The secret to writing a killer crime novel
Celebrated Aussie crime writer Michael Robotham says the key to making readers care is creating characters that readers feel deeply about and therefore are willing to laugh and cry with. He shares his secret to his success here.
Readers are certainly doing this alongside the character Joe O’Laughlin in Robotham’s latest psychological thriller, Close Your Eyes.
“The seeds for Close Your Eyes came from a real life case 20 years ago – an unsolved murder in the UK in 1995,” said Robotham.
“It opens with the murder of a mother and teenage daughter in a farmhouse in North Somerset and the daughter is left lying like Sleeping Beauty in an upstairs bedroom and the mother suffers the most savage attack imaginable. That’s the initial mystery the police have when they call in Joe O’Laughlin to look at the crime scene. Why does one death look almost reverential and full of love and the other is typified by such anger?”
Despite being a high octane and suspenseful crime novel, Robotham revealed Close Your Eyes is a story fundamentally about family and fatherhood. As a father himself, Robotham admits he often wonders whether he is doing a good job.
The novel’s protagonist, clinical psychologist Joe O’Laughlin, is no different. The book also goes to the heart of O’Laughlin’s relationship with his estranged wife, with an ending that critics are dubbing ‘tissue-shredding’.
“I must say Close Your Eyes was a difficult book to write because it had been a couple of years since Joe O’Laughlin had been around. But I think [readers and critics] embraced the fact that he was back and to this date I can’t think of one negative review or comment that I’ve received. It’s been incredibly humbling.”
How he became a writer
Michael Robotham grew up in a small country town in New South Wales, Australia. He always wanted to be a writer, but felt he didn’t have anything to write about. Working as a journalist for many years, he said, was extremely valuable at the most basic level because it allowed him to gather material.
“Police rounds at 3am in the morning involved dealing with ... pimps, prostitutes, junkies and dealers and the whole criminal mileau, all of which gave me a rich understanding of the way police investigate crime and I suppose I got a glimpse of the underbelly,” said Robotham.
"Society gets the monsters it deserves, they’re created by circumstances."
Working with Paul Britton, a forensic psychologist and one of the pioneers of offender profiling in the UK, became a major turning point for Robotham.
“What I uncovered is that there is no such thing as black and white, no one is born evil. Society gets the monsters it deserves, they’re created by circumstances. And when you unpack the backgrounds behind most of the perpetrators of the most terrible crimes, you discover lives of outrageous neglect and abuse and all of those things feed in to the sort of books that I write,” he says.
Robotham said he has always been fascinated by the psychology of crime. “Rather than the ‘what’, the ‘where’ and the ‘when’ of a crime, I’ve always been fascinated by the ‘why’ – exactly what motivates someone to commit a terrible deed. Not just the psychology of the perpetrator but also how it impacts on the victim and the victim’s family and community at large.”
Robotham stressed that while plot is important, people really come back to books for the characters. “In writing fiction I try to create characters that are as real to me as any of the real people I’ve ever worked with,” he said.
“I love Joe O’Laughlin as a character. He is probably the most autobiographical in the fact that he’s about my age, I have three daughters while he has two, and we likely have a similar outlook on life.
“When I reach a point in the writing where it’s incredibly tense, I struggle to sleep. I cling to that same cliff face and wonder whether they’re going to survive or not...
“But I liken writing a first person novel to spending a year in a two-man tent with your very best friend. After that year you might still love your friend dearly but you do want some time on your own or with someone new.”
To keep his books exciting (for both himself and the reader) and to ensure he doesn’t fall into predictable patterns of writing, Robotham doesn’t plot books in advance.
“When I reach a point in the writing where it’s incredibly tense, I struggle to sleep. I cling to that same cliff face and wonder whether they’re going to survive or not ... and I figure if I don’t see the twist coming then the reader won’t see the twist coming.”
Robotham said writing crime novels is often similar to the work of a magician.
“At times, magicians want you to look at one hand while they’re doing something with the other hand. It’s about planting clues that are in plain sight but you plant them in such a ways that people register them but don’t realise they’re important.”
The wordsmith explains part of this writing ability comes from reading and following the rules, but much of it – like riding a bike – comes through practice. “I can’t tell someone what paragraph to put in front of another or what word to put next. It’s just something that you feel inside when you’re writing.”
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Written by Greta Mayr. Republished with permission of Wyza.com.au.