Crime Fiction Tropes in the #MeToo Era

Ah, the beginning of September. One of my favourite times of the year because it means two things. Number one – winter is over. And number two – the Brisbane Writers Festival. This year, I attended a session called “Crime Fiction and #metoo” featuring a panel of women – poet and writer Meera Atkinson, professor, doctor and writer Caroline de Costa and writer M.J. Tjia (who also writes as Mirandi Riwoe), moderated by writer and academic, Meg Vann. The topic for discussion was whether crime fiction perpetuates a culture of violence against women because of certain tropes the genre typically uses. Can we therefore still morally read and write crime fiction?

Meg Vann referred to one particular trope as ‘fridging’, which comes from the Women in Refrigerators website developed by comic book writer, Gail Simone. The concept originated from the Green Lantern comic when the character Alexandra DeWitt (girlfriend of the main character, Kyle Rayner) was murdered and her body stowed inside a refrigerator. The meaning of ‘fridging’ has now widened to encompass violence against women as a plot device to motivate the (usually male) protagonist into action. It is a cliched type of storytelling with negative connotations because it’s seen as devaluing the life of that female character i.e. they are more plot device than person. An article on Vox states that tropes like these distort reality and our view of women: “They don’t exist in a vacuum, but in a context where they both reflect and perpetuate the idea that women don’t have any agency over their own lives in the real world.”

Calling out this trope has been a step forward in changing the way stories represent women. The negative connotations of tropes like ‘fridging’ or the ‘dead girl’ trope combined with the #metoo climate has crime fiction writers thinking twice when writing about violence against women.

Sarah Bailey, author of three bestselling novels featuring Detective Gemma Woodstock, wrote an article on Women’s Agenda about the challenge of writing crime fiction in the immediate aftermath of the #metoo movement. She found herself questioning how she depicted Gemma’s experience of sexual harassment, and whether she had a special responsibility as a writer to “present a certain kind of story” – one with an empowered ending, even though this wouldn’t necessarily ring true for the character she had created. And at a recent Meet the Author session with Melanie Myers, author of Meet Me At Lennon’s, she stated she purposefully tried to do something different with the ‘dead girl’ trope by making a statement about violence against women in the 1940s by comparing it to the present day and asking – has anything changed and what are we doing about it?

The Staunch Prize was created by author and screenwriter Bridget Lawless to encourage writers to come up with stories that don’t rely on sexual violence, awarding the prize “to the author of a novel in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”. Sophie Hannah, poet and novelist, argues in an article in The Guardian that while its admirable that the prize wants to take a stand against violence against women, it’s not violence on the receiving end of that stand, but readers and writers. Instead she suggests a prize for the work “that most powerfully or sensitively tackles the problem of violence against women and girls.”

Certainly there are writers who have published books that utilise these tropes without being exploitative and gratuitous. In my opinion one of the best is An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire. This novel focuses on the impact of a woman’s murder on her sister, and on community reactions to her death, as well as exploring the media’s obsession with ‘pretty dead girls’.

So, what did the panel of women at the Brisbane Writers Festival say when asked: “Can we still morally read and write crime fiction?” The answer: “Yes, but it’s tricky.” The takeaway message was that writers should create crime fiction that doesn’t use traditional tropes and that gives female characters a strong voice. Caroline de Costa stated that recent crime fiction features women as the solution and not as stereotypes. She believes that entertainment can bring messages of social justice. M.J. Tjia, whose Heloise Chancey mystery series features two strong female main characters, asked people to refocus on what they’re reading, and ask – who wrote it? Where did it come from? What is its truth?

As crime writers, or fans of reading the genre, should we feel like we are committing a moral crime for reading and writing about violence against women? I’m certainly no expert and I don’t have the answers. In fact, the more I research the subject, the more complex it becomes. My current work in progress uses the ‘dead girl’ trope. I only hope I can write it in such a way that it doesn’t perpetuate negative stereotypes. What are your thoughts on using these tropes in crime fiction? Please let me know in the comments below.

Meg Vann, Caroline de Costa, Meera Atkinson and M.J. Tjia discuss women in crime fiction.

