What I learnt about murder

By Andrea Barton, author of The Godfather of Dance

Andrea Barton’s novel, The Godfather of Dance, dives into murder, dance and family secrets. Journalist Jade is determined to write a career-defining article. Her dance instructor Anton wants to know who killed his fiancée. Anton’s life is set between the glamorous world of ballroom dance and the dark past of the Valencio crime family.

Andrea spent five years in The Woodlands, Texas, a planned community that she says is reminiscent of the set of Pleasantville. “I wanted to show the darkness that lurked beneath the luxurious homes and manicured lawns. With a US setting, I couldn't resist side jaunts to New York and Las Vegas, while the second half of the book takes place in New Orleans.”

In addition to writing the book, Andrea knew she had to understand the technical aspects of what would make the story believable. “I took the course Anatomy of a Crime: How to Write About Murder because after The Godfather of Dance had been accepted for publication, I had a mystery series on my hands, so I needed a better understanding of murder.”

It was worth the time and investment. Andrea says: “The material, beautifully presented by Candice Fox and Valerie Khoo, validates what I've done in book one, and I am applying my learnings to book two and beyond.”

The course covers eight modules covering all aspects of premeditation, the murder, crime scenes, the hunt, prime suspects, the arrest, court and jail. “My mysteries usually finish after the murder is solved, so while I found the whole course fascinating, for me, the first five modules are the most relevant. For true crime, or genres such as police procedurals or legal fiction, the rest would be brilliant.”

The course is unique because it not only goes into technical detail about the crime but also how it should be written to engage the reader in a compelling way. Andrea outlines her key takeaways:

When plotting a murder, the first thing to consider is why this person is killed.

“Candice suggests this comes down to understanding the relationship between the killer and the victim, and she simplifies the range of potential motives to crimes of passion, serial killers or business. Crimes of passion aren't limited to those concerning sexual partners, they include any case where feelings run out of control, whether between parent and child, siblings, work colleagues, or any other relationship that provokes emotional tension.

“Serial killers tend to be driven by the gratification of taking a life, or the desire to target a specific demographic, such as someone who looks like a person who once rejected him or her. Business killings occur when the victim poses a barrier to the murderer achieving status, money or territory.”

What is your character’s modus operandi?

“Once you know why your character is committing murder, you have to decide how they're going to do it,” says Andrea, outlining another lesson from the course. “We've all watched TV shows or movies where someone is suffocated with a pillow or held underwater to drown, but Candice points out how hard this is in practice

“Besides providing valuable facts and citing examples from true crime and fiction, Candice also offers suggestions for how to write like a pro, ideas for research and exercises. One of her best writing tips is a reminder of the power of words. For example, the frequent use of ‘I’ in dialogue or first-person narrative shows a person who is self-absorbed. A character's language can also reflect their level of education and intelligence. In The Godfather of Dance, I had to be careful about how words expressed a character's nationality. Australian Jade has a ‘mum', while American Anton has a ‘mom'. Jade curses ‘bloody hell', which Anton would never use. Anton uses the insult ‘dumb-ass' not ‘dumb-arse' and so on.

“Diving deeper, words can express a character's religious beliefs and their outlook on life, which dictates how a murderer can justify their killing and how others view it. Do they have a distorted sense of morality, or are they completely unemotional? My characters, Anton and his sister, Nadeska, come from a crime family, which gave me plenty of scope to explore those ideas. Nadeska has no qualms about money laundering for criminals, yet she expects family loyalty from Anton and can't understand why he suspects their father of killing his fiancée. Readers don't need to agree with her actions or beliefs, but hopefully, a rich understanding of her childhood and life philosophy will allow them to better connect with her.”

The nuanced villain

Rather than painting suspects as supervillains, Candice suggests more nuance, allowing for good amongst the bad. “One of the many brilliant pieces of research she recommends is Dr Robert Hare's Psychopathy Checklist. This diagnostic tool lists twenty traits used to rate the likelihood of a person being a psychopath,” says Andrea. “The top three are: glib and superficial charm, grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self, and need for stimulation. What a fabulous shopping list of potential quirks to give our suspects, or even our sleuth, who might mirror the villain in some ways.

“Several of the characters in my second Jade Riley mystery exhibit some of these qualities. There is so much information in this course that I'm sure I'll replay specific modules as I do my final edits for book two, and publisher-willing, later books in the series. Many thanks to Australian Writers' Centre and Candice Fox for presenting this valuable resource.”

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