Writing Excuses 12.16: Writing Crime Fiction with Brian Keene
Key Points: Crime fiction is hard to classify. Try bad things happening to people. Crime fiction, like any fiction, is for entertainment. The reader empathizes with characters they should not be empathizing with, and wonders why. Good crime fiction makes you feel uncomfortable. Normal human beings in terrible situations, and how they react, and how you as a reader react. How do you get people to empathize with the wrong people? Remember that they are people, too. Put that character in a very bad situation and see how they react. Research — talk to people! Tell them “I am an author” and then ask questions. Get the reader to empathize with the character, then write the ending that fits. Be aware that readers have their own expectations, too.
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 16.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses. Writing Crime Fiction with Brian Keene.
[Dan] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart. I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brian] And I’m Brian.
[Howard] Brian, thank you so much for joining us here at World Horror.
[Brian] Thank you guys for having me on. And I just… I want to send a shout out to your sound engineer, Alex. Alex, I’m going to try to keep this clean, but I apologize if I make you work for your money this week.
[Dan] So keep your finger on the button, Alex.
[Dan] Brian, we are super excited to have a writer of your caliber here on the show. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?
[Brian] Sure. I’ve been writing professionally, meaning I don’t have a day job, for a little over 20 years. Primarily known for horror fiction, but I also occasionally write crime, Westerns, sword and sorcery. I’ve also done a lot of comic books for Marvel and DC and others.
[Howard] That’s where I’ve seen your name. Okay.
[Brian] Pretty much if there’s a paycheck in it, I’ll write it.
[Dan] And you are also… You are a podcaster as well.
[Brian] I am a podcaster as well. Yes.
[Dan] What’s the name of that show?
[Brian] The Horror Show with Brian Keene.
[Brian] It’s a little bit of a…
[Dan] Easy to look up.
[Brian] Howard Stern meets inside the actors studio, focusing on horror fiction and…
[Brian] Things in the genre.
[Dan] Well, that’s awesome.
[Dan] Well, we thought that, as great as it would be to talk to the author of The Rising… You wrote The Rising, which I credit, and I know many other people credit, as kind of helping kickstart the modern zombie renaissance.
[Brian] That’s what they say, yeah.
[Dan] But, we’re going to ignore that aspect of your career.
[Brian] You know what, thank you for that.
[Dan] We’ve never, on our show, in seven years of doing this… Seven or eight now, we’ve never talked about crime fiction, really, in a dedicated way. So I’d love to go into that. Whether you want to talk about true crime or completely fictionalized, but… What is the crime genre? When people say crime fiction, what are they talking about?
[Brian] It’s hard to classify these days. In the 70s and the 80s, everything was broken into a marketing category on the spine of a book. You had horror. You had science fiction. You had romance. Crime is this nebulous thing. It can be… I’ve seen even the cozy mysteries included in crime. It can be noir. It can be horror. It can be… A lot of my stuff, they’re classified as crime novels, but they have a supernatural element to them. I wrote this novel Terminal about a guy and his buddies robbing a bank. But there was a very clear supernatural plot element that introduced itself halfway through the book, and it confused a lot of reviewers. The crime magazines are like, “Why am I getting this horror novel?” The horror magazines are “Why are they sending us a crime novel?” Crime can be a lot of things. It depends on the reader and the writer. Horror fiction, the idea is to inspire dread or fear in your reader. In crime, it’s a little different. But what it comes down to is bad things happening to good or bad people.
[Dan] Okay. So when you sit down to write a crime novel, what are you trying to do? What are you trying to accomplish with it?
[Brian] The same thing I’m trying to accomplish with any novel. I have no illusions. I’m not out to change the world, I’m not out to explain where America went wrong in 1967.
[Brian] I’m here to entertain you. I’m here to get you through study hall, to get you through your commute, to distract you from your bad marriage for an hour. That’s all I’m trying to do. If you take a deeper meaning from anything I wrote, that’s great. Cthulhu bless you for it, but I’m just here to entertain.
[Brian] It’s the same thing with crime. I start out with an idea, what I think will be a cool idea, and an opening sentence. And then I’m very seat of my pants, let’s see where this takes us.
