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Nick Chiarkas on Touchstones for Crime Thrillers

Nick Chiarkas is the author of crime thrillers Weepers and Nunzio’s Way. You can find out more about him by visiting his website www.nickchiarkas.com, or by clicking here, see his last post here, and buy his books here.

 (With some adjusting, these steps can be applied to other genres as well.)

Here are my Seven Touchstones* for writing a ​Crime Thriller​.

Finding the idea and scribbling it down. Two often repeated pieces of advice on this topic is to write about what you know; and your idea can come from anywhere.

1. I think you should write what you want to know. It could have an origin in something you know. I was in the Army, but I have yet to learn how decisions at the Pentagon affect what I was told to do in the field. It has little to do with what I know but much more to do with what I want to know. I was an NYPD cop, but I had no idea about blood splatter analysis. A novel is a time-consuming adventure with a lot more research than writing. Pick something that will hold your interest, something you can’t wait to learn more about – from books, movies, TV, talking to people that do the work, anything.

It is true; your idea can come from anywhere. I do a workshop (with a random newspaper, magazine, etc.) where we pick a story on page one and then say, “What if,” this story on page nine is related to the page one story? It’s an excellent mental exercise. Also, I like to overhear conversations in a bar, a coffee house, or a diner. I like talking (mostly listening) to the stories older folks tell. And they want to tell you stories. In every writer’s group I attend, I learn something and get an idea for something. The trick with fiction is to keep asking yourself, “What if…?” I sit on the dock at our lake cabin watching eagles and loons or in the winter puffs of snow floating on an afternoon breeze, and I can’t help thinking, what if it was 200 years ago? What would I be seeing? Or “what might I find on the bottom of Pine Lake,” and what story would that trigger? How different would it be for a detective to try and find a serial killer during a pandemic in New York, Italy, or Iran?

It’s not the “what” for a good crime/thriller; it’s the “how.” As Dan Brown, Ian Fleming, Michael Crichton, and many more show us; the protagonist will win against all odds. We know that on page one of James Bond’s impossible predicament, an attack of velociraptors, or the pursuit of an evil and powerful religious Zealot, the good guy or gal is going to win…we don’t know how. And we want to know how and cheer. So please remember, “when you write your character into a corner,” it is not about the “what” we’ll see unfold during the story; it’s about the “how.”

Finally, scribble it down (any fiction genre). This is a fun part. Forget outlines and POV; pretend you are sitting across from me in a bar enjoying a glass of whatever, and you are telling me your story. Forget grammar and spelling; forget all the smart tools; there will be parts you don’t know; write “and then something happens” and keep going. Scribble it down on paper or your laptop. Don’t do any research. Just write down your story. When you are done, you will know what you need, where it takes place, and who’s in it, and you’ll know you have a story. Give it a shot.

2. How to Start. Whether you use an outline, pants, implication points, or some combination,in starting your story, you must embrace the importance of keeping your promise to your reader. This is more complex than it sounds and usually causes some valuable debate. For example, if I begin my novel with “Call me Robin Hood,” you can guess what the story is about. You would also assume that Robin Hood is not my real name. You might feel cheated if it turns out on page 50 that it is my name. Same thing if I start with, “Call me Rambo,” or “Call me the Lone Ranger.” You can guess the storyline. But what if the novel begins with, “Call me Ishmael”? Well, now you have me, I’m intrigued, and I want to know more. So, workshop foreshadowing and lines that jump off the page.

3. The Characters. Limit the number of main characters and distinguish each from the other.

Through character development, you must promise a change or some other action in one or more characters. For example, in chapter two, of Weepers, Angelo’s mother, Anna, tells Father Joe (her priest) that Angelo is changing and becoming more like the projects in which, they live. I now have an obligation to my reader to show that change to a reasonable degree and at a believable pace.

And I promise a consistency that rings true through each significant character. So, while in my first draft, “the end” was a resolution for all main characters, such an ending would have betrayed Angelo, Anna, and a couple of other characters. To make that ending ring true, I would have had to jump ahead using an epilogue(this is often done in books, on TV, and in Movies), but I fear such an epilogue would have felt like a ploy to my reader. In addition, since Weepers is both a stand-alone novel and the first in a series, I had to decide which sub-plots to wrap up and which ones to dangle to create anticipation for future novels in the series.

4. The Corners. You must write your character/s into corners that you do not yet know how they will get out.  

5. The Plot, Clues, and Red Herrings. The plot is the footprints in the snow of your story. They will lead the reader to twists and turns, to clues that are real and red herrings but never trick your reader. When introducing red herrings, they must be logical and inform the plot. You can’t stuff them in to add a few more winding roads to your mystery. Readers love to be fooled, but they don’t love feeling like their time has been needlessly wasted.

