A Guide to the Crime Writer’s Thinking

Crime Writer ThinkingSo you’d like to know a bit about crime writers and the way we think? Well, that’s wonderful! We crime writers are sadly misunderstood. The vast majority of us are really very nice people. We love our children, we pay our fair share of taxes, and we’re kind to animals. So quite frankly, I don’t understand this misperception of crime writers as dangerous people. My guess is that it’s just a matter of getting to know a little more about what we’re like. So, always here to help, I’ve come up with this handy guide to the way crime writers think. Once you’re clear about these basics, I’m sure you’ll have a much better relationship with the crime writer in your life.


A Guide to the Crime Writer’s Thinking

Everything – and I mean everything – is fair game for inspiration.

It’s true. Anything a crime writer sees or hears about might find its way into a story. Here’s an example. Not long ago, Mr. COAMN and I went to our local winery for a music-and-art day, and we had a great time. It’s a terrific winery, with delicious offerings; a friendly, knowledgeable and dedicated vintner; and enjoyable events. So what was I thinking while we were there? Do you have any idea how many places there could be to hide a body at a winery? Just think of those casks, for instance! And imagine all the possibilities for murder motives, too. That’s not to mention the different methods for murder. Poisoned hors d’oeuvres or wine, sabotaged equipment…

See what I mean? Crime writers simply can’t help noticing things and being inspired by them. It’s what we do. So don’t be surprised if the crime writer in your life gets all sorts of criminal ideas from a walk, a shopping trip, or just pulling weeds in the garden. Don’t worry about it, though. I promise, we’re only dangerous when we write.


Wandering between the real world and our fictional worlds is normal.

Like everyone else, your crime-writing partner, friend or colleague knows that bills need to be paid, food provided, and so on. We do laundry and dishes, and those of us who have ‘day jobs’ do those jobs.

But really, the real world can get a bit dull. Especially when there’s a whole fictional world, complete with suspects, a villain, murder victims and more just waiting for the crime writer’s return. You’ll want to keep in mind, too, that those fictional worlds are our very own creations. So naturally, we’re quite fond of them, and they’re very real to us. Have patience when the crime writer in your life ‘disappears’ for a bit. We always come back.  Of course, that sometimes means that dinner’s a bit late or – ahem – overdone. Or that we keep talking about people who don’t exist. Or that we seem to be living in a completely different era (for those of us who write historical crime fiction). Don’t worry; we know the difference between the real world and our own worlds. Usually.   😉


We go to some very dark places.

It’s an occupational hazard if you’re a crime writer.  After all, crime fiction is all about the nasty things people can do to each other, and the sometimes disturbing psychology that can go with that. So crime writers aren’t afraid to ‘go there.’ And that takes some people by surprise.

Here’s an example. Not too long ago, I attended a large meeting with work colleagues from all of the university’s different colleges and departments. During a break in the proceedings, I had a brief conversation with someone, mostly about the speech we’d just finished hearing. I happened to mention how easy it would be to tamper with the speaker’s water pitcher, since most people’s attention was on the speaker. My colleague’s reaction: ‘Your mind goes to some dark places!’  What? You mean not everyone thinks that way? Oh, I could come up with worse – trust me!

See what I mean? Crime writers’ thinking does get dark. It has to, or we couldn’t write those stories that keep you turning and swiping pages. But we really wouldn’t carry any of it out. Promise.


Seemingly unimportant, but actually quite vital, facts have an irresistible appeal.

Have you ever wondered how long it takes bluebottle flies to hatch and mature? Or whether deleted files can be recovered from someone’s telephone? Or what tools you’d need to fix a broken boiler? Or whether there’s a pizza place on a certain street in a certain city? Just ask the crime writer in your life. Crime writers tend to be curious. What’s more, most crime writers want their stories to be credible. And that all adds up to research. Sometimes a lot of it.  So we crime writers often have a wealth of seemingly trivial facts at our fingertips.

Of course, sometimes that research gets a bit, well, unusual. A search of a crime writer’s web browsing history might raise eyebrows. A more thorough search might get a crime writer on certain watch lists. But don’t let that stop you being friends or colleagues with a crime writer, or choosing one as your partner. It’s all in the name of research. Really. And please, don’t accuse the crime writer in your life of wasting time googling street maps. It really does matter whether that particular street has a dead end. What? Don’t you want the stories you read to be credible?

So there you have it. Just a few guidelines to help you understand the crime writer in your life. You’re welcome.


Am I right, crime writers? Which guidelines would you like to add?


