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Sunday, 10 December 2017

Killer Women 2017



by Radmila May

The second Killer Women event was held over two days (28-29 October) at Brown’s Hotel in St Martin’s Lane, London. Like the first event, held in Shoreditch Town Hall in October 2016, there were three parallel sessions: masterclasses, workshops and research doctor sessions with overall a strong emphasis on writing techniques. It wasn’t possible for me to go to more than one session at a time, but I went to as many as I could and took notes. Authors who have been reviewed in Mystery People are indicated.

What is Killer Women?

Kate Manning of the Killer Women Collective says: ‘Killer Women is a collective of 21 female crime writers, who work together to put on exciting, innovative crime fiction events around the country. We are passionate about our writing and the aim of the Weekend was to share some of that passion with our readers and also who want to write crime themselves. We know how tough being a writer can be, but the great joy of Killer Women is the bank of knowledge and support you can tap into.’

Masterclasses – Saturday

Left to right: Alison Joseph, Antonia Hodgson,
 Kate Griffin, William Ryan

Historical crime. The speakers were Alison Joseph who chaired the session, William Ryan, Antonia Hodgson and Kate Griffin. Alison has written several crime series including three featuring Agatha Christie as sleuth solving murders in various locations in 1928. For William Ryan’s three Korolev novels set in 1930s Stalinist U.S.S.R. see the reviews in Mystery People while his The Constant Soldier, set in the last days of World War II, was shortlisted for a Crime Writers Association award in 2017. Antonia Hodgson’s three novels featuring Thomas Hawkins, an early eighteenth century adventurer, described by one reviewer as a ‘lovable rogue’. Kate Griffin has also published three novels, featuring Kitty Peck, a young music hall seamstress who inherits her grandmother’s Limehouse-set criminal empire but, unlike her grandmother, has a deep sense of morality while Antonia felt that eighteenth century attitudes to moral issues were different to those of today. In answer to the question, why historical crime? William said he had always been an admirer of the writer Isaac Babel and the way in which historical fiction mirrors the present, Kate had wanted to be an actor and likes music hall and Hammer Studios historical films, while Antonia is interested in 1720s London and its characters and the idea of street level history and likes researching primary sources.

Left to right: Vaseem Khan, Katherine Quarmby, 
Matthew Blakstad, Imran Mahmoud.

The changing crime scene. The non-fiction writer Katherine Quarmby chaired this session in which the writers Imran Mahmoud,
Matthew Blakstad and Vaseem Khan took part. Barrister Imran Mahmoud’s largely criminal practice provides the background for his first novel, You Don’t Know Me, reviewed in Mystery People. Imran told us that in reality crime is often chaotic and spontaneous and suggested that boredom and aimlessness were frequent triggers. Matthew Blakstad’s novels concentrate on the effect of modern technology on life today but also have a political dimension; for instance, the latest, Lucky Ghost, has been described as a ‘conspiracy thriller for a world which prefers conspiracies to facts’. (Who can he be thinking of?) Vaseem Khan’s Baby Ganesh series of five novels with protagonist Inspector Chopra with his pet baby elephant Ganesh (on his first visit to India Vaseem was struck by seeing a baby elephant in the street) feature an honest cop in a dishonest world; the series has been described as Mumbai-based cosies which take a humorous approach to serious issues. When it comes to developments in the world of fictional crime Imran commented that rules as to genre are becoming more elastic and Matthew remarked that the real-life crime scene is changing (for instance, why use a gun to rob a bank when you can do it on-line, perhaps from thousands of miles away). He also said that because of technology the way we read is changing: attention spans are shorter, skim reading is frequent, the long slow burn in fiction is disappearing and readers want full immersion straightaway. Writers, he observed, should write both for their chosen market and for themselves.


Pitch to the Panel. This was a really scary event in which 8 or so unpublished writers made a brief pitch to a panel consisting of the well-known thriller writer Mark Billingham (in the chair), Sophie Orme (Bonnier Zaffre editorial director), Joel Richardson (of Michael Joseph) and Karen Sullivan (editor at Orenda Books). The writers all gave polished performances and were heard by the panel with varying degrees of interest. There was another Pitch to the Panel session on the Sunday.

Other masterclasses. How Publishing Works; The Police Procedural; The Genre Splice.

Masterclasses – Sunday

Left to right: Colette McBeth, Erin
Kelly, Julia Crouch, Mel McGrath

Domestic Noir. This panel was chaired by Colette McBeth and the other participants were Erin Kelly, Julia Crouch and Mel McGrath. All four authors have been reviewed in Mystery People which see for reviews of recent titles etc. They all emphasised the continuing and overwhelming success of the genre initiated by Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, bolstered in the U.K. by Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, despite accusations of misandry (hatred of men). Why should this be so? Apparently 80% of fiction buyers are women, a substantial proportion of which are ‘mid-life’. Domestic noir, while it may not exactly mirror the lives of readers, does reflect the domestic world in which they live and which they, by and large, are responsible for running. Violence, or the fear of violence, is an essential component. It seems that the more female-centred the novel the bigger the sales. Although some men buy/read domestic noir their responses to what they read tend to differ from those of women. However, for some writers genre placement can be a trap and would-be writers in the genre have to ensure that the twist (essential) is logical. There seems to be no reason why the genre should disappear at least for the foreseeable future; one possible variation is historical domestic noir which could be regarded as rather more literary.

