Dorte asked in a recent comment about the ‘contract’ between writer and reader, and this intriguing question prompted me to reflect again on what it is that readers expect writers to deliver. In this post, I’ll focus on my own experience, and field, but there are a good many wider issues that are also well worth discussing, and perhaps a future post will do so.
Most people would agree that ‘rules’ for writers are not a good thing. Way back in the 20s, Ronald Knox devised his Decalogue for detective story writers, a list of rules which should be observed and which has been seen in some ways as a cornerstone of writing in the Golden Age. But even he broke one or two of his own rules in his fiction, and so did many others, very successfully.
There is one important issue in a crime series that occupies my thoughts a lot. If you have loyal readers, who have read your earlier books, you don’t want to bore them with explanation about the characters’ back stories. But new readers need to understand about the people in the story, and not be confused. I believe I owe it to both sets of readers not to irritate them with too much or too little back story, and to deliver information in a pleasing way, without boring anyone. I have come across some series where there is too much or too little repetition of key facts, and the skill required to walk the tightrope is, I think, often under-estimated. I am determined to try to make sure that you can start my series anywhere - with the latest book, or one in the middle, and still enjoy that one, and then - if you do like it - all the others.
I’m also guided by another principle, which not everyone will agree with. I strive in my writing to create a strong impression of realism, but I’m not obsessed with it. I don’t mind changing the topography of Liverpool or the Lakes a little, if it suits the story, and does not jar (at least, does not jar with me!) One reason why this is a good idea, in my opinion, is to avoid distressing people in the real world, or even libelling people or organisations unintentionally. For instance, inevitably I feature the Cumbria Constabulary in my work, but I’ve created a fictional equivalent to the real police force (the real one is, I gather from the statistics, very good, even if it lacks a Hannah Scarlett, let alone a Les Bryant or a Greg Wharf.)
However ‘realistic’ we try to be as writers – and I’m strongly in favour of writers making the attempt to be ‘realistic’ – we have to recognise the real world is different from our make-believe universe. Take the Cumbria shootings, or the Jo Yeates murder, for instance. Those tragic events have a resonance and an impact that is almost impossible to re-create in fiction, even though the best fiction can have enormous impact. Here’s another ‘rule’ that I set myself, then. When challenging readers to think about matters of life and death in fiction, to do so with respect for those living in the real world.