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23 top tips for crime writers

Hi there,

This week’s newsletter is something a bit different. It’s the first in a series of conversations with interesting people from all over the world and all different walks of life. Up first is Graham Bartlett, a prominent UK law enforcement official turned best-selling author. I recently attended one of his workshops, and lucky for you and me, he agreed to be interviewed for The Writing Grove to give his expertise and 23 top tips for crime writers.

We talked about writing routines, the enduring appeal of the crime genre and what not to get wrong when writing about an investigation.

He’s also offering more workshops. His latest is about covert policing and takes place online on 1 July. Don’t miss it.

A bit about Graham: Graham Bartlett rose to become chief superintendent and the divisional commander of Brighton and Hove police. His first non-fiction book, Death Comes Knocking, was a Sunday Times Top Ten bestseller, which he then followed with Babes in the Wood. He co-wrote these books with bestselling author Peter James and has since published Bad for Good and Force of Hate starring Chief Superintendent Jo Howe. Bartlett is also a police procedural and crime advisor helping scores of authors and TV writers inject authenticity into their work running crime writing courses and teaching on Masters Programmes.

UK police department sign
photo via unsplash

Q: How did you go from being a police officer to a writer? Were you writing at night whilst working cases during the day? How did you decide to make the switch? And how did you actually go about it? Did you attend any writing workshops or participate in writing groups?

Graham: I had no notion of being a writer until I retired from the police. That’s quite unusual for authors; most seem to have cellars full of unpublished novels. I had published some police-related blogs which my friend, Peter James, saw. He suggested that we write nonfiction together, centred around the true stories which influenced the Roy Grace stories. I was terrified and delighted in equal measures but of course, said yes, and we set to work.

The book, which became the Sunday Times Top Ten Best Seller, Death Comes Knocking - Policing Roy Grace’s Brighton, was effectively my apprenticeship. Peter was a patient yet demanding mentor, and I learned so much from him that by the time we finished, I had the bug and haven’t stopped writing since.

Since then, we co-wrote Babes in the Wood, and I have written Bad for Good, Force of Hate and City on Fire (published 2024) alone and love it!

Q: The crime genre has had a long history and enduring appeal globally. Why do you think that is? What is it about us humans that find crime and criminals so fascinating?

Graham: I think we all love puzzles, and crime fiction, in any of its forms, feeds into that. There are infinite ways man can be inhuman to man and equal motives behind that. Crime fiction feeds from the worst and best of humanity and introduce a likeable protagonist with endearing qualities, and you have a champion who you can cheer on and become frustrated with during the chase.

I think we all see parts of ourselves and people we know in both the goodies and baddies, and that’s what makes crime fiction so addictive.

Long may it last!

photo of Graham Bartlett
Graham Bartlett

Q: What are some of the typical mistakes or pitfalls writers make when writing about criminals, law enforcement or the justice system? And how do we avoid them?

Graham: I have what I call my Bartlett’s Bloopers. I should stress they are not Bloopers I’ve made (heaven forbid!) but ones I see often:

  1. It hinders rather than helps you become a senior detective if you are a hard-drinking, womanising, corner-cutting maverick. That would get you the sack rather than promotion!

  2. If your detective switches on or fiddles about with the suspect's computer, they are compromising all the evidence. Real cops leave it alone & call in the experts.

  3. Murder detectives never have just one case running at a time. They could have half a dozen or more, some old some new, each pulling them in different directions.

  4. There are very few, if any, desk sergeants at police stations anymore. Now highly trained support staff hold fort - not many stations open 24/7 either.

  5. In England, Scotland and Wales your murder detectives would never be armed. I know plenty in real life - was one myself once - and trust me, they are the last people you want carrying guns!

  6. If an adult goes missing, police don't make you wait 24 hours to report. Do it straight away. Depending on risk, the response will vary but they will record it and start to investigate.

  7. Senior investigating officers (detective chief inspectors/ detective inspectors) do not go round kicking doors in to arrest suspects. They’d love to but that joy is reserved for detective constables and detective sergeants!

  8. By all means have your police officers leak information to press, villains or private eyes but remember, if they get caught they're going to jail - no wrist slaps! There's great suspense in them trying to get away with it though! the writing grove is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

  9. Rarely, if ever, do officers call each other by their surnames. First names yes, nicknames most definitely, but even when being told off, the barking of surnames never happened in my experience.

  10. Covert tactics are called that for a reason. Your murder detectives would not go undercover nor handle informants. They are specialist roles & the tactics are not shared outside those who need to know.

  11. The police don't require warrants to arrest people for vast majority of offences. All they require is reasonable grounds to suspect the person is guilty of the offence & that arrest is necessary

  12. The police have their own internal penal code for minor misdemeanours e.g. lateness, stupid comments, losing keys etc. All fines are paid in doughnuts & enforced within 24 hrs!

