Jane Sullivan discovers her inner crime writer at the Australian Writers’ Centre

Jane Sullivan was already a published author and journalist when she discovered the Australian Writers' Centre. But when she wrote the manuscript for her crime novel, she realised she needed specialist skills in order to master the suspense and pacing of the genre. So she enrolled in Crime and Thriller Writing at the Australian Writers' Centre and rewrote her manuscript with her new knowledge.

“With a tauter, more suspenseful narrative and much more at stake for my two main characters, I began to approach agents. Sally Bird from the Calidris literary agency took me on and secured a publishing deal with Echo. They have been a joy to work with and as a result my first historical crime novel, Murder in Punch Lane, is coming out in July,” Jane told us.

Back to basics

Jane has had a successful career as a journalist. She also reviews books and has published two novels and a nonfiction book.

“So you’d think I’d know what I was doing, right?” she says. “Wrong. I was having trouble with my third novel. It was going to be a literary coming of age story set in Melbourne in 1868. I’d done a heap of research and I’d spent years and years writing it, draft after draft, and I’d had lots of valuable mentoring and feedback from readers. Yet somehow it just wasn’t coming together.

“The penny finally dropped when I realised I was writing something that didn’t want to be a literary coming of age novel at all. It wanted to be a crime novel. Somehow I had never realised this, even though there was a murder in the story, and a hunt to find the murderer.”

Despite being an avid crime reader, Jane felt she didn’t know how to start writing one, so she enrolled in Crime and Thriller Writing with LA Larkin.

“Louisa took me back to basics, and that was what I needed. The different kinds of crime novel, the difference between a crime novel and a thriller. This gave me a much more focussed picture of what my book wanted to be. She stressed the importance of building and releasing tension, creating a high-stakes world for my characters. Of course these things are important in any novel, but I hadn’t quite realised how crucial they would be for a crime novel.”

A new direction for her characters

The course also highlighted to Jane that she needed to change her initial characters to fit into the crime narrative she was building.

“Character was vitally important. I realised that yet again I would have to rethink my two main characters. I’d begun with a story centering on a naïve young man, a journalist, and a worldly young woman, an actress, who form an unlikely alliance to track down a murderer. My naïve young man was my protagonist and my worldly young woman was his sidekick.”

But after the course, she changed tack and made the young woman, now named Lola, her protagonist.

“Despite all her courage, she had more dangers to face than any man because 1868 Melbourne was a viciously hierarchical and misogynistic place, and actresses were at the bottom of the pile. It’s her best friend, also an actress, who is murdered,” she says. “And the naïve young fellow, much as I loved him, had to go. His replacement was Magnus, a smooth-talking, rakish man about town who tries straight away to seduce Lola. He drives her mad. And they are working together as amateur sleuths? Oh boy, I’d have some fun writing this. In the end, I loved the maddening Magnus even more than the naïve fellow he replaced.”

With her manuscript now in better shape, Jane started sending it out to agents and publishers. 

“Several were keen to see the manuscript and the emails that came back were enthusiastic, but there was always that word ‘But…’ which meant another rejection. When I got an email back from Sally Bird at the Calidris literary agency I had to read it several times before I realised there was no ‘But’. She wanted to sign me up! From there it was a matter of weeks before I found a publisher. Both Sally and the Echo people have been a dream to work with and I really feel my novel has found its rightful home.”

A mystery set in history

Murder in Punch Lane is set in the heady gold rush era of 1868 Melbourne. When dazzling theatre star Marie St Denis dies in the arms of her best friend, fellow actress Lola Sanchez, everyone believes it was suicide. Everyone except Lola. On the brink of stardom herself, she risks everything by embarking on a quest to find Marie’s killer. Journalist Magnus Scott, writing as “The Walking Gentleman”, publishes a compassionate obituary about Marie, so Lola decides to seek his help. A fraught attraction develops between these two amateur detectives from opposite sides of society, and their volatile relationship soon begins to compromise their investigation.

“Although I made up the story, and both Lola and Magnus are fictional, I’ve used real events, places and characters based on the real powerful people who ran Melbourne, a brash goldrush city of wealth and poverty, piety and vice and hypocrisy, orgies and opium dens and all kinds of violence.”

Jane is still working as a freelance journalist. But having now published her third novel, and her first crime novel, Jane is keen to keep learning and also enrolled in the Historical Fiction course. “I’m particularly interested in finding out more about how to research.

“I think what I've learned generally from this experience is that it's not just beginners who need help. Whatever your level of experience and success, there's always more to learn, whether craft or the practical business of finding a publisher.”

Courses completed at AWC:

Browse posts by category
Browse posts by category

Courses starting soon


Nice one! You've added this to your cart