Talking Crime with P.M. Newton
In the lead-up to her great August workshop and masterclass, we asked award-winning crime writer P.M. Newton about her journey to publication, what makes great crime writing, and her advice for aspiring crime writers.
1. What drew you to writing? How did you find the switch between the police force and becoming a crime writer?
When I first left the police force I started writing non-fiction and taking photographs to illustrate articles about travelling in Mali, and CD covers and liner notes about the music of Mali. I had a vague idea that I’d like to write fiction; I used to watch the closing dates of short story competitions float past without ever entering them. The idea of writing fiction was just totally overwhelming. A short weekend breakthrough course on writing fiction was fun, the writing exercises sort of freed me up, but I still had no idea what to write about, so I didn’t push it.
It wasn’t until I was living in India and was confronted with a murder a few doors down the road from where I was living, that I suddenly found myself writing about it – in a story, that grew into a novel, and the detective who turned up to solve the murder was Detective Nhu “Ned” Kelly.
As for the switch from police force to writing – I didn’t leave the job thinking I was going to write novels, and I did a lot of other stuff before I did. So it came as a bit of a surprise to find myself writing a book, let alone writing a crime book.
2. Tell us about your experience writing your novel The Old School—what challenges and hurdles did you face?
The biggest challenge was finishing it. In fact there’s an 80,000 word unfinished novel featuring Detective Sergeant Nhu Kelly still buried deep in the computer. Until I realised that the backstory in that novel was actually “the story” I should be telling, I was just spinning my wheels.
Moving from writing quietly with no audience, to letting some friends and family see what I was writing, to starting a university course where total strangers would read it was the biggest breakthrough. That step of getting strangers to read your work feels like taking your clothes off in public. For me, writing the novel as part of a research masters degree was an excellent way of guaranteeing that I would finish it and having an editorial eye on its progress.
3. What inspires you to write? What keeps you motivated?
The character. I know what happens to her, I know how the unfolding history of the 1990s is going to affect her. I want to tell the story of those times through her eyes. I just hope I have the opportunity to continue to her tale. Motivation varies. Having writing friends help. Just hearing them talk about their own travails, their own approaches, struggles, and resilience helps me to think maybe I can do it. The crime novel is in a very dynamic place these days and I’m very excited to explore the boundaries of the genre.
4. How do you create a chilling crime scene? What advice would you give emerging crime authors who are looking to make their crime scenes more realistic?
Well my definition of chilling might be a bit different, because for me something is chilling when it is real and I believe in the characters and the situation not because it’s particularly blood curdling. The fact that your husband is more likely to kill you in a domestic violence incident is – or should be – more chilling than the fairly unlikely scenario of a serial killer. Realism comes from finding the humanity in a character, in a situation. It’s difficult to care about thinly drawn characters, or ridiculously over the top scenarios. I’d advise writers to always think about the people and let them drive the plot.
Take your crime writing to the next level at P.M. Newton's masterclass, Chilling Crime Scenes, on Sunday 12 August. Call us now to book your place on 07 3842 9922.
5. Tell us about your road to publication—in your opinion what are the main challenges and hurdles that emerging writers face?
I had vague hopes that by doing a Masters degree I might somehow muddle into a way of sending the finished novel to a publisher, and that the degree would give it a bit of a edge in the slush pile. As far as I could see my biggest hurdle was that I was a middle-aged, unknown writer with no pedigree in short story writing. I was fortunate that one of my markers loved it, recommended it and helped it on its way into publisher-land.
It didn’t get up at the first publisher, but that publisher recommended the book to an agent, the marvellous Sophie Hamley at Camerons, who sent it out. It ended up attracting offers from five publishers.
Emerging writers face the challenge of having their words end up in front of the right eyes at the right time. It’s a combination of hard work, persistence and an element of luck. You just have to make sure that when the luck kicks in, your work is as polished and as ready as it can be, because you may only get one chance.
6. What kind of planning do you do when you start to write a book?
As my series is set during the 1990s I read the newspapers from the period I’m looking at. It gives me an immersion into the period, reminds me of what was going on, politically, culturally. What was on at the movies? What was on the radio? I can see what was on the television, what the headlines were, what the advertisements for mobile phones and computers looked like.
That’s what I’ll take as my backdrop to the novel and I’ll start to think about my characters moving through and interacting with this landscape. I’ll start to think about a crime that comes out of this landscape, rather than imposing one on it.
7. Why is place so important in a story?
For me it grounds everything and produces everything. Place is more than just the physical landscape. It’s the people, the politics, the period – all these elements go to creating the place. Then, as it’s a crime novel, the elements of the crime should be based in those elements of place. When it works, the crime and the place are so intertwined that one cannot exist without the other.
8. We all know that a great setting is an essential element of creating a compelling story. What are your three top tips for writers looking to improve their story’s setting?
Read books by writers who use place well, and really analyse how they do it – Rankin’s Edinburgh, Camilleri’s Sicily, Temple’s Melbourne. Look at how it adds to the characters, the crime.
Look at “your” place with outsider’s eyes. Take a walk with a notebook and your character; imagine you’re seeing it through “their” eyes. Feel it. Sniff it. Write down small moments, small scenes, in situ.
Ask yourself, “Why here?” – keep asking why is this happening here? Why is it happening to these people here? Why is it happening at this time here? Answering these questions will help you to embed your story in its place.
From fantasy worlds to crime scenes and sweeping historical backdrops, make your setting stand out at P.M. Newton's brisbane workshop, Place Based Plot, on Saturday 11 August.
Take your story to the next level with a full weekend of writing led by P.M.Newton. Enrol in Place Based Plot and Chilling Crime Scenes with P.M.Newton (11 and 12 August) for the special bundle price of $245 (QWC members) or $340 (non-members). To take up this great offer please call QWC on 07 3842 9922..
You can read P.M. Newton's 24-Hour Book short story, Mandala, at pressbooks.