Formula For Writing A Crime Novel – John Grisham Talks

How To Write A Crime Fiction Story? Get Advice From The Master!

Grisham is one of those not-so-rare birds who don’t have any writer’s training, but write a first book that immediately sets him up as the best writer of courtroom drama in the business. The first thing we authors want to know is how to start writing a crime novel and get some success?

Crime novel structure doesn’t have a template of it’s own. That’s to say, an author doesn’t write in a particular way, just because of the genre. The same rules of conflict, plot, and suspense still hold true. As in any genre, the writer MUST hold the reader, and John Grisham does that so well.

In the video below (transcript supplied), he gives some tips for writing a crime novel, but they’re not Universal by any means – just what works for him. Here’s the interview:

How To Write A Good Crime Story, John Grisham Style

John Grisham has transformed his experience in Criminal Court to one of the nation’s most successful careers in fiction. His novel, The Firm, tops the New York Times paperback bestseller list. His new novel the, Pelican Brief, holds the number one slot on the hardcover list.

Both are Hollywood Sun, Hollywood shortlist as well but Grisham still prefers to spend his time down on the farm in Oxford Mississippi, which shows that he’s one smart guy. Welcome.

Glad to be here.

It’s a pleasure to have you. You have a law degree, so what’s wrong with practicing law? Why did you feel like you had to go write a novel?

Time To Kill - Formual For Writing A crime NovelWell I wrote the first two novels. A Time to Kill is my first book, The Firm is my second and I wrote the Pelican brief. Yes, I wrote the first two books over a five-year period when I was practicing law, and I didn’t know I was gonna make a career change. I didn’t know I was gonna, you know, become a best-selling author.

It’s almost not an accident but I didn’t plan it and after things got kind of crazy with the firm and we sold the movie rights and we had a hardback deal and I was paperback deal and foreign rights and all this I said forget the law. I got up one day and walked out.

You sold the office equipment?

I gave it to the PTA or somebody like that. I had dad’s office full of furniture that I’d accumulate over the years and and I should have sold it, but I packed it up I moved it down to my farm.

All right let me back up a little bit. Okay,you went to law school at Ole Miss then went to practice, not in Oxford but in Southaven Mississippi?

We’re a suburb of Memphis and that’s where I grew up. Our family still live, and I live there for 25 years. I got elected to the legislature from that House District in Southaven Mississippi and that was home. My wife and I woke up one day about two years ago and realized we could live anywhere. I mean you can write anywhere, and I was determined to write.

Quit practicing law and we would both fall in love with Oxford when we were in school there and so we moved back. It’s a wonderful little town of 10,000 people and 10,000 students. It’s a great place to live.

But when you were practicing law and you’re going to the court room, you know, and you look around you and – the story goes this is now- is that when you weren’t busy with your own trials. You know you sort of sneak over there and you would see fascinating cases.

A Time To Kill is based on one of those cases. The story of the inspiration came from something I saw in a courtroom one day and I really don’t know, I don’t think I would have ever written a novel had I not sort of ventured into this courtroom one day and seeing this horrible drama unfold.

A little girl had been raped and she was testifying against the man who did it she was 11 years old 10 or 11. An incredible testimony and I felt a great deal simply for her, but I also caught myself thinking about her dad and what he was going through.

I thought you know, really shouldn’t hold a father responsible for doing what he has to do if his little girl had been raped.

So novel comes out of your brain, which is father takes revenge over on his daughter’s rapist.

Tips for writing a crime novel - CaminoYeah I started thinking about the story and and I thought about it for several months, became obsessed with this courtroom drama dealing with the father’s retribution. One day I said “okay, I’m gonna fictionalize it. I’m gonna scramble it all up. I’m gonna put a lot of me into it and I’m gonna if I can capture this on paper and in words.