  13. ‘All police leave cancelled’ is a misnomer. Pre-booked annual leave is rarely cancelled except for wholly exceptional & unexpected incidents or if courts ignore leave notifications. All police leave cancelled = rest days & no new leave booked

  14. The 'extra staff' your detective drafts in always leaves holes elsewhere. Try writing about the effects of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

  15. DS = Detective Sergeant. Never Detective Superintendent. They object to being demoted three ranks!

  16. Police officers cannot be made redundant. If you want to get rid of a cop say they have been sacked for gross misconduct, resigned, retired, posted departments or transferred forces. Never laid-off.

  17. Promotions aren’t given for a job well done. They follow competitive assessment procedures. Besides, promoting your detective too far will take them away from the action.

  18. Family Liaison is not all tea & sympathy. Empathy is key, but they are seasoned investigators who gently draw out any lines of enquiry from the bereaved

  19. Since April 2018 only in exceptional circumstances can suspects be bailed pre-charge, then only up to 3 months without a court order. Otherwise they are released under investigation.

  20. IOPC [Independent Office for Police Conduct in the UK], not the force concerned, investigate fatal police shootings. Officers involved undergo Post Incident Procedures. They don't just go home or back to other duties.

  21. Suspects for serious crimes must be arrested before interview, interviewed before, not after, charge & charged before they go to court. The rare exceptions will bore readers!

  22. Police stations are not crime free. While that £50 you left on your desk will still be there when you come back from leave, milk and teaspoons have a maximum life expectancy of 2 hours!

  23. Trawling CCTV is like wading through 1m jigsaw pieces when you only need 100 & you can't guarantee you have all those. It doesn't all play out through one camera.

I think we all see parts of ourselves and people we know in both the goodies and baddies, and that’s what makes crime fiction so addictive.

Dark city street at night
photo via unsplash

Q: Given your background, you have insider knowledge of the genre, but what do you sometimes have to put aside in order to ensure a story works and is compelling?

Graham: I give and live by two pieces of advice. Firstly, ‘you don’t have to get it right but don’t get it wrong.’ Secondly, ‘every word in every sentence in every paragraph in every scene in every chapter must earn its place on the page.’

Put those two things together and, whilst you might know the intricate detail of, for example, what happens to someone from when they are arrested until they are charged, most of that is dull and has no place in your book. So, to drive your story on, show the drama of the arrest (and get the few details you’ll show right) then cut to the juicy part of the interview (and get the setting and questions right). Gloss over everything else as it will drag your story down.

Q: In the last decade or so, we’ve had the Black Lives Matter movement globally, several scandals in the UK’s Metropolitan Police (MET) and the MeToo movement. What are your thoughts on the current public sentiment towards police and policing? And how have you seen writers engage with these developments and cultural shifts?

Graham: My answer is brutally simple. It’s a national disgrace.

The police is one of the few professions who can deprive people of their liberty or use force against them in peace-time. Therefore the public must have complete trust and confidence in them and they should be truly accountable at every level. For this only zero tolerance of criminal or inappropriate behaviour will do..

The revelations are one thing but sacking these heinous officers and staff is like chopping down a weed without digging out its root. The culture is the deeper problem.

Cultures prevail according to the given environment. People learn quickly what the norms are and what their peers and immediate supervisors expect. It’s the role models they encounter everyday who set the boundaries, for good or bad. Top down leadership and public commitments are crucial but culture change starts with recruitment and continues through to standard-setting and role-modelling. It’s doomed to failure unless those with most influence make it the organisation’s DNA, not an add on. In the police, that means a strong, supported and influential cadre of sergeants and inspectors. The service needs the right operational leaders who genuinely despise negative cultures, discriminatory behaviour and walls of silence, stamping down on those who even hint at displaying them while displaying and championing positive values

The public’s outrage is to be expected and the service be ashamed. However, a few heads on spikes is not enough. The service needs to change, really change, this time, and if after so many false starts it doesn’t this time, then it has no future.

In terms of how writers deal with it, I’ve not seen many examples but I hope that where they choose to highlight some of this shocking behaviour, they start to see the real-life evidence that the police can effectively root it out themselves and reflect that in their work, rather than depicting the whole services as rotten to the core who can’t be trusted to police itself. I don’t believe that’s the case but, understandably, that’s what the public are seeing at the moment.

Q: What does your writing routine look like? Do you start with an outline? Character sketches. Do you write every day or go through periods of high output and then lower?

Graham: I start with a premise and a high level road map for what the story is about, populating that with my main four or five characters. Then I draft a longer outline which I convert into a five act structure before I crack on!

I write chronologically and don’t re-read a single word until I’ve finished the first draft. I used to edit as I went along but that was like heaving the brakes on a steam train. It’s why my debut novel took me so long to write. So now I use the first draft to tell myself the story and only whip it into shape in future drafts. It works for me but others find more detailed planning and editing as they go suits them.

I try to write every day but I do have peaks and troughs but so long as I have a deadline, I’m comfortable with that as I’ve yet to miss one (I think!)


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