Poacher Turned Game Keeper: From reviewing to writing crime fiction

by Sarah Ward

This August I’ll have been writing crime fiction reviews for ten years. I started reviewing in the early days of the internet when blogs were rare. Instead, a crop of excellent websites emerged that discussed the merits of new crime fiction. I critiqued my reading on two of them: Crimesquad.com and Eurocrime. I became a reviewer because I am such an avid reader of the genre. From Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew books when I was a child, Agatha Christie as a teenager and more recently PD James and Sara Paretsky. I loved them all.

The best thing about the internet is its ability to embrace change. As crime fiction blogs began to appear, where the personality and preferences of the reviewer became a factor in the posts, I began my own, Crimepieces. I wanted to focus particularly on the raft of crime novels that were appearing from Scandinavia. The trend kicked off with Steig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and I loved having the freedom of a website that focused on my own preferences. I like to mix, on my blog, reviews of translated fiction along with some of the great books being written by British and US writers.

In Bitter Chill by Sarah WardWhat do I look for when I have my ‘critic’ hat on? Although character and setting are important my main reason for reading a novel is to be transported to a different world. With the best of crime fiction, a combination of narrative pace and quality writing can make the hours speed by. If I’m unable to put a book down, it’s done its job for me. I like to think that the reviews I write are fair. If I don’t like a book I generally don’t finish it and therefore don’t review it. By the time I reach the last page, I usually have something that I want to say about what I’ve just read.

Given the amount of crime fiction being published, why did I decide to write my own novel? It was something I’d always wanted to do but it wasn’t until I moved to Athens in Greece that the opportunity arose. What writing needs most of all is time and space and I had that in abundance in the Mediterranean. In Bitter Chill, set in the Derbyshire countryside, was possibly the coldest book I could have written. I wrote for myself, and based the opening on an attempted abduction that I’d experienced when I was a child. And I was lucky enough to find a UK publisher with Faber and Faber.

In the months before publication, I was asked a few times by other writers how I would feel when my own book was reviewed. I had absolutely no idea. I knew that I would read the reviews – I’m too curious not to – but I wondered how much I would take them to heart and the extent to which they might influence my future writing. I was lucky that the early comments I received from bloggers and in the press were positive which gave me the confidence to look at readers’ reviews as they appeared on other websites. And, again, the reaction has been generally positive. Even criticisms appear to be thoughtful and sensitively given and I appreciate the effort people are making to give me feedback.

Perhaps the biggest impact of reading my own reviews has been on my critical writing. I’m now much more conscious that authors will almost certainly be reading my reviews. I like to think I’m still honest. But negatives can be balanced with praise and I appreciate the considerable effort it takes to write a crime novel. No book is perfect but an honest response to a book is usually welcomed by readers and writers alike.
 
A huge thank you to Sarah Ward for her time! Sarah’s novel, In Bitter Chill, is out now (Faber & Faber, £12.99)

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