Friday, March 5, 2010

Winging it.

Reading Stan and Cara's fascinating posts about the use of experts, my face reddened slightly. Fact is, I'm slightly researchaphobic (see, I couldn't even be bothered to go online and find out what the fear of research is called, if indeed it's called anything...actually, now I'm quite interested to see if it is a condition.) This is part-laziness and partly because nothing turns me off a book more than the sinking realisation that the author has done a tonne of research and nothing, absolutely nothing will stop him or her wasting two or three pages telling us how the Victorians lit a fire or whatever...

One of the most heartening things I read, when I first decided to write a crime novel, and then suddenly felt myself slightly overwhelmed by the task I had set myself, was an interview with Colin Dexter, doyenne of British crime fiction writers and creator of Inspector Morse. He was asked about how he approached research. He said whenever he felt the need to do some research, he made it up instead, then checked when he finished the book. Occasionally, he added, he would go for a cup of tea with Oxfordshire police, but he always felt a bit uncomfortable. For the purposes of his fiction, he claims to have learned more about crime detection from reading other mystery novels.

Colin is brilliant though and I ain't so clever. I'm lucky that one of my themes, London's past and its secrets, has long been an interest too, so I have a store of accumulated knowledge.

The best writers, and I include my colleagues on this blog among them, wear their research very lightly. And in the world of mystery writing veracity is extremely important. Readers are immensely clued up and well read, able to scent a false fact or erroneous twist from a mile away. An otherwise meticulously researched book, beautifully written, with rounded characters and a strong sense of place can be destroyed by an unbelievable fact or improbable conclusion.

Which is why I'm proud, and a little relieved, that not one person has written to me say the detective work in The Blood Detective, my first book, is a load of cobblers. While I bled a genealogist dry for every ounce of information I could about family history (and ended up inserting a facsimile of him into my novel) and pounded the streets of my location delved into its murky past, and metaphorically lived and breathed Victorian London, and enjoyed it all, I pulled what I will now call a 'Dexter' and completely made up the police procedural. Granted, I have a few years of working as a reporter and seeing how the cops operate up close to call on, but all else was the product of my imagination.

Realising that you can dodge a bullet once, but to expect to do so twice is a bit optimistic, for my next book I got access to high-ranking murder detective in the UK. Nev was invaluable, and discussions with him created a whole new set of ideas and plot directions I could follow. On the down side I felt it necessary to run every detail of my police investigation by him, which slowed down the whole process , and I wondered if I might not have been better off doing a Dexter and sending him the finished manuscript and recasting where necessary.

And guess what? Since its release I have had two emails telling me in no uncertain terms that the detective work in Blood Atonement is a load of cobblers. And having Nick Barratt, one of the pre-eminent genealogists in the UK, as my expert in hasn't stopped me getting several emails pointing out faults in my genealogical storylines too. Go figure.

Next week, how I'm plot-outline-a-phobic (I read recently James Ellroy wrote a 397 page treatment for his latest. 397 pages? I'm sorry, but I'd want a D&A payment for finishing that alone...)


Dan - Friday

1 comment:

  1. For me, research isn't so much something I dislike, as something that helps me procrastinate. I always seem to need to do more of it instead of just writing! Someone suggested the other day to write your MS, then go back and research and add those details. That might be something I have to try...

    I am a plot-outline-a-phobic, so I'll be back for that post!