A Thirst For Research

slide 2Creating a novel involves a great deal more than sitting at the keyboard and typing away. There is always a vast amount of research. If you slipup putting a well-known building in the wrong place, a flower blooming in the wrong season or describe a journey that could not be done in so short a time, you will lose all credibility. Lose that, and you lose your reader.

Research is more than a quick Google. We all know that research can become time consuming but, like the majority of writers, it’s something I do enjoy.

The Setting

It’s no surprise that many writers set their novels in environments with which they are familiar. Ex-jockey Dick Francis wrote about the world of horse racing, Tess Gerritsen trained as worked as a doctor providing the background to her medical thrillers and John Grisham’sexperience of working in a law office flavour his legal thrillers.

For many of us, researching the setting can take some time. My Fiona Mason Mysteries have a tour manager for a coach company as the main character and I have spoken to countless tour managers over the years, spent a day at a coach company checking details and was allowed to attend an interview and training day for a leading coach tour company.

Those who choose to write police procedurals but who have never worked in the police force need to do extensive research. Graham Hurley spent several weeks working with detectives in Portsmouth for his crime novels featuring DI Joe Faraday. All of us crime novelists need a pet policeman. Luckily for me, my brother was in the CID and ran the murder room. I may not write police procedurals, but I have attended talks on crime scene investigation. It’s what we crime writers do.

By the same token, those who write historical crime must steep themselves in their chosen past and those like me who chose to set each of their novels in a foreign country need to spend considerable amounts of time getting to know the area they are writing about. What better excuse can there be for a holiday?

Consulting the Experts

Each novel takes you into new territories and the need to talk to experts in the field. For example, with ‘A Death Too Far’, I needed to speak to a coroner’s officer, a tropical plant expert, a forensic archaeologist, a fire officer and interview someone who’d had a serious house fire. Writing ‘Blood and Chocolate’ I found someone who worked for NATO in Brussels and was familiar with the British Embassy in Brussels.

You meet people by chance. I now have a finger-print expert, a gun expert and yesterday I met someone who worked for a private investigation company whom I can consult as and when. On a cruise holiday some years ago, we had dinner with an anaesthetist and his wife who had been his scrub nurse – the same relationship as my character and her deceased husband. I didn’t have specific questions that needed answering but it was an excellent opportunity to get greater insight into a world unfamiliar to me.

Killing can be trickyBack in April 2014, I wrote a blog entitled, ‘Killing Can Be a Tricky Business’ about the need for research into things such as poisons and toxicology, guns and methods of killing. Many household objects may be labelled poisonous but how much is needed? How can it be administered? Does it taste or smell? How long does it take to work? Is death instant or does it take months. What access does your murderer have poisons?

The popularity of television programmes such as ‘CSI’ and ‘Waking the Dead’ means that the general public are now familiar with the use of DNA profiling, blood splatter patterns, gunshot residue and the like in crime detection. I have several books on forensics on my shelves and have completed three courses and attended several lectures on the subject over the years.

Yesterday I was at the Culham Science near Abingdon for a U3A study day on forensic science. It was an excellent day and although I had no specific questions related to my current writing that needed answering, the opportunity to learn more was one too good to miss.

Being a writer means that you never waste opportunities. Our local hospital holds open days and there is always the possibility that time spent in the x-ray and scanning department may come in useful.

A Writer’s Perspective.

As all writers will tell you, our characters are shaped by the events that happen to them in the novel, but are we shaped by the fact that we have become writers?

Despite the fact that I wrote my first novel many years ago when my children were toddlers (it now lies lost at the back of a drawer somewhere), I am not a career novelist. When my youngest started school and I went back to teaching fulltime and there was no longer time for writing. My first book wasn’t published until I retired. Perhaps that’s why I notice how being a writer has moulded me in different ways.

I look at things differently. I’m a much keener observer of all sorts of details than I ever was. The way sunlight sparkles on water, the sounds and smells of the busy street, the eeriness of that same street when it’s deserted in late evening.

I don’t take characters from real life but nonethess I find myself looking at people and thinking, ‘that hairstyle is perfect for character A,’ or ‘that chap’s chinstrap beard is just what I need for so-and-so’.

Yesterday at the forensic study day, I seemed to be the only one furiously making notes. Understandable I suppose but it made me aware of how I’m always scribbling away. Our holiday last month was a cruise to the Adriatic and Aegean – a holiday, not a research trip or one where I was lecturing. Nonetheless, during the port talks, I was making notes. (I’m a newly qualified port lecturer.) When we went out on trips, I was making notes. It’s become second nature!

Can you tell a writer? Do we behave differently from other folk? I wonder.

2 thoughts on “A Thirst For Research

  1. Yes we are definitely a different breed – my husband always jokes that if anything ever happens to him, I’ll bee arrested the second the police see my browser history and my bookshelves.
    As you so rightly say, research is vital, the smallest slip can spoil a story for a reader, and they will find it impossible to concentrate on your story while that minor thing is bugging them. Great post, Judith.

    • Yep! I think it’s a comment a great many of us lady killer-writers have heard from our husbands. Perhaps it works the other way too.
      Not that partners of crime writers should be worried. We take out all our aggression on the page. That’s how Agatha Christie got her revenge on the wife of Leonard Woolley the archaeologist in charge of the excavation of the Ziggurat at Ur. When his assistant, Max Mallowan asked if his new wife could join the dig, Woolley’s wife insisted there could only be one woman on the site. BIG mistake! The new wife was Agatha Christie and Christie got her own back with ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’. The novel is based on the excavation of that site. Mrs Woolley become the murder victim and Christie based the murderer on Woolley. Apparently, Christie’s characters are very true to the real people! Revenge is sweet!

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