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57 responses to “A Guide to the Crime Writer’s Thinking

  1. Cracking, Margot. This nails it. I am guilty of all of them. I tale I like to tell is of a visit my husband and I took to a National Trust house. We were standing on the ha ha, looking out over the estate, my husband enjoying the view, as you do, when I looked down and said ‘Wouldn’t that be a great place to hide a body,’. My husband laughed, the people near us moved away. Incidentally someone already used this in a plot in the 30s – annoying! As for burning food,well I suggest any spouse just gets a taste for charcoal, mine has 😉

    • 😆 I think that goes with being a crime writer’s partner, D.S.! And you know, if I’d been enjoying the same view, I’d likely have had exactly the same thought. What’s so odd about an idea like that?! I’ve no idea why those people would feel the need to edge away from you; it’s a perfectly logical thought. 😉

      Thanks for the kind words – I’m very glad you enjoyed the post.

    • mudpuddle

      i remember that book… maybe it was a Michael Innes? anyway, problem solving is one of the joys of being alive, and mystery writers to a large degree foster this endeavour; hence, we should all be most grateful to ms. Kinberg and her friends…

  2. Very interesting, Margot. I do think all fiction writers, not just crime writers, have to look at things different ways (than non writers) to find their inspiration.

    • Thanks, Tracy. And you know, you have a well-taken point. Writers and other storytellers do look at the world in unique ways. I appreciate the ‘food for thought.’

  3. Guilty of all of the above. I often get in trouble for surfing the net when I’m ‘supposed to be writing’. The thing is, I AM writing. I try to do all my research before hand but you know how it goes, a great twist pops into your head or a new scene and you’re off and running, looking up all the particulars. My spouse just doesn’t get it.

    • I know just what you mean, Anne, about getting the perfect idea/plot twist/character description/etc. and needing to go get some background on it. People don’t always see that as part of writing, but it is. It really is. You can only do so much pre-writing research; after all, you don’t always know where a story will take you.

  4. What a wonderful post, Margot. I have to say readers of crime fiction tend to be almost as bad. Maybe it’s because we’ve read about crime for so long we begin to think that way too. I have been guilty of thinking this would make a great scene in a mystery or wondering how an author could use a particular event into a thriller. I think I tend to be a bit more suspicious of people in general too and more cautious in places that look like they fit in a crime fiction book.

    • It makes perfect sense, Mason, that you’d notice things like good hiding places for bodies, dangerous-looking places, and so on. If you read enough crime fiction, you see that just about anyone is capable of murder. And just about anything can happen. That just goes to show you that we crime writers perform and important public service by making crime fiction fans aware of what the world can be like…

      Thanks for the kind words 🙂

  5. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Very interesting post by mystery-crime writer/blogger, Margot Kinberg. Don’t miss it!

  6. Well, now you’ve done it, Margot! I I didn’t make it through “Everything is Fair Game” before an idea struck me for a future Mac McClellan Mystery. I even came up with the title, but I’m not telling. Great post, and thanks for the inspiration! 🙂

  7. I went to Gatorland and thought, how cool it would be to drop a body into that pit of mouths under the elevated gazebo at feeding time. I went to Lego Land and thought the whole time how easy it would be to hide evidence in the dark crevices of the Lost Kingdom Ride. While at Disney, my mind kept wandering to how easy it would be to kill somebody on a thrill ride and make it look like the ride did it (neck snapped). It’s almost morbid at times.

    • It is, isn’t it, S.K? But, you know, you’re right about those places. It’d be the easiest thing in the world to hide evidence at Legoland, or get rid of a body at Gatorland. And Disneyland offers all sorts of great possibilities. I completely understand why they occurred to you. It makes perfect sense to me.

  8. Well, I’ve spent most of this week watching politicians on TV and I must say that has inspired some surprisingly dark thoughts. Mind you, my imagination usually sticks at the level of hitting them over the head with a frying pan… I suspect my inspiration has mainly come from Tom and Jerry! 😉

    • Don’t underestimate Tom and Jerry as inspirational muses, FictionFan! 😉 And as to politicians?? That topic offers myriad possibilities – and even more inspiration…

  9. Margot: You may have been channeling your Gail Bowen when you thought of poison on seeing an unattended pitcher of water. Her Joanne Kilbourn series was born when she attended a political picnic and saw a pitcher of water for the Premier on the trailer deck and thought what if someone wanted to kill the Premier they could poison the water and …….

    • That’s really interesting background on the way Deadly Appearances came about, Bill. It is fascinating how simple things like a pitcher of water can get a person thinking about all sorts of things. And it certainly led Gail Bowen to write an excellent series.

