Writing women on the run

Interesting fact: there is more interest in books where women are in jeopardy.

Does this mean we’re still a long way from achieving equality or are we simply hooked on reading about enterprising women outsmarting evil villains?

I attended the session called ‘Women on the Run’ at the Sydney Writers’ Festival to find out. Three of the best in the business: Tara Moss, Michael Robotham and Lauren Beukes (for further details see the bios below), shared their experiences and I wasn’t disappointed. Here are the key areas we touched on:

Introducing social issues into crime fiction and thrillers

One of the things that struck me, was that each of the authors had a passion for social issues. Lauren, having grown up in South Africa, had both witnessed and been surrounded by a level of violence that most of us would be unfamiliar with. Tara, having spent a huge amount of time researching the dark underbelly of the crime world, was irrevocably affected by what she had seen. Here’s some of the reasons their fiction centres on crime and injustice…maybe you’ll find something that resonates and be driven to give your passion a voice?

  • There isn’t always justice in the real world; in a book you can achieve justice
  • The authors are giving nice people the opportunity to read about bad people and help us to understand them better. Is that a good thing? It is when you consider the next point…
  • Giving the victims a voice. All of the authors were very passionate advocates for their victims.

Female leads generate more books sales in the crime and thriller world

Are we really so sadistic that we enjoy seeing women characters victimised?

Not entirely, thank goodness. The simple fact is that women read more crime and thriller novels, so they want to read about women.

Tara also raised some interesting statistics. In Australia, males in the 18 – 24 year old group are more likely to be murdered than women, but we don’t hear about it. Her point? Males are also the victims of violence. It’s also harder to generate sympathy for men.

For whatever reason, there is still something in our psyche that sees women in a position of vulnerability or as victims compared to our male counterparts. We also have a desire to read about it. As for the reasons, I’ll leave you to ponder those!

Psychopaths probably work in the office next door to yours…

Each author had a story to share about the psychopaths in their stories. The definition of a psychopath being those people we define as having a  limited range of emotions compared to the rest of us and hence, lack an ability for sympathy, empathy and well, just general niceness.

Apparently psychopaths only represent about 1% of the population. Before you breathe a sigh of relief about that fact, most tend to be defined as white collar criminals, gravitating towards positions of power. Banking and finance anyone?!

Something to consider when plotting your next novel perhaps…

How nice writers write bad characters and hurt good people

There comes a point in any discussion about crime writing and dark thriller fiction when the obvious question is posed: how do you as a seemingly normal, well adjusted person, write about psychopaths or people that are just plain evil inflicting harm on good people?

It’s no easy feat, according to the authors in our session, and they should know.

They all agreed that as a writer you have to feel it more than the reader, in order to write it, so at times it can be very traumatic to write from a victim’s perspective.

In saying that, Lauren reminded us that she wants her readers to be shocked. If they feel or are upset by the violence, it goes some way to us understanding what the victim endured and as all the writer’s stated earlier in the session, they all have a passion for giving the victims a voice.

In the mood for retribution?

During my writing journey, I’ve often been told it’s not cool to pick on the bad characters or the ones you don’t like, just because they are doing something unpleasant. In crime and dark psychological thrillers, the writers seem less prepared to stick to this rule.

Each writer admitted to enacting various forms of retribution on their villains – from violence, accidents and even a bee sting! Kind of pales in comparison to their serial killer tendencies, but whatever makes you feel better as a writer, I guess…

The world is really still a very nice place

The other way you cope is that you learn to switch off.

Tara compared it to other intense jobs, like police, nurses, and paramedics, and suggests that you learn to compartmentalise. You leave it behind when you switch of the computer and release it. That and your humour probably becomes a little blacker than the rest of the general population…

So have you got what it takes to immerse yourself in the dark world of crime fiction, serial killers and psychological thrillers? Or if you’re already there, how are some of the ways you cope with the darkness of it all?

The panel:

  • Tara Moss – author of the crime series centring on Mak Vanderwall. It all stared with ‘Fetish’ way back in 1999 and the series finally came to a very satisfying (and dramatic!) end with the sixth book, ‘Assassin’ last year. I’m a huge fan of both the books and the author – if you Google Tara you’ll find that in her quest for authenticity, she’s obtained her Private Investigator credentials, spent time at the FBI Academy at Quantico, as well in squad cars, prisons, morgues, and shooting ranges. She’s also got her CAMS race driver licence – my kind of girl!
  • Michael Robotham – is an Australian writer who has achieved worldwide success for his crime and psychological thriller novels. In his early years, Michael travelled the world as a journalist, then spent a period of time as a ghostwriter for politicians, celebrities and other interesting people. Almost ten years ago, his first psychological thriller, ‘The Suspect’ was published and he hasn’t looked back since, adding another seven titles to his name.
  • Lauren Beukes – is a South African novelist, short story writer and journalist. Her latest  title, The Shining Girls, is receiving great reviews. No wonder, given her inventive approach to writing serial killers: The Shining Girls centres around a time-travelling Depression-era drifter who must murder the ‘shining girls’ in order to continue his travels. Intrigued?
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