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Writing YA by Niall Leonard

Writing YA Crime Novels from a Teen Perspective: The Challenges and the Rewards

By Niall Leonard

‘When I decided to make Finn Maguire, the hero of my Crusher novels, a teenager, I wasn’t thinking about the challenges or the rewards of writing from a teen perspective – the prospect of writing any novel at all was a challenge.

I’d worked as a writer for years on TV shows like Silent Witness and Wire In The Blood. Writing for TV is a series of compromises: your story has to hit ad breaks and slot lengths, and the subject and storyline have to be approved by the producers. Novelists don’t have those constraints, but that very freedom can be terrifying. TV writers have deadlines that concentrate the mind wonderfully: novelists can prevaricate and make notes and research ad infinitum, and it’s all too easy to do that instead of sitting down and writing.

When I finally did make a start my first challenge was how to get rid of Finn’s parents. I wanted him to be a free agent, not to worry about doing homework or tidying his room. That challenge brought its own reward: figuring out what happened to Finn’s parents pretty much gave me the plot for the book, and figuring out how Finn learned to cope without them offered more story opportunities. Challenges like that, I learned, are not obstacles to writing the story – they’re part of the process: the story happens as you write your way out of them.

The second challenge was finding Finn’s voice – to understand the way he thinks and reacts to his experiences. At first my concept of Finn Maguire was vaguely based on myself as a teenager, but I soon realised that nobody would waste their time on such a boring hero, least of all me. I’d forgotten the first rule of creating characters – that we view the present through the prism of our past, and that meant Finn, young as he was, had to have a back-story that was complex and painful. To solve the crime I needed him to be street-smart and tough, and all those considerations led, almost inevitably, to a history as a young offender harshly treated by the system, a school drop-out written off as an idiot and a troublemaker.

Finn’s petty-criminal past allowed me to eat my cake and have it. He is young, and honest, and idealistic, but at the same time he is cynical and pessimistic; he wants to trust people but somehow he’s not surprised when they let him down. I was influenced to an extent by the work of Raymond Chandler, and often wondered what Philip Marlowe had gone through to make him so bitter, to shrug off the most horrendous betrayal with a wisecrack. It helped to think of Finn Maguire as a young Marlowe, but set in our world of Twitter and mobile smartphones and hardcore porn accessed with a click of a mouse.

It might have been a challenge to shape the story into something ‘suitable’ for a teen audience, but I didn’t bother with that. I set out to write Crusher for myself: I wanted Finn to be as authentic a teenager as I could make him, but the story itself to be as gritty and grim as it needed to be, including swearing and teenage sex that would never have been permitted on UK network television at any time of night.

When Random House picked up Crusher for publication I was amazed at how few changes they asked for; it’s a joy, after all these years of watering my work down, to be allowed to tell my own story my own way. So far, that’s the greatest reward of writing crime with a teen perspective; that, and the chance to imagine through the character of Finn Maguire that I’m young, fit, smart, sexy, and scared of nothing…’


A big thank you to Niall Leonard for sharing his inspiration and the challenges in writing from a teenager’s perpective. Want to know more about writing Young Adult crime fiction? We asked Jane Casey to tell us more.

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