How to Write a Crime Novel

How to Write a Crime Novel

Rutgers alumnus and award-winning author shares his recipe for success

The author in Asbury Park near his home at the shore.
The author in Asbury Park near his home at the shore.
Courtesy of Wallace Stroby
Not all crime novels are the same. If you want to write a good one, Wallace Stroby, a 1988 Rutgers graduate and author of five crime novels, has a few suggestions.

 1. Create characters you – and your readers – will care about.

Stroby's fifth book, Kings of Midnight, is being published in April by Minotaur (an imprint of Macmillan) and is the second novel to feature Crissa Stone, a con with a heart of gold. She grew up poor in a rural Texas town, ran away from home as soon as she could, and does what she needs to survive.

"Crissa is self made. She has stolen a life for herself, and she has to fight to protect it," says Stroby, who lives in Ocean Grove at the shore.

Though a criminal, it's hard for the reader to root against her, especially because she tries not to hurt anyone in the process. She's only violent when  someone is violent toward her. In that way, she's not much different from Stroby's protagonists who have been on the right side of the law, like the former New Jersey state trooper  in The Barbed Wire Kiss and The Heartbreak Lounge.

2.  Put said characters in jeopardy or conflict.

In Kings of Midnight, Stone is raising money to bribe her lover's way out of jail. "He's in prison. She wants to get him out. How does she do that? The only way she knows how. She has to commit a robbery," said Stroby.

Even though she does it non-violently (the book opens with her robbing ATMs in the dead of night when no one would get hurt), she gets caught up in trouble when she makes a deal to launder the money with a guy who ends up being untrustworthy.  After he rips her off, she decides to chase after a mobster's hidden fortune because it's more than enough money to help secure her future. But she's up against guy criminals who won't hesitate to kill to get what they want.

 3. Make the story seem real, even if it's fake.

Kings of Midnight
Stroby writes what he calls realistic crime novels – no genius serial killers, no sky high body counts because, he says, those are fantasy. Crime novels, he says, should be “tied into the way life is lived every day on the streets.

"Everybody's writing serial killer books," he adds. "There have never been as many serial killers in America than there are in the pages of those books on any given day."

He draws largely from what he learned while a reporter and editor, which started at Rutgers, where he earned his degree in journalism and mass media. Stroby took an investigative journalism class with Jerry Aumente, now a professor emeritus at Rutgers.

"By the time it was over, I had a lot more confidence in both my writing and my ability to write in a professional environment." He wrote a series for the Daily Targum about toxic waste sites.

That kind of reporting fueled his career at both the Asbury Park Press, and at the Star-Ledger, the latter at which he worked for 13 years. He read about, wrote about, and edited a lot of articles about crime before leaving to write full time in 2008.

For example, the ATM heist at the beginning Kings of Midnight actually happened in Southern Florida. Stone herself is based on interviews Stroby read with female armed robbers in Armed Robbers in Action: Stickups and Street Culture, a Northeastern University Press book. They got into the game because of a man older than them, just like Stone.

4. Enjoy it.

Stroby writes from his two-bedroom apartment near the beach, using a small room for his writing space, which he fills with an oversized desk, his books, and a print of Edward Hooper's 1939 painting New York Movie. He tapes illustrations, postcards, and quotes to the walls around him that seem related – maybe only obliquely – to what he’s working on.

He doesn't map out his books; rather, he starts with an idea, and then lets the story builds as he writes. "It's as much a journey for me as anybody who's reading it," he says. "I don't outline or anything like that. I have a general idea and plow along, which is fun."

He writes mostly at night, sometimes straight through until morning. When he's stuck, he'll do a few different things to start up again. "If it's a case of my not knowing what happens next, I'll put it down and work on something else, hoping my subconscious will figure it out in the meantime," he says. "If it's simple mental exhaustion, I'll catnap or go for a walk or do some other task that involves creating order out of chaos, like cleaning or organizing CDs.”

And then there's the benefit of living by the shore – if the weather's okay, he'll talk a long walk on the boardwalk into neighboring Asbury Park.