When I sat down I said “I’m gonna write the first page”. I’d never written anything before. I mean, I’d always read a lot of books and I wrote the first page. The first line Billy Ray Cobb was younger and smaller of the two rednecks, and it stuck for about 10 different revisions over a five-year period.

You began to write every morning, get up at five o’clock and write until 9:00 and then go to work?

No, I’d get up and go to the office. Yeah, home was just a couple of miles from my office and I would go to work, you know, 5:30 in the morning, sit down and start writing for a couple hours before the day started. Lost a lot of sleep writing the book but over a period of three years the pages had really piled up and it was finished.

You sent it off to every publisher and agent you can think of. In filing number 16 a guy named Jay Guerin, I guess his name was, calls you and says “this is not bad, yeah I think I can sell this”.

He called me and said “I want to represent you, I want you as a client” and shortly after that two other agents called and they said send me the rest of the manuscript. There was a big difference in the way you handle it because you’d send different chapters to different pages.

I didn’t know anybody in New York in television and when I use the old shotgun approach I just sent it to everybody and everybody sent it back. Some of the rejection letters are very nice and I kept them all and it was almost fun to get rejection.

Well, at least I knew somebody up here, something was happening. You know, they were saying and Jay Guerin said” send it on” and I did. It took him a year to say he was turned down by a lot of folks. A Time to Kill, it turned out, he finally got published five or six thousand five thousand hardback copies.

John Grisham Books - how to write a crime fiction story

Yeah, it’s gonna be reissued and you think it’s your best book – why?

It’s a different type of story from The Firm or The Pelican Brief. It was written it was written over a period of time when I never dreamed I’d get it published. It’s very autobiographical. It was very painful, right. I couldn’t write a biographical in what way and the young attorney is basically me.

Painful, because you’re trying to beat, well, the usual about yourself. Be truthful about the race relations and the book. Truthful about the Deep South, the people. I want to be fair and accurate. I wrote that I couldn’t write the book now because I have a daughter now I didn’t have a daughter then and and I go back now.

I read the first chapter sometimes and wonder how anybody could write something like that because it deals with the rape of the child. It’ll be up July. It’s out now as a trade paper, in fact is sort of fun to talk about but this Sunday it hits the New York Times list as a trade paperback.

The Firm is number one and the Time to Kill will be 14, and the Pelican brief is number one. how does that make you feel?


Let me just go quickly, in terms of a lot of interesting things, to talk about one. This was a big bestseller hardback and then somebody purloined a copy out in Hollywood. Parent buys it for six hundred thousand dollars. You’re in church and they call your wife …

King of Torts Grisham - how to write a crime short story At that time we lived about two blocks from church and you know Sunday morning would take about four trips to get everybody. My wife and two kids with her, and I already got mad and left. She came to church and she was a she had turned pale and she said “they’re about to sell the film rights to The Firm.”

There was no book deal on The Firm and I hadn’t talked to anybody else. Before there was a book deal , they kind of copy and it’s six hundred thousand dollars but they never let you write the screenplay, which would really make me a little bit mad.

I was a tead off for a while, then I got over it. I said “okay”. Look, once the firm came out and became a very popular novel that brought a lot of satisfaction to me because I can always say look I wrote the book and they made the movie and I don’t know ‘that’ about making movies.

So yeah I would soon as you say that this has also been bought by the movies and guess who’s doing the screenplay, Alan Pakula.

Aren’t you doing the screenplay?

No, that’s no. Stories always have long answers. Initially it was negotiated I would do the first draft of the screenplay for the Pelican brief yeah, and we all agreed on that. About a month after, that I call Alan Pakula and I don’t want to write the screenplay.

I control every word of a book. Every single would have absolute power of veto for any proposed changes. If I don’t like the cover, I can make them change it. If I don’t like the photograph, I can make, you know total control. I listen to a lot of people but with a screenplay, when you finish a screenplay there are 15 people after that who can change it.

