Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: writing techniques

How to bring an authentic voice to crime fiction


Guest writer John Stamp discusses the part voice plays in fiction.

Voice is one of those shadowy, complicated areas in writing. The term voice in writing is in itself a metaphor right? Right, but a metaphor for what?

That can be a difficult question to answer. Is voice the sound you bring to text? Is voice the environment or character in whatever flavor you create when you fill a page? Not easy questions.

In researching publishers, agents, etc., in effort to get my books to market I would see the words strong voice, on at least Shattered-Circleeighty percent of the submission pages I read, and I read a lot of them. So voice is important, but if you ask twenty people what voice is in writing you might get fifteen different answers. So, since this is my post, I get to lay down the definition.

For me, having an authentic voice in my crime thrillers is paramount. Among the writers I’ve always looked up to are Wambaugh, Leonard, and Crichton.

In Elmore Leonard I was drawn to the grit in his words, the bare humanity he illustrates so well in his writing. From his early westerns to his more famous string of crime novels, Leonard’s voice, the flavor of his writing, resonated so authentically that the man seemed a master of the grey area of human nature.

In Michael Crichton’s work, I found he had a magical ability to explain the science behind his fiction in a way that could keep a lay reader engaged. Whether the science was sound or he made it up as he went, his background as a medical doctor allowed him to blend his heavy science background with his creative voice.  He could give a lecture on DNA processing, quantum physics, or mechanical engineering while at the same time keeping us turning the pages.

With Joseph Wambaugh’s work, I found the way he captured the subtle intricacies of police culture utterly fascinating, and it became the standard I set for myself as a writer. He can illustrate the fine details of what takes place in a police cruiser so expressively that the tight confines of a Ford Crown Victoria become a world unto its own.

Each of these writers carried their voice across the page in a way that evoked an expertise as we listened to their narrative in our heads. Wambaugh was an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. Crichton, as I’ve said, was a medical doctor. Having that expertise and experience as a foundation for their voice gave an air of authority to their work that is rare and genuine.

John-Stamp-gun-quoteLike Wambaugh, I was a police officer. I was also a special agent with both the FBI and the NCIS. When I started writing, I wanted to be sure that if I was writing a crime thriller I would be able to speak to that law enforcement culture and bring it to the page. My voice as an author is directly tied to my background and experience.  I want to bring my readers with me to experience what it is like when a simple call for police service degenerates to a life-or-death situation, or the sensation of running code three (lights and sirens) down a crowded city street. Continue Reading →

Do you hate f***ing profanity in mystery novels?


A thug the size of an NFL lineman grabs Sam Shamus around the neck and throws him down the stairs. The bad guy follows him, stomps on his face and tells him he’s a low-life private dick and if he ever shows up again he’ll get a real beating.

Somehow Sam manages to get to his feet. He glares at the crook and says, “Pardon me sir, but I object to the way you’re characterizing my profession. And I ask that you refrain from inflicting further physical indignities, you hooligan.”Profanity-balloon

That’s what Sam says, anyway. Your average detective-novel hero might use different words.

Sam’s situation—or a version of it—went through my mind when I started writing mystery short stories and later, my first mystery novel. Should I use profanity? My initial answer: no. We’re slammed with the f-word so often in crime movies that profanity loses its punch. But the more I wrote, and the more I thought about it, studiously avoiding profanity seemed unrealistic. What the hell was I to do?

Profanity in literature, a fascinating topic—particularly in the mystery/suspense/thriller genre—varies from author to author. But before we get into that, a few words about four-letter words. While I eventually decided in favor of what’s delicately called swear words in my fiction, I’m still a journalist when I’m writing articles online. My inner AP Stylebook doesn’t permit me to use words you won’t find in your daily paper. Therefore I’m going to resort to f*** and s*** for two words everyone knows. Bear with me.

Not long ago, someone writing on an Amazon discussion page asked about bad language. She wrote: “I am Continue Reading →

Ross Macdonald taught us how to do it


Private investigator Lew Archer walks into the mob boss’s house. “It looked as if the decorator had been influenced by the Fun House at a carnival.” Then Archer says something to irritate the boss.

“His fresh skin turned a shade darker, but he held his anger. He had an actor’s dignity, controlled by some idea of his own importance. His face and body had an evil swollen look as if they had grown stout on rotten meat.”

These are the words of Ross Macdonald from his Lew Archer series, “the finest series of detective Ross-Macdonald---Way-Peoplenovels ever written by an American,” according to William Goldman in The New York Times Book Review.

I’m a Ross Macdonald beginner, having only read a sampling of his work—and I’m hooked. It’s easy to rave about his exquisite way with words. He pounded a typewriter the way Heifetz played the violin, Reggie Jackson swung a bat. He belongs in the company with the best American detective writers, and some would say, with the best American writers period. Continue Reading →

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