Bestselling author Helen Fitzgerald shares her top tips for writing crime, as part of our series for the Virago / The Pool New Crime Writer Prize.
What’s your top tip for creating an intriguing character?
I have to relate to my main character, so she has to have some similarities to me. This means she’s almost always naughty, nuts and guilty.
How much do you know about your character before you start, and how much do you discover during the writing process? Do your characters ever surprise you?
I talk about my character with my husband, children, sister, mum, and anyone else who’ll listen, for weeks or months (or even years) before I get around to putting her in a story. I build a full biography in my head – and often have a mood board – detailing her childhood, family structure, education, health, addiction issues, relationships and so on. I tackle the character as if I’m writing a background report for court – who is this person? Why are they in trouble?
Despite doing a lot of preparation, my main character always surprises me.
You’ve written about characters including a judge and a parole officer. How do you research these professions?
I work part-time as a criminal justice social worker, so the parole officer is me, and the judge is a mixture of the Sheriffs I’ve watched in court. So a lot of my research happens at work. For other characteristics/problems, I mostly use Google! Eg I spent a lot of time wandering around Street View in Seoul for Viral, and hours searching for a beach house in Troon for my Sheriff (which may have been because I’d love a beach house in Troon!)
Do you always try to be sympathetic to your characters?
No. I’m not always sympathetic to myself either. I like to be confused and challenged by my characters. There are no baddies, no goodies, no evil. Characters behave and react to circumstances. I want to understand them. If I like them that’s a bonus.
You’ve published over ten novels. What advice would you give to someone writing their first crime/thriller novel?
Read your teenage diaries and work out what was unique about your writing. You are the only person in the world who could have written those angst-ridden entries – why? What qualities and experiences do you have that no-one else has? Don’t try to write beautifully, or cleverly, or the way someone else does. Be honest. Be yourself. If you’re not sure who yourself is, do some soul-searching, get some therapy, then start writing.
Helen FitzGerald is the bestselling author of Dead Lovely and ten other adult and young adult thrillers, including My Last Confession, The Donor, The Cry (which was longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year), and Viral. Helen has worked as a criminal justice social worker for over ten years. She grew up in Victoria, Australia. She now lives in Glasgow with her husband and two children.
@FitzHelen | helenfitzgerald.net