crime fiction in German magazines. For a while, every German women’s, TV listings, gossip or general interest mag included a short crime story. There sometimes was other fiction as well such as the “complete romance novel” (normally more of a novelette), True Confessions type stories and even serialised novels, but the crime short was ubiquitous. It’s also the only type of fiction you can still find in (some) German magazines, long after the romance novelettes and serialised novels have vanished into the aether.
However, writing in English for a market that mainly exists in German wasn’t the best of ideas. Besides, the German definition of crime fiction is wider than the rather narrow mystery genre in the US. Never mind that the US mystery genre has plenty of subgenres such as “cozy”, “police procedural”, etc… that don’t really exist in Germany at all.
I initially found it very hard to write crime stories that conformed to the expectations of the mystery genre, i.e. stories where the crime is a puzzle to be solved by an investigator. So I was quite pleased when I found myself writing a true mystery with The Cork and the Bottle, the first Helen Shepherd mystery. When I had another idea for a mystery for the next Eight Hour Challenge, I decided to reuse Detective Inspector Helen Shepherd, her assistant Police Constable Walker (I’m going to have to promote him to Detective Constable soon, since Police Constables don’t really do that sort of work) and the forensic medical examiner Dr. Rajiv. And so the Helen Shepherd Mysteries were born.
This month sees the release of two new Helen Shepherd Mysteries, Bank Job and Open Season. It also begets the question why I can write the Helen Shepherd Mysteries so quickly, while stories in other established series such as Shattered Empire or The Silencer normally take me much longer.
The answer lies in the nature of the stories. First of all, there is something of a formula to the Helen Shepherd Mysteries, established in the very first story. There is a crime, usually involving a dead body, that seems pretty cut and dried at first glance, such as a robbery leading to murder in The Cork and the Bottle, a drug overdose in Overdose, a bank robbery with hostage in Bank Job or a hunter shooting a serial rapist in the process of attacking his latest victim in Open Season. Helen Shepherd investigates, asks questions, notices some discrepancies and eventually finds out that what really happened is quite different from what it seems. The true killer(s) is/are arrested. The end.
It’s a simple formula and yet one that leads itself to telling a lot of different stories. It requires two main ingredients. A crime that seems pretty obvious and what really happened.
So where to take the crime from? Real life is one option. Another and one that often works better is other mysteries. Crime dramas on TV are one possible source of crimes, though most of them seem to aim at creating particularly unusual and bizarre crimes. The point of the Helen Shepherd Mysteries, however, is that the crimes look rather mundane at first glance. So I turned to another source.
Remember those crime shorts in the backpages of German magazines that I mentioned above? I still read them, whenever I get my hands on a mag that still has crime shorts (mostly via my Mom). They are ideal as inspiration, because due to their short length (one magazine page and therefore under 2000 words), those crime shorts need to keep their central crime fairly simple. Some of those crime shorts spark a “What if?” train of thought, which eventually gives me the rough plot for a short mystery.
For example, Open Season was inspired by a crime short where an intended rape/murder victim is saved by the appearance of a hunter ex machina, which initially caused me to roll my eyes. Yeah, like a hunter would just happen to be in the area when a rapist attacks his victim. But then I thought, what if it wasn’t a coincidence? What if the hunter had laid a trap for the rapist and used the hapless jogger as bait?
Once I have a story idea and a basic plot, I start writing. I don’t plot out every detail in advance, e.g. the Northern Ireland connection in Open Season only occurred to me later on, when I needed more connection between the characters than just living in the same neighbourhood and being members of the same club. Indeed, I sometimes have to go back to layer in extra clues such as the bandaged hand in Bank Job.
This is another point where the basic structure of the Helen Shepherd Mysteries works for me. For starters, there is only one POV character, Helen, which keeps complications down. The next advantage is that the stories are eighty to ninety percent dialogue. There are a few establishing paragraphs, where the setting and/or characters are described, but Helen largely solves her cases by talking to people. And since I find dialogue much easier to write than description, the fact that the stories are eighty to ninety percent dialogue makes them very quick to write. Especially, since I also know what the dialogue needs to do, namely reveal information that Helen can use to nab the criminal(s).
