The mystery behind writing mysteries

A police officer's skill set runs parallel with that of many successful authors, so it is no surprise so many are writing crime novels

By Keith Wright

When I began my writing career, I was the only police officer in the country with a published novel. This always surprised me, because my brothers and sisters in the law enforcement world are some of the most skilled writers on the planet. They write up witness statements and reports every day, which are merely a chronological version of a story. Today there are at least 42 cops or ex-cops publishing crime books in the United Kingdom and 104 in the USA.

Not only that, but police officers' interactional skills must be first class, and their skillset runs parallel with successful authors:

  • The content and authenticity of their writing are important and influential.
  • They are observant people watchers. They can read people and how their reactions give away what is happening.
  • They have a vault of interesting tales to tell.
  • They are aware of the value of nuance.
  • They know about real life and the human condition – the ridiculousness, the tragedy, the beauty and the humor that wraps itself around this crazy existence of ours.
  • They care.

Of course, this does not mean that every cop can write a best-selling book. Many could write good fiction though, in my view, and even though most authors do not make huge amounts of money from writing, it can be cathartic to share your experiences. It does not have to be a murder/mystery story; some people enjoy creating whole new worlds for the reader to escape within.

Getting started 

For those interested in giving it a shot, the hardest part is making a start.

It may be worth experimenting by writing a short story around 2,000-3,000 words long. A full novel should be between 80,000-100,000 words long. It is a big undertaking because you don’t just write it once, you write it many times, and then you start editing. The first draft may be substantially longer, as you must be fearless and brutal when editing.

Some people can blast a book out in three months, most take around a year. This depends on whether you are writing full-time or not, and your experience, of course. When I wrote my first book, I did it with a complicated bit of machinery called a pen. I then hired, (yes, I was that broke), an electric typewriter, to type out a manuscript that I could submit professionally. You couldn’t just press delete on your typos and errors. It took a while.

Planning your story

It is a good idea to read books to get a feel for the style of book you feel comfortable with. (I highly recommend mine, of course.) If you have a style or a particular mood in your head, it will make the writing smoother. You need to have at least a general story in mind, ahead of starting.

There are two types of writers: Plotters and pantsters.

Plotters write down a whole skeleton of the book, scene by scene, with a couple of paragraphs about the subject matter of each scene or chapter. A detailed plan, if you will. They will also have character profiles for each of the main protagonists. This can help with the surprising complexities of writing a novel: such as the' color of Character A's eyes. They also create character arcs such as what the journey will be of Character D and how that is relevant to the main story.

Once all this work is complete, they will begin writing the actual novel in detail. You can use software for this, but you can over-complicate matters if you aren’t careful and lose the creativity of writing.

Pantsters are so-called because they "write by the seat of their pants." They shoot from the hip, rather than establish a clear line of sight, as a sniper would. These writers have a sense of a story and characters, then just start writing and see where the process takes them. They continually revise and shape the book and probably have a harder time with the editing. They can go off on a tangent, which can be a pain, but sometimes that tangent is a world of discovery. Pantsters feel that the characters eventually start to write themselves.

Having tried both methods, I would say that the pantsters approach is the most enjoyable and less contrived. The characters can do things that surprise you, and their reaction to given circumstances is what creates their unique character traits. You are more likely to stumble across authentic frailties and flaws this way.

We cops tend to like structure, however, so the choice is yours.

navigating The publication process

Once you have a body of work, you must begin the process of querying with agents.

If you want to be traditionally published, you need one thing: an agent. You can find one of these online. How to tell if they are any good? Look at their client list and their address. An exclusive address shows they aren’t working out of their mother’s attic and should have excellent contacts.

Never pay anyone upfront. They need to pay you! It is not easy getting an agent, but almost impossible to be traditionally published without one.

Don’t be discouraged with rejections. You will probably get a lot. JK Rowling was famously rejected at least a dozen times before being accepted. Most successful authors receive twice or three times as many rejections than that before getting a nibble.

The good news is that as a cop, you have a head start on the vast majority of people on this planet, and indeed most writers. This does not necessarily mean you can write a good book, but you have as good a shot as anyone else, maybe even better. Good luck.

About the author

Keith Wright joined Nottinghamshire Police in 1979. He became a detective in 1985 and retired in 2005 as a detective sergeant having responsibility for an area with the highest crime rate in the UK. He then became the head of the Serious and Corporate Investigations Team for a global company.

He is the author of "One Oblique One" (the UK police radio code word for sudden death), "Trace and Eliminate" and "Addressed To Kill." Visit for more information. 

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