My first book, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, has just been published by Egmont UK, but my journey of writing it might begin somewhere you wouldn’t expect. When I first had the idea of writing a YA crime thriller, I knew before I started that – by the very nature of it being YA – I would need some kind of plot device that would legitimize 17-year-old Pip investigating an old murder. As it happened, when this early idea was just circling in my head, my younger sister was partaking in her EPQ during her final year of school; an independent project alongside A-Levels where the student can pick any topic that interests them. It was exactly what my story needed and from there things began to take shape.
With the idea of a school project in place, I then looked to structure before I even began plotting the actual whodunnit or creating any of the characters. I realized right away that I didn’t want to use the school project simply as a plot device to justify the story, but that it would be far more interesting to really lean into the idea and allow it to inform how the entire novel was structured. Some of my favourite books are ones that include multi-media elements, such as newspaper clippings and digital sound files in Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, and the multi-level House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski where a whole strand of the novel is written as an academic textbook with footnotes. The school project idea allowed me to experiment with this type of content which I love to read and discover in other books.
So here are my two cents: the epistolary novel isn’t dead. Far from it. But it has had to modernize and adapt, especially when used in genres which fall under the ‘thriller’ umbrella. Instead of letters exchanged between two characters, or a story told in diary entries, we can incorporate all sorts of material from the modern world: emails, social media posts, interviews, digital art, photographs and more. In A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, I use ‘Production Logs’ which are typed up by my main character, Pip. It is as though, whenever she presses save on her Word document, some entity captures the digital file and transports it into the book for the reader to discover. A file that appears untampered by any narrative or authorial voice. Within these sections, I was able to include interview transcripts, Facebook posts, an annotated map, photos of an academic diary, a spider diagram of suspects and more.
It’s this type of content which I believe can really help create both a sense of pace and immersion in a thriller or mystery type book. In a lot of ways, multi-media elements in books remind me of one of my guilty pleasures: found footage horror films. Movies like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield claim that you are watching the unedited footage as shot by the characters themselves; an effort to do away with the idea of the filmmakers and scriptwriters to simulate a direct connection between the audience and the characters. Although the artifice of the characters holding a camera while they are literally being chased by some monster does at times stretch credulity, I think this technique of feigning a ‘true story’ really does establish a feeling of urgency and proximity between the characters and the watcher. And this is the same effect that multi-media elements in books can achieve: as the reader comes across Pip’s documents, I hope it immerses them in the case, helps them step into their detective shoes and hunt for clues alongside Pip, rather than the plot always being filtered through the authorial voice and Pip’s point of view before it reaches them. I hope it feels more real, more immediate.
Having said that, I knew I couldn’t write the entire book in this way and – to extend that thought – it would be very tricky to pull off any contemporary set thriller novel in just epistolary form. This is because the format itself can affect the two things which are necessary in making a thriller…well, thrilling: stakes and danger. Given that the ‘found documents’ in my book are typed by the main character herself, the reader is aware that Pip must survive the next few pages unscathed because we are reading something she has written. The reader knows that for them to be reading a new production log means that Pip must be fine, sitting at her computer to type it up. And in a genre which is designed to instil fear and tension and put the main character in peril, that just wouldn’t do. Therefore, I knew the book would have to be a kind of dual narrative: the production logs interspersed between ‘normal’ narrative chapters in chronological order. And, in the final third of the book, the production logs themselves taper out in correlation to the stakes ramping up and the danger growing.
Once I’d decided on this dual narrative structure in which I could use multi-media elements and the ‘found document’ type effect, everything else grew from there. I knew Pip would have to be a character who is studious and highly motivated in order to justify the frequency and accuracy of the ‘production logs’ in her project. Because of the strict structure I’d decided on, everything had to be plotted and planned out before I wrote the first sentence and, consequently, drafting the book happened in a very quick, crazy sprint (about eleven weeks in total) because I’d already laid the foundations of where I was going.
Sometimes it’s not the story itself that comes first, but the shape of it. And from that, you can build an entire book.
(c) Holly Jackson
About A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder:
A debut YA crime thriller as addictive as Serial as compelling as Riverdale and as page-turning as One of Us Is Lying
The case is closed. Five years ago, schoolgirl Andie Bell was murdered by Sal Singh. The police know he did it. Everyone in town knows he did it.
But having grown up in the same small town that was consumed by the crime, Pippa Fitz-Amobi isn’t so sure. When she chooses the case as the topic for her final project, she starts to uncover secrets that someone in town desperately wants to stay hidden. And if the real killer is still out there, how far will they go to keep Pip from the truth . . . ?
Perfect for fans of One of Us Is Lying, Gone Girl, We Were Liars and Riverdale
Order your copy online here.