Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Going There: Scene of the Crime

Here's the thing. When you write about fictional crimes...you kind of have to go there. What I mean is if you're writing about a burglary, you have to figure out exactly how it went down. Did the thief come through the window, or the door? Were people home, or were they on vacation with a bunch of newspapers piled up on the porch? What about the guard dog?

This can make for some amusing brainstorming sessions, particularly if you're writing something humorous/lighthearted. Like where the burglar is a woodchuck breaking into the acorn vault of the meanest, richest squirrel in the forest. Ha-ha. Good times.

BUT...there's the other side of it, too. The side where your story isn't lighthearted, the hero isn't a squirrel, and the crime isn't about stealing some mean creature's acorns. Like in my novel WHISPERTOWN, a boy named Eli dies under mysterious circumstances. You'll have to read it to know the truth behind the tragedy, but long before the story was a completed first draft, I had to go there. An amusing brainstorming session it was not. I had to think about Eli's life, had to imagine cutting it short, then walk through the emotions of the loved ones he left behind. These are very real things, even if used in a fictional context. Such emotions can be hard to write, and hard to read. So, for writers who have to go there, some things to keep in mind:

Know Your Audience

A brutal, life and death crime may not be appropriate for all audiences. Knowing that ahead of time may stop you from taking the ill-advised step of writing a story about something particularly vile (I'm sure you don't need examples here) then trying to market it to the Middle-Grade set. I knew that my novel would broach subjects only suitable for older teens, topics like realistic violence and sex. I'm not saying there's not a skillful way to present such subject matter to younger readers, but that brings me to my next point...

Know What You Can Get Away With

If you're working on the Woodchuck Burglar story, extreme detail is probably the way to go. Go wild, write about the Acorn Vault blueprints, and the double-crossing Blue Bird, and the treetop chase scene in full High-Definition prose. Writing about the death of a classmate in a modern, recognizable high school, may require a little more subtlety. Even writing for older teens I knew I couldn't give them full access to the scene as I envisioned it. So I scaled it back, made the description of the darker moments sparse, leaving room for the reader to imagine the rest on their own.

Know the Details

In order to write sparse, you actually need to know more (much more) detail than you're probably comfortable with. The more you know, the better sense you have of what can be alluded to, or what can be excluded all together. I know more about discovering a dead body than I care to. Lucky for you, I won't be passing on my vast knowledge. Well, not all of it.

Know the Way Back

Writing mysteries is more than just dreaming up a compelling hero. You have to dream up the villain, and their crime. You have to go there. That's not the hardest part, though. Once you go into the dark place, you still have to find your way back...

If you don't think that's a manageable trip, stick to Woodchuck Burglars.


Lamar "L. R." Giles writes for adults and teens. Penning everything from epic fantasy to noir thrillers, he's never met a genre he didn't like. His debut YA mystery WHISPERTOWN is about a teen in witness protection who investigates his best friend's murder and stumbles on a dark conspiracy that leads back to his own father. It will be published in Summer, 2013 by HarperCollins. He resides in Virginia with his wife and is represented by Jamie Weiss Chilton of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Find out more on his website, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.


  1. Great post! I love writing stories with a mysterious event because of those details of the crime and the villain. I think when we really take the time to brainstorm our story turns out so much better!

  2. Thanks, Laura. I'm glad you liked. :)

  3. Love the idea of knowing more detail than you will actually use. That would be a great exercise --write a scene with as much detail as you can, however ghastly and grisly it may be, and then pare it down to the essentials with a specific audience in mind.


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