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Fired Up: Robert Crais on Passion, Process and Plot Twists

Robert Crais, master of crime writing, makes modern classics the old-fashioned way—with a heartfelt passion, a fine-tuned process and, naturally, a twist.

Robert Crais, master of crime writing, makes modern classics the old-fashioned way—with a heartfelt passion, a fine-tuned process and, naturally, a twist. Don't miss his talk at the 2018 Writer's Digest Novel Writing Conference in Pasadena, CA, October 26–28!

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of Writer's Digest magazine.

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Write what you love to read: The advice, oft-touted, sounds simple enough. But few embody this approach as successfully as Robert Crais, whose slickly plotted, toughtalking, wisecracking crime novels continue to prove worthy of comparison to the hard-boiled classics he cut his teeth on—while showcasing a style that still manages to be his own.

An Emmy Award–nominated writer for “Hill Street Blues,” “Cagney & Lacey” and “Miami Vice,” in the mid-’80s Crais traded in his lucrative TV credits for his dream of having a spot on bookshelves. He put his own team on the case, and Los Angeles private eye Elvis Cole and his partner, Joe Pike, have been collecting fans since their introduction in The Monkey’s Raincoat, which won the 1988 Anthony and Macavity awards and was nominated for an Edgar. They’ve
starred in 16 of Crais’ 20 novels to date, making their author a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and Mystery Writers of America Grand Master. His latest, The Promise, new in paperback earlier this year, pairs Pike and Cole with the stars of his 2013 bestseller Suspect, LAPD cop Scott James and his K-9 partner. A 17th in the series was released in early 2017.

How his writing has evolved along the way—and what we can all learn from it—is, like many things in the writing life, best described by the author.

You’ve talked about your 1999 hit L.A. Requiem as a turning point in your career. What in your approach and perspective changed at that point?

I grew up as a crime-fiction junkie. I write in this field because I grew up reading in this field …

You grew up in a family of law enforcement, too, correct?

In my family there are I think now five generations of police officers. Th at may not be in reality how it sounds—it’s not like growing up in a TV show—but the true benefit for me, I think, was in seeing police officers as human beings, and understanding who they are in real life. That gave me an appreciation for the nuance of their characters in detail that hopefully I’ve brought to the characters of my novels.

So I grew up reading this stuff and loving it; my favorite writers in those days were the classic American detective fiction writers: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Robert B. Parker. So when I created Elvis Cole and set about writing my books, that was coming from a place of enthusiasm, I was a fan. And the first seven books were written in the style of the traditional American detective novel: first-person point of view of the detective, everything is seen through the detective’s eyes, because I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do.

But as I wrote them, I began to feel constrained by that limitation. I wanted to tell stories that were broader than one could tell frozen in that traditional pattern. So by the time I got to No. 8, which was L.A. Requiem, I just decided to take out the jams and combine all the different types of crime fiction and thriller fiction that I like to read.

Curtis Sittenfeld on Choosing Beta Readers, Outlining and Creating Complex Characters

It wasn’t an easy decision. I’d had this traditional approach [that was] proving to be pretty popular. Part of me was saying, You’re about to shoot yourself in the foot. But I felt strongly that I could tell the stories I wanted to tell if I expanded the canvas. I brought in points of view of other characters, cut from good guys to bad guys, did the flashback thing, and was still so unsure that when I sent it to my agent, I told him, “If the publisher hates it, I’ll give the money back.” Luckily, it worked out.

I’ve had this saying I’ve used forever as a self-motivator, a little sign in my office that says, Trust the talent. What that means to me is, when you’re at your darkest moments and you think you’re writing the worst thing that’s ever been written, and it’s going to be a failure, you just want to give up and go to Madrid, the best thing you can do is simply give yourself over to your instincts.

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So you still have those dark moments sometimes?

Of course. After 20 books people must say, “He must knock this stuff out now.” But most of the writers I know don’t escape the effort that goes into writing. In fact, I think if you’re doing the job correctly it gets more difficult, because each time you go back to the well, you have to dig deeper.