Mystery of the Month – The Day The Lies Began

Foster siblings Abbi and Blake are very close – they have a seemingly unbreakable bond. But now they share a secret. A secret so terrible that it threatens to tear apart not only their relationship, but the lives of those dearest to them.

Something happens on the day of the Moon Festival – a special event in the seaside community of Lagos Point – something unthinkable and unspeakable. Abbi begs Blake to help her protect her family – husband Will, a doctor, and their five-year-old daughter, Eadie. She knows Blake, a local police officer, would do anything for her. Meanwhile, Blake’s girlfriend Hannah, a schoolteacher, becomes suspicious about the amount of time Abbi and Blake are spending together – whispering and exchanging secretive glances – and she determines to find out what they’re up to.

The Day The Lies Began is Kylie Kaden’s third novel and her first foray into domestic noir. The story has all the elements that fans of the genre have come to expect – dirty secrets galore, complicated relationships, an innocuous setting turned dangerous, and as Kylie states herself, ‘good people doing bad things’. There’s also plenty of original ideas to keep things fresh and exciting, including one unexpected plot twist which leads the story down quite a dark path.

Kylie is a gifted storyteller, cleverly complicating the plot just when the reader thinks they’ve worked out what’s going on. The four main characters make questionable decisions, with the two female characters being particularly deceitful, and the interplay between them is often tense and volatile. The story hinges on this mix of relationships, the one between Abbi and Blake being the most complicated – they have a long history and a bond that wobbles on the line of platonic. The author also cleverly weaves in the storyline of seventeen-year-old Molly – while you suspect she’s somehow embroiled in the secrets being kept by the adult characters, it remains a mystery until the dramatic reveal at the end. There’s also a connection that develops between Molly and an older, female character which offers some softer moments to balance the grittier themes. The very final scene makes for a slick twist.

The Day The Lies Began is a highly suspenseful, twisty and unsettling read that will leave you questioning your own morals and ethics, and wondering whether or not justice has been correctly served. If this book is a sign of things to come, then I look forward to Kylie’s next domestic noir thriller.

The Day the Lies Began by Kylie Kaden is published by Pantera Press.

Standout Simile:

Only time would tell if somehow, someone would trip over her lies, like land mines laid early and forgotten, and rip her family to shreds.

Am I Writing A Book That Won’t Sell?

I’ve written a cosy mystery. I started writing it around the time I read an article in The Guardian that said the cosy mystery was undergoing a renaissance. I liked the idea of writing a story that was a puzzle to be solved. A game for the reader, rather than a gritty police procedural, and with a sleuth who was an average person who could solve a crime.

I’ve always enjoyed reading cosy mysteries – golden age mysteries from Agatha Christie or Victoria Holt, and modern cosies such as the Aurora Teagarden series by Charlaine Harris, and the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich.

Unfortunately, the feedback I’ve had from some publishers and editors since I finished my manuscript is that the cosy mystery is not popular (unless you’re already an established author in the genre). An Australian publisher with two cosy mystery authors on their books told me that the print runs are small. Naturally, with two cosy mystery authors (and these are really good authors) on their books, they wouldn’t be looking to take on any more.

Crime fiction, however, of which cosy mystery is a sub-genre, is immensely popular and sells better than many other genres. I don’t know why people wouldn’t want to purchase or read a cosy mystery being that it is a sub-genre of crime fiction, but it appears that readers are more interested in books that are darker. Are cosy mysteries too whimsical, perhaps?

If I’ve written a book that publishers aren’t interested in because they don’t think it will sell, what can I do? Here are some of the options I could consider.