So it gets to be sort of an ego. You read Presumed Innocent and did you read the other Scott Turow book?

how to start writing a crime novel I read Presumed Innocent and really enjoyed it, and I read the Burden of Proof when it came out in paperback about two years ago.

How do you, you explain it that you, bright guy, but who had not written before. I mean, Scott Turow had thought about writing, had gone to Stanford, had gone to writing classes. I mean, this was a guy who wanted to be a writer for a long time. As friend of mine been on this broadcast and other broadcast I’ve done and he, it was his mission. It was his goal.

He hangs on for the law because he enjoys the law as well. You, on the other hand, fell into this but you’re also at the top of the bestseller list. I mean, what is it? Is it a storyteller’s gift that you have? A narrative push?

Sure, it’s the ability to come up with good stories and to write them clearly and quickly and in a way it’s very entertaining.*

Now, what did you learn from writing this, that I might find in Pelican Brief. I mean, did you learn something from going through this experience as you sat down to write Pelican Brief ?

Yeah I didn’t think I didn’t think The Firm was that terribly suspenseful, which I wrote over a two year period. Yeah, of course, when you write something, it’s hard to keep any distance you know and judge it. But I didn’t think the book was terribly suspenseful.

When it came out suddenly, didn’t sleep for two nights. I received, you know,hundreds of letters. Last June, the mail is really a lot of fun, I got one letter from a young couple and this was the ultimate letter. They said that they took The Firm on their honeymoon and only took one copy and so they both started reading the same time.

tips for writing a crime novel Somehow, through all of this reading, all this fighting, their whole honeymoon was wasted on the firm and they never consummated their marriage. That’s sort of what they want you to believe. I wrote it back and I said “you guys, that y’all win the award for the best story so far.

Now let me just say The Firm is a story of a young lawyer who joins a firm in Memphis which is in fact a an organized crime front, and all of that, and you got the idea for that because you said you realize that some of your law school buddies, when they were applying for these big deal jobs of these big deal firms we’re making these kinds of questions.

Where did the idea for the Pelican Brief, which is about to Supreme Court justices who are assassinated and they may had coming before them cases that would influence the lives of other people it’s a conservative Supreme Court. But these two guys, the liberal one is killed. A young man who’s killed at a gay place bar or something, and the other guy Rosenberg is an old distinguished jurist.

They’re both assassinated by the same person and then you have a young lawyer from New Orleans. Very bright woman, a young law student, who comes up with the idea that there may be the reason and the Pelican brief has her memorandum as to what might have happened. Am i doing she’s pretty good so far?

Yes, about enough Charlie.

Okay, I don’t give any more away.

Yeah, she comes up with sort of an inadvertent, she solves a mystery, you know, almost by accident, just having a love affair with a prof and all that.

Yeah, well, we shouldn’t tell anymore should we, not all right now. Tell me, where did the idea for that come from

Well, I do to tell people when I was a lawyer I’d sit around thinking about killing judges. It’s really not true.

Who reads your books? Who do you think is the audience?

Judging from the letters, like yeah, I’m gratified when I see an 85 year old woman at the book signing. Or a 14 year old kid. Yeah, and I think it really cuts across all different age brackets and gender. However, other lawyers have bought the books and big numbers law students.

Listhen to the MP3 audio file of the interview here:


John Gisham Interview PDF Download



2 Replies to “Formula For Writing A Crime Novel – John Grisham Talks”

  1. Jenny Squires says:

    Guess I’m not the only one (well, obviously not, judging by the sales!) but I just love Grisham’s prose style. whoever could bottle that would have a gold mine. it’s so simple, but so effective. Direct, but doesn’t miss anything out. next job is to analyze his stuff and see how he does it, I guess. Is that any good, or is that like copying?

    1. One of my favorite guys. He’s written some mediocre stuff, and as Stephen King says, some of his yarns are a bit far-fetched. (That’s a bit rich coming from the author of ‘It’!) Mostly, though, it’s riveting stuff.

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