6. The Story and Keeping your promise. In Weepers, through foreshadowing (and other techniques), I promised the coming of an event. For example, in chapter one, which takes place on Christmas Eve, 1951, seven-year-old Angelo asks his father why no one has stolen the three Christmas trees on the Journal American Newspaper loading platform. His father answers, “They belong to Uncle Nunzio.” Bang! Three promises/foreshadowing –The reader has not yet met Nunzio but knows he should not be messed with; this is a bad neighborhood because even a child knows people steal Christmas trees; and there is a relationship between Angelo and “Uncle Nunzio,” and Angelo understands why no one has taken the trees. I make a check-off list of all my foreshadowing and other promises for my final draft review.

7. How and when to End. Finally, as I said above, Weepers is the first of a four-novel series, but I also want it to stand alone. Therefore, some questions and foreshadowing remain. However, they mustn’t be detrimental to a free-standing story. As I said, I made a check-off list of all my foreshadowing and other promises for my final draft review. And, of course, your ending must be inevitable and a surprise. (Thank you, Aristotle)

*Touchstone – a black siliceous stone related to flint used to test the purity of gold and formerly silver by the streak left on the stone when rubbed by the metal.

“Holding out gold that’s by the touchstone tried.” — Shakespeare.

In short, a touchstone is a fundamental or quintessential part or feature of a thing. In this case, a Crime Thriller.

Nick Chiarkas

Nick Chiarkas is the author of the (multi)award-winning novel WEEPERS. You can find out more about her on his website, nickchiarkas.com.

This Post Has 24 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Laurie Buchanan

    Nick — I especially resonated with #1 when you said, “Forget outlines and POV; pretend you are sitting across from me in a bar enjoying a glass of whatever, and you are telling me your story.” A captivating book boils down to good storytelling.

    1. nickchiarkas
      nickchiarkas

      Thanks, Laurie, I agree with you about what it all boils down to is good storytelling.

  2. John A Hoda
    John A Hoda

    Great stuff. Thank you for sharing. I enjoyed how a writer can take a ‘what if’ in almost any direction and be surprised by what pops up.

    1. nickchiarkas
      nickchiarkas

      Thanks, John, I love doing “what if” craft talks, and yes, I am always surprised by what pops up.

  3. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    Nick, you had me at “I think you should write what you want to know”–researching to learn more about what you know. I have discovered, and continue to discover with each new book, that research is as much necessary work and fun as writing the story. Win-win-win: author, story, readers. Thanks for your post!

    1. nick chiarkas
      nick chiarkas

      Thank you, Sherrill, I agree, I probably spend 75% of my time researching, 5% on writing, and 20% on rewriting.

    1. nick chiarkas
      nick chiarkas

      Thank you, Sara, I had fun thinking about this and jotting it down.

  4. Sheila Lowe
    Sheila Lowe

    (as is everything here) ‘keeping the promise’ is vital. It’s so annoying when you get to the end of a book and important story lines aren’t wrapped up, or the characters have behaved in ways that don’t make sense.

    1. nick chiarkas
      nick chiarkas

      Thanks Shelia, I agree, I have to make separate notes for each promise and foreshadowing and then review them as I finish.

  5. Tracey Phillips
    Tracey Phillips

    I agree Nick, write what you know -or, what you want to know! When I become curious about something, I’m also thinking, how could this fit into a plot? Great advice.

    1. nick chiarkas
      nick chiarkas

      Thanks, Tracey, you’re right, I wind-up saying “how can I fit this into a plot” as well.

  6. Anne Louise Bannon
    Anne Louise Bannon

    As someone who is quite fond of diving down the Research Rabbit Hole, I love writing what I want to know. I also like a lot of what you’ve got here. Although, I do tend toward casts of thousands. Sigh.

    1. nick chiarkas
      nick chiarkas

      Thank you, Anne, I confess, I too have more characters than I suggest.

  7. Christine DeSmet
    Christine DeSmet

    Good advice all the way, Nick. Thank you for posting and good luck with your new manuscript or two or three. One of your numbered tips might be to find an inspirational place to ponder because you mention your lake a lot throughout your writing and posts on social media. I can sense that you believe such places are important to creativity. Which they are. A subject for another post perhaps. I love your books!

    1. nickchiarkas
      nickchiarkas

      Wow, thank you, for your kind words, Christine. You’re right, I must add an inspirational place as an 8th step. King likes a blank wall, Oats like a window facing her garden, I like looking out at Pine Lake especially in winter when it is still.

  8. Sharon Lynn
    Sharon Lynn

    Great advice, Nick! But I especially resonated with your first sentence – write what you want to know. While I see crime scenes everywhere I look, I’ve never actually seen one. And I don’t particularly want to. But I want to know what it’s like so I can thrill my readers. Thanks for your post!

    1. nick chiarkas
      nick chiarkas

      Thank you, Sharon, I get it, and like you I want my readers to feel like they are there.

    1. nick chiarkas
      nick chiarkas

      Thank you, Sharon, it was fun thinking these through and jotting them down.

  9. joyribar
    joyribar

    Thank you, Nick, for making me think about my writing in new ways. There’s plenty of typical writing advice out there, but your post challenges me to walk down different paths. Best of luck with your 2023 writing roads.

    1. nickchiarkas
      nickchiarkas

      Ah, Joy, thank you for your kind words, my friend. 2023 best wishes to you as well.

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