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I once watched a young man die. I was on the phone to the emergency services, there was blood soaking through his jacket, the 999 woman was talking about finding a way to staunch the gunshot wound and the pupils of his eyes rolled upwards. The eyes rolled and I saw the guys soul roll with them. It is one of those unshakable memories.
The thing is, I’m reluctant to use that personal experience in any of my books because ‘eyes rolling’ sounds almost a cliché. How stupid is that? Yet, it’s a scene we’ve all watched on the TV a dozen times, as actors go through the motions of losing their characters grasp on life.
The thriller writers craft relies upon pulling the reader along. I don’t want to describe something real and tragic and sad, which leaves the reader putting the book down as they think, I’ve heard this all before. So, I’ve spent years writing about things that I’ve made up, rather than something that was real. I’ve used imagination rather than experience and tried to avoid cliché. Except, we all love something authentic, don’t we?
This sense of personal confusion about whether reality is better than fiction for telling a story is one of the reasons I asked Val MacDermid whether “Crime writers had to be good at violence”? It was a tongue in cheek question and she answered with humour. After assuring the Noirwich audience that her own experience of violence was limited to being roughed up by the wrestler, Giant Haystacks (she was a young reporter at the time), she focused on the way writers connect with violence, whether real or imagined, emotionally.
Val McDermid felt that women tended to take the emotional inside track when writing about violence and threat, while men focused on the outside action. In her view, women understood the everyday fear and low-key unease that comes from walking down dark streets and listening for a scrap of footsteps behind them. A woman who hears a noise in an empty house at night is often processing her fears in a different way to how many men might, with different emotional reactions on the range of fight and flight. It is the old adage about men describing what the action looks like, while women describe what it feels like.
I know, and I’m sure Val knows, that all this is a massive generalisation. She pointed out several male crime writers who can tap their own well of fears, anxieties and stressed emotions. But it’s always worth considering whether our gender has an impact on the choices we make as writers. Does it influence the extent to which our character’s emotional reactions are the main focus of action scenes, rather than the actual action? Is it why women make good crime writers, while many men go for thrillers? Crime stories are about the personal, emotional drivers, or passionate sparks, that led to the violence, rather than a thriller where the motivation is money, politics or power.
Of course, it’s obvious that as a writer I should be focusing on my emotional reactions to watching the eyes roll as the guy died. That is the unique experience which stops the young man’s death sounding like a drive-by shooting cliché. Except, when friends asked me if I felt emotionally affected by almost being shot at the end of my road, I have always replied: “I wasn’t the poor sod who died”.
The experience and my reaction to the shooting is the reason why I feel Val had a point. It didn’t stop me walking around late at night, or make me any warier. I do jump at the bang of a party balloon bursting, in a way I didn’t before, but that is about all. Does this difference (in very general terms) make women writers better at crime writing, where 80% of a female new crime writer’s audience are also women?
For example, I suspect that if I did write about the drive-by shooting it would be as part of some wider drama about gun crime and feuds. I would write about the flash of the gun, the limping run of the guy hit in the thigh and how we took cover in the shop. I would move on quickly, while others would write eloquently about the flash of emotions that they felt as the bullets went either side of them, the shock, the sharing with loved ones afterwards and the little impacts on their behaviour in the days and weeks that followed. Both are valid styles and appeal in different ways, but the best writers clearly manage to generate the right chemistry with their mix of pace and emotion. There are male writers who have adopted female pen names in order to break into the market and some (like Waite) claim it has enabled them to write differently as a result. Perhaps the husband and wife writing partnership of Lars Kepler gives them a magic mix.
All writers have to grow into their work in order to become better writers and part of that growth is figuring out your strengths and weaknesses. The balance between the description of violence and the feel of violence is just one of many aspects of crime writing, but it is a core one. I suspect that new writers like myself need to figure out what their natural focus is and find editors (or Beta-readers) who can bring out the qualities that need strengthening.