Katherine Howell writes crime fiction of the police procedural variety with a paramedic twist. Her first novel, Frantic, won the 2008 Davitt Award for best adult crime novel. It is the first in a series of eight crime novels about Detective Ella Marconi. AWM recently spoke to Katherine about the series, the choice of protagonist, and creating suspense in crime fiction. Katherine describes how she went from several unpublished manuscripts to a Davitt Award for her first published novel.
You can read about Katherine’s Ella Marconi series on her website and also find out about Katherine’s workshops and classes.
Before you became a published writer you worked for 15 years as a paramedic in New South Wales. During this time you studied for a BA and MPhil and wrote four manuscripts. The fourth became your first novel, Frantic. What specifically did you learn from writing the first three unpublished manuscripts that helped you to craft Frantic into a successful crime novel?
I learned a few valuable lessons from those three manuscripts. Firstly I saw that I was capable of writing a full-length work, then another, then another. I think when you’re working on your first you can worry that you’ve only got that one inside you, so to put it aside and write more really helps your confidence, not to mention your writing muscles. Plus with each one I could look back and see that I was improving — not by leaps and bounds, but by enough that it was visible. I also learned to recognise when a story idea had the legs for 100,000 words — with the first one I blundered about, then with each successive work I got better about understanding when I needed another subplot, or if the main plot was too weak. Finally I got better at handling clues and red herrings, and how to develop them.
Frantic is the first of eight crime novels in a series about Detective Ella Marconi. The books also feature paramedics as main characters, which would seem to be a clear inspiration from your own background. Why did you decide to make Detective Marconi your protagonist rather than a paramedic?
In the early versions of the book I tried using paramedic Sophie Phillips as the protagonist but it just didn’t work! She didn’t and couldn’t know enough about the investigation and that’s what I wanted to show. Also, I already knew I wanted to write a series, and it wasn’t going to be plausible to bring her back for more trouble in subsequent books. Using a detective character gave me access to the police investigation, set me up well for the series, and let me bring in another point of view, so that the story wasn’t only told from the victim or witness’s viewpoint, and having that bit of distance also meant I could add in a bit of humour now and again.
Suspense is one of the key elements of good crime fiction. Your latest novel, Tell the Truth, creates that suspense immediately, beginning with the discovery of bloodstains in a paramedic’s car, but no paramedic. On your website, you’ve said that before writing a new book you re-read your thesis to remind yourself of the techniques required to build suspense in fiction. Could you tell us what those techniques are?
The central points are to make sure that the reader cares enough about the character to want to find out what will happen to them, and then to build uncertainty so that “what will happen” is continually up in the air. Also, it’s important to pose and answer questions often to draw the reader along, and to present all the clues but in such a way that the reader doesn’t always recognise them as clues.
In an age when crime fiction and televised crime drama are extremely popular you have managed to write your own successful crime series. What advice do you have for emerging crime writers about standing out from the multitude of crime books and shows?
The most important thing is to consider your reader. I felt that using a paramedic point of view gave an insight into a world that not many people have access to, so that was something different and interesting that my books would offer. At the same time though, using police characters meant it was basically a police procedural, which is a familiar format and one that many readers enjoy.
However, adding something different can exclude some crime readers — I know that some don’t want medical-type detail in their reading, so they won’t want to read about paramedics. It’s a similar thing with paranormal elements, as another example: some readers aren’t interested in having that blended with their crime. (My partner owns a bookshop and she sees this first-hand.) So it can help you stand out, but also make your niche a bit smaller.
In addition to writing crime fiction you’ve also penned travel articles, many of which have been published in Escape. How is the writing style in these articles different from the style in your crime novels?
I really enjoyed writing the articles, and tried to make each one like a story, starting with a bit of me at the place, feeling some kind of emotion. So going swimming with whale sharks I was exhilarated, while getting ready to jump off the cliff swing in NZ I was petrified and sobbing. The style overall is to be open and accessible, as opposed to in a crime novel where you want to keep the reader guessing from start to finish.
Zoe Biddlestone is currently studying a Master of Arts in Writing, Editing and Publishing at The University of Queensland. She also has Bachelor degrees in Arts and Law. Zoe works full-time and enjoys freelance editing and proofreading after hours. She loves reading travel writing, the classics and translated fiction.