Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Guest Post: How being a journalist helped me in writing crime and other gems by Mary-Jane Riley

Today it's my pleasure to welcome author Mary-Jane Riley to the blog to talk about how her experience as a journalist has helped with writing crime fiction novels.

‘I don’t think women should be police officers,’ the Notorious Criminal said.

‘Why not?’ I asked politely.

‘Because they have breasts.’


By now I was well and truly cursing my news editor for getting me to ring this man who’d served time inside. 

‘Can’t wear a stab vest properly, see? Uncomfortable for them.’


We went through a few more pleasantries before I was able to say a cheerful goodbye and I could hang up the phone. Then I banged my head on the desk. Several times.

I can hardly remember now what I was supposed to talk to him about (actually I can but I have to protect my sources etc., etc.), but I do remember thinking that it was a scene I could use in a book one day (I haven’t done it yet, but there’s still time….).

Being a journalist on a busy news desk (in between forays out for scones from M&S and making cups of tea, lots of cups of tea) meant that I came across quite a few people like the notorious criminal above, and wrote many stories about murderers, serial killers and the cruel acts one human being could perpetrate against another. I interviewed people whose lives were changed in an instant through accident, chance or bad luck and learned that life was indeed, short. Which played a large part in me taking voluntary redundancy from the BBC. My first book, THE BAD THINGS, had been bought at auction in Germany and my agent was hopeful for a UK publisher (it was eventually bought by Harper Collins/Killer Reads) and I thought it was now or never. So I jumped ship and have never looked back. My second book, AFTER SHE FELL, was published in April.

Besides taking ideas away with me when I left, I took a few lessons, too. One that is indelibly printed on my brain is Think Before You Post On Social Media. 

Imagine this: 

A deserted newsroom at six a.m. I’ve just started work so I’m a bit bleary-eyed. I tweet a story about an Essex grandmother with a rather unusual hobby (yes, that was the teaser). It gets a lot of attention. A great deal of attention. More than it deserves. 

The phone rings. It’s my news editor.

‘Take it down, now.’


‘The tweet. Delete it. Get rid of it. Rewrite it.’ I fancy I can hear his jaw clenching and unclenching.

I look to see why he is so angry.

I haven’t written ‘Essex grandmother with an unusual hobby.’ Oh no. I’ve written ‘Sex grandmother with a rather unusual hobby.’

I’m not popular.

And no, I’m not going to tell you what her hobby was. Take it from me, it wasn’t that interesting.

More stuff I took away with me: 

In any news story the headline and first paragraph is king – grab your reader’s attention from the start. Same with writing a book. Get into a scene late, leave early. I also like the advice Lee Child gives to Andy Martin in Martin’s book Reacher Said Nothing – ‘Write the slow stuff fast and the fast stuff slow’. Brilliant. (The book is fantastic – check it out). And keep it simple. Don’t use three words when one will do, or use a word that has your reader reaching for the dictionary. As Elmore Leonard said, try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip.

I love a deadline. There is no greater motivation for sitting on the chair in front of the screen. In journalism, the deadline is king. I now type extremely fast with two fingers. Douglas Adams said: ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise as they go by.’ I wish I could be so relaxed. The idea of having to meet a deadline is carved on my soul. 

And something that should be carved on my soul but often still has me awake at night blubbering is that not everyone will like what you’ve written. A news story I once wrote had people complaining it was politically left wing. Others complained it was right wing. Well-balanced, eh? I wish I could be as sanguine about reviews for my books.

My final thought, the one I had when I left the newsroom for the last time –

Leave ‘em wanting more.


Mary-Jane wrote her first story on her newly acquired blue Petite typewriter. She was eight. It was about a gang of children who had adventures on mysterious islands, but she soon realised Enid Blyton had cornered that particular market. So she wrote about the Wild West instead. When she grew up she had to earn a living, and became a BBC radio talk show presenter and journalist. She has covered many life-affirming stories, but also some of the darkest events of the past two decades. 


Alex Devlin’s life changed forever fifteen years ago when her sister Sasha's two small children were snatched in broad daylight. Little Harry’s body was found a few days later, but Millie’s remains were never discovered.

Now Jackie Wood, jailed as an accessory to the twins’ murder, has been released, her conviction quashed by the Appeal Court. Convinced Jackie can reveal where Millie is buried, Alex goes to meet her.

But the unexpected information Wood reveals shocks Alex to the core and threatens to uncover the dark secret she has managed to keep under wraps for the past fifteen years. Because in the end, can we ever really know what is in the hearts of those closest to us?

The Bad Things UK
The Bad Things US

There are many ways to fall...

Catriona needs help. Her seventeen-year-old daughter Elena was found dead at the bottom of a cliff near her boarding school. The death has been ruled a suicide, but Catriona isn’t convinced.

When her old friend, journalist Alex Devlin, arrives in Hallow’s Edge to investigate, she quickly finds that life at private boarding school The Drift isn’t as idyllic as the bucolic setting might suggest.

Amidst a culture of drug-taking, bullying and tension between school and village, no one is quite who they seem to be, and there are several people who might have wanted Elena to fall…

After She Fell UK
After She Fell US

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