Writing About Yourself by Martine Bailey

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Martine Bailey

Martine Bailey

Author Martine Bailey with some telling advice for writers considering using their jobs as their novel’s setting . . .

Do you think your day job might make a thrilling background to your novel? Not so sure? After all, not many of us aspiring writers have been detectives, spies or even, like Stephen King, a janitor cleaning out lockers in an American High School.  (Top marks if you recognise the inspiration for King’s breakout novel, Carrie). Ever since I’ve been able to call myself a full-time writer, I’ve tended to view my first career as a hospital Personnel Officer as a wasted interlude. Though I always enjoyed interviewing for staff, my job had more in common with something like an internal police officer: checking vast rule books and issuing warnings, suspensions and dismissals. More to my taste had been the chance to train in psychometric testing. I set off for a surreal week in an Oxford college hoping for an insight into my own personality and what my future might hold.

Could a personality test be used to catch a killer?  That was the question a Chief Nurse asked me on my return and eventually that became my hook for Sharp Scratch.

Over time, I worked with staff in forensic units and high security hospitals that housed those deemed to be ‘psychopaths’.  It was often a frightening experience, entering brutal buildings through sequences of airlocks, repeatedly searched for any item that might be crafted into a weapon or escape aid, from blue-tack to biros. The personality disorder units were full of young, bored male patients who presented a grave risk to others.

The Chief Nurse’s question simmered in my mind while I wrote a series of historical mysteries, debuting with An Appetite for Violets, the tale of an eighteenth-century cook sent on the Grand Tour to Italy who becomes embroiled in a murderous conspiracy. I learned that crime fiction imposes a very particular set of genre expectations. If you fail to provide the satisfaction of a worthy puzzle, a competent investigator, useful clues, and a pleasing denouement, you may well disappoint your readers.

Sharp ScratchCasting around for a new subject to work on, I drafted out a fictional version of my career centred on my alter ego, Lorraine Quick. Lorraine will put her training from a psychometrics course to use testing candidates for the hospital’s top job, but then she witnesses the murder of her best friend when a routine flu jab is switched with a lethal dose of anaesthetic.  A hidden killer is at work, another death follows, and suspicion falls on the hospital’s management team vying for the new job.

Desperate to outwit his boss is Detective Sergeant Diaz, obsessed with the science of offender profiling he’s discovered in the FBI’s Bulletins, developments later celebrated in the Mindhunter book and TV drama. Diaz soon spots the parallels with Lorraine’s testing skills and puts the pressure on her to share her results.

As Sharp Scratch reaches publication it’s time to assess what I can pass on to other writers using their jobs as their novel’s setting:

  1. A hook – Ask yourself where the intrigue lies in your story, what question the reader will keep turning the pages to answer? Writing your one sentence pitch on a post-it and attaching it to the corner of your screen can help avoid drifting off into reminiscences.
  2. Respect the genre – Stick to your genre’s expectations. Within that, imagine, invent, and craft the highs and lows of an emotional inner life that challenges and stretches your characters.
  3. Keeping your distance – After feedback from early readers, I realised I needed to ruthlessly cut some pet memories. I recombined events and compressed years into a few months of Lorraine’s rollercoaster ordeal.
  4. Research – It can be tempting to write only from lived experience. Yet the research I did into retrospective views of the 1980s, re-examining everything from the music and politics to the big news stories of the day, all injected necessary colour into a dark tale. I was lucky to catch a zeitgeist which saw a bunch of compelling TV dramas depict the era, from The Gold and The Steeltown Murders, to Mayflies and It’s a Sin.
  5. Reality vs fiction – Decide what to do about any characters who may resemble real people. If you tell them, they may feel flattered, but then complain or even take legal action. I changed the name of my hospital, and invented new personalities, names, identities, and even genders for my cast of characters.
  6. Contextualize – Unlike my historical mysteries, the 1980s are recent enough for older readers to recognise their own nostalgic history, while a younger audience can find the era peculiar in its strangeness. I wanted to be true to the decade I’d lived through but some contemporary readers didn’t like that truth. For example, in the 1980s, my psychometrics course presented the results of personality tests as scientific data. Old textbooks give charts of ‘psychopathic’ or ‘depressive’ personalities that some modern readers interpret as discriminatory. As each chapter of Sharp Scratch open with a personality test question for the reader to try, I decided to include an author’s note explaining that nowadays we are less judgemental.

My advice to new writers is to unearth your own unique voice. And the only genuine source of that is what you bring of your true self – which may include the work you do – to your writing.

(c) Martine Bailey

About Sharp Scrath by Martine Bailey:

Sharp ScratchFive candidates. One job. A killer prepared to murder their way to the top.

Salford, 1983. Lorraine Quick is a single mother, a member of a band going nowhere fast, and personnel officer at the grim Memorial Hospital.

A new general manager position is being introduced, and Lorraine’s recent training in the cutting-edge science of psychometric testing will be pivotal. As the profiles start to emerge, a chilling light is cast on the candidates.

When a lethal dose of anaesthetic is deliberately substituted for a flu vaccine, and a second suspicious death quickly follows, it’s clear a killer is at work in the hospital. Can Lorraine’s personality tests lead her to the murderer?

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Martine Bailey studied English Literature while playing in bands on the Manchester music scene. She qualified in psychometric testing and over her career, assessed staff for a top security psychiatric hospital and dealt with cases of sexual abuse and violence. Having written historical crime fiction, Bailey’s writing has jumped to a modern setting. She lives in Chester.

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