[Howard] Let me ask Dan’s question in a more nail-you-to-the-wall kind of way.
[Brian] Really? We’re already going to… Well, okay.
[Howard] We’re already going there.
[Brian] Get ready with that button, Alex.
[Howard] What is the feeling that you want a reader of your crime fiction to have? You talked about dread in horror. What are you trying to elicit from them in a crime novel?
[Brian] I want them to feel like they’ve been punched in the gut. I want them to root for characters or empathize with characters that they should not be empathizing with. I want them to question why. It’s not prose, but I always point to shows like the Sopranos and The Shield and especially Breaking Bad. In the case of the Sopranos and The Shield, our protagonists are terrible people. I mean, Tony Soprano is a monster. The things Vic Mackey and his crew do in The Shield are horrifying. Yet as viewers, because the writing is so solid, we are drawn in. We find ourselves rooting for them when they’re doing these terrible things. Breaking Bad also, to an extent. The first four seasons, you’re rooting for Walt. You know, “Yay, Walt!” Very cleverly, they flip the script on you and you realize just what a loathsome human being he is, and by the end of the series, you’re rooting for him to be killed.
[Howard] That’s… The experience that I had with The Shield in particular is that I was feeling dread like I would feel in a horror novel, but I was feeling dread that the right thing would happen and that justice would be done.
[Howard] That makes me very uncomfortable.
[Brian] Exactly. That’s what good crime fiction should do. If horror is going to inspire dread and fear, crime fiction should make you uncomfortable.
[Dan] Okay. I love that definition. That… What that implies to me, and tell me if I’m correct. The examples you’re using… Crime fiction is about criminals.
[Brian] Always. You have to have a criminal element.
[Dan] A criminal element in it. But, I mean, the main characters are on the wrong side of the law. Like a police procedural, like from Michael Connelly or something, that would not necessarily be considered crime?
[Brian] Well. I think… Honestly, I think that would depend on the publisher and the marketing department.
[Brian] I always look at Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard. Those are absolutely crime novels. Now, we could make the argument that Lansdale is a genre unto himself, but that’s a completely different podcast. And we only have 15 minutes. But, Hap and Leonard are very firmly crime novels. Hap and Leonard are not bad guys. They’re not really good guys. They’re just normal human beings who through circumstance and happenstance find themselves in terrible situations. Their reaction to those situations, sometimes it’s noble, sometimes it’s not. But what’s fascinating is seeing how they react, and seeing how you as a reader react to what Joe has done with them.
[Dan] Awesome. I want to follow up on this.
[Dan] But first, I want you to tell us a little bit about our book of the week. Which is…
[Brian] The Complex.
[Dan] By Brian Keene.
[Brian] Yes. That’s a brand-new novel, available now in good bookstores…
[Brian] And, of course, on Amazon. It’s available in Kindle, Nook, Kobo… Pretty much, if you can find a place to buy a book, you can probably find The Complex. It’s marketed as a horror novel. I’m not sure that it is. There’s no supernatural element. We are all familiar with these stories of the drug Spice. It always seems to happen in Florida. People rip off their clothes and go on murderous rampages. Everybody’s seen that in the news. This novel is basically what if an entire town did that? What if a very disparate group of people, trapped in an apartment complex, seemingly immune to this, had to band together and survive? It’s just basically a big pedal-to-the-metal action novel with really extreme violence. But at its core, it’s just about how we view ourselves, how we view our neighbors, and how our neighbors view us.
[Dan] That’s great. Okay, that is The Complex by Brian Keene.
[Dan] Which you can pick up anywhere. Now, is that in e-book? Is that an audiobook?
[Brian] It’s in paperback, e-book. Audiobook forthcoming next month.
[Brian] And movie rights just got optioned, but I can’t say by who. So…
[Dan] I know what that’s like. Okay. So. I love what you were talking about, this feeling of discomfort and this feeling of empathizing with someone you should not be empathizing with, because that’s really kind of the core of my Serial Killer series.
