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BOOK FESTIVAL REVIEW 5 Cromarty Crime & Thrillers Weekend writing workshop offers the chance to sign up to create your own crime book world

By Margaret Chrystall

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REVIEW: Building Fictional Worlds

Afternoon writing workshop with Mike and Helen Walters

The Old Brewery, Cromarty

Saturday, 2.30pm

Spending a few hours in the company of your favourite crime writers as they talk to an audience about their work, it does begin to rub off on you.

Or maybe you just start imagining you can see clues and motives all round you for your own bestselling thriller and how it might begin.

But as most crime writers’ stories make clear, there’s an awful lot more to it than a few first ideas …

With an afternoon as part of the Cromarty Crime & Thrillers Weekend set aside for people who wanted to learn to create their own world to set a story in, it was tempting to put your money where your mouth is, and go for it.

On Saturday afternoon, all the places around the table were taken when the session started. Some there had already written books and wanted to improve, others just wanted to find out more before starting, and a few had an idea, but not much more so far, and wanted some guidance about what they needed to be thinking of next.

Mike Walters – who writes different crime series as Alex Walters – led the writing course with his wife Helen Walters, a short story writer.
Mike Walters – who writes different crime series as Alex Walters – led the writing course with his wife Helen Walters, a short story writer.

Mike Walters – who writes as Alex Walters – made a great guide, his own experience of writing crime fiction invaluable. Four different crime series to his name, he is well-practised in everything from putting a crime plot together, to creating individual characters and groups of characters who work together, some in police teams. And over the course of a few books, their relationships with each other develop and enrich the continuing cases the group has to take on, ideally solving the crimes on their patch.

With his wife Helen, also a writer, but of short stories, Mike had been running writing courses – the Solus Or Retreat from their home since they moved up to the Black Isle from the North of England.

But since Covid has postponed them, though some more are planned for the Cromarty Arts Centre in the short-term.

Curious how we were going to learn all we needed in just two and a half hours, you could see how a lot of ground could be covered as the first of a set of targeted work and fact sheets landed, setting out everything we could expect to explore and start working on in our afternoon’s work.

The agenda didn’t seem too ambitious, leaving plenty of time to introduce ourselves to each other at the start and ask questions at the end, having spent two hours asking a series of more detailed questions and finding our best answers to them with help and guidance from Mike and Helen.

It seemed a good place to start by considering ‘What am I writing?’ with a look at different kinds of crime we might want to go for – from cosy crime to police procedural. Once that was ticked off in your own mind, at least to get something started, it was straight on into looking at finding and describing the perfect setting for your idea. And none of that would get you anywhere without the important question of characters – finding the best way to create believable, charismatic investigators, then villains to victims “and everything in between”.

We got to try doing some writing ourselves, creating a set of characters – a fascinating exercise that immediately made everything feel more real.

Writing dialogue – even a short conversation – was a steep learning curve. And Mike pointed out that in his experience, often dialogue only pretended to be just like reality and that the trick was to create that illusion so that it would work for the reader.

There was even time to dream a little bigger, to take a look down the road to a time when you might be happy with your basic world and think about where it all might go – “from novel to series – plot and character arcs”, as the agenda put it.

Open and ‘safe’ in our sunny attic space, most of us felt comfortable about reading out what we had written and sharing it as we went along. Some contributions were already so intriguing you wanted to find out what would happen to carefully constructed characters and a scenario that quite clearly was unlikely to end well!

Alex Walters' DI Alec McKay series is set around the Black Isle.
Alex Walters' DI Alec McKay series is set around the Black Isle.

By the end of the session, the process had worked as a kind of release lock on your imagination –sparking off lots of ideas, scenarios – and little scenes like home movies were unfolding in your mind’s eye.

Let’s be honest, I’d maybe even had my first proper idea...

“The Highland reporter strolled in the sunshine along the beach at Cromarty, counting down to the little town’s first post-pandemic crime writers’ weekend, due to start soon after two long years. But shielding her eyes against the light, she noticed something lying squarely in the glare at the shoreline. Still, dark, it looked like trouble …”

PS Of course, look again and that could be next year's event already steaming over the horizon! MC

More: Mike and Helen Walters will be running two more writing workshops soon at the Old Brewery, Cromarty. Write A Short Story In A Day (on Saturday, June 18, 10am to 4.30pm, £65 incl tea/coffee) and Novel Writing For Beginners (Saturday, November 5, 10am to 4.30pm, £130, incl tea/coffee). For more information and to book, email: info@cromartyartstrust.org.uk or phone 01381 600354

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