  10. All true and guilty on all counts. Daydreaming is writing. Staring out the window is writing. And anyone who knows a writer has experienced their sudden “disappearance” when at dinner or having drinks or merely sitting and talking. This usually leads to the phrase: Hello? Are you listening? The response is: Sorry, I was chatting with one of my imaginary friends.

    • You’re quite right, D.P. Staring, doodling, daydreaming, it can all be writing. And as you say, good writing requires that the writer spend time in her or his imaginary world. Sometimes that happens right in the middle of dinner. People in the real world learn that they sometimes have to bring the writer back to that world.

  11. I really liked this post! 🙂 I can totally relate to the point about the mind going to dark places. When I see my friend wrapped up in a muffler, I tell her how easy it would be for a murderer to strangle someone with their own scarf… and she shudders. 🙂

  12. Hilarious!!!! We all should print this out and hang it near our office door, or have it printed on a T-shirt for those times when our curiosity gets the better of us.

    Last week my husband and I went to the pharmacy. We know everyone there, being a small town and all. So, we’re chatting away and the pharmacy tech. mentions that there’s a swamp out back.
    Immediately I perk up. “Swamp? Is it desolate?”
    “Well, I guess it is, sure,” she says.
    My excitement bubbles over. “No way! I’ve been looking for swamp!!!” With that I start tugging on my husband’s sleeve, practically dragging him out the door to go check out the perfect place to dump a body.
    He glances back at the pharmacy tech. “Sorry. She’s a crime writer,” he says with a shrug, as if that explained everything.

    FYI: It really was the perfect body dump location. 🙂

    • 😆 Oh, Sue, that’s a great story!! And I’ll bet that swamp is exactly the perfect place for dumping a body. Do I sense a ‘swamp’ story in your future??? I’d have done exactly the same thing if there were a swamp where I live. Of course you had to check it out! I’ll bet that pharmacy tech. gives you a funny look the next time you come in…

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. And you know, maybe a T-shirt would be a fun idea…

  13. kathyd

    Gosh, I think crime writers are different from other people. I sometimes see a news story and say that would make a great book. Or some event is intriguing and I wonder about a work of fiction about it. Or if a mystery isn’t solved. A book could write a resolution.
    Maybe it’s because I worked in a civil liberties law office for years that I look at a situation and say, “someone could sue over this,” or “that violates this law,” or “this would make a great lawsuit.”
    I do watch news stories and look for clues as to what really happened or wonder about the backstory.
    But mystery writers are a different breed — looking for a new murder method! Or a place to dump a body!
    I’m still waiting for raging rhino to be the murder method.

    • Now, I think a raging rhino is a great idea for a murder method, Kathy. It would certainly be an interesting story! I do agree with you, though, that crime writers do think in a unique way. Of course, with your experience in a law office, you have your own way of thinking, too, and I can see how you might think about a story as it relates to the law. I think that’s interesting.

  14. Haha I think I’ll have to print this out and hand it out to those who look strangely at me and I don’t even write crime fiction, just read it. I once said to a bunch of colleagues that were discussing holiday destinations that one in place in particular would be a good murder spot – they haven’t looked at me in the same way since!!

    • Hahaha! Well, I think that’s a perfectly natural observation to make, Cleo. And it shows that you can think like a crime writer. In all seriousness, thanks for the kind words; glad you enjoyed the post.

  15. kathyd

    Well, reading crime fiction does make me look at real mysteries in the news. I look for clues, wonder whether certain people are suspects, what the evidence is, etc. And anyone watching a movie mystery with me will groan as I indicate the weaknesses in a case, add to the list of suspects, etc.
    Anyway, it is rather hilarious to think of crime fiction writers constantly looking for murder methods, places to stash bodies — and, of course, how to commit the “perfect crime.”
    For an example of that, the PBS movie, “The Escape Artist,” is terrific. And it offers a highly unusual murder method.

    • I think reading crime fiction does give someone a different perspective, Kathy, no doubt about it. It likely makes one more aware of things such as whether evidence makes sense, what the investigation is like, and so on. So I can see how you’d notice those things. Thanks for the mention of The Escape Artist, too. It sounds interesting.

  16. Great post! One of my long standing friends said that, until they read my books, they would never have guessed at the devious mind that clearly lay behind my innocent face! But crime writers have to be devious, or we’d never think up any decent plots, would we!

