Today we publish Steve Frech’s brand new novel, the gripping crime thriller Secrets to the Grave! To celebrate, Steve joins us on the HQ blog to share his ‘confessions of a first-time crime writer’!
Almost two years ago, my debut novel, Dark Hollows, was released. It’s a psychological suspense story set in the picturesque town of The Hollows in Vermont around Halloween. Readers loved it, so I followed it up by totally switching genres with Nightingale House, a haunted house story about a father trying to protect his daughter. Readers seemed to love that one too, so I did what any new author without a grasp of the marketplace would do; I switched genres again and wrote Deadly Games, a crime-thriller about a bartender who goes on the run after being framed for a murder. I based it on my extensive experience of complete strangers sharing their secrets with me when I worked behind a bar. Readers enjoyed it, but it led to one of my favorite critiques when a reviewer pointed out that I had written three books in three different genres and that I needed to ‘pick a lane’.
Why would I do that? I want to write everything. I want to write a comedy in the vein of PG Wodehouse. I want to write a world-building sci-fi epic. If you can’t tell, I haven’t quite grasped the best way to establish a foothold in this industry.
So, I decided to take a stab at the hardest, most saturated market in existence: the detective novel.
Did I know anything about police procedure? Nope. How autopsies are performed? Ew. How search warrants are executed? Well, I’ve seen a couple of episodes of Law & Order but who hasn’t?
I’m not one of those authors who meticulously outlines and plots. Instead, I simply jumped in with an image in my head; a jogger discovering the body of a young girl strangled in the middle of the street in a nice neighborhood.
In previous novels, that was enough to get the ball rolling.
However, I very quickly realized that I had jumped off the high-board without learning how to swim these particular waters.
What the hell was I doing, trying to tackle a genre that had some of the most well-known, best-selling writers who knew how the police worked?
I was going to look like an idiot.
I began frantically researching things that I wanted to include in my book that might be picked apart by hardcore crime aficionados. How are crime scene investigations carried out? Why type of guns do detectives carry? What are the ranks of officers, because it’s different in every city? What are the laws regarding interrogations of minors? How long does cocaine stay in your system until you can pass a drug test? I even researched the equipment you need to manufacture fake IDs. I came across a site that offered everything I would need and was alarmingly casual about it. My research took me down some dark roads and I just want to say to any federal authorities that might be monitoring my internet history: I WAS DOING RESEARCH.
Anyway, I began to worry that I wasn’t going to get the details correct to convincingly tell my story.
In a panic, I took all that thirst for detail and believability and poured it into my main character, Meredith Somerset. I focused on what I wanted her to be – not some hard-boiled, pithy caricature. I wanted her to be a good detective who loved what she did and those around her. She’s flawed. She doesn’t have everything figured out, but she’s doing the best she can, like all of us. So many times, detectives are portrayed as mythical figures. I wanted the readers to see themselves in Meredith not as who they would like to be, but who they are. She’s got a complicated, messy personal life, but she wants what is best for her daughter and works with her ex-husband and his girlfriend to achieve that.
I tried to do the same for her partner, Tyler, and her boss, Sergeant Wheaton.
These people aren’t Sam Spade, Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes, or Hercule Poirot (though I love those characters). These are flawed people who are drawn to their profession and could be your neighbor.
As I fleshed out Meredith, Tyler, and Sergeant Wheaton, I realized that these were the details that I needed to get right, not the technicalities or exact terminology of police work. Don’t get me wrong, you should try to get those correct, but what makes a police procedural work is the same thing that makes a psychological suspense or a haunted house story or a comedy or a world-building sci-fi story work: believable, relatable characters and a plausible, gripping story.
I feel like I was rewarded when I turned in the first one-hundred pages of what I thought would be one-off, stand-alone novel to my editor. After which, I thought, we would say ‘goodbye’ to Meredith and Tyler, but she said that HarperCollins wanted me to create a whole series of novels based off of these characters, and here I am, one year later; Secrets to the Grave is about to drop, the first draft of the sequel is almost done, and I’ve got two more novels mapped out.
I guess my point is that you should do some homework if you’re thinking of writing a Victorian romance, epic sci-fi, comedy, or procedural, but don’t let it get in the way of writing what you want to write.
I know I won’t.