When you begin, no writer knows where you’re going to end up—and I’m not talking about the plot. I plot things out—I know where the story’s going—but what I never know is: Can I pull this one off? Can this all add up to be what I want it to be? Is it true, is it real, is it strong, does it
have the right energy? You face those questions every day.

And especially when it’s damn hard, and the words aren’t coming, and you really have to bash your head into the wall, you do have those dark moments.

The only difference between me today and me then is that I’ve now been through it 20-plus times, so I have a greater level of confidence that I’ll be able find my way out of the darkness. At the beginning I didn’t know, and that was really scary. Now I have more faith that even though I’m lost right now in this moment, history shows I can probably figure my way out of this. Just keep pushing, just keep typing, just keep writing.

So what is your process? You said you plot things out.

I have to figure it out before I write. Otherwise, I’m just lost. Maybe that comes from my TV days where there’s this fairly rigid professional process: You think up the story, you have to pitch the story to someone, a bunch of people sit in a room and talk out the story, you come up with an outline, all the themes are broken down, there it all is before you ever write the screenplay.

I actually wrote a couple of manuscripts, prior to my first published novel, with the high-minded idea that an artist would never, ever plot out a story in advance. If you were a true artist, you simply started typing. It was like magic: You know, your eyes rolled back in your head, and the story came to you and you were just glowing with inspiration, and days or weeks later you came out of your trance and had this beautiful novel.

Well, I tried that twice, and they were just terrible. One had a 500-page beginning and a 50-page ending and there was no middle. I mean, these things were so bad I never even submitted them—even I knew they were bad, why inflict them on anyone else?

So when it came time to write the next book, I said, Listen, you’ve failed twice in a row, why don’t you do it the way you’re comfortable with? And what makes sense to me is to figure stuff out in advance.

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With a lot of writers, we’re not talking about the same thing when we say we outline. Many people believe outlining is an intellectual process: Chapter 1: Elvis walks into a room and a woman wants to hire him. Chapter 2 … And you come up with 40 or 50 of those and there’s your book.

But it isn’t that at all. I’ll spend three or four months figuring a story out before I ever begin to write it. And it’s never sequential for me. In the beginning the ideas or thoughts come to me sort of globally. I always start with a character—character is what motivates me, what interests me. There’s some human aspect to the nature of a particular character that has to get its hooks in me. Thereafter I just sort of free-flow scenes with that person or with that person’s problem, with general situations that interest me, and I end up with sort of this mass of random scenes, but little by little some of them begin to connect, because I find them the most interesting or the most relevant.

After many weeks of this stuff, 80 percent of those random scenes and notions I’ve come up with are in the garbage, but I begin to see a story arc there, and the story arc comes together. All those scene notes, character notes, I put on little notecards and pushpin them up on black boards in my office. I’m very visual; I like to see it laid out in front of me. After three or four months I have something that actually works as a story.

I don’t need 100 percent of everything figured out, but I typically need 75 or 80 percent. I have to see the beginning, the middle and the ending I want to reach: This is what I’m trying to do with this particular story and these characters. When I’m confident in that, I’ll begin to write. …

[All told it typically takes] around 10 months, give or take a little bit. I usually don’t write all the chapters or all the scenes sequentially. As I’m figuring everything out, getting closer and closer to the process, I’ll write scenes that end up [coming much later in the story].

Voice is important with recurring characters especially. When developing a new character, what are some techniques you use to make him sound distinctive?

Always it begins with an emotion. Sometimes that emotion’s not definable at the beginning. I’ll see an image or imagine the character doing something that I don’t understand but that fascinates me.

To give you an example, the first novel where Joe Pike is the main character was The Watchman, and the very first notion that eventually became that book was this image I had of a young woman in a convertible. Her hair is flying because she’s driving really, really fast, hands on the wheel at 10 and 2, knuckles white, wind is screaming past her, she’s pretty and her eyes are clenched closed.

