Like most authors who specialise in fiction, my favourite thing about writing is making stuff up. Letting your imagination run free is sort of the point – but it’s futile to take your characters on an exciting adventure if your readers can’t come too. Make them doubt the credibility of your plot and the brakes go on with a screech.
‘Really? Is that what really happens when you’re arrested? That’s not how they did it on Prime Suspect . . .’
That’s the paradox of writing fiction. You make it up, but you can’t be seen to make it up. It has to seem real. And the only way to achieve that is by doing your research.
Crime is an ever-popular genre on television and in books; we can’t get enough of it. It means that we probably have a vague idea of how a police investigation is run, and what happens in court, and how prison visits work – or at least how they’re usually portrayed on TV. But as a genre, it’s full of pitfalls for the unwary, and even high-budget television dramas or films can be completely unlike reality. Sometimes that’s unavoidable – the legal world is dramatic at times but it also involves a lot of reading papers, dull, routine hearings, and tedious court proceedings that last weeks rather than an exciting ten minutes. A crime novel that followed a police investigation from crime to conviction without leaving any of the procedure out or cutting any corners would be about seven thousand pages long and very dull indeed! You still need to know what really happens, though, to know what to skip. And the best way to know that is to be part of the legal world. It’s not surprising that a lot of talented crime writers started off in a job that gave them access to it, whether they’re journalists who worked the crime beat like Niamh O’Connor or Gene Kerrigan, or barristers like M R Hall, or forensic anthropologists like Kathy Reichs. Having that personal experience inspires and informs their writing. It gives it a ring of truth that is impossible to fake.
What if you’re not a lawyer or a reporter or a police officer but you still want to write about crime? Well, don’t let it stop you. I was a children’s books editor – you can’t get much further from crime than that! Talk to people – my experience is that people are very happy to be asked about their work and keen to dispel the myths that surround their world. Read some trusted true-crime sources – police memoirs are good, as are accounts of high-profile cases. (Be wary of tabloid-style true crime, though, as it sometimes goes for shock value over accuracy.) Fillet out the details from newspaper reports of criminal cases. Go to a court and sit in the public gallery – courts are usually open to the public unless the case is a sensitive one. Don’t be so in love with your idea that you refuse to accept that some things would never happen. Police officers don’t swear at suspects when they interview them, or they’d have to explain why the transcript shows them being unprofessional. In the UK and Ireland barristers don’t shout and bang on their desk and prowl around the court as they do on US TV dramas. It’s a quieter process, but there’s still plenty of tension there.
To write a crime novel or screenplay, you will probably end up touching on many different areas of expertise. The crime novelist needs a passing acquaintance with police procedure, forensic science techniques, medical treatments and the relevant legal system for where their book is set before they can even begin to think about the other characters in the book and their lives. After all, not every character will be a lawyer or a police officer. Want to make your victim a chef? The questions start to pile up immediately. What kind of restaurant is it? What’s their job title – sous chef? Head chef? And what does that mean for their place in the kitchen hierarchy? What do they do apart from cooking? What time do they finish work? What time do they get out of bed? What’s the best thing about their job, and the worst? You can guess your way through it but your writing won’t have the confidence that comes from knowing the reality of a chef’s life, and your character won’t have the depth that he or she might otherwise.
Research is a very important component in the novel-writing process but it should be like scaffolding – used in construction only. The only thing worse than getting it wrong is wedging in everything you’ve found out about post-arson investigation, for instance, whether it’s relevant or not. I am always aware of the danger in writing from research notes – you risk that jarring moment when the novel reads more like a textbook. If your characters have to explain technical details for pages, your research is holding up the plot, not helping it. If you can’t bear to leave out what you’ve learned, find a way to weave it into the story so it seems natural. Research gives you a place to stand but you still have to jump, and land, and make sure your readers come too.
Most authors – myself included – tend to be introspective types, happy to spend hours and days alone with their computer, lost in their own creative world. Getting out to do the research confirms that I’ve made the right career choice. I could never be a police officer in real life because I’m far too shy. I couldn’t be a barrister; the thought of cross-examining a witness brings me out in hives. That doesn’t mean I can’t write about it, though. I can see why someone else would live for a tough interrogation or a blue-light run through busy streets. My heroine, Maeve Kerrigan, is a young police detective who is afraid of nothing except failure. Her creator is afraid of more or less everything! The main thing we have in common?
Neither of us likes to get anything wrong.