Left to right; Laura Wilson with Lisa
Milton, Sam Eades and Jane Gregory

The Next Big Thing. Chair of this panel was Laura Wilson, the well-known crime writer and reviewer; see Mystery People for recent reviews and information about her novels. The other participants were Lisa Milton of Harlequin Books, particularly the new HQ imprint, Sam Eades, senior commissioning editor at Orion, and the long-established literary agent Jane Gregory. First of all they discussed what the Magic Ingredient could be. All three said that as agents and editors they themselves had seen enough of psychological suspense but that in view of the genre’s continuing popularity it could not be ignored. Would they be prepared to take a chance on a title in a new field? Yes, if they liked it, if it was well-written, finished and polished, if there was a feeling of authenticity, if the author was prepared to accept that s/he would have to accept low royalties at least on the first title and would accept digital publication at the outset (after all, bookshops have very rigid categories but not digital  publishers). Readability was highly important. Could the next big thing be the return of the cosy? Or perhaps back to serial killers? Or sci-fi/fantasy crime, eg. Ben Aaronovitch (see Mystery People for reviews) and ghost crime? Certainly they felt that shorter books were coming back (as a reviewer I applaud that!), with shorter chapters.
Other masterclasses. Self-Publishing and Marketing; Thrillers; The Author as a Brand.

Workshops – Saturday and Sunday

Nearly all the Masterclass speakers in their course of their discussions referred to their own highly individual
approach to their actual writing. The Workshops, however, were aimed at would-be writers and were as popular and helpful as in the 2016 Killer Women day and included exercises to be done on the spot.

Kate with workshop members

Introduction to Crime Writing. Kate Rhodes, author of the Alice Quentin forensic psychologist series, stressed that there were a number of different ways to approach writing a crime novel, ranging from meticulous pre-writing plans with every event mapped out, characters scrupulously detailed and location and setting clearly envisaged, to extreme ‘seat of pants’ where the writer plunges in and gets to the and hopes it makes sense! One way she suggested was to begin with the initial idea expressed in a one sentence tag-line which is gradually expanded into one paragraph, then another, then paragraphs indicating how the first few chapters might go (with an indication of how the story might resolve). Then START AND KEEP GOING! For more about Kate see reviews of her books on the Mystery People reviews page.

Natasha Cooper with workshop members.

Suspense. Natasha Cooper is the author of many books, notably her current series featuring barrister Trish Maguire and earlier series such as her Willow King novels (Willow King is both an uptight senior civil servant and a writer of steamy romantic novels). Suspense, she said, means that the reader is waiting for something to happen throughout the narrative which should proceed via a series of dramatic peaks and troughs to an ending which is as climatic as it is unexpected. We have to care about the characters and their fates; each cliff hanger should leave us desperate to find out what happens next. Rachel Abbott spoke on the Sunday on Suspense, see below.

Plot. Julia Crouch, who originated the term Domestic Noir, has written several acclaimed titles in the genre. Plot, she said, is about what happens and why. She stressed that the connection between the cause of an event and its effect has to be logical and believable, and should spring out of the characters of the participants in the story while at the same time having an effect on those participants. And in the overall crime genre mystery is an essential component. For more about Julia see the reviews of her books on the Mystery People reviews page.

Dialogue. Alison Joseph, although listed as speaking on Crime Writing, decided to concentrate on Dialogue and how it may illustrate character and relationships. For an example she played a fascinating
extract from a radio play she written some time before in which one character in particular reveals as much about himself in what he doesn’t say about his missing wife.

Character. Mel McGrath told us that Story consisted of Characters plus Scenario. She stressed the importance of characters’ relationship to the setting, to other characters and to the cultural and temporal context in which they exist. Characteristics should be consistent and likeable (or, as least, interesting) but every character will have his or her deepest need which will be revealed during the course of the story. Physical characteristics, she commented, come last.


Suspense. Rachel Abbott also spoke on this subject. What is suspense, she asked, and answered it is anxious uncertainty plus excited expectation. The opening sentence should establish suspense while every element in a story – character, plot, language – should contribute to this. The reader is expecting a final crisis but does not know what the crisis will be or how it will be resolved; that is what keeps her reading.

Beginnings and Endings. Erin Kelly emphasised that the opening of a novel should hook the reader in the first 10 pages. She likes to start slowly but at the same time to establish that the clock is ticking. Don’t include, she said, the back story. The ending should satisfy but need not tie everything up, particularly in a series.
 
This was a highly successful conference and the change of venue was, at least for me, a vast improvement. It was much more comfortable than Shoreditch Town Hall Add and, being in central London, a great deal easier to get to. Looking forward to the 2018 Killer Women Weekend.



This article first appeared in the Mystery People December issue. A 30-page monthly e-zine.  For a complimentary copy email: mysterypeople@outlook.com