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Tall Story: Tall Order? Finding a Killer Story by Marnie Riches

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Article by Marnie Riches ©.
Posted in Resources (, ).

Tightrope will be my eighth crime fiction novel, and in January this year, I delivered my ninth – the second in the all new Bev Saunders series about the most determined yet dysfunctional private investigator the North West of England has ever seen. The more books I write, the more challenging it becomes to come up with a brand new, commercially viable, emotionally satisfying and interesting story. In fact, whether you’ve written half a side of prose or a million + words like me, coming up with a darned good story is perhaps the hardest task. When you’re published and your contract ends, an editor will generally ask you to submit several story outlines for consideration, so being able to produce killer concepts with memorable protagonists is really important.

So, how do I get my ideas? Well, because I write crime fiction, I tend to be interested in eye-catching news. I scan The Times regularly. The Sunday Times magazine is particularly good for ideas, as they do lengthy features about all sorts of things. Other broadsheets would work just as well, though. The Guardian’s articles are all online, too, (without paywalls if you’re strapped for cash), and The Irish Times will let you read a few free articles before prompting for a subscription. You can get some wicked ideas from red-tops, too – especially the click-bait with the shocking headlines!

Even world news, political news and business sections are not without merit as sources for inspiration. There’s a corrupt Shadow Cabinet Minister in Tightrope – Jerry Fitzwilliam – who dabbles in cash for questions and who is involved with some dodgy dealings with a biotech company that fudges its research. Scratch at the perfect veneer and Fitzwilliam is a lying, manipulative, wife-beating bully with SO many secrets that he needs to keep hidden from my super-snooper heroine, Bev. The inspiration for my baddy came directly from news stories I’ve read over the last few years…heck, the last few months could keep me going for the next ten books! Real life corruption was just sitting in my subconscious mind, waiting to be remodelled like a lump of plastercine into an original work of fiction.

If there’s a captivating human interest tale, those often provide inspiration too. If, for example, a young person goes missing during a gap year abroad in South America or a couple finds love in some quirky manner at a bus stop/laundrette/car wash or neighbours do something strange, wicked or even heartening for/to each other, I’ll find the tangential story in that. And if I can do it, you can too!

What if you’re not a keen current affairs hound? Well, you can take inspiration from life around you. Say, you’re trying to write a romance novel and you can’t think of an engaging plot or your characters are stuck in a mid-point rut… Get yourself on public transport or sit in a busy square/shopping centre/waiting room of a hospital A&E! It really doesn’t matter where you are, as long as there are people to watch. Restaurants provide brilliant fodder for romance! There’s always a couple who are gazing adoringly at each other, though maybe one partner is significantly younger than the other or better looking by miles. Ask yourself what the dynamic of that relationship is. Is one half of the apparently happy couple regularly checking their phone or glancing around the restaurant to check out the other diners?

My go-to tool is mentally hitting the, “What if?” button. What if the distraught-looking girl in the shopping mall finds love with the boy who finds her lost handbag? What if the bag contains drugs and gets them both arrested? What if the beautiful young man in the restaurant is not the older woman’s son, celebrating his university degree results? What if he’s actually the older woman’s lover…? The son of her best friend, perhaps? What if she’s slipped poison into his Thai curry because he’s blackmailing her? Ah, the possibilities are endless…

No matter what the genre you’re writing in, you should have a good, tight structure to your story. It’s no use coming up with a killer concept and then letting it go flabby in the second half. I recommend writing a plan. It needn’t be any more developed than a couple of sides, but I do suggest you include your main characters and how they relate to one another, the developmental arcs that they follow, your main story (i.e. Sinead’s dog, Shep is dognapped, and her husband, Kevin starts a local campaign to find Shep. Turns out, Kevin hated pedigree German Shepherd, Shep and sold him to a dog-breeder called Feargal in Navan. Sinead leaves Kevin, reclaims Shep and falls in love with Feargal.) and any sub-plots (i.e. In not having to walk Shep anymore, Kevin realises that he was actually benefiting from the exercise. He puts on a lot of weight and gets depressed. Sinead doesn’t fancy him anymore. By the time he’s learned his lesson, it’s too late and his beloved moves from Dublin to the country, leaving him with the neighbour’s marauding cats. He was a dog person after all!)

It’s a very basic lesson to say you should include a beginning, middle and end, but so many stories forget this and ramble on and on and on. You can RUIN a good novel with a bad ending. Make sure yours is satisfactory. Re-read your favourite books and see why they work so well. Look out for news stories that are told in a rounded and satisfying way, where there’s a good payoff at the end. Watch quality TV!

Inspiration can come from anywhere, when you’re writing. It’s important to remember though, that if you’re an aspiring author and want to make it, you’ll need to write many stories in your working lifetime, so practice, practice, practice – not just stringing sentences together beautifully but also dreaming up new and interesting yarns with killer characters!

(c) Marnie Riches

About Tightrope:

What happens when a private investigator ends up being the one uncovered?

Having lost everything after a failed marriage, Beverley Saunders now lodges in the basement flat of a house owned by her best friend Sophie and her husband, Tim. With Bev’s former glittering marketing career in the gutter, she begins to do investigative work for other wronged women, gathering dirt on philanderers, bosses and exes.

But when Beverley takes on the case of Sophie’s friend Angela, who is seeking to uncover grounds for divorce from her controlling husband, Jerry, the shadow Science Minister, she soon discovers that she isn’t the only one doing the investigating…

Beverley has a secret history she doesn’t want coming out – but will she manage to stay hidden long enough to give Angela the freedom she deserves?

Marnie Riches is back in this darkly comic thriller, perfect for fans of Martina Cole and Kimberley Chambers.

Order your copy online here.


Marnie Riches grew up on a rough estate in Manchester. She learned her way out of the ghetto, all the way to Cambridge University, where she gained a Masters degree in German & Dutch. She has been a punk, a trainee rock star, a pretend artist and professional fundraiser. Previously a children's author, now, she writes gritty, gripping crime fiction. Marnie's best-selling, award-winning George McKenzie crime-thriller series, set in SE London and Amsterdam, hit the bookshelves in 2015. The Girl Who Wouldn't Die - the first outing for crime fiction's mouthy, kickass criminologist - won a coveted Dead Good Reader Award in 2015, and the series was shortlisted for another in 2016. Described by the Guardian as, "impressive", her best-selling, critically acclaimed Manchester gangland series (Born Bad & The Cover-Up) was featured on CBS Reality's international hit TV documentary, "Written in Blood", and Marnie now appears regularly on Phil Trow's drivetime show on BBC Radio Manchester.