That’s all I saw, but what grabbed me was that her eyes were closed, and I was hooked. I thought, There’s something about this woman—I want to know why her eyes are closed, I want to know how she came to this place. Who is she? It’s always like that, with all the characters.

From something like that, I’ll begin to think about a character, and if need be I’ll research a character. One of my (now continuing) characters is former Delta [Force] operator/now mercenary Jon Stone, and it was the same sort of genesis for him, though because of the nature of his work, I ended up doing an enormous amount of research on private military contractors. … Contrary to the stereotypic image of muscle-bound, professional warriors, you find people who are Rhodes scholars. You find people who are voracious readers who read and write poetry. You find all these fascinating things. And brick by brick the character becomes real to you—you use your imagination to connect the stilts of reality that you found through research.

You can hear the way he sounds, you can see the way he walks. And pretty soon they come to life. I mean, I’m not saying when I’m off my meds they come to life, but they become the kinds of characters you want to read about. I’m going to give that book a year of my life, and thought about that way, you want to spend it with people you find interesting and care about and have grown to love.

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You do a lot of hands-on research with the LAPD, FBI, bomb squads and the like. How much do those experiences change the course of what you plan to write, versus informing the plots you have in mind?

Constantly. First of all: Research is the best. Research is more fun than writing. Research, you get to go outside!

Do you find it’s best to do it while outlining or writing, or do you finish research before the story starts?

I begin researching a particular subject or character when I’m first conceiving it. If I need to know something about police K-9 dogs, or private military corporations, or how to make a bomb, whatever it is, I’ll begin researching, and the more real-world research I can do, I pick up a ton of small stuff that adds enormously to the writing.

I do that research in the beginning, but you find that as things develop over the course of creating the book, you need to find out other things. Again and again, you trip over a pothole where you think, I don’t know that, or, How do they do this? When I’m in the heat of the writing, I’ll make crap up, because I want to keep going. But that’s never good enough, and I’m always bothered by that, so in the coming days or weeks, I’ll retro-research it, and then if I have to revise or add things, I can do it.

Research is never finished—not until the project is over. It simply goes on throughout.

Some newer writers are intimidated by the idea of that kind of research, especially not knowing if the book will ever be published. They worry about not getting access, or not being taken seriously.

What would you tell writers who are feeling that way? 

I was once the person who didn’t have 20 novels published, so what I learned firsthand is that if you present yourself professionally and respectfully, you’ll be treated professionally and respectfully.

But the notion that, I don’t want to spend a lot of time researching this because someone might not buy it, I think is a recipe for failure and is also disrespectful to your own work. Why write it if you’re not going to try to make it the strongest, most powerful, most alive thing you can?

You’ve got to throw yourself into it. If you’re writing about a world in which you need to do research to learn about it, then feel passionate about it. If you’re not passionate about what you’re writing, you’re writing the wrong thing. I cannot stress how much I believe that.

I don’t know how other people feel, but writing, whatever I’m writing, is an emotional event for me. The intellectual part of it comes later, as almost the mechanical part of getting the emotional stuff right, getting it all typed up and ready to go. Successful writing is all about passion, to create a world that’s full and complete and engrosses the reader. And remember, first and foremost the reader is you.

Why write about anything if you’re not going to write about something you’re passionate about, characters who you’re fascinated by, a world in which you want to be in, even if it’s only for a short period of time? That passion is the engine that has to fire the whole thing, drive the whole experience.

Every one of the books I’ve written—hell, all the TV scripts I’ve written—at some place in the genesis of those things I found something that I was really hungry to write—because I wanted it there. I wanted to create it and see it and have it in front of me. And I think it’s a mistake for anyone to somehow disassociate themselves from that passion, to think that the creation of a compelling piece of fiction can be had simply on intellectual terms.

It becomes cold, and I don’t think you want cold. You want heat, you want fire. That’s what we gather around and warm our hands with.

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