Detective Fiction Writing 101 with Spenser Warren

Spenser Warren
Spenser Warren

Spenser Warren is a fiction author from Chicago who drinks black coffee. He’s the first fiction author I’ve talked to for Coffee & Pens, and it was a nice change of scenery. His Callahan Boyle trilogy is a mystery thriller that explores the Chicago Maffia scene from within.

Spenser was destined to write mystery thriller type of books from before he was born. Spencer is mostly spelt with a “c”, but he was named after Spenser, a fictional private investigator from a Robert Parker detective series turned TV show. 

Spenser, the author, started writing his first book in October 2015. He only did some preparatory work like the outline and character design before he started writing. For example, he knew who everyone was but his ideas were still chaotic. In November, he participated in the National Novel Writing Month, a challenge to write 50,000 words in one month.

That was a significant start and he finished the first 154,000-word draft in February of the following year. But he didn’t publish it until February 2019!


He started writing his second book and a novella instead. Many people in the indie writer community recommend doing a rapid release, or a quick succession of book launches, to gain some traction. So Spenser finally published the first book in February, the second one soon after, and he decided to give away the novella as a lead magnet for his email list. Get your free copy.

We could conclude that it took Spenser about three years to write, edit and publish two novels and a novella. (A novella has about 40,000 words and a novel around 80,000. One Last Kill, the first book in his trilogy, is 94,000 words long.)

“The fun thing about writing a novella is that it’s a lot faster than a novel. Since there are fewer words, everything needs to move quickly. As a result, there’s more action and less focus on character development and setting the stage.”

Spenser knew there was going to be a sequel from the start, but he had not planned anything of it before or while writing the first book in the series. In hindsight, he should have done that.

He can now easily see his trilogy evolve into a longer series with different spin-off novellas. He already has an idea for one of the future novels, but it probably won’t be the next one. And besides, he’s taking a break for now to recharge his batteries.

Spenser Warren trilogy covers

Spenser’s sources of inspiration

Spenser studied business management and works full-time in HR. And even though he loves his job, he was looking for something more creative back in 2015. At the time, he was mainly consuming blogs and podcasts until he started considering self-publishing as an option.

And so, he started brainstorming about ideas. It won’t surprise you that the topic choice for his novels was a pretty obvious one. The fact that he was named after a fictional detective is an obvious clue that the genre was popular in his parental home. He read many mystery thrillers himself growing up, and he loved mob movies like The Godfather. 

Another significant source of inspiration was Pulp Fiction. He loved the movie’s main characters and tried to replicate the same dynamic between two of his main characters, Callahan and Fonzy. 

Of course, he did some additional research about the American Mafia and the genre. When you write a particular type of novel, you need to know which big and smaller values you should deal with. In thrillers, that’s “life and death”, for example. But next to the conventional, he wanted to add some personal flavour. That’s why he came up with unheard-of elements like a female consigliera and a highly influential main character who’s not Italian.

The rest of his inspiration comes from inside. Cal, the protagonist, for example, corresponds with Spenser’s personal need to make a change in his life.

Spenser also trains his creativity in public places and events. When he gets bored, he tries to imagine something crazy that could happen there and just lets his imagination run wild. 

Character and story development

Spenser is the first Coffee & Pens interviewee who uses the book writing tool Scrivener. He likes the tool because it has different sections for the manuscript, research, pictures, characters and more.

An extra question he likes to ask to get the characters right is: ”Which celebrity could play this character?” For Cal, he imagined someone like Tom Hardy but taller. 

He found an interesting template for character development. And some of the information he puts there is what they look like, what drives them, and their internal and external motivation. 

In terms of the scenery, Spenser did mostly “just in time” research. He thinks it’s easy to get too obsessed over the details and spend way more time getting the scene factual than is needed for the story.

An example: he started writing his first book before moving to Chicago, where his book is set. So when he moved there, he went to a few of the places he mentioned in the book and set some things straight. He made the locations look more like in real life, but with fake names. 

But that’s not always right. Sometimes, the real place isn’t as good for your story as you’d like it to be. Sticking too close to reality can even make things in your book look less credible. So you always need to find the right balance. 

Spenser didn’t visit all the places, though. When another story was set in a dangerous area in Mexico, he decided it was better to stay out of there and don’t do any locational research. Can’t blame him.

Room for improvement

The biggest mistake with his first draft was exploring too many points of view. Spenser wrote the story from too many angles and elaborated too many characters at the same time. When he learned this lesson, he cut parts of the story that didn’t focus much on Cal or Alfredo, the antagonist, if you like. That’s how he edited out almost 60,000 words.

To write his next book, he’s also going to explore a new methodologies:

The first one is called the Story Grid*. In short, it states that a book should have three acts, kind of like a play. And every act has five scenes. Each scene has its incident, escalation, climax, fallback and resolution.

Back in primary school, I learned that stories looked like dinosaurs and they should go through all of these stages. But I thought it only happened once, not fifteen times. 

The second one is called Take Off Your Pants and it focuses more on character development.

By combining the best of these two frameworks, Spenser hopes to guarantee his main characters go through an incredible journey. 

*Visit the Story Grid website for fascinating and free storytelling and editing tools.

Writing and publishing advice

  • Know what you’re going to write each day and how much you want to write. Then move on to the next day and do it again. 
  • Study the craft. How do the best writers do it? What tropes are popular? It helps with writing and marketing. Learn from the experts like William Zissner, Shawn Coyne and Stephen King. 
  • Good habits are essential. Have a good morning routine. Spenser started with writing his book for one hour. 
  • Consider publishing on Apple books; fewer people are on there than on Amazon.
  • Go with what your brain tells you to write.

And his secret

In the beginning, he focused on making a living or at least making some money from his writing. This kept him going for a while, but then reality hit… His book sales wouldn’t make him rich anytime soon. He realised that he had to enjoy what he did, especially if he wanted to write fiction. It’s a lot of work, and if you self-publish, it takes some money investment too.

So his secret is: “Even if you’re not a NY times best-seller, you gotta believe you’re good. You have to want it, love it and not feel forced by it.”

The Future of Spenser Warren

As I said before, Spenser feels the Callahan Boyle series has room for a few more stories and maybe even another novella. But he might as well explore a different genre to mix things up.

For his future books, he plans to write in public and explore the possibilities of Wattpad even though that has a more romantic angle. 

There’s nothing concrete yet, though. When Spenser wrote his first books, his full-time job wasn’t as demanding, but now he works more hours, and there’s a lot of fun stuff to do in Chicago. At the same time, he’s trying freelance writing and taking multiple writing courses. As a result, he feels like he’s a workaholic. So because he doesn’t want to give up his social life, he’s taking a break to reassess.

The life of a writing aficionado isn’t easy. Just like Spenser, I love to write and explore new things to write about. It trains your writing muscle and keeps your mind sharp. But lack of focus can be a problem too. If I were Spenser, I’d go all-in on Callahan Boyle and set the Chicago Mafia scene ablaze. 

Book one: One Last Kill
Author: Spenser Warren
Twitter: @spensermwarren
Linktree: @spenserwarren
Buy Books: Amazon
Buy One Last Kill: 


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