[Dan] And when I set out to write that, to write John Cleaver, I knew that getting you to empathize with someone who can’t empathize back, would be difficult. I gave… I kind of gave myself three little tricks I was going to use. So I’m wondering, what are the things that you do, in… Kind of as detailed as you can get, to tell us how you get us to empathize with the wrong people?
[Brian] Because even the wrong people are people at their core. Again, I hate to use it as an example, but it’s probably something that everyone is more familiar with than any book I can name, but you go back and you look at the Sopranos. Now Tony Soprano is a morally repugnant, loathsome human being, but he’s still a human being. He cares about his children. He cares about his wife in his own way. He cares about his business family, his mob buddies. To protect them, he does some very terrible things. He’s not always good to them. He’s morally conflicted, but I don’t think there’s any of us here on this podcast or out there in the listening audience that hasn’t done some things they seriously regret in life. Haven’t done some things they wish they could do differently in life. With crime fiction, it’s just… It’s tapping into that. Then, putting the character in a very bad situation and seeing how they react. I like to think I’m a morally good person, but if somebody threatened my child, for example… I don’t know what I’d be capable of. I’d like to think I’d do the right thing, but maybe I’d do something that there’s no coming back from.
[Dan] Well, okay. So, changing gears a little bit, let’s talk about the actual crime legal aspects of this. What kind of research do you put into your books when you set out… For example, to tell a story about a bank robbery?
[Brian] Very little, actually.
[Howard] Well, that’s good news.
[Brian] I’ve led a checkered life. Let’s put it that way. I have friends who are from the wrong side of the tracks. We’ll put it that way. I also have friends in law enforcement. I’ve been lucky enough to just meet myriad different people in life and keep connections.
[Howard] And not bring them all to the same barbecue.
[Brian] And not… Well, you know…
[Brian] You try to get them together. It never goes well. For the bank robbery novel, for example, the only thing I really researched was the security methods that are in place for a bank. With that, it was just talking to my local tellers and my local manager. I find… I live in rural Pennsylvania, small town. The only people from town that have ever done anything are myself and the rock band Live. You remember Live from the 90s?
[Brian] So I can trade on that. I can go into the bank and I can say, “I’m researching for my next book.” Everybody just falls in line to help you out.
[Brian] “So how would I rob this place? Tell me.”
[Dan] Well, that’s something that a lot of authors don’t realize they can do. But we can.
[Brian] Oh, absolutely.
[Dan] It’s great. If you walk in somewhere, even unpublished, and say, “I am an author. Tell me about what you do. Tell me about all the holes in the systems you use. Tell me about the problems and the aspects of your job that you love and that you hate.” People are usually really excited to talk to authors.
[Brian] Absolutely, they are.
[Dan] Yeah. In a way that if you walked in and said, “Hi. I’m a random guy.”
[Dan] “Tell me everything about yourself.” They would say no. But that “I’m an author” is like a magical phrase.
[Brian] Yeah. It’s a key. It’ll open any door. You gotta be… Make sure you’re respectful of that, though. Respectful of their time. Respectful of their anonymity, if they request it. But, yeah. Firearms, things like that. I’m a firearm enthusiast, so I don’t really ever need to research there. I guess if I was writing a novel where biology was involved and they were cooking up something in a lab, I may have to go do some research on that. But most of my crime stuff has been normal people, blue-collar people. My novel Kill Whitey is a crime novel. It’s just about a bunch of guys that work in a loading dock. I know those guys, I used to be one of those guys. So there’s not much research required.
[Howard] Assuming you know those guys and have been one of those guys.
[Brian] Yeah. If not, you go to the loading dock and say, “Hi. I’m a writer.”
[Dan] So, live an interesting life. Do things that are… That you think are cool, and you will have stuff to write about.
[Brian] Write what you know. If you’re not a molecular biologist, question whether your character really needs to be a molecular biologist. Can you put somebody that you relate with a little bit more, and understand a little bit more, in that place instead?
[Dan] I think, going back to your earlier comment about… Even a molecular biologist is a person. There are probably… If you do some research, you can find those elements to make that biology believable. Then, from that point on, we just need to believe that the person is a person, and that their actions then… We can follow them.
[Howard] My brain! Oh, my brain.
[Brian] Did we break you?
