Cross-Genre Fiction: Using Research and Imagination in Hybrid Genres

Author:
Publish date:

I write a detective fiction series set in World War II Britain. My lead character, Detective Chief Inspector Frank Merlin, is a tough and experienced Scotland Yard police officer engaged in the grueling fight against crime in wartime London as his country battles heroically for its survival against Nazi Germany.

During the war, domestic crime in the U.K. grew substantially, rising by nearly 60 percent between 1939 and 1945. A number of factors lay behind that rise. These included the blackout, the chaos caused by the intensive German bombing, the introduction of rationing and other restrictions which gave rise to a booming black market, the growth of prostitution and vice as millions of young soldiers found themselves stationed on the Home Front, and the loss of large numbers of good policemen to the armed forces. This crime boom was one of the major factors for my choosing this period as my setting, along with a long-held keen interest in the history of the time.

When I began writing about Frank Merlin, I gave little thought to exactly what genre I was going to work in. If friends asked me at the outset what type of book I was writing, I told them it was a detective story. My favorite writer of "detective stories" then and now is Georges Simenon. His creation, Inspector Jules Maigret of the Paris Sûreté, remains my favorite fictional detective.

One friend, when I told him that Merlin was intended to be my Maigret, said I was writing a "police procedural." Others used words like "mystery," "suspense," "thriller," and "whodunit," all of which could apply. However, no one chose the description "historical fiction," although my books clearly fall into that category too.

The biggest literary agent database anywhere
is the Guide to Literary Agents. Pick up the
most recent updated edition online at a discount.

Image placeholder title

So, as I undertook my first book, I was conscious of working in two genres—detective fiction (or crime fiction, or any of the other alternative descriptions above) and historical fiction.

Was there any complication involved in straddling two genres? I can't say I found there to be. Apart from the obvious requirement to make one’s stories gripping and entertaining, there is one most important imperative applicable to historical fiction: Get your facts right. Authenticity is of crucial importance. The comparable imperative applicable to detective fiction is to make sure the story is credible.

Inevitably, the research required for both imperatives gets intermingled. One feature of my books is that each chapter is set on a particular day in the War. If I mention a speech given by Churchill in a chapter, do I have the day right? If Merlin is talking about the speech to a colleague on the same day, would he have been able to learn about it that day and if so, how? If, as he talks to his colleague he is wearing a sodden raincoat, did it actually rain on that day? And so on.

I intensively research the policing practices, the criminal environment and the overall period detail, including the progress of the war, for my books. My first, Princes Gate, is set in January 1940, the time known as The Phoney War. The action in Stalin's Gold, the second, takes place in September, against the background of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Merlin At War, just published, is set in June 1941, just after the Battle of Crete and just before the Nazi invasion of Russia.

Almost inevitably, as my historical knowledge of the war period has progressed, I have been diverted into the genre or sub-genre of espionage. That's my third genre—or perhaps I should say my fourth, after romantic fiction, as a little love is allowed to blossom in the pages of my books, too!

All three of my books have some element of security skullduggery, but the new book, Merlin At War, has a major plot line about the leaking of Allied secrets from De Gaulle’s Free French forces in London to the German supported French puppet government in Vichy. An espionage plot line, by its very nature, is effective in introducing mystery and suspense, as the master of the genre, Le Carré, demonstrates time and time again. Who is the spy? Why is he spying? How does he pass his information on and who are his controllers? Who else is compromised?

However, does it require a different writing approach? Not that I am aware. The key thing with every genre is to set the story in a credible, reimagined world, on the basis of well-researched historical and methodological facts. Then apply the one thing essential for all books: Imagination!

Image placeholder title
Image placeholder title

Mark Ellis is a thriller writer from Swansea and a former barrister and entrepreneur. He is the creator of DCI Frank Merlin, an Anglo-Spanish police detective operating in World War 2 London. His books treat the reader to a vivid portrait of London during the war, skillfully blended with gripping plots, political intrigue and a charismatic protagonist. His most recent novel is Merlin at War.

If you’re an agent looking to update your information or an author interested in contributing to the GLA blog or the next edition of the book, contact Writer’s Digest Books Managing Editor Cris Freese at cris.freese@fwmedia.com.

Image placeholder title
Image placeholder title
Arisa White: Putting the Pieces Together

Arisa White: Putting the Pieces Together

In this post, Arisa White shares how she was able to piece together her past with her present, how some works freed her to write, and more!

Adapt vs. Adept vs. Adopt (Grammar Rules)

Adapt vs. Adept vs. Adopt (Grammar Rules)

Learn when to use adapt vs. adept vs. adopt with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

wow no thank you

Nuggets of Humor

Bestselling humor author Samantha Irby talks about her writing process and finding funny topics for essays.

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Guidelines

Announcing the 14th annual April Poem-A-Day Challenge on Poetic Asides. Here are the guidelines for this fun annual poeming challenge that starts on April 1.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: Call for Submissions, Free Downloads, and more!

This week, we’re excited to announce a call for submissions to the WD Self-Published Book Awards, free resources for writers, and more!

Flash Fiction Challenge

2021 February Flash Fiction Challenge: Day 28

Write a piece of flash fiction each day of February with the February Flash Fiction Challenge, led by editor Moriah Richard. Each day, receive a prompt, example story, and write your own. Today's prompt is to write a story using only dialogue.

Nicole Galland: On Returning to Familiar Characters

Nicole Galland: On Returning to Familiar Characters

Bestselling author Nicole Galland explains what it was like to dive into writing a series and how speculative fiction allows her to explore her interests.

6 Tools for Writing Nonfiction That Breathes

6 Tools for Writing Nonfiction That Breathes

Nonfiction author Liz Heinecke gives her top 6 tips for crafting a nonfiction book that will really capture your subject.

Flash Fiction Challenge

2021 February Flash Fiction Challenge: Day 27

Write a piece of flash fiction each day of February with the February Flash Fiction Challenge, led by editor Moriah Richard. Each day, receive a prompt, example story, and write your own. Today's prompt is to write something that makes you laugh.