  • Keep writing cosy mysteries purely for my own personal satisfaction. However, as someone who writes stories, I would like to be able to share my stories with others (i.e. have someone read them and hopefully enjoy them!)
  • Self-publish. This would mean taking on the publication costs myself, and the likelihood that I would recoup the costs is minimal. However, lots of talented authors are self-publishing these days.
  • Give up. I wouldn’t be the first writer who has toyed with the idea of giving up when it all gets too hard.
  • Turf this manuscript and write another book in a different genre. I’ve started thinking about my next book, which is more of a thriller with a historical crime element. I briefly pitched the idea to a publisher, who said it might be something they’d be interested in (rather than the cosy mystery).
  • Rewrite the manuscript completely. I’ve engaged a professional editor who may be able to offer me a few suggestions on how to rewrite my cosy mystery into a thriller. I’ve read some really good thrillers of late, in particular by Heidi Perks and Nicola Moriarty. I enjoyed those books and would enjoy writing a book like that. If nothing else, rewriting my cosy mystery as a thriller would be a great learning exercise.

Would you buy a cosy mystery or would you be more interested in reading a thriller? Perhaps another genre entirely? Please let me know in the comments below.

Mystery of the Month – Where the Dead Go

I was reading another book, quite a good book… but then Where the Dead Go appeared on my Kindle on August 5 (thanks to my pre-order). I immediately started reading it, and the other book was soon forgotten.

This is Sarah Bailey’s third novel featuring Detective Gemma Woodstock – the first being The Dark Lake about the murder of a high school teacher in Gemma’s hometown, Smithson, and the second novel Into the Night set in Melbourne with Gemma investigating the death of a celebrity.

Where the Dead Go is set four years after the events of Into the Night. Gemma now works in Sydney but a death in the family has forced her to return to Smithson. Gemma is no stranger to death. Her adolescence saw the loss of both her mother and her boyfriend, and it’s the nature of her job as a detective to work closely with the deceased. But this particular tragedy has hit her hard and she’s looking for a distraction. So when her old boss, Jonesy, mentions they’re looking for a stand-in to investigate the murder of a young man in Fairhaven, Gemma jumps at the chance. Before long, she’s ignoring her father’s advice not to make hasty decisions and arriving in the coastal town of Fairhaven with her eight-year-old son, Ben, in tow.

This time, Gemma is the boss. Leadership suits her as she rises to meet all of the challenges she is faced with – a prickly Constable to work with, some nasty threats and having her competence called into question. Her knack for solving tricky mysteries comes in handy when she finds herself investigating not only the homicide but also the disappearance of the victim’s girlfriend, fifteen-year-old Abbey.

Sarah Bailey is particularly skilled at writing vivid settings – her descriptions of the vast ocean, sunburnt tourists and salty air bring to life the fictional Fairhaven. The northern NSW town is populated with a cast of intriguing characters all strategically positioned to misdirect the reader – an indisposed chief inspector, a handsome and genial publican, an indefatigable journalist, a few boisterous British backpackers, a soothsaying itinerant, and some dope pushing parents. And as Gemma delves further into Abbey’s home life, she uncovers a family dealing with some very serious issues.

All the while, Gemma is true to form – throwing herself into her work and avoiding her personal problems. And once again, she is letting the events of the past drag her down. This time it’s her guilt over another missing girl case, one she didn’t solve and something which she views as the lowest point of her career. She wears her guilt like heavy chain mail, desperate to find Abbey to atone for the girl she couldn’t save. She pushes away her partner, Mac, who seems a genuinely good match for her and beats herself up over whether she can be the parent that Ben needs.

But even when you are frustrated with Gemma and some of the decisions she makes, you’re still rooting for her to succeed. She has a hard shell but underneath lies an unfailing hope that she will find Abbey alive and an overwhelming love for her son, both traits which make her appealing and relatable.

I raced through this book, as I’ve done with all of Sarah Bailey’s novels. It feels like this may be the last we’ll see of Gemma, which is a shame as I’ve enjoyed reading about her over the past three years. But whatever Sarah writes next, she has surely amassed plenty of fans who will race to get their hands on it come the release date.

Where the Dead Go by Sarah Bailey is published by Allen & Unwin.

Standout Simile:

Insects bleat like a faulty smoke alarm, and I smack my arm to dislodge a feasting mosquito.

Conflicting Feedback on Your Writing

Feedback on my writing is my favourite. No, really – it is. There’s positive feedback, which makes you feel warm and fuzzy and lets you know you’re on the right track with your work. Negative feedback can be good motivation to make you work harder. But what about when feedback from different sources contradicts each other?

