Since 2016 I’ve worked in various capacities on the Noirwich Crime Writing Festival. Yes, that’s Noirwich. Because it’s a crime fiction festival that takes place in Norwich.
No, it’s not a typo. Don’t be that guy.
Each time the festival rolled around I had a growing urge to try my hand at crime writing, which I finally indulged earlier in 2021 when I started planning what would become Tales from the Triverse. Because I’m me, it of course turned into a genre mash-up, building science fiction and fantasy elements around a police procedural framework.
SF I can do. Fantasy I’ve done. I feel confident working in both those arenas. Crime fiction has proved to be harder than I’d anticipated and I now have even more respect for the authors I’ve met during Noirwich. In today’s newsletter I want to get into some of the thornier challenges I’ve encountered while writing Triverse, as well as the ways through and around them.
Simon K Jones writes is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a subscriber.
Crime fiction has a dual-plot structure
There are always multiple plots in any decent story. Even in a relatively simple tale, you’ll still have your main plot and then a couple of subplots, probably revolving around characters. TV often has an A plot and a B plot running simultaneously, often dovetailing in some way. When I was writing The Mechanical Crown I had a huge number of subplots bubbling away.
A crime fiction story, especially one based around police investigations, is slightly different. It still has all those usual storytelling plots, but it also has the crime plot. The sequence of events that occurred which resulted in the crime that is then being investigated.
That ‘crime plot’ can happen ‘on camera’, or it can be a mystery to the reader as well as the detectives. But for the investigation to make sense and be honest to the reader, you as the writer have to know it all ahead of time. It’s then a juggling act of how much to reveal to the reader, and whether you do any of it as an omniscient narrator or instead rely on your detectives to uncover it naturally as part of their story.
None of this will be a revelation to anyone, but I’ve been surprised by how technically tricky it is to pull off in an entertaining way, without resorting to exposition dumps and overly-convenient reveals.
I can see why weekly crime dramas on TV require an entire room of writers.
Police procedural requires verisimilitude
I wanted Tales from the Triverse to feel quite grounded, at least in scenes based on Earth. It’s a 1970s setting, albeit in an altered reality, and I wanted the police department to feel ‘real’. The vibe I’m aiming at is a blend of The Wire and Gotham Central, both of which had a huge cast of characters that created a sense of the office being real, rather than limiting it for dramatic convenience.
Gotham Central has different shifts, so entire storylines might have some characters absent. The Wire shifted its focus around its characters season-by-season, depending on what was happening in the story. I’ve gone down that route, which means there are more characters than fit naturally into a weekly serial. Ordinarily I’d have maybe 3 leads, plus supporting. This time round there are at least 4 potential leads, a ton of supporting, and the structure of the story means that it’s not even clear if those are the 4 leads.
I don’t yet know whether this will ultimately prove to be an interesting and engaging aspect, or a problem.
Historical fiction has to be accurate - even if there are portals
Everything I’ve written previously has been set in entirely fictional locations, or in the future. Easy peasy. Triverse takes place in 1972 London, and has a prologue set in 1772 London. That prologue took a ridiculous amount of research, even though it was a one-off without any subsequent stories in that time.
Due to my 1970s London being in an alternate reality of sorts, it needs to feel similar but slightly different. The consequences of the story’s high concept setup - portals opened up, connecting London to a far-future, high technology version of Earth and a high fantasy planet called Palinor - mean that there will be changes. For example, the war with the French during Napoleon’s time played out very differently. This is not especially relevant to the main storyline, but it impacts on specifics in unexpected ways. For example, Waterloo Bridge in London cannot exist - or, at least, it can’t be called that.
It feels like a series of invisible traps that I’ve set for myself. At some point I will absolutely fall into one.
Avoiding lazy tropes requires active thought
As I was prepping Triverse I watched Megan Abbott’s lecture from this year’s Noirwich. Check it out:
It’s full of good stuff, but a key point is that crime fiction (and coverage of real crimes) so often focuses on a) the perpetrator and b) the authorities, with the victim being a footnote.
Think of TV shows about murder, like Castle, in which someone dies every single week but barely register as actual characters. The show is about the investigatoors and the murderer. Or the movie Seven, which is obsessed with the killer and cares very little about the victims. Triverse follows a police department, but I’ve tried to weigh the balance towards the victims after a fashion - a storyline in which a body washes up on the banks of the Thames is less concerned about who the murderer is and more about how the victim ended up in her terrible situation. You can see that storyline, ‘Traffic’, here:
The serial format also gives me scope to broaden the storytelling in other ways. The victim of that storyline, Laryssa, has a ‘bonus’ chapter told entirely from her point of view in journal format.
Being so new to the genre I won’t get it right first time, but I’m trying not to get it wrong.
The police, also, are not going to be shown as infallible superheroes. They are troubled individuals with their own issues, and corruption will certainly be a theme that grows in prominence through the course of the series.
It’s easy to fall off the exposition tightrope
I write science fiction and fantasy, so I’m well aware of the lure of exposition, technobabble and infodumps. This come back to my earlier point about crime fiction having that secondary background plot of the crime itself, though - by the end of the storyline the reader needs to have some understanding of that crime, usually uncovered through the efforts of the detective characters.
But how to do that in a way that doesn’t just feel procedural and dull? How to inject character and conflict and crisis into that process, while still seeding and revealing enough core information? I’m still working that out, but thus far the approach I’ve taken to my earlier works seems to be working - ie, making sure that every sentence, every paragraph, informs character in some way. It’s not just a detective spotting a clue, or making connections: it’s about why it’s that detective, and what it does to them.
Serialisation is a tricky fit for crime fiction
In my head, serialisation was perfect for crime fiction. Weekly chapters, lots of cliffhangers and the built-in whodunnit hook to bring readers back each time.
That works for TV, where you have 45 minutes to an hour of screen time. Serial fiction online tends to sit around the 1500 word mark, as it’s a decent chunk of text to read in a single sitting. Any shorter and it’s too flimsy; any longer and it risks being too much of a commitment for the reader. This has served me well with my scifi and fantasy novels.
Turns out that 1500 words doesn’t get you very far with crime fiction. The pace is inherently slower, most of the time. It’s more cerebral, more about investigation and conversation rather than direct action. That means either longer chapters or more chapters. The ideal, I think, would be a structure of two-parters, with a setup and a resolution. That’s so far not been enough, though - a decent setup, investigation and finale sits more comfortably at around four chapters, and even that leaves little room for much around the edges - seeing the detective characters outside of work, at home, down the pub etc.
Triverse is inherently more episodic. There are recurring characters but every few weeks it’s a new storyline. I don’t know yet whether that’s good for bringing new readers in, or a problem for retaining readers. It’s uncharted territory for me.
If you’re intrigued by the sound of Tales from the Triverse you can check it out by jumping straight into the prologue here:
Meanwhile, I’m taking part in a book giveaway titled Strange Tales. If you’re looking for more unusual reads in the sci-fi and fantasy space do check it out. It runs for a month and you can pick up an ebook of No Adults Allowed, my YA Lord of the Flies/Apocalypse Now mash-up (sort of).