Harrogate Crime Writing Festival 2017

Picture the scene. It’s a rainy day in July and a group of strangers have met in a hotel to plot murder…Don’t worry, this was murder of the strictly fictional variety! The day in question was Creative Thursday at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival 2017.  The Festival takes place at the Old Swan Hotel which is famous for being where Agatha Christie hid away during her 10 day disappearance in 1926. What better location to host a crime writing festival?IMG_3828

Creative Thursday is a day devoted to the craft of crime writing, covering everything from creating a believable detective to plotting a plausible murder. And plot we did!

We went straight in at the deep end with the morning session, “Plotting the Perfect Murder: How to Create an Engaging Crime Story” led by Lesley Thomson and Elly Griffiths. We were divided into groups of six and had just five minutes to come up with a character to be our detective. We presented our characters to the other groups and everyone voted who should be the ultimate detective in our crime story, then who should be the murderer, the victim and finally, the suspects. It was amazing how in the space of just a couple of hours a group of complete strangers were transformed into a creative collective with the bones of a murder mystery story between them.

In our next session, we were introduced to the Book Doctor, aka Philippa Pride, writing guru and Stephen King’s British editor. Philippa helped us to unlock our creativity. She’s a big fan of using prompts such as music and pictures to help writers get into their flow. She also encouraged us to think of the five senses when we’re writing. To that end, on each of our chairs were two tiny glass bottles filled with scent. IMG_3846Halfway through the session, she asked us to open the bottles and smell them. Of course, in a classic murder mystery story, one of these bottles would have contained poisonous vapour! Thankfully, in real life, they contained a variety of scents such as citrus, lavender etc which we used as writing prompts to help us evoke a scene in a different way.

After lunch it was time to look at “How to Create Pace and Suspense” with Louise Welsh and Henry Sutton. They talked about how crime writing encourages us to look beneath the surface of people and places, and see what really lies beneath. In terms of creating pace and suspense, they advised starting the story as near to the end as you can, ie getting rid of any extraneous limbering up. Everything should be there for a reason and every scene should enhance characterisation, or move the plot forward, preferably both. They said it’s important for our characters to really want something, but of course as writers, we need to throw obstacles in their way. As the formula goes:

Story + Conflict = Plot

The final event of the day was the terrifying-sounding “Dragons’ Pen” where writers were picked out of a hat and given the opportunity to pitch their stories to a panel of agents and editors. The Dragons were actually very supportive, as was the audience, and I’m full of admiration for those who were chosen to pitch. It was really exciting to hear their stories and I’m looking forward to reading them, as I have no doubt some of them will be appearing in the bookshops before too long.

Aside from Creative Thursday, the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival also offers dozens of other events for fans of crime fiction, including author panels and signings, quizzes, award ceremonies and interactive forensics puzzles. I went along to the Grantchester TV panel which featured author James Runcie and actor Robson Green. It was absolutely jam-packed, but they had the whole audience in stitches. It was fascinating to hear about what goes into adapting a book into a TV series.

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My only regret is that I didn’t buy a weekend rover ticket so I could attend all the events of the Festival. Maybe next year! Basically, the moral of the story is the Festival is amazing, and as the banners around the hotel said, “The only crime would be to miss it!”

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A week of crime writing

Just over a week ago, I went on an Arvon Crime Fiction writing course. Although I’ve been focusing on my rom coms in the last couple of years, I have always enjoyed scribbling and reading mystery and crime stories, so I was very excited to spend a week writing on the dark side. The course took place at The Hurst in Shropshire, the former home of the playwright John Osborne.

The Hurst

The Hurst – a perfect location for crime writing

The house was beautiful, groaning with books and surrounded by acres of beautiful gardens, definitely an environment to get the creative juices flowing. And even better, there was no phone signal, and no internet. It was rather a treat to spend a week off grid, although thinking about it, the combination of an isolated country house, a group of strangers (at first at least) and no contact with the outside world sounds exactly like the setting of a crime story in itself!
A warm welcome at the HurstWhen I arrived, I was told there would be a meeting with my fellow writers and the tutors in the drawing room at 6pm…definitely something which had me expecting Poirot to turn up twirling his moustache. My nerves at meeting the rest of the group were soon proven to be unfounded as they were a lovely bunch of people, all with lots of stories to tell. We soon bonded over the cooking and washing up rota (at Arvon courses, everyone takes it in turn to cook one evening meal and to wash up after two other meals during the week.) Although I was rather apprehensive about the responsibility of cooking for a group of 11, my fellow chef and I managed not to poison anyone with our meal (phew) and I would go so far to say that it tasted rather yummy, even though I do say so myself.IMG_2091
The main point of the week was to learn about techniques for writing crime novels and I did indeed learn a lot, not just about mystery fiction but about novel writing in general. The marvellous tutors were Dreda Say Mitchell and Tobias Jones, and they were joined one evening by guest tutor Sophie Hannah. It was inspiring to hear about how they started their literary careers and I felt very privileged to learn from them. We had writing workshops every morning looking at areas such as plotting, characterisation and how to write an engaging first line. We also discussed what actually makes a crime novel. Every session we were given lots of writing exercises which we then read out to the rest of the group for feedback and advice. It was rather daunting at first but everyone was really supportive and I found it very helpful. We also had a couple of one to one tutorials with Dreda and Toby to discuss our work in progress in greater detail. The afternoons were free for writing and exploring the Shropshire countryside. I certainly came up with lots of ideas while meandering around the woodland, as well as filling up my phone with dozens of pictures of stunning views.

Just the place to ponder and plot!

Just the place to ponder and plot!

It was quite a shock to return to the real world after my time in the creative bubble of The Hurst, but I left feeling re-invigorated and eager to continue with my writing.  I also gained a new group of writing buddies and I can’t wait to read the work we all produce.