Example A. The opening of my novel, The Princess Murders, a murder mystery.

As writers, we’re told the best way to get the attention of an agent or publisher is by having a knockout first chapter. I’ve reworked and rewritten my first few chapters so many times that I could recite them. I’d been feeling pretty good about them.

Simply put, this is what happens in the first few chapters:

  • The main character (MC), a private detective, is conducting surveillance on a teacher who lives in her hometown. She hasn’t been back in seven years and returned specifically for this case.
  • A reunion with the MC and her former school friends.
  • The morning after the reunion, the MC wakes up to find a text message from her friend, who is upset with her about something she said at the reunion.
  • Unable to contact her friend to apologise, MC goes to her house and is horrified to find that she has been murdered.

The opening scene where the MC is conducting surveillance establishes her life before the inciting incident, the murder. The murder triggers her to act – she has a new task, which is to solve the murder of her friend.

In the first draft stages, I received feedback from a mentor (a professional, published author) who said I should get to the reunion scene as soon as possible. To achieve this, I cut a fair chunk of out of the beginning, which was mostly the MC’s thoughts and feelings about seeing her old friends again.

Since then, I was twice shortlisted for the Flash 500 Novel Opening Competition, a competition judged on the appeal of your first chapter and synopsis. I viewed this shortlisting as a good sign that my opening chapter was not too terrible.

Earlier this year, an agent read my opening chapters and provided me with encouraging feedback, and requested to see the rest of my manuscript.

More recently, I did an online self-editing course. The feedback I received from the tutor (a professional, published author) was that the murder happened too late in the story. She said the murder should happen as close to the start of the book as possible. She questioned what happened in the first few chapters, assuming it involved the MC moving back to town to set up her agency, and concerned that this might be too much backstory.

However, the following week I had a meeting with a publisher/editor at a writer’s conference about my first chapter and synopsis. Her thoughts were quite the opposite. She said that the beginning of the novel felt too rushed. She suggested I slow it down and start the story by introducing the MC before she returns to her hometown. Perhaps a scene where she is trying to decide if she should return to her hometown, and her thoughts and feelings about that. Ultimately, the publisher/editor was not interested in my manuscript.

In summary, the professional advice I’ve received so far in regards to the structure of the opening of my novel are as follows:

  • It starts in a good place.
  • Needs to start later by bringing the murder closer to the start of the book. Don’t have too much backstory!
  • Should start earlier so we can get to know the MC better before we see her in action. Needs more backstory.

It seems like everyone is telling me to do something different, resulting in much confusion. It would be easy to get annoyed and frustrated and wonder if I should give up on this manuscript and start something new. But if I did that, I wouldn’t learn anything.

And even though the advice is different, what if they’re actually all correct?

Obviously I can’t start the book in three different places at the same time. But what if I look at the reasoning behind each suggestion? For example, I’ve been saying the murder is the inciting incident, but what if it’s not? Maybe the MC returning to her hometown is the inciting incident. And the publisher/editor suggested adding a new scene because she didn’t feel a connection with the MC in the opening action sequences and couldn’t understand why she was doing what she was doing. Evidently something is missing that needs to be looked at and reworked.

In the meantime, I’ve engaged a professional editor to review my manuscript and offer some guidance. There could be some major changes ahead and I’ll talk about these changes more in my next blog post.

Have you ever had conflicting feedback? What did you do? Please let me know in the comments below.

Mystery of the Month – Come Back For Me

On a stormy night in 1993, Stella’s parents bundle her and her siblings onto a ferry, desperate to leave their home on Evergreen. Little Stella adores living on the small island just off the Dorset coast, and can’t understand why her parents want to leave. Flash forward twenty-five years and Stella now works as a counsellor. She still reminisces wistfully about her childhood on Evergreen and is shocked one evening to see her old family home on the news – human remains have been found in the garden. Stella is compelled to return to the island but soon discovers she’s not welcome and that someone is prepared to take extreme measures to make her leave.