[Howard] No, I was… I’m looking back at… Well, in particular, at the Sopranos and Breaking Bad. Both of which… Statute of limitations on spoiler alerts has long since passed…
[Brian] I think so.
[Howard] End badly, for our main characters. Is that something you are aiming for when you begin plotting crime fiction? Do you want there to be eventual justice? Because, in a horror novel, where we want to feel dread, we know that something bad could happen. And often, the story ends miserably. In crime fiction, if I want to feel dread about feeling empathy towards this person who’s doing the wrong thing, how… What sort of an ending do you write for? Obviously, I don’t read enough crime fiction.
[Brian] For me, personally… My answer is probably going to be quite different from many authors that you’ll have on the shelf. I… My endings… People have had issues with my endings for 20 years. There are certain rules in horror fiction. You don’t kill the kid. You don’t kill the dog. I kill the kid and the dog in the first chapter. Because I believe very much that genre… Regardless of what genre you’re writing in, genre conventions exist to be broken by the next generation coming up.
[Brian] It’s the same thing with crime fiction. I love the ending to the Sopranos, because there was justice for Tony, but it’s an ambiguous justice. Now I have my own interpretation of what happened. I believe he got popped in the back of the head. But viewers were so angry. They had celebrated the monstrous things this character was doing for all those seasons, and they wanted to see the justice play out on the screen. They wanted to see him in handcuffs or with his brains splattered over the table. I love that David Chase pulled back from that and shot it the way he shot it instead. Because it leaves it open, an open interpretation to the viewer.
[Howard] Well, that, in particular, what you’re describing, is the conscious decision on the part of the director to go with an ambiguous sort of ending. I keep coming back to what you want the reader to feel. In that case, it’s almost a choose your own adventure.
[Brian] See, it’s not even so much what I want them to feel at the end. In crime and in horror both, the only thing I want them to feel is I want them to empathize with the character. In horror fiction, for example, if they don’t empathize with the character, if they don’t identify with the character, they’re not going to feel scared at what’s happening with the character. Same thing with crime fiction. If they don’t empathize with that protagonist in some way, they’re not going to care whether he has a bad ending or a good ending.
[Dan] To some extent, as long as they do empathize and they do care, you can kind of sort of do anything you want to do to end.
[Brian] You can.
[Dan] Because you will have… You will invoke an emotional reaction and it will work for that particular reader.
[Brian] Exactly. You go back to my debut novel, The Rising. It came out in 2003. Spoiler warning limitation is over on this as well.
[Brian] The entire novel is a man searching for his son in the zombie apocalypse. Okay? When you get to the end… I thought it was a very clear ending. He goes inside the house, his son is a zombie, he shoots his son, he shoots himself. But readers weren’t willing to accept that. That… No, it has to have a happy ending. He went through all this. So, they read it as very ambiguous. Because they did, the publisher made me write a sequel.
[Brian] Just to clarify what had happened.
[Dan] Just to make sure.
[Brian] In hindsight, I’m glad the publisher did, because those books have done very well for me. But…
[Howard] Being paid to write another book is usually a good thing.
[Brian] Yeah. Well, okay. I can do that. But it was an eye-opening experience for me, because I really genuinely never thought readers would take it like that. I thought they’d just… They would trust the author to do whatever the author wants to do. No, they have their own expectations of these characters.
[Howard] We are past out of time.
[Brian] I’m sorry.
[Howard] No, that’s okay.
[Dan] We just loved listening to you and your words here. So, you said you had a writing exercise to throw out our audience?
[Brian] Sure. This week, instead of… Regardless of what genre you’re writing, write something different. If you’re writing romance, sit down and experiment with horror. If you’re writing horror, sit down and experiment with a western. You don’t even need to complete the story. But just work on it half an hour every day for this week, and focus on the character. When you’re done, see if you can take that character and put it into the genre you’re working on. It’s a character building exercise.
[Brian] I think what you’ll find is that regardless of genre, what matters are the characters you’re crafting.
[Dan] I love it.
[Howard] Outstanding. Brian, thank you again for joining us.
[Brian] Thank you guys.
[Howard] Fair listener, you are out of excuses. Now go write.
[Brian] Go write.