    • No, we wouldn’t, Dawn! And I know what you mean about hiding that devious nature behind an innocent face. I’ve been accused of the same thing, actually. Thanks for the kind words. 🙂

  17. So very true. We raise eyebrows and people start to worry about their safety and perhaps calling the police. I attended a family wedding in a stately home and as soon as I saw it, especially the wonderful wooden paneled rooms, my mind was plotting a country house murder. My mother was horrified, and then I spotted one of two interesting features in the house and after a conversation with the receptionist, I started to think Spies and Safe Houses and ….well the whole idea changed. I might keep the country house murder for another day. Even at a happy event my devious mind was at work much to the disgust of The Mater who said I’d been ‘very preoccupied,’ since we arrived. Too right I was.

  18. Wishing it was me you mentioned the water pitcher to. I love a break from convention(al) procedures. What entertainment you have provided here. I too have a tendency to incorporate simple life into complex situations. One time my husband and I passed a hitch hiker – about three km down the road he tired of my complex twisted tale of what would result if no one chose to pick that man up. I think his words were – Okay now you’ve gone too far. (that desperate man with no ride ended up in the loony-bin)

    • Now, see, I think that sort of speculation is the stuff of life, Lesley. You’ve got my brain buzzing now with all of the possibilities, and I love it! I know what you mean, too, about not exactly thinking along convention(al) lines or following those procedures. SOmetimes, it’s nice to think differently.

  19. kathyd

    So, funny what Jane says. I’m surprised crime writers don’t get arrested as they plot the “perfect crime,” the setting, the method of murder — and are overheard. Wonder what would happen if one did that in an airport, overheard by TSA agents. Or in Grand Central Station or Times Square near police patrols? Or visiting a museum where one could stash a body in an exhibit or behind one, and guards hear this?

    • Now, that’s a funny question, Kathy. In fact, that’s exactly the kind of thing that happens in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds. One of the ‘persons of interest’ in that novel is a crime writer named Mr. Clancy. He’s overheard one night making some very odd statements that are wrongly interpreted. In the end, that little plot point is actually pretty amusing.

  20. Terrific post, Margot. I especially like your first point : that all is fair game, especially for us mystery writers! I’m often asked where do I get my ideas. I answer that ideas are the easy part. I just look around and observe. The tough part for me is settling on one idea, crystallizing a story, doing research, then the writing – and rewriting – and following it through to completion.

    • No doubt about it, Bryan; it’s not getting ideas that’s hard. It’s forming them into a coherent story, with a plot, fully-fleshed characters, and so on. All of that takes work and time. But ideas? They’re easy. Inspiration can come from any source, can’t it? Thanks for the kind words, and I”m glad you enjoyed the post.

  21. kathyd

    And what about checking out books from the library or purchasing or ordering a book on plant or herbal poisons? The history of true crime murders or murderers? Exotic murder locations?
    Do booksellers or librarians give strange looks?

  22. Keishon

    Great post and interesting! I’m always interested in what inspired a crime writer to write their own novel and how they decide how graphic they want to be. I guess it depends on the characters/story they are writing obviously.

    I do have to wonder how writers go to that dark place inside themselves to write some of these horrific things (I WAs Dora Suarez by Derek Raymond). Or what inspires them to write a crime novel of their own (Chelsea Cain says she was inspired by the Green River Killer case)

    • Thanks, Keishon. Very glad you enjoyed the post. Also thanks for sharing Cain’s perspective. It’s an interesting case of being inspired by real events. I know of several authors who’ve gotten that ‘story spark’ from a real-life crime – that’s fascinating.

  23. Love the post and the comments, Margot. At one of the many mystery conferences I’ve attended, one writer observed to the group that he’d been hearing newbies at the conference say they were surprised at the general level of courtesy and camaraderie among the attendees. “Of course we are all courteous,” the speaker pointed out. “After all, you’re at a gathering of people who know at least a dozen ways to kill you without being detected – and you certainly don’t want to offend them!” And, yes, I remember being out to dinner with a bunch of writers and mystery readers one evening and making the toast (a bit loudly, I fear), “Here’s to crime.” That did cause some nervous glancing and moving-away from neighboring tables… 😉

    • 😆 I’m sure it did, Les! And thanks for sharing that comment from the speaker. I always think it’s as well to be very courteous to crime writers. As that speaker said, crime writers do know lots of ways to kill…

      In all seriousness, though, you’ve brought up something important. Most crime writers are really very nice people. I’m glad you’ve found that to be the case at the conferences you’ve attended.

  24. Spot on, Margot – and then there is the therapeutic aspect of being a crime writer. Iif someone gets across you, you can always murder them – on paper of course.

    • Thanks, Christine. And you’re absolutely right about the therapeutic value of being a crime writer. To me, that’s much healthier than carrying anger around. And you don’t go to prison for it…

  25. Col

    I did read a crime fiction book once about someone drowning in a winery! Haha…

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