Come Back For Me is the latest suspense thriller from Heidi Perks, author of Now You See Her – both novels which explore what it means to tell the truth. Like its predecessor, Come Back For Me is quick to pique the reader’s interest with lots of burning questions. Why were Stella’s parents in such a hurry to leave the island that night? Whose body has been found? Who is the killer? The tension amps up when the identity of the murder victim is revealed – it’s someone Stella knew. When her brother, Danny, is implicated in the murder, Stella makes it her mission to prove his innocence.

Heidi Perks is a skilled suspense writer and the book moves along at a cracking pace, building an unsettling atmosphere laden with suspicion. The narrative deftly alternates between timelines – with the scenes from the past shifting viewpoints between Stella’s family – loner sister Bonnie, misunderstood Danny, and parents, Maria and David, as they navigate their relationship with Iona, a mysterious newcomer who seems intent on ingratiating herself with their family.

The reader journeys along with Stella as she sifts through one murky lie after another. The setting of Evergreen is perfect for a murder mystery – the claustrophobic island setting and the silo mentality of a small town, where everyone knows everyone (perhaps a little too well) and protect each other’s dirty secrets for fear of their own exposure. And although I’ve read many books about secrets, I haven’t come across anything quite like this. The reveal of what is actually going on in Evergreen was unexpected, interesting and written in a believable and authentic way.

Come Back For Me is an engaging read about loyalty and the lengths a person will go to in order to protect the people they love. What happens when lies spiral out of control? Is telling the truth always the best option? In this case, the truth is that this book needs to go to the top of your TBR pile, immediately!

Come Back For Me by Heidi Perks is published in Australia by Penguin.

Standout Simile:

I close my eyes, breathing deeply, slowly, pulling my hands away as I tip my head to the sun which is shooting like an arrow through a slit in the clouds.

The Writer Who Isn’t Writing

I’m certain writers spend a lot of their time not writing. Not because we’re busy with other occupations, family responsibilities or the time-sucking minutiae of daily life. When we do have a spare ten minutes to write, do we actually use that time to write? Or do we do something else – make a coffee, put on a load of laundry, or fall into an Instagram abyss?

I’m writing a new book. Supposedly. This one is more ambitious than my first novel. Instead of one POV character, I’ve got two, maybe three. The story alternates between the 1950s and present day Brisbane. It isn’t a cosy mystery like my first novel, but it is another murder mystery. I’m been ruminating on it and researching, doing some staring into space… but I haven’t actually started writing it.

So why not? I really need to get cracking. I have a 9 month old baby and there’s only a few tiny windows of time in my day where I can write. I should be taking advantage of these opportunities. But I don’t. Instead I vacuum or upload baby photos to the laptop or wonder if there’s something I can sell on eBay.

Obviously I’ve got some serious procrastination issues here. I’ve thought about why and I’ve come up with three main reasons why I’m not writing:

  1. Sheer laziness. I’m sleep deprived. This makes the task of amazing writing even more challenging than usual. And writing a book is hard work. The first book was much harder than I thought it was going to be. It took years! The thought of taking years to write another book isn’t sitting well with me. I want it written yesterday. So when it all feels too hard, I just do nothing.
  1. Self doubt. Yep, all the writers have been here. Even the published ones. A ‘fear of failure’ complex. What’s the point of putting in all this time and effort if no one will ever read the book, apart from my family and friends? I’m proud of my first book but now it’s done it feels a bit anti-climactic. Is that it? If an agent doesn’t want me based on that book, is that it? If no publishers like it, why would they like anything else I write? Poor me, etcetera.
  1. Guilt. As a new parent I feel like all my spare time should be devoted to my son. If he’s sleeping, I should be doing his laundry. Researching schools for him. Making baby food. That’s what parental leave is for, right? And he’s just started crawling so neglecting the vacuuming might be perilous to his health. I should probably also mop or something. I don’t know.

Fellow writers, we all know I’m not going to throw in the towel. I don’t really have a choice. I’m excited about my idea and somehow, this book is getting written. I’ll just bash out an 80,000 word draft over the next few weeks. Don’t worry. I’ve got this.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to hang the baby’s washing on the line, and then make a Spotify playlist. For inspiration! I swear …