Another useful skill writing the Helen Shepherd Mysteries has taught me is how to introduce characters in fairly few words and still keep them distinctive. Except for Helen and her team (and we don’t know that much about them either), every single character in every Helen Shepherd story to date is a walk-on character whom we’ll never see again in a future story. So the one or two scenes per story they appear in is usually all the space I have to introduce said character and keep them from blending together with all the other characters. For example, Bank Job features three different female guest characters, Ellen O’Hare, Karen Carling and Madeline Whitby. Ellen and Karen get one scene each, Madeline gets two. And yet I think I’ve managed to make them different enough from each other that anyone who’s read the story wouldn’t get them mixed up with each other.
As the setting for the Helen Shepherd Mysteries I’ve chosen London, because it’s a city where I lived for half a year as a student and which I know very well, which makes it easier to visualise settings without doing a whole lot of research (which would massively slow down the process, particularly for an eight-hour-challenge story). Plus, Greater London is big enough that you can have pretty much every kind of setting within its boundaries. Of course, the London setting introduces some constraints, e.g. firearms will be uncommon because of the strict British gun laws and indeed in only one story to date the murder weapon is a gun. And because London was already plastered with CCTV cameras back when I lived there and things have only gotten worse since then, checking CCTV recordings for clues plays a big part in resolving every single mystery. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since it gives me the opportunity to hand Helen and friends a few extra clues, whenever needed. And if a CCTV camera would have revealed whodunnit too early, it’s easy to disable it for story purposes or simply make sure that there isn’t a camera around for once.
Besides, while London is always specified as the overall setting, the exact details of where a given crime or scene takes place remain fairly vague. The name of the bank in Bank Job is never specified (largely because I didn’t want to take on HSBC or Royal Bank of Scotland or Barclay‘s or whoever), neither is the exact location. All we learn is that it’s across the road from a major football stadium, but there are several of those in the Greater London area. What is more, any street- or estate name that appears in the Helen Shepherd Mysteries is entirely fictional. I can’t guarantee that such a street doesn’t exist somewhere in London – it is a huge city, after all. But the only places mentioned in the Helen Shepherd Mysteries that really exist are Ruislip Woods from Open Season (because it is one of the fairly few large nature preserves in the Greater London area and the only one where I could ascertain that hunting was allowed) and the Euston – Birmingham train line from Bank Job, which I mostly picked, because I used to live approx. 200 meters away from it and therefore had no problems visualising it. The derelict brick factory is fictional – however, there are many factories, both derelict and not, next to the railway line.
London is a very diverse city and I try to reflect that diversity in the cast of the stories. Of the main cast, Dr. Rajiv, the forensic medical examiner, is Pakistani, while his assistant Miss Wong, who briefly appears in Bank Job, is Hongkong Chinese. I also try to make my guest cast diverse, which I find fairly easy to do, because those characters only exist to play a specific role, so I can make them any race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation (if that plays a role) I want. So far, Open Season is the only story that features only white guest characters and two of them are not British.
One more thing I like to do is hide some geeky references and easter eggs in the stories. The first time, it was more of an accident, when I found out that the dodgy plastic surgery clinic in Overdose shares a name with the equally dodgy plastic surgery clinic in Logan’s Run, so I peppered Overdose with Logan’s Run references. In the later stories, the easter eggs are more deliberate. They also match the overall theme of the story in question, e.g. Bank Job has references to V for Vendetta, Guy Fawkes masks and the Occupy movement, whereas Open Season has references to hunting and wilderness related literature such as Tarzan and “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell as well as a character whose surname literally means “savage” in French. Come to think of it, even the “You can be young and beautiful forever, as long as you’re willing to die at thirty” world of Logan’s Run matches the theme of Overdose.
I’ve had a lot of fun writing the Helen Shepherd Mysteries and I will certainly write more in the future, whether in- or outside the eight-hour fiction challenge.