When the idea for a new detective novel, None the Wiser popped into my head at the end of 2017, I had to be careful that the investigation team followed the right processes used by Thames Valley Police in order to make sure the story was realistic.
My address book is littered with bomb disposal and firearms experts due to my spy thrillers, and Kentish-based police experts thanks to my Detective Kay Hunter series.
However, although police forces throughout England and Wales share a lot of common processes and procedures, there are still subtle nuances that can trip up an unsuspecting crime writer when choosing a new county as a setting.
So, if you’ve never written a police procedural before, how on earth do you start your research?
One – it’s not what you know, it’s who you know
It’s an old saying, but that’s why old sayings stick around. I lived for a few of years in the Vale of the White Horse in Oxfordshire where the Detective Mark Turpin series is based – but that was 20 years ago while I was playing guitar in bands.
A lot has changed since then!
I was still living in Australia when I began to develop this series, which meant I had to email friends and family to check the feasibility of some of the locations that I’ve used to make sure that if anybody who lives locally picks up the book and reads it doesn’t immediately spot any mistakes. Of course, I do have artistic licence to fall back on (and do) but I still want to make the settings believable.
Since returning to the UK, and before None the Wiser went off to my editor, I spent a long weekend in Abingdon, Oxfordshire – right where my detective lives so that I could make any tweaks. And yes, I did get a few surprises along the way such as new apartments appearing where originally there had been a car park or derelict building!
If you can’t visit your settings, then use Google Earth to find your way around – it’s something I relied on a lot while living down under. You can drop down to street level and wander around as if you’re actually there, and you’ll get enough of an impression to convey that to your reader.
It’s not just setting where I needed help. I’m not a police officer, and I’ve never been one. Sometimes you just have to ask the help and keep your fingers crossed that you’ll get it.
I was really lucky in that the police contacts I emailed got right on board with my Kay Hunter series back in 2016, and were delighted to help with the research for it. One of those experts works in with Thames Valley Police and so I could check how their procedures differed from those that Kent Police employ when I began to research this new series.
It means that None the Wiser is very realistic without slowing down the pace of the story.
Two – go and learn it
There are plenty of free study courses available online these days, and many of these are very useful for researching novels.
A couple of years ago, I studied a forensic science course with the University of Strathclyde through an online provider called FutureLearn – and it was free. The course material centred around a murder investigation, and gave a really good background into how such cases are managed.
I’ve also studied forensic psychology (witness investigation) through the Open University. None of these courses have cost me anything, and yet the information has been invaluable.
If this is something of interest to you, simply do a Google search for the topic that interests you – there is plenty of choice out there!
Three – invest
Sometimes you’re going to have to invest in some research because you can’t find it anywhere else. For me, that means buying specialist non-fiction books on the subject or maps when Google Earth can’t help.
My bookshelf today is littered with books about forensics, anatomy of motive, information about criminal psychology, etc. It may be that I only need the information in one or two chapters of these books, but that information is critical – and can often lead to more story ideas!
My favourite book is the Senior Investigating Officer’s Handbook, published by Blackwells. That slim tome is a goldmine of information – I highly recommend it.
For anyone setting out writing a crime thriller, there is one piece of cautionary advice I’d like to pass on in relation to the above tips: the only problem with learning more is that you’ll end up with lots of story ideas and no idea when you’re going to find time to write them!
(c) Rachel Amphlett
Facebook: Rachel Amphlett
About None the Wiser:
What if some secrets were never meant to stay buried?
When a parish priest is brutally murdered in cold blood, a rural community is left in shock – and fear.
New to the Vale of the White Horse, Detective Sergeant Mark Turpin discovers the murder bears the hallmark of a vicious killer who shows no remorse for his victim, and leaves no trace behind.
After a second priest is killed, his broken body bearing similar ritualistic abuse, the police are confronted by a horrifying truth – there is a serial killer at large with a disturbing vendetta.
As fear grips the once tranquil countryside, Mark and his team race to uncover a tangle of dark secrets and lies before the killer strikes again.
In doing so, Mark finds out that the truth is more twisted than he could ever